Contemporary Art

British Painting in the Frame

By Sotheby's

B ack in 1839, the French painter Paul Delaroche declared – with no little alarm – that "from today, painting is dead". The words were his response to seeing a daguerreotype photograph for the first time. In the almost-two centuries since then, countless others have made the same point as Delaroche – in the 1990s perhaps as much as ever.

When one thinks of art from that decade, one tends to think of in-your-face installations, such as Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (of a dead shark in a vitrine); of Matthew Barney’s epic, five-part film work, The Cremaster Cycle; of Andreas Gursky’s huge, digitally manipulated photographs; or of cult works of identity politics, such as Daniel J Martinez’s Admissions Buttons (badges that visitors to 1993’s Whitney Biennial were asked to wear, which read “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White”).

In other words, one doesn’t readily associate the 1990s with painting. It was a decade when other, newer media seem to have predominated, a decade when just a single painter – Chris Ofili in 1998 – won the UK’s annual Turner Prize for contemporary art.

In truth, however, painting was still alive and well. It just didn’t receive the attention it had had in previous decades and centuries. Two of the leading practitioners were British females: Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown. Both took up – which is to say, took on – the long, artistic tradition of female nudes on canvas, but now substituted a male gaze for a female one.

In the case of Saville’s painting, Propped, the subject is no conventional beauty from art history – or, for that matter, the modern-day catwalk. She’s not just greater in size, but also has mottled skin; a pained expression of vulnerability on her face; and fingers which dig violently into the flesh of her thighs. “What is beauty?” Saville has asked. ‘‘It’s usually the male image of the female body. My women are beautiful in their individuality.”

In 1992, the sight of Propped on the front cover of a magazine prompted the collector Charles Saatchi to purchase the painting immediately – as well as every other work by Saville he could get his hands on. It represents not just a celebration of the physicality of its naked subject, but also the physicality of paint itself, Saville’s richly built-up impasto conjuring up the actual folds and creases of a body.

Cecily Brown’s work, meanwhile, veers distinctly towards abstraction. In Sock Monkey, two naked lovers can just about be deciphered within a woody landscape of lush greens and earthy browns.

The pair simultaneously dissolve into, and coalesce out of, the bristling passages of Brown’s paint – figures and background all but blurring into one, in a manner reminiscent of Willem de Kooning's Women series. It’s not entirely clear where the lovers start and the landscape begins – but Brown relies on our familiarity with similarly amorous scenes in pastoral settings (by the likes of François Boucher in the 18th Century) to be able to tell what’s going on. The vigour and violence with which Brown pushed her paint about the canvas suggests a vigour and violence to the erotic encounter too. Subject matter reflects artistic process. Sexuality becomes enacted in the application of paint.

Another pair of lovers – this time staring romantically into each other’s eyes – can be seen in Chris Ofili’s painting, Afromantics. For this, the artist – a son of Nigerian immigrants to the UK – exclusively used red, green and black. Those are the colours of the Pan-African flag, adopted in 1920 by the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which proposed a radical new solidarity between peoples of African descent worldwide.

Afromantics offers a cornucopia of saturated colour. Pictured beneath a star and within a fecund setting of tropical flora, its subjects call to mind depictions from western art history of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – yet the protagonists here are black. Ofili doesn’t restrict himself to conventional oil paint either, but adopts other materials such as resin, glitter and acrylic, as well as two roundels of elephant dung (which act as supports on which the picture rests).

On the evidence of the three works considered in this article – by Ofili, Saville and Brown – painting was very far from dead in the 1990s. In fact, it thrived, albeit alongside a number of other media. New materials were incorporated, and new perspectives taken, in terms of both gender and race. Painting proved a medium still ripe for exploration.

The presence of these works in the collection of David Teiger is indicative of his desire to map out the changing face of painting throughout this era. Exciting developments not only in subject matter but technical working processes underpinned Teiger's fascination with these images. These pivotal works sit alongside a diverse group of paintings by artists from both sides of the Atlantic – and works by Takashi Murakami and John Currin equally capture the zeitgeist of artistic production at the turn of the last century: artists on the cusp – breaking new ground and striding in to a new age.

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