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‘The Mystery of Appearance’, at Haunch of Venison until 18 February, is one of several recent London surveys of British art in the period following the Second World War. The historical ranges of ‘Aspects of post-war British Art’ at Austin Desmond and ‘Beyond the Human Clay’ at James Hyman (both 2011) arguably book-end this new show. Collectively, they suggest an encouragingly robust interest in mid-20th-century British art.
Among this group, the show at Haunch of Venison is distinctive for its personal quality. Perhaps this is designed: entry through a low-ceilinged room populated by paintings of nudes establishes an intimacy that reaches across the rest of the exhibition. The warmth must also come from having been guest-curated by Catherine Lampert, whose friendships with the artists in the show make her catalogue essay a particularly strong and textured one. These friendships also inform her exhibition’s argument – the idea of dialogue among the ten artists shown. The mentioning of gaps is a lazy species of criticism, and in an exhibition as rich as this risks being churlish too. Nevertheless, space for a Frank Auerbach portrait of Lampert might have helped to explain her insights into the conversations weaving among the paintings on display.
Inevitably, the context is broader than that suggested by the ten artists here. Early life drawings by Richard Hamilton (1922–2011) smuggle Cézanne and Duchamp into an ostensibly British dialogue, through their muted watercolour palette; blunt, brief pencil marks; and concern with the body in motion. Likewise the subjects of two of the paintings, by Leon Kossoff (b. 1926) and Euan Uglow (1932–2000), add Rembrandt and Poussin into the mix.
If the display somewhat buries this wider landscape at least the catalogue elucidates it, painting some fascinating and unlikely relationships, not least with Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) and Alberto Giacometti (1901–66). The selection of only ten artists does, moreover, allow for appropriate depth in considering their work and influences. The notion of a ‘School of London’ vaguely posited by Ron Kitaj when he curated ‘The Human Clay’ in 1976 has since elicited a surprising amount of hostility. Given the sheer number and range of artists in ‘The Human Clay’, it is clear that he used the term very loosely. The recurring interests and influences, and the lively exchanges between the works in ‘The Mystery of Appearance’ are perhaps sufficiently specific for such a phrase to be used more meaningfully: art-historical groupings are necessarily unstable and fragile, but there seems to be evidence of something like a ‘School’ in this exhibition.
Overall this is a wonderful show, presenting a number of infrequently seen – yet formidable – pictures from private collections alongside loans from the British Council, Pallant House in Chichester, and various regional museums. Several great Auerbachs (Reclining Figure, and two Primrose Hill paintings), two substantial Hockneys, and the small spread of work by Michael Andrews are each worth a visit in their own right. Likewise the work by William Coldstream (1908–87) adds fuel to recent efforts to rehabilitate Coldstream’s artistic reputation. The argument advanced by the exhibition, of a complicated intersection of influence and connections between the ten artists, is a compelling and interesting one.
Such is the depth and presentation of work that a visitor might easily be forgiven for mistaking this for a museum exhibition. So soon after the opening of the vast new White Cube in Bermondsey, the appearance of a museum-like show (and a historical one at that) in a museum-like space on Bond Street suggests perhaps a new trend. With early and mid-career monographic shows in public museums and such historical surveys in commercial spaces, I left ‘The Mystery of Appearance’ wondering whether the art world has quietly turned itself upside down.
Media credit: © David Hockney