Defiant Hockney, Bacon Feted; Kiefer’s Alchemy: London Galleries

"Pope I - Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez" (1951) by Francis Bacon. The painting is included in "The Mystery of Appearance" at Haunch of Venison through Feb. 18. Source: Haunch of Venison via Bloomberg

Last year, David Hockney reminisced to me about Francis Bacon, characterizing him as “the first intelligent painter I met who dismissed a lot of abstract art.”

Bacon would quote Giacometti, who dubbed abstraction “the art of the handkerchief” -- all stains and dribbles. The young Hockney was amused by this outrageous contradiction of what was then a powerful art-world fashion.

A brilliant work by Hockney hangs beside a Bacon Pope in “The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations between Ten British Post-War Painters” at Haunch of Venison, 103 New Bond St., London (through Feb. 18, 2012). This is an ambitious and enterprising show that raises an interesting question.

Freud, Bacon, Hockney and Auerbach -- all included in the exhibition -- are among the most renowned U.K. artists of the later 20th century. Yet all practiced a type of art that was then believed to be no longer of much interest to modern-minded artists: representational painting.

Why did they pay so little attention to the forces of art-world dogma? You might say it was for the same reason the Britons are not in the Euro: natural conservatism or, to put it another way, an indifference to ideology. The idea that representational painting was defunct was itself, like the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, a piece of ideology.

Modern Portraits

It insisted that portraiture, for example, was outmoded. Bacon, Freud, Hockney and others proved that was not so by painting marvelous modern portraits. That same lack of ideology makes it hard to define what else these painters had in common. They didn’t belong to a movement, and didn’t have a manifesto.

The show suggests unexpected links, such as between Bacon and Hockney or Freud with two other painters who worked from the live model, William Coldstream and Euan Uglow. It’s also a reminder of wonderful artists whose fame has unjustly faded, especially Michael Andrews, whose “Thames at Low Tide” (1994-95) must be one of the greatest landscapes of the last century.

Some of the works are for sale, prices are available on demand at the gallery.

Another country where painting has flourished in defiance of fashion is Germany. At the White Cube gallery, Bermondsey, there is an equally huge show of new work, “Il Mistero delle Cattedrali,” by one of the towering names of postwar German art, Anselm Kiefer, (144-152 Bermondsey Street, until Feb. 26).

Nazi Remnant

Several of the largest works are based on Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, a complex of inter-war buildings put up in 1927, then remodeled as part of Albert Speer’s master plan for the city as capital of a Nazi empire. It was once intended as the Third Reich’s doorway to Europe, is now disused -- and like much of Kiefer’s work -- haunted by the past.

These pictures, though brand new, seem marked by the passage of time as though they had been excavated from an ancient tomb. Some have been immersed in a tank, and the paints oxidized by an electrical current. Dried sunflowers and little lead aircraft dangle from the images of vast deserted buildings (Kiefer was born in 1945, in the bombed-out ruins of Germany).

There are symbols from alchemy: Kiefer is fascinated by the alchemist’s project of transforming one element into another. In one piece he refers to the Kabbalah and the Golem created out of inanimate matter by Rabbi Loew of Prague.

This is painting, and sculpture, on an epic scale, and of a very different kind from Bacon and Freud, who were trying to evoke the mysterious presence of a living human being. Kiefer is after different mysteries -- the transformations wrought by history and hidden spiritual forces.

Prices for the Kiefer works range from 250,000 euros ($331,625) to 2.85 million euros.


(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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