New Haven

“The School of London and Their Friends”

Yale Center for British Art

RB. Kitaj coined the phrase “School of London” in 1976, and although no one really knows what it means, the label stuck, especially after a touring exhibition in the late ’80s and an unrelated book both used it as a title. Broadly speaking, the School of London seems to include almost any contemporary British figurative painter, though the core members are usually said to be Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, and Kitaj. All but Kitaj are artists who paint from and against perceptible reality rather than the imagination; all but Kitaj and Andrews are figurative painters who paint from and against perceptible reality and have some amity with Expressionism. On the other hand, and perhaps not coincidentally, all but Andrews and Bacon are Jewish painters in London. Just as the School of Paris was, essentially, non-French painters in France the School of London is essentially a band of outsiders—mostly émigrés (from Eastern Europe, Ireland, or the United States), mostly set apart by religious background (even Andrews, the one non-Jewish Englishman, was brought up as a Dissenter rather than in the Church of England).

Elaine and Melvin Merians see it differently. Their collection. from which this exhibition was drawn, excludes Bacon (perhaps because his best period was nearly over by 1960, when their collection begins) and includes artists ranging from the fascinating Pop artist turned “Ruralist” Peter Blake to an able academic like John Wonnacott, a former student of both Andrews and Auerbach, to neo-figurative wunderkind Peter Doig. The result is an informative survey of an aspect of contemporary English art that is not well known abroad; here we can see the few familiar artists—Hockney, Freud, and so on—in a broader context. In this case, the context shows just how uneasily Auerbach, Freud, and Kossoff—the Jewish-Expressionist core of the School of London—fit with any of the others. Where else but in the work of those three do we witness such pitched battles between paint and what it depicts? Unfortunately, the clash often seems vagariously arbitrated by the most simplistic outline, as in Auerbach’s Head of David Landau, 1988, or else, as in Kossoff’s Red Brick School Building, Willesden, 1985, simply bogs down in pictorial mud.

Perhaps by contrast, the unexpected star of this show turned out to be Euan Uglow, who died a few weeks before the exhibition opened. It might be argued that in their very best work (for instance, Kossoff s Head of Chaim, 1985, or Freud’s Naked Girl Perched on a Chair, 1994), the “central” School of London painters touch a nerve that Uglow misses-but that happens rarely. Uglow was essentially a latter-day Ingres, a classicist whose rationalism was so fanatical as to become an eccentricity. Bathed in an atmosphere of chilly clarity, which here belies the Pompeiian tone of his major canvas The Wave, 1991-97, Uglow’s figures are more constructed than observed. We are always aware of the underlying grid—it often emerges in his fields of color as lines in a contrasting hue, like the red markings within the green background in Mandi, 1985-89—and of Uglow’s incessant effort at measurement. But the result is never classical calm and objectivity. It always has somethig tense and disturbing about it, which sometimes undermines the painting, as happens in Propped Head, 1989-92, in which the arm supporting the head becomes a flat, alien intrusion into the picture, but more often lends the solidity of Uglow’s compositions an unexpected expressive plangency not so different after all from Freud’s or Kossoff’s, though more understated—more English, if you will.

Barry Schwabsky