Eyes across the Atlantic: Tom Rosenthal on Britain's Fertile Relationship with American Painters

Article excerpt

One of the highlights of my childhood in wartime Manchester was watching, with a crowd of one's fairly ragged contemporaries, the morning muster of the American soldiers stationed nearby. Their parade ground was the bare Tarmac in front of the row of local shops. After the men had had their mail distributed, they were, by our tiny rational standards, showered with a cornucopia of cigarettes, chewing gum, sweets and chocolate. If one asked nicely, one could get a packet of Wrigley's gum, an entire Hershey bar or a tube of Life Savers - a brief glimpse of paradise.

It was many years later that I learned that our impoverished, adult civilian population did not love the Yanks as we urchins did. I had long forgotten this part of my childhood but recent art events have reminded me that they may not necessarily be either over-paid or oversexed but they are indubitably over here, again.

In the past weeks, we have had simultaneous major exhibitions by six of the most celebrated American artists: Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modem, George Bellows at the Royal Academy, Frederic Church at the National Gallery, George Catlin and Man Ray at the National Portrait Gallery and R B Kitaj, whose oeuvre is so large that he has been posthumously shared between the Jewish Museum in London and Pallant House in Chichester.

Some of these great exhibitions have now closed in London but Cadin's show is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23 June and will be at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from July to October. Ray doses in London on 27 May but will be at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 22 June to 8 September. Lichtenstein will be in Paris at the Pompidou from 3 July to 4 November. Church will be at the Scottish National Gallery until 8 September. Bellows is at the Royal Academy until 9 June and the two Kitaj shows end on 16 June. Alas, neither of the last two artists will continue their travels; but for the avid metropolitan gallery-goer, it has been a period of infinite riches.

Each of these invading Americans has something either important or interesting - or both - to contribute. Lichtenstein's principal trademark remains the conversion of the tiny dots of comics for the semi-literate and the lovelorn into the large, coloured dots of his massive blow-ups of genuine trash. This has not turned him into a great artist but, even as a one-trick pony, he has been the most influential painter of the pop art movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Ray is a portraitist of genius, a formal challenger to the informal and contemporary Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ray differs from Cartier-Bresson by possessing a sly, erotic humour. He has captured for cultural posterity almost the entire range of the writers, intellectuals and artists of interwar Paris. …