Anger and Art in a
Jonathan Jones on Francis Bacon, David Hockney, and
British Painting in the 1970s
The morning after was ashen. Bad head, bad memories. In their 1972 “drinking sculpture,” Balls: The Evening Before the Morning After, Gilbert and George map a night at Balls Brothers wine bar, Bethnal Green, London, in fragmentary images of booze, bar pumps, wooden fittings and their own blurred faces. It is a record of getting drunk, losing control, giving in to the dangerous god Bacchus. In the same year they filmed themselves downing a bottle of gin—that most Hogarthian of drinks.
Far from being an abstract intellectual game, conceptual art, as practiced by Gilbert and George, provided new ways of putting raw life into art. What better way to empirically apprehend reality than by making reality itself the “art”? Their self-consciously British conceptualism had a tough, intimate, everyday eye for the grotesque. That was what drew them to the then almost derelict neighborhood of Spitalfields in London’s poverty-stricken East End. In the late 1960s they settled on Fournier Street, close to Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, among Jewish clothes factories and dilapidated 18th-century houses. They have lived there ever since. In their 1975 series of photo-pieces Dusty Corners they pose among the antiquated, unrestored rooms of their home. Once again they look lost in time, grey-suited ghosts in the grubby corners of the past.
It was a time for tough reckonings. Francis Bacon woke up to a much worse hangover than one bottle of gin can give you. Far from receding from view in the 1960s as the avant-garde staged its bed-ins and singing sculptures, the painter of tortured flesh reached new heights. His style opened out into a louche, decadent version of the Baroque that captured the feel of the world he inhabited—a “gilded gutter life” in the words of his friend Dan Farson, in which he moved between East End drinking clubs, West End oyster bars and functions attended by Princess Margaret. His 1966 nude portrait of his friend, the model Henrietta Moraes, lying on a bed with her feet towards the onlooker, her hips, buttocks and breasts bulging, her skin a crazy patchwork of pinks, greys and blacks and her face a smashed-up mask, rivals the late works of Picasso (who was still alive). Women often brought out the best in this most homosexual of painters. His 1967 Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing on a Street in Soho captures not only her pugnacious presence, a masked Picasso Demoiselle in a black dress, but also the Soho setting where Bacon’s nights were fueled by champagne and seafood.
In 1963 Bacon met—in a pub, naturally—a small-time criminal from the East End called George Dyer. Photographs show him as a handsome character with a sharp, distinctive profile, which was to haunt Bacon’s art.
Bacon’s lover may have looked like—and carried a whiff of the sinister glamor of—more successful 1960s East End villains such as the Kray twins and Charlie Richardson, but he lacked the painter’s high tolerance for alcohol. The boozy lifestyle that fed Bacon’s imagination gradually turned Dyer into a wreck. As their relationship decayed, Bacon shrugged and paid for Dyer to drink as much as he wanted. In autumn 1971, they went to Paris for Bacon’s most prestigious exhibition to date, a retrospective in the spectacular setting of the Grand Palais, which gave him a chance to shine in the city that, for a man who had grown up in the 1920s, was still very much the capital of art.
Two days before the exhibition was due to open, Dyer killed himself. A conspiracy kept the news quiet until after Bacon’s big day. Any cynicism he showed in the immediate aftermath of Dyer’s death—from a drug overdose, while sitting on the toilet—is, however, eclipsed by the power of the paintings he made in his lover’s memory. Triptych, May-June 1973 imagines, and makes horribly immediate, the physical facts of Dyer’s suicide. As he broods in the central panel, a batlike, vampiric shadow of evil thoughts emanates from his pummeled purple form. In the right-hand scene he vomits into a sink after taking an overdose. To the left he slumps on the toilet. These images emerge from a black doorway framed by walls the color of dried blood. It is like a scene from a tragedy too bleak to be written.
Bacon himself is in the right panel of Triptych August 1972, a violet wraith remembering his lover. An equally ethereal Dyer sits in the left-hand scene. In the center, their bodies contort together in a vision of ecstasy and rage. O that this too, too solid flesh would melt.
Even David Hockney was painting scenes of disillusion in the early 1970s. Jack Hazan’s 1974 documentary film A Bigger Splash caught the painter at a time of crisis after his lover Peter Schlesinger left him. Hockney’s spookily beautiful 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is a document of their break-up. Schlesinger stands in a pink jacket and pale lime trousers gazing down at a near-nude male swimmer whose pale form is refracted by the dazzling translucent hues of the water. Beyond, a dreamlike vista of green, purple and blue hills, like some vast operatic set, adds to the sublime, disturbing stillness of this moment of frozen desire.
A similarly haunted calm hangs in the warm, empty air of Michael Andrews’s 1974 painting Lights VII: A Shadow. A balloon is passing over a beach by a rich aquamarine sea on a summer’s day, but we cannot see it. We only observe the shadow of the balloon, precisely etched as a darkness on the bright sand. British art has come full circle. Andrews paints reality with the precision of an empiricist, yet something eludes him. Life is elsewhere. Truth is unknowable. The numbed unease of this masterpiece makes it the perfect work of British 1970s art, an image that seems to belong on the cover of every post-LSD concept album recorded by a band that had crashed to earth, wealthy and bereft: “How I wish, how I wish you were here.”
Throughout the cultural revolutions of the postwar era, British political and economic history had veered between the utopian and the dismal. High hopes were born in 1945 when a Labour Party promising fundamental change won a landslide victory. It delivered on its bold manifesto in a way rarely matched. The new National Health Service transformed British life. Welfare “from the cradle to the grave” made society infinitely kinder. Industries were nationalized and the empire started to be dismantled, with a hasty departure from India in 1947. A decade later Ghana would become the first African republic to gain independence from Britain.
Yet as rationing continued and the government could not seem to rekindle an economy shattered by war, Winston Churchill won his final victory, at the 1951 general election. The Conservatives would stay in power for the next 13 years, in spite of Churchill’s deterioration and the catastrophic attempt by his successor Anthony Eden in 1956 to reassert Britain’s place in the world by attacking the Suez Canal. Under Harold Macmillan, the Conservatives reaped the fruits of an economy finally starting to deliver a consumer revolution that had come much earlier in the USA.
It turned out to be consumer goods—television sets, record players, tape recorders, mopeds, mini-skirts, drugs—that generated a sense of change and freed Britain from old constraints. Yet under this buzz of novelty the economy was staggering. Britain had lost its imperial markets, was on the brink of losing its heavy industries, and seemed caught in an unhealthy trap of inflation and poor productivity. Harold Wilson’s Labour and Edward Heath’s Conservatives appeared equally befuddled by what looked increasingly like tragic national decline. In 1968 Enoch Powell gave a speech that chucked the petrol of racial paranoia onto the bonfire of post-imperial crisis.
Essentially, Britain after 1945 failed to find a recipe to modernize itself. The husk of the greatest power of the 19th century was not easy to reinvent as a post-industrial, post-colonial economy. Cities that lost their busy ports or smoking factories had no idea how to start again. The warehouse flats and waterside cafés of the future were as yet unimagined. Instead, the state attempted to make Britain “modern.” For the 1945 government that meant a planned economy and central control of industry. Later came tower blocks, flyovers, comprehensive education and nuclear power. None of it drove away the specter of decline. By the 1970s every recipe for renewal looked threadbare. An atmosphere of violence crept into miserable city centers. In Northern Ireland this meant armed conflict. The failure to secure improved civil rights for Catholics in the late 1960s led to riots, followed by the rebirth of the Irish Republican Army and a small but savage civil war on British soil.
Gilbert and George saw this deterioration from their street-level vantage point in the East End. Their increasingly ambitious pictorial works composed from photographs of themselves and others became a mirror of a society on the edge, bristling with graffiti, insults, urban rage. Their 1977 picture Cunt Scum features these words, photographed from scrawled graffiti, juxtaposed with a variety of anxious Londoners: a policeman, a TV crowd, people crossing the road, homeless men sitting on a pavement. Race, class, poverty and power all pulse in this tapestry of the capital. Most of all it has an atmosphere of menace, a foreboding of imminent mayhem.
In another 1977 picture, in which fragmentary glimpses of a restless, dangerous, powder-keg city are flanked by prophet-like monumental images of Gilbert and George themselves, are the painted words:
ARE YOU ANGRY OR ARE YOU BORING?
This graffiti could easily have been written by one of the “punks” whose youth revolt that same year shocked a Britain unable even to enjoy Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in peace. To promote the Sex Pistols’ incendiary 1977 single “God Save the Queen,” artist Jamie Reid collaged words cut from tabloid newspapers across a black strip where he had removed the Queen’s eyes from her portrait. It was all set against the Union Jack. Dada was now the stuff of teenage rage on working-class estates.
For a generation of future artists who grew up in the 1970s it was easy to pick up avant-garde ideas from record covers or the BBC’s Top of the Pops. Tracey Emin, a teenager in 1970s and 80s Margate with a catastrophic school attendance record and a brutally early experience of casual sex, discovered the existence of German Expressionist art from David Bowie’s poses on his album sleeves. Ever since the early 1960s, pop culture and art had enjoyed a special relationship in Britain. For the generation that grew up in the scabrous shadow of punk, that relationship would be one of provocation and calculated shock. Yet by the time their artistic rebellion took off, the Britain of their childhoods would be remade.
Richard Hamilton’s painting The citizen, created in 1981-83, is his most powerful homage to Bacon. Like so many of Bacon’s paintings, it uses the multi-paneled forms of medieval art: it is a diptych. Like Bacon’s rooms, this prison cell is a scene of carnage. The inside of a body has exploded outward. The prisoner has daubed his own tiny, barren living space with feces that curl in strangely creative spirals and arabesques. Amid this art of disgust and refusal, a bearded, long-haired man gazes at us out of dark, shadowed eyes. With his bare upper body covered only by a blanket he looks Christlike.
In 1981, ten Irish Republicans at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland starved themselves to death in a hunger strike. They were demanding to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals. Hamilton’s political sympathies were with the prisoners, yet his painting seems ambivalent. There is something terrifying in this man’s intensity and consciousness of his own martyrdom. His piercing presence recalls lines W. B. Yeats had written after the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
This is also a picture with an absent other.
Margaret Thatcher, elected as Conservative prime minister in 1979, showed her iron in the way she refused a single concession to the hunger strikers. To her critics it was proof of her inhumanity. To her fans it revealed qualities that made her the most effective prime minister since—they would say Churchill—but perhaps it should be the 1945 government’s quietly successful Clement Attlee.
Taking on the miners and anyone else who defied her ideal of free market economics, Thatcher transformed British society. The age of nationalized industries was over. The market was god.
The market meant money, and one thing you can do with money is buy art.
Excerpted from Sensations: The Story of British Art from Hogarth to Banksy by Jonathan Jones. Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Jones. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.