Pictures at an exhibition show that figurative painting is alive and well

In the mid- to late 1940s, the art scene in Europe began to recover from the devastation wreaked by war. Although a large number of modernism’s masters had moved to New York, the city which soon evolved into the art capital of the world, others had stayed in Europe, some emigrating within the continent. The Marlborough Gallery, which was opened in London in 1947 by Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, was one of the first galleries to promote these artists internationally and to live through the period of a burgeoning art market. The group of talented, mainly British artists that it adopted, among them Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and Ben Nicholson, marked a promising beginning to what soon became the gallery’s commercially successful, as well as artistically prestigious, course. What began as a London-based venture expanded in the early ’60s, first in Rome and then in New York, with the opening of new branches. The group of initially British artists went on to acquire international names, among them Adolph Gottlieb, David Smith and Mark Rothko. There was also Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, whose estates have also been managed by Marlborough. Paying tribute to the gallery’s long, enterprising course is «Representing the World,» an exhibition that presents 70 works from the gallery’s permanent collection and is currently on view at the Frissiras Museum. The Marlborough’s permanent art collection is too broad to fit a particular style: There are works by some of the biggest names in impressionism, post-impressionism and late 19th century realism, among them Degas, Courbet, Monet, Renoir, Signac and Pissarro, a diversity which extends to the art produced in the 20th century. Focusing on just one aspect of the Marlborough Gallery’s collection, «Representing the World» showcases representational paintings. The selection was probably made to draw attention to the museum’s exclusive focus on figurative paintings, the kind of works that its owner, art collector Vlassis Frissiras, has been collecting and exhibits at the Frissiras Museum. It is likely that the focus on figurative painting is meant to draw attention to the gallery’s early days and Europe’s resurgent figuration, a trend so aptly captured in the work of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, both artists who signed with the Marlborough. They are both represented in the current exhibition: Bacon with one of his paintings of grotesquely rendered human figures – one of the exhibition’s highlights – and Freud with two etchings, atypical of the artist’s detailed, almost hyper-realist painting style for which he is better known. Bacon and Freud are two of the artists of the so-called School of London, a term coined in 1976 by American artist R.B. Kitaj (also participating in the exhibition), a prominent figure in pop art known for painting broad areas of flat colour within a linear framework. The exhibition’s explanatory panels give prominence to the School of London, therefore giving the impression that the term applies to a solid, organized, London-based artistic movement. The term became internationally known through «A School of London: Six Figurative Painters,» the touring exhibition organized in the mid-1980s by the British Council; it was later used as the title of a book by Alistair Hicks. However, it remains a vague term, a classification based on broad stylistic affinities and the shared idea of painterly figuration stripped of narrative or didactic purposes. Frank Auerbach was another artist of the group. His works, marked by their expressionist style and heavy impasto, are some of the best in the exhibition. As are the two paintings by Oskar Kokoschka, the Austrian-born expressionist best known for his psychological portraits and the oldest of all the artists in the exhibition. So is the case with the exhibition’s best pieces, the paintings are better appreciated when seen in isolation from the rest. This is after all an exhibition that draws on a gallery’s permanent collection; it has no curatorial concept and does not intend to make an intellectual or art historical point, which is why it is visually diverse but theoretically tenuous. Figuration is supposed to be the binding theme, but this is too broad to create a strong, intellectually cohesive impression. It is a general label that covers the expressionism of Auerbach, the postmodern style of Fernando Botero and the work of Steven Campbell, an artist of the so-called Glasgow School, which emerged in the ’80s as part of «new-image» painting. Of the 18 artists whose work is shown in the exhibition, a special segment is dedicated to the Portuguese-born, London-based painter Paula Rego, who became known in the ’80s through her colorful, expressionistic paintings, often infused with a spirit of caricature. In the Athens exhibition, a room is filled with Rego’s lithographs that hark back to the turn of the century – a series which, like most of the artist’s works, penetrate the world of women and addresses issues such as sexual dominance and underage eroticism. Rego’s works are examples of the continuity of figurative painting to the present day. It is this continuity that the Frissiras Museum values and promotes through the various exhibitions it mounts, which this time happens to be the collection of a historical and commercially successful gallery. «Representing the World,» Frissiras Museum (3-5 Monis Asteriou, Plaka, tel 210.323.4678), to May 18.

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