Galleries - January 2015

JANUARY 2015 GALLERIES 11 excellent and timely new show, 'Refiguring the 50s', at the Ben Uri , makes very plain. Takingfive key artists from the period, hitherto always thought of as largely disparate painters from very different artistic and cultural traditions (though all, it transpires, havingprofessional overlappings with one another at the time) – Josef Herman, Joan Eardley, L.S. Lowry, Sheila Fell and Eva Frankfurther – the exhibition comes up with some powerful arguments as to how we might reconsider this enormously rich and diverse period in 20th C. British Art. It is important to emphasise that the show is not sayingthat we should start to consider them as some kind of homogenous stylistic group but suggesting rather that figuration of a vitally inventive and progressive kind was just as much part of this rich post-war scene in Britain as modernist abstraction ever was. With a splendid catalogue, backed by the Paul Mellon Foundation, this is going to be something of a game-changer one senses, with, above all, the old truism that German Expressionist Art fell on stony creative ground in this country finally demolished. N U Living and working in a smaller regional centre, Bergamo, has not perhaps helped his reputation but it was, in part at least, the very fact of operating in this small centre, controlled by the Republic of Venice, that gave a particular shape to his work. The sheer immediacy and acute psychological depiction to be found in his rendering of the faces of the pro-Spanish aristocracy that lived, and feuded in the city, their glittering, immaculate surfaces and astonishing realism make it feel almost as though we are looking at a painted version of a character from one of those great 'Revenge' tragedies – John Webster's ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ for example. He may not quite be Rembrandt perhaps but, yet again, here is the painted mark as living presence. Alternative Histories Art history has a questionable track record of establishing firm narratives of what constitutes the significant art of a period that can often prove surprisingly hard to shift or amplify. Take, for example, post-war art in Britain, a story still more often told in terms of the gradual acceptance of 'modernism' and abstract art in general – Picasso et al followed, in short order by American Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge and Pop – than anything else. Except that it wasn't really like this on the ground, as the oceans of time and speak to us, one to one, here and now. The late self-portraits are perhaps the most obvious example of this, the unswerving directness of the gaze as his eyes meet ours, almost seeming to comfort us and say that there is nothing that can't be faced, and survived, but it is there, too, in such smaller, less obvious works as Titus at his Desk (1655), perhaps the greatest, most touchingly unsentimental study of childhood and paternal feeling in Western Art. Even more curiously perhaps, it is there in the triangle of gazes involved in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman 1656, between the man looking at the dissected corpse, the unnerving stare of the corpse out to us and our returning gaze. Nothing, à la Lucian Freud, about the flesh being mere 'meat' but, a humanity and, more than that, a profound love of it. Such has been this show's overwhelming impact on the public imagination that it has somewhat overshadowed that of another, hugely innovative painter of the human face from the century before Rembrandt, Giovanni Battista Moroni, at the Royal Academy (to 25 January). This would be a pity for Moroni, though not exactly a household name in the Rembrandt sense of the term, has, nonetheless gradually come to be seen in more recent times as one of the really great painters of the 16th C. from left: J osef Herman ‘In the Canteen’ at Ben Uri Gallery. Robert Colquhoun ‘Woman with Leaping Cat ’ 1945, at SNGMA. Giovanni Battista Moroni ‘Prospero Alessandri’ c.1560, at the Royal Academy. Rembrandt ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman’ 1656 at The National Gallery Davy and Kristin McGuire ‘Corked’ at Abbey Walk