Frank Bowling: Two Remarkable Early Paintings
By Mel Gooding
Frank Bowling achieved early fame (or notoriety) with paintings he made as a student at the Royal College of Art. He first attracted critical notice for works he had exhibited at the 1961 Young Contemporaries at the RBA Galleries, a show that also included works by RCA contemporaries David Hockney, Allen Jones, R.B. Kitaj, Peter Phillips and Derek Boshier. This was a defining moment in the emergence of British Pop, but Bowling, ever the individualist, was quite out of step with Pop Art’s playful figuration and its ubiquitous references to popular commercial culture.
Where most of his fellow artists in the show confronted contemporary reality in a spirit of celebration and with an insouciant ironic wit, Bowling drew upon direct personal and autobiographical experience to register the sorrow and pity he felt at the human misery of poverty and beggary, and the impact on the flesh of public or private violent events. This was a world of imaginative experience, and of real happenings, that was, in most cases, beyond that of the student painters at the RCA: ‘What was feeding my creative energy and what I was making pictures about was life … What I painted was human concern ... From Rembrandt through Goya I got an insight into how to paint suffering and I took it from there. Things like beggars, women giving birth, etc.’ Bowling goes on to acknowledge Francis Bacon as ‘the real life example … He was the one who was doing all that’.
Without question, Bacon (whose first Tate retrospective took place in 1962, and with whom Bowling had been closely acquainted during the late 1950s) provided both a compelling formal and a thematic model for the younger artist. Bacon was at this time undoubtedly a potent presence in British art, but one that had little impact on the art of Bowling’s young contemporaries: his expressionistic theatricality was too extreme, too agonised, too manneristic; it lacked contemporary reference; it lacked cool. For Bowling it was, on the contrary, a liberating example, a figurative art that had shaken off Picasso-like devices for a painterly (not linear and draughtsman-like) distortion of its own, and which confronted the reality of existential pain.
But there were crucial differences that indicated that Bowling was already very much his own man. Stylistically his work was more realist, more documentary: his people and settings are in no way symbolic or exemplary, they seem to exist in a fateful space like our own; an obscure space lit by a single bulb or street lamp. Where Bacon’s heightened colour-spaces are essentially abstract and decorative, Bowling’s palette was consistently low key and tonal, browns, oranges, yellows and dark reds, the colours of a dark actuality. Bacon’s linear spatial devices are purely invented and diagrammatic, means to fix an operatic space, whereas what is happening in Bowling’s paintings is happening in a sombre reality, a tenebrous, ill-lit space, a kind of space we know and recognise. It is a space where things are frequently hard to make out: we merely catch a glimpse of the dreadful, fraught and painful event. Sometimes, as in the strange bird-like emanation above the head of the ‘hanging man’, we are presented with no more than a dark, painterly intimation of destiny.
The space is frequently established in Bowling’s early paintings by the motif of an open window letting on, so to speak, to the scene of the action. It has a function quite different to that of Bacon’s geometric or formalistic settings, being essentially pictorial, and tending to emphasise the voyeuristic or occasional aspect of the presentation, or the sense of a glimpse, an incomplete, or accidental, sighting of its subject. Of Hanging Man, 1961 Bowling recalls the titular subject as that of a leprous beggar, his limbs disfigured, perhaps blind (his eyes are empty, his stick is white), standing in expectation of alms, on the veranda of his mother’s shop (Bowling’s Variety Store) in New Amsterdam. The title, in spite of the inscription on the canvas reverse, appears to be a misnomer, unless ‘hanging’ is a term for ‘hanging on’, or ‘hanging about’. Another possibility is that the beggar is a pitiable puppet of the monstrous fate signified by the inchoate monster that hovers above him, and from which a controlling strap appears to descend. It is an impassioned image of great poignancy.
Fishperson, 1962-63, has Bowling experimenting in another way entirely. Here the central chimeric figure, head of fish, arms as fins, human body, is pictured in a landscape setting – out of its element – displaced and discombobulated. Fish-eyed and sharp-toothed, it is an alarming image. The old-masterly palette and painterly impasto is absent, instead we have a freely brushed brightly chromatic setting for the poor monster’s wanderings, an almost perfunctory sign for a landscape, with insouciant runs and drips, the sky a thin wash of grey-blue. It is, of course, a picture of a state of mind, a quickly vital symbolic representation of confusion and artistic uncertainty.
Fishperson was painted at a time of extraordinarily energetic creativity and discovery, Bowling's final year at the College, and within months of his first professional exhibition at the Grabowski Gallery, where his work – that of a student with barely four years of painting experience - would be highly praised by critics as distinguished (and different) as David Sylvester, Andrew Forge and Norbert Lynton. It was the latter who described Bowling as ‘an expressionist of striking power and individuality [who] draws his material from immediate experience, and endows that material with a passionate vividness that makes self-identification unavoidable.’ Yes! And surely this picture of an oddly poignant fish out of water, a momentarily lost angel-monster, is nothing, but a self-portrait?