'John Wonnacott: A 50-Year Retrospective of Self-Portraits'

By Auty, Giles | British Art Journal, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

'John Wonnacott: A 50-Year Retrospective of Self-Portraits'


Auty, Giles, British Art Journal


'John Wonnacott: A 50-year Retrospective of Self-portraits'

St John's College, Oxford, 3 November-December 2012

Faced by this extraordinary exhibition of 39 often large works, including a massive 17-foot panel, I was filled with admiration for the sheer technical virtuosity of many of the paintings--which few artists of today could even begin to match--at the same time as a sense of frustration that a show such as this seems unlikely to get the kind of big city exposure it deserves. To say so certainly implies no criticism at all of those responsible for putting this exhibition on at the charming and beautifully-lit galleries of St John's, or those of Clare Hall, Cambridge, where the show ran for a month last February. The point I seek to make here is that Wonnacott is an unusually prolific as well as versatile artist who is now in his seventies. A retrospective of his work at one of London's major, publicly funded venues would thus be not just appropriate and timely but exemplary in precisely the manner that David Hockney's A Bigger Picture', say, at the Royal Academy was not. In short, it could be a show from which painters of all ages and abilities could profitably learn.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Wonnacott's subject-matter may occasionally seem prosaic, I agree, but that is because it sets out from a standpoint of observation rather than sentiment. Yet consider, for a moment, the degree of experience and skill that making a work such as The Blue Easel, Thinking of Mike Andrews entails. In this, as in another work from his Blue Easel series of 1992, owned now by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the artist sets himself optical challenges of rare complexity. While the challenge here may seem largely compositional, a major part of its successful resolution lies in its assured command of tone.

Wonnacott was lucky enough to be a student at the Slade School in London in the early 1960s at one of the last times and places that a top-class, traditional artistic training was still available. As a consequence of this--when put together with the years of hard labour he has put in at his studio--this is an artist who can tackle any form of subject-matter with confidence. Like Lucian Freud from a generation before him Wonnacott has the advantage of combining a thoroughly modern sensibility with a full range of time-honoured skills. From early days onwards he thus never found himself inhibited in choice of subject-matter by lack of belief in his competence. …

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