Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Wild Things Who Took London from Ashes to Artistic Riches; Martin Gayford Neatly Encapsulates the Creative Mayhem of Bacon, Freud and Co

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Wild Things Who Took London from Ashes to Artistic Riches; Martin Gayford Neatly Encapsulates the Creative Mayhem of Bacon, Freud and Co

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen Smith

BOOK OF THE WEEK Modernists and Mavericks, Bacon, Freud, Hockney & the London Painters by Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson, PS24.95) THE story of art in the 20th century was meant to be the death of painting. Photography would emerge pre-eminent. The unsleeping eye of the camera would see off the smocked dauber in his atelier, or at least that's what was in the script. Even when artists remained stubbornly attached to their palettes, the critics predicted that they would abandon figurative studies in favour of the splashy canvases of New York's Abstract expressionism instead. But in a post-war London smashed to smithereens and on rations, where a straitened National Gallery put just one picture a month on display, painters somehow found a "confidence that this ancient medium could do fresh and marvellous things", according to Martin Gayford, the art critic of The Spectator.

The results can be seen in the current blockbuster show at Tate Britain, All Too Human, and in Gayford's scholarly yet terrifically readable survey, which arrives just in time to serve as the exhibition's unofficial guidebook. If it wasn't clear already, we can see that our bombed-out capital, where the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud got their start, was the unlikely cradle of an arts scene which would become the equal of anything going on elsewhere.

One measure of this is the prices achieved by members of the so-called London painters. Bacon expected short shrift from posterity and the art market. "When I'm dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter," the old hell-raiser told the proprietor of the Colony Room, the infamous Soho dive. But his Three Studies of Lucian Freud fetched almost PS90 million at auction in 2013. As Gayford writes, "This state of affairs would have been utterly unimaginable in 1969, when the picture was painted, let alone in the mid-1940s when Bacon and Freud first met."

Gayford's sumptuously illustrated "group biography" of David Hockney, Bacon, Freud, Frank Auerbach, Bridget Riley and others covers the period from 1945 to 1970. It follows A Crisis of Brilliance (2009) by David Boyd Hancock, which did a similar thing for an earlier generation of British artists, including Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. …

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