“Narrative Paintings”

Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, and I.C.A., London

“It is the idea that painting might again bear more subject-matter, might accommodate more of human life, that this exhibition sets out partly to explore,” writes Timothy Hyman in the catalogue for “Narrative Paintings,” an exhibition of figurative paintings by 21 artists which he has selected, and which attempts to identify a particular strain in current British figurative painting. The show spans two decades, from the Pop paintings of David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj to the present, including works by well-known painters like Howard Hodgkin and Anthony Green as well as many virtual unknowns. The catalogue reads as a crusade for high ideals, an elevation of those painters who “speak convincingly of our time,” who are “fully engaged” and who, spurning fashion, “elevate subject-matter over and above any formal concern. ”We are warned, too, that the show might seem “garrulous and oppressive,” and that “narrative painting tends to give offense by insisting on sex, religion and politics.”

The images certainly speak of human life—as opposed to any other kind—and sex, religion and politics loom large as preoccupations. The show is often wearily nostalgic for the romance of Berlin decadence: Ulrike Meinhoff and Rudi Dutschke are seen drinking in a bar full of extras from Cabaret in Alexander Moffatt’s Berliners; Timothy Hyman paints Beckmann-derived scenes of depravity which include emaciated figures hunched over porn-mags and views onto seedy apartments, each window illuminating a copulating couple inside. Andrzej Jackowski paints stiffly expressionist figures which, when they don’t remind you of Nolde, are reminiscent of Lovis Corinth. Much of the rest reads as a succession of clichés, the staple of which is a group of figures in a setting, studiously avoiding one another’s gazes, all doing nothing in particular and between whom, we assume, there exists either an emotionally loaded relationship or, alternatively, a gulf. There is an old lady climbing darkened tenement stairs, an old man alone in his room, wildly spotlit by a naked bulb, a party of born-again Christians reveling in a suburban house, a couple of maniacs in a subway train. There is also a great deal of posturing, giving the feeling that the artists are conjuring issues of public and private morality as evidence of their sensitivity, the credentials of their humanism. So much of it looks inauthentic and is palpably unoriginal.

I guess the riposte might be that the images are in some sense archetypes. One can hear the mumblings of the appropriate rhetoric, incantations about the “human condition” mouthed silently in the studio to coax the paintings into life, as the artist loads his pictures with the right amounts of personal angst and social relevance. The rhetoric reads like the blurb on the jacket of a bad French novel written during the ’50s.

Aside from Max Beckmann, R.B. Kitaj holds the strongest influence here. Kitaj seems to infect his followers not only with his characteristic style—blushes of misted, pastel color contained by crisp, neatly outlined illustrational drawing—but also with his tricks, such as the inclusion of literary figures and references within the paintings, whether it is T.S. Eliot crawling through the Waste Land (his hearing-aid firmly in place, and being cuddled by a Tahitian refugee from Gauguin) or a volume of Gramschi ostentatiously laying on a coffee table. Hockney’s influence is possibly more dangerous, as his glamorous public image and much-publicized life-style have so clearly demonstrated a triumph of life over art. His graphic work is fine, but his paintings are often the most appalling academic productions. It is ironic that he should show a tapestry done from one of his paintings rather than the real thing here—Hockney’s work always looks better in reproduction.

Visibly tortured and alienated souls, or notable “outsiders,” don’t stand up too well against the best works in “Narrative Paintings.” At the expense of self-conscious plangency or masochistic soul-searching, Anthony Green and Ken Kiff paint plainly weird and humorous pictures. Green’s Our Tent. Fourteenth Wedding Anniversary, in which a middle-aged couple celebrates marital bliss in a zip-up tent, and Kitts Excrement, in which a naked man proudly regards his prodigious stools as he defecates, provoke a direct response. Their reliance on humor points up much pomposity elsewhere, Howard Hodgkin’s Coming Up From the Beach is the best thing in the show, and is barely a narrative, barely even a figurative, painting at all. A landscape view is almost literally boxed in by framing devices. It is as though Hodgkin were opening the crate containing his recollection of the scene in front of the viewer. A shadow is cast right into the painting, like memory reaching back. It would be wrong to assume that this exhibition presents the best figurative art done here over the last two decades. There are even some notable omissions among painters whose work might be called “narrative”—like John Bellany, who is, among those heavily influenced by Beckmann, undoubtedly the most original, and both Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach could be seen as painters whose pictures tell stories, even if only about the singular relationships between artist and model. But then, all paintings reflect “human life,” even abstract ones.

Adrian Searle