British Mavericks Who Scorned Abstract Art

Well before Brexit, some Britons liked going their own way. When abstract expressionism and minimalist art was all the rage in England and the U.S., six British artists painted with a different stroke. Overall, their nonconformism paid off handsomely.

A new exhibit, "London Calling" at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, will showcase the figurative works of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and R.B. Kitaj. While their portraits and landscapes were often ignored by mid-20th-century critics, today the artists make up the core what is now known as the School of London, a group of painters credited with re-energizing figurative art. Freud's works have sold for around $50 million at auction, and Bacon's have reached nearly $150 million—among the most expensive paintings ever auctioned.

Opening July 26 and running through Nov. 13, the exhibit is the first in the U.S. to display six of the main School of London artists—two of whom are still alive—in one show. Kitaj adopted the term "School of London" in 1976, but Getty director Timothy Potts says that within a few years, all the artists came to resent being lumped together.

Back then, London was still reeling from the damage of World War II, and the period of reconstruction affected all of them at different times in their careers, Mr. Potts says. They all chose to react with realistic art rather than abstract theory. "My object in painting pictures is to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality," Freud wrote in 1954. The artists also wanted to depict the way everyday people lived. Andrews once speculated about his peers, "We thought our responses to people and circumstances and life were more important than nursing some systematic idea of what painting was all about."

"In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, everything was abstract and conceptual and minimal, and figurative art was really seen as old hat," says co-curator Julian Brooks. The School of London artists "were absolutely going against the grain." To the classic figurative tradition these artists added literary references, historical symbols of the war and elements of pop art.

One of the highlights of the show is Bacon's 1954 "Figure With Meat," on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting, inspired by Diego Velázquez's acclaimed portrait of Pope Innocent X (circa 1650), juxtaposes religious symbols with butcher carcasses as a commentary on the human condition after the war—a view of humanity as essentially dead meat.

Another major work is Freud's portrait of a performer in "Leigh Under the Skylight" (1994), revealing folds of flesh hanging from his torso. At the time, the unflattering, realistic portrayal was unusual. "He's painting the nude with warts and all," says Mr. Brooks.

Within the School of London, styles and techniques varied wildly. Bacon and Andrews often painted from photos, sculptures and magazines, while the others used live models. Bacon often painted powerful male figures, such as "Figure in a Landscape," in which he depicts his lover Eric Hall in Hyde Park in dark surroundings that hint at political violence.

Messrs. Auerbach and Kossoff, the surviving artists in the group, often portrayed the cityscape, including paintings of bombed building sites under reconstruction. The works of Freud—a grandson of the famous founder of psychoanalysis—revealed more of the inner worlds of the artist's subjects, such as "Girl With a White Dog" (1950-51), a portrait of his wife Kitty Garman as a vulnerable-looking woman with her chest exposed.

Some of the artists became friends, partied together and painted relatives and each other. And their pictures were not always filled with human frailty and misfortune. Andrews's "Melanie and Me Swimming" (1978-79) portrays an idyllic offshore family moment between the artist and his young daughter—yet even then, they're surrounded by eerie, pitch-black water.

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