Artworks and Artists of School of London

Progression of Art

Girl with a White Dog

Artist: Lucian Freud

Freud's depiction of Kitty Garman, his first wife, in her early pregnancy, presents an intimate moment of domestic life. She sits on a cushion, wearing a yellow robe that has fallen off her shoulder, exposing one of her breasts. A white dog, one of two bull terriers given to the couple by Garman's father, the famous sculptor Jacob Epstein, snuggles into the crook of her bent leg, resting his head on her knee.

In the 1950s, Freud focused on portraiture, and this important work exemplifies his working method in which he would often clean his sable brush after each brushstroke, insuring a pristine surface. The smoothly finished surface and precisely drawn forms lay bare the influence of Ingres, the French Neoclassical artist. Art critic Herbert Read, acknowledging the debt, described Freud as "the Ingres of Existentialism."

The woman's limbs and exposed breast are more highly colored than the muted tones of the rumpled robe she wears, the striped mattress where she sits, and the softly billowing drape behind her. A feeling of warmth and domesticity is created by the muted colors. At the same time, however, the work conveys a feeling of awkwardness, as Garman's face is somewhat wearied and lined, and her sad gaze staring into space conveys a feeling of loneliness. Even the resting dog conveys a sense of solicitude, as it too seems pensive and subdued. The result is a feeling of ambivalence, a flat calm that is discomfiting. The unflinching quality of Freud's psychological portraits was his distinctive contribution to modern art and to the figuration of the School of London.

Oil paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Sleeping Figure

Artist: Francis Bacon

This work depicts a nude figure sleeping on a black overstuffed armchair against a varying grey, sterile background. Though asleep, the figure seems distorted and visceral, pulsing with latent energy. Its lower legs and feet melt into appendage-like shapes that dissolve into trails of paint. The skin is highly colored, mottled with splotches of red and black, and the face, viewed in profile, appears scalded, suggesting that the figure is both injured and injurious, embodying some stripped but energetic state of existence.

With works like Sleeping Figure, Bacon became the most famous and successful of the School of London painters, and his work was influenced not only by the Old Masters but also by his studies of photography, particularly the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge. In Sleeping Figure, the snake-like forms of the figure's lower body suggest a melting effect that might be captured by a series of images that create the effect of movement.

Bacon's figures are inevitably disquieting, as he said, "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human a snail leaves its slime." The figure is confined by the black shape of the chair and the void of the interior room. The pictorial space becomes both a place of confinement and of transgression, creating a searing effect that leaves the viewer uncomfortable in her own skin.

Oil on canvas - The Royal Academy of Arts, London


Melanie and Me Swimming

Artist: Michael Andrews

This painting, depicting the inky black depths of a Scottish rock pool, focuses on the figure of the artist holding his eight-year old daughter by her arms as she learns to swim. The two figures have a radiant glow, highlighted by the black empty lake around them and the triangular and curved shapes of the lighter colored mountains and clouds along the horizon in the upper canvas. Andrews' paintings usually evolved from photographs combined with his memories; his daughter later described the setting, "It used to be known as the black pool because the water was so dark you couldn't see anything in it. It was so cold it had the effect of making you feel hot at first." Andrews's treatment of the figures is at once representational - the cold impact of the water seen in the paleness of their skins and the red blush of cold on their arms and faces - and lyrical - evoking the moment of transition from childhood to adulthood. Andrews deployed both a paint spray gun and brushes to achieve the near photographic smooth finish of the surface.

Melanie and Me Swimming has subsequently become one of Andrews' most popular works, in part because of its focus on the familial aspect of social connection. The father's foot, refracted in the black water, becomes a kind of anchor, providing stability to the child's kicking legs and their white froth of motion. As his daughter later said, "Everything about Dad's paintings, whatever their subject matter, was to do with social situations and the way that people integrate and interact," and it was this sense of social interaction, depicted by an elusive observer, that Andrews brought to the School of London.

Acrylic paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon

Artist: Leon Kossoff

Kossoff's indoor swimming pool scene conveys the thronging fluidity of the environment. The numerous figures flow like water in blurring curved lines and forms but are corralled by the blue grids in the upper left and the white and yellow rectangles on the right. The tension between the contrasting diagonals, verticals, and rectangles of the setting and the curvilinear human figures convey the crowded, energetic activity of the scene.

Kossoff's primary subjects were his family and friends as well as places in London that he knew well. In this instance, he painted the swimming pool that opened in 1967 near his studio in North London and where he taught his children to swim. He often painted the same subject multiple times, and the pool showed up in four paintings between 1969 and 1971. The space so teems with activity that the viewer can almost hear the noise of the children filling the room, but he also counters the noise by presenting a quieter moment in the foreground: two reclining children engaged in hushed conversation. Kossoff was close friends with Frank Auerbach and shared a similar approach to painting: multiple versions of the same setting painted in thick layers of paint that more often than not were scraped off the surface onto the floor to make room for another pass at the subject. As a result, Kossoff's figures, rather than being clearly delineated, emerge out of the impasto, their forms conveying energy and feeling.

Oil paint on board - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


If Not, Not

Artist: R. B. Kitaj

A barrage of seemingly disjointed imagery, cataclysmic colors, and multiple references to art history and literature make If Not, Not a disorienting and troubling work. Painted at the end of the Vietnam War, Kitaj's composition is haunted by an earlier 20th-century catastrophe: World War II. The gate of Auschwitz in the top left hovers over a scene of chaos and destruction. A pool of dark, stagnant water fills the left side, and seems to contain and reflect, among other things, an ominous, cloudy sky, an eerie female face, a figure in bed (a self-portrait of the artist) holding a baby, and a toppled sculpture (a bust by Matisse), broken from its pedestal. A nude woman, looking very much like something out of one of Gauguin's Tahitian painting, embraces a figure with a hearing aid - a portrait of poet T. S. Eliot whose poem The Waste Land is the source of the painting's title. The lower half of a uniformed man, presumably dead, occupies the bottom foreground, and another figure, dressed in a red coat and carrying a green satchel crawls across the ground. Other figures occupy the middle ground on the right side, one swimming, the other reading, surrounded by a grove of trees.

Everything in the image conveys a sense of disintegration, both culturally and morally, as works of art and literature are scattered, nature is depicted by blackened and dead trees and oily ground, and the landscape is in pieces, like a puzzle that no longer fits together.

Kitaj's moralistic and prophetic work questions not only the role of artistic influences (Gauguin, Matisse, and Old Masters like Giorgionne) but also the place and role of art in a destructive and destroyed world. While his subject of the fundamental failures of modern society was anathema to younger Pop artists, Kitaj's use of a collage-like aesthetic, and his bright, sometimes garish, color palette, and his employment of cultural references made his work influential for many Pop artists and reintroduced an air of Surrealism into the contemporary scene. As the critic Richard Morphet noted, "For over 40 years Kitaj's own art remained ceaselessly inventive, combining striking fantasy with a sense of vivid reality and with frequent insistence on imperative moral issues."

Oil and black chalk on canvas - National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland


Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square

Artist: Frank Auerbach

This thickly impastoed work seems made of the earth as much as it is made of red and ochre paints. An irregular grid of painted and incised lines - at once girders and board paths - depicts the rebuilding site of the Empire Cinema in London. During the 1950s, buildings destroyed in World War II were razed and modern buildings went up in their stead, and Auerbach captures the paradoxes of such undertakings. Known largely as a figurative painter, Auerbach began to apply the materiality with which he approached the portrait to places that he knew well in London. The overall feeling conveyed is that of looking into a deep wound within the earth, the lines of human construction and activity like red scars against the dark ochre. As a result Auerbach's landscapes evoke not the post-war optimism of rebuilding but the unfathomable atrocities of World War II; the construction site suggests not only a ruined city but an abandoned concentration camp.

Auerbach was born in Berlin but escaped the Nazis in 1939 when his parents sent him to Britain as a young boy. Unable to flee, both of his parents died in concentration camps before the war's end. Painting for Auerbach was an attempt to create a kind of order amidst the chaos he encountered throughout his life.

This painting, dominated by browns and reds, carries the full of the weight and gravity that Auerbach found in the work of the Old Masters. As Auerbach said, "What I am trying to make is a stonking, independent, coherent image that has never been seen before...that stalks into the world like a new monster." He troweled on such thick layers of paint that in some instances the weight of the paint caused it to slide off the canvas. The materiality and physicality of Auerbach's paintings brought a new element to the work of the School of London and influenced the looser brushstrokes and thick pigments of Lucian Freud's later work.

Oil on canvas - The Courtauld Gallery, London


Mr. and Mrs. Clark, and Percy

Artist: David Hockney

Hockney's friends, the textile designer Celia Birtwell and the noted fashion designer of the 1960s Ossie Clark, newly married, are seen at home in the bedroom of their chic London flat. Birtwell stands, her hand on her hip, facing the viewer with what appears to be a resigned look of exasperation, and Clark, with a defiant look of scrutiny that belies his relaxed posture, leans back in his chair and buries his right foot in the shag rug. One of the couple's white cats sits in his lap, looking out the French doors that separate the two figures. Hockney took the liberty to rename the cat, whose name was in fact Blanche, because he felt the name Percy worked better in the title.

On the left wall, Hockney's A Rake's Progress (1961-63) is also visible, referencing William Hogarth's famous series A Rake's Progress (1732-34) which depicts a wealthy young man whose profligate lifestyle leads him to ruin. The inclusion of Hockney's work informs his psychological portrait of the couple and their relationship and points to Clark's many infidelities. The French doors in the center of the canvas open onto a balcony and further convey the emotional estrangement between the two.

Hockney also drew upon Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) in creating this modern version of a wedding portrait. Reversing the tradition by seating the man, Hockney's portrayal also subverts the usual joyous, even if solemn, occasion of marriage. The vase of white lilies on the left, a classical symbol of the Annunciation and feminine purity, allude to Birtwell's pregnancy, but rather than van Eyck's dog, symbolizing fidelity, Hockney substituted a cat, a symbol of infidelity and untamed passions, suggesting a troubled future. In 1968, Hockney, began painting double portraits of his friends, working from preliminary drawings and photographs. He said his intent in this work was to "achieve...the presence of two people in this room. All the technical problems were caused because my main aim was to paint the relationship of these two people." Hockney succeeded in naturalistically portraying the couple, not just in the way they looked in their surroundings, but also their psychological and intimate relationship.

Acrylic on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Small Japanese Screen

Artist: Howard Hodgkin

A seemingly abstract painting composed of brightly colored rectangles, one filled with red and black dots, juxtaposed with a rounded blue form, a pair of eyes, and an acid green shape suggestive of a figure is more intimate and personal than one first supposes. Hodgkin's friend, Bruce Chatwin described the work's origins, "I had recently come back from a desert journey in the Sudan and the sitting room had a monochromatic desert-like atmosphere and contained only two works of art - the arse of an archaic Greek marble kouros, and an early 17th-century Japanese screen. One evening, the Hodgkins and the Welches came to dinner, and I remember Howard shambling round the room, fixing it in his memory with the stare I came to know so well. The result of that dinner was a painting called The Japanese Screen in which the screen itself appears as a rectangle of pointillist dots; the Welches as a pair of gun-turrets, while I am the acid green smear on the left, turning away in disgust, away from my guests, away from my possessions...and possibly back to the Sahara." With this knowledge, the rounded blue form comes into focus as a face of one of the Welches as does the floating pair of eyes in the bottom center.

Hodgkin's work often emphasized interiors, which he felt were "containers of memory and experience," and small things that were intensely felt. As he said, "The only way an artist can communicate with the world at large is at the level of feeling. I think the function of an artist is to practice his art at such a level that like the soul coming out of the body, it comes out into the world and affects other people." While Hodgkin hoped to affect his viewers, Susan Sontag, the noted cultural critic and close friend of Hodgkin, wrote of his work that in some sense, "all the pictures are autobiographical."

Oil on hardboard - Artist's collection

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"School of London Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 09 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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