For me, there were three absolutely brilliant shows this year, each challenging in the artist’s own way and equally unforgettable: Marlene Dumas’ “The Image as Burden” at Tate Modern, Agnes Martin, also at Tate Modern, and Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain.
Close behind those, I was exhilarated and delighted by Peter Lanyon’s landscape/gliding paintings, “Soaring Flight” at the Courtauld.
There were other exhibitions of real quality: Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy; Glen Ligon’s “Encounters and Collisions” at Nottingham Contemporary; Cornelia Parker at the Whitworth, Manchester; George Shaw’s “The Last Days of Belief” at the Wilkinson Gallery; Jackson Pollock’s “Blind Spots” at Tate Liverpool.
And three excellent survey shows: “Reality – Modern & Contemporary British Painting” at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; “Abstract Britain” at The Higgins, Bedford; and “The Bigger Picture – Painting in Cornwall from the 1920s to the 1960s” at Penlee House in Penzance.
It took me a while to appreciate Peter Lanyon as much as I do now, as much as he deserves; there were other artists from the far west of Cornwall – Patrick Heron, Sandra Blow – whose work was more immediate, more immediately appealing. But with Soaring Flight, the Courtauld’s current (until 17th January, 2016) exhibition of Lanyon’s gliding paintings, I’m well and truly hooked.
This is an almost perfect show: 18 paintings and 3 constructions displayed in two rooms. Time and space to give the works their due. And space is what that have, what they glory in. Space and air and movement, cloud and sky and sea; the cliffs, the land somewhere down there, stretched out below.
Lanyon’s approach to painting, his approach to landscape changed when he began to glide, began to fly. The paint itself thinned as his vision cleared; the lines, the marks took flight. There is no escaping (why would you?) the sense of exhilaration that lives through these paintings, their sense of joy.
Look back through the archway from the first, smaller, room of Lanyon’s paintings at the Courtauld – look back from the most heavily textured of the works, “Solo Flight”, painted onto board instead of canvas, thicker paint, scumbled surface – and you’re looking at one of the Courtauld’s recent acquisitions, Auerbach’s “Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square”.
“Solo Flight”, from 1960, is one of Lanyon’s first attempts to convey the experience of gliding in paint; Auerbach’s Leicester Square painting – one of a series he made depicting London building sites, shown together previously at the Courtauld – the exhibition that brought me towards a fuller understanding and appreciation of his work – is from two years later. [Fascinating, the comparable use of thick red line marking out the paintings’ stretch and span.]
Lanyon, as I’ve suggested, moved away from the thicker texture evident here towards a clearer, more open use of paint, whereas Auerbach, of course, remained, and remains, deeply immersed in impasto, conveying his subjects with a richness that seems, at first glance, to clog the canvas and obscure them from our sight.
Which is, of course, a large part of the point. The way the paint is applied prevents you from seeing too soon all that is there: to see what is in the painting, what exists through and because of and beneath the paint, you have to give it the time it deserves; you have, simply, to stand and stare, and as you do, if you do, the elements of the work gradually reveal themselves to the eye.
Try it. Even with the small reproduction above. Go on, give it a try.
Quite unlike the smaller and more specific Lanyon show at the Courtauld, the exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s work at Tate Britain (until 13th March, 2016) is, as befits a major retrospective by a major artist, suitably vast. Six rooms, each arranged chronologically and selected by the artist himself, together with a final room with pieces chosen by the show’s curator, Catherine Lampert.
Even with the work of an artist you’re to some extent familiar with, it’s good to have preconceived opinions disturbed. Before my first visit to this exhibition I would have said that I prefered Auerbach’s landscapes – cityscapes, really – Mornington Crescent, Primrose Hill, areas of north London with which I’m familiar – to the other major form in which he works, portraiture. But now, well, I’m not so sure. There’s a relentlessness, a power and a passion to the best of these that – as if discovering them anew, which in a way I was – made me go back to the portraits again and again.
It’s a testimony to my own ignorance that I hadn’t heard of Bert Irvin until, some dozen or more years ago, already in the later years of his life, he was a guest on Michael Berkeley’s Private Passions on Radio 3. What struck me immediately was the generous and cant-free way in which he talked about art, his unforced and clearly genuine enthusiasm for both painting and music, Shostakovich and Thelonious Monk as much an inspiration as Pollock and deKooning.
It so happened that not long after hearing the programme I mentioned Irvin to the writer and sometime artist Trevor Preston, who, it turned out, not only knew him quite well but could furnish me with an address. I duly contacted Irvin, and, as a result, was invited to the opening of an exhibition of new work at his London gallery, Gimpel Fils, where we met and talked. Thereafter, we remained in touch, largely by virtue of an exchange of cards at Christmas – his, each year, a stunning print in his recognisably vibrant style.
Trained at Northampton School of Art and at Goldsmiths in south-east London, where he was later to teach, Irvin was an RAF navigator during WW2, the experience of flying one he shared with the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon. to whose work he felt close, and which may well have influenced – as it did Lanyon – the form and shape of his earlier abstract paintings.
Although he had his first solo exhibitions in 1960, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Irvin’s work began to be more widely known and displayed, corresponding with a move from painting in oils to acrylics and the bolder and more vibrant use of colour that distinguished his later style; this period also saw the beginning of his relationship as a screenprinter with the Advanced Graphics studio in London which endured in the most positive manner until his death. A true formidable artist and a lovely man, it it was an honour for me to have known him to the small degree that I did.