MODERNIST'S & MAVERICKS - MARTIN GAYFORD BY CATHY BELL

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Reading Modernists & Mavericks by Martin Gayford you are immediately aware that this is not a dry academic record of visual art during the mid-twentieth-century. Rather, it surveys the art scene in London (mostly) from the start of the post-war period up to the late 1960’s using a lively narrative full of anecdotes and first-hand accounts from people who were there at the time. Gayford comes across as someone who is on intimate terms with some of the players. He is like an insider who has been given special access to this specific place in time and the characters who took part in the evolving story of twentieth-century art history. It is entertaining to read about how young artists came together for the common purpose of shaking up the stuffy academic art world in Britain in the mid 1940’s. With stories such as the two well-to-do boys Lucien Freud and John Craxton sharing a flat at 14 Abercorn Place where they would lay glass on the floor – with “a new sheet of glass for a special guest” (this probably meant an establishment figure). It sounds like a strange type of décor but it kind of explains their rebellious intentions right from the start.

And, rebellious they were. Much effort went into annoying the art school masters and, although this might seem like youthful zealousness, it did result in important innovations in style and subject matter. Individual artists come to life in this book, it depicts a creative environment that must have been truly exciting for these pioneers of what could be achieved in the language of the visual. There was an amazing variety of outpouring of ideas, techniques and imagery ranging from the mystifying paintings of Francis Bacon alongside the earlier more traditional (but still different) works by Victor Passmore and William Coldstream. In addition there was the abstraction of Howard Hodgkin and Gillian Ayers,  pop-art as introduced by artists such as Peter Blake and the painterly, almost excruciatingly dense paintings by Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. There is an amusing anecdote about one of Auerbach’s life classes. Daphne Todd one of his students recalls “it was a fearsome place”, she continues “nobody spoke, and they grunted while they painted. It was very intense. There was no colour”. This might sound grim, however, the tale seems to be recounted with affection.

Although some of the art was being created in dark, forbidding art-school rooms, the world outside was becoming anything but intense and colourless. During the period covered by the book the 1960’s social and cultural revolution took place and this undoubtedly had reverberations with the visual art being produced. Young artists such as the aforementioned Peter Blake, Bridget Riley, Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, R B Kitaj and David Hockney appeared on the scene. This is only to name but a few. In the midst of the Perfumo Affair, the drug bust of members of The Rolling Stones and all the major changes in society that were taking place, artists were busy recording and interpretating the world around them. Of course, Blake is well known for the Beatles Sgt Pepper LP cover and Hamilton for the image of Mick Jagger and friend in a police car (entitled Swinging London 1967). However, Gayford’s book explores this further and recounts the interesting story of the female artist Pauline Boty who studied stained-glass due to the fact she was a woman and so was discouraged to do painting. Nevertheless, Gayford tells us “she gave up stained-glass to become one of the most innovative painters in London”. Boty was featured alongside Blake and two other artists Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips in the BBC arts series Monitor in a programme entitled Pop Goes the Easel (1962). Gayford goes on to explain that Boty, as a woman in a prejudiced, male-oriented art world, broke new ground. With paintings such as The Only Blonde in the World (1963) she was taking a sideways swipe at the outmoded attitude towards women artist at the time.

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Perhaps three artists stand out for different reasons in this anthology. Following Francis Bacon’s story it is intriguing to ponder about what made him tick, he is a mystery. This book, however, is possibly as good as or as close as anyone could get to explain and document his relationships with people and his art. Much is written about David Hockney in the book (he and Gayford are friends and collaborators). Again, this is entertaining and there is no doubt that Hockney is a formidable talent who, interestingly, crossed over British sensibilities with the West Coast American scene. However, personally, the surprise comes in the form of Lucien Freud who has never been a favourite of mine. Gayford managed to win me round to Freud as an artist and a person with his frank and honest portrayal of him.