Inscribed on the walls of the Haunch of Venison gallery in mayfair are the words: ‘To me, the mystery of painting today is how appearance can be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making?’ It is this quote from Francis Bacon which is central to the current exhibition, entitled ‘The Mystery of Appearance.’
The exhibition curated by Catherine Lampert who was known to all the artists included, spans between the 1950s and 1990s, including 40 works from ten British post-war painters. Many of the exhibits are from private collections and have rarely been seen, the very show itself is a mystery. While it is not obvious at a first glance that these paintings are at all relatable to one another or have anything in common, on closer inspection they do have similarities, and it is the mystery as to what joins them together which makes this display so successful – individuality is highlighted at the same time as uniformity. Several of the participants were referred to as ‘The School of London’, a fashion in the 1970s to depict the figure, yet the Haunch of Venison shows photorealism and landscape as well as what is expected of its masters.
We are first exposed to a room full of nudes including two works by the late Lucian Freud and Euan Uglow. While we are then lead round the gallery with the artists paying homage to the old masters, notably through Bacon’s Pope I to Velazquez, not previously seen for 60 years, and Uglow’s reference to Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents. We are later presented with the heavy impasto cityscapes of Leon Kossoff, referencing Rembrandt, and similar works by Frank Auerbach. Both of whom represent London in shades of green areas in Auerbach’s Primrose Hill and Winter Sunshine and Kossoff’s Willesden Junction.
The painting that stood out the most for me was Michael Andrew’s photorealistic representation of an East Anglian society scene in The Lord Mayor’s Reception. The depiction of Norwich Castle full of countless guests continues to fascinate me, how he chose to give some of the members facial features, some are in colour, yet others are in black and white. You want to know more about them, the party, the waiters and waitresses as well as the well to do guests. There is the intimacy of a large party, the different conversations between the numerous attendees. The view of the painting is also striking, not looking in, but looking down, on what is obviously an event full with important people. Also on display in the same room is a portrait by Hockney of a half naked man lying on his bed. It is large and striking, a simple colour palette of blue and green pastels but also a subtle focus on light and shadow. Two very different paintings, yet they both draw the viewer in.
Whilst incredibly interesting, I honestly found the display challenging, difficult and frustrating. The lack of apparent links between the paintings made it difficult to remember them. The use of wall text is kept to the bare minimum and, while it can be useful to form your own links, at times it can be a problem and even a little annoying, particularly with the inclusion of many of the artists lesser known works. A further quote on a blank gallery wall by Bacon reads: ‘…one knows that by some accidental brushmarks suddenly appearance comes in with a vividness that no accepted way of doing it would have brought about.’ Just when you think you have enough to think about, the Haunch of Venison throws in another riddle to keep the exhibition fresh in the viewers mind.
The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations between ten British post-war painters is on display at the Haunch of Venison until February 18.