The School of London and Realism-Focused on the works of Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Lucian Freud-
British contemporary art, including the work of young British artists (often abbreviated as yBa), has received international attention in the past decade. The question now arises: On what understructure is the successful reputation of British contemporary art based? I have begun this research with that question and suggest the context of British realism and figurative paintings, especially the works of the "School of London," as the most immediate source for British contemporary art.
R. B. Kitaj, the American artist who worked and achieved celebrity in Britain, coined the term "School of London" in 1979. It has been used to describe post-war British figurative painters and been adopted by British critics as an analogue to the old School of Paris before and after the First World War. Though the notion of the term is indeterminate, the painters who belong to this group were gradually restricted to those six whose exhibitions were held under the title 'the School of London': Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, and R. B. Kitaj.
After the Second World War, Britain took pains to emancipate itself from its sense of cultural inferiority. This was the moment when the seeds were sown for the international reputation British art enjoys today, and when British art was internationalized through realism and figurative paintings. Here, the School of London painters laid the ground for the subsequent generation of British artists. The works of contemporary British artists, such as the yBa, emphasize realistic aspects that are rooted in the works of their predecessors since the postwar period.
Indeed the School of London was born when abstract art was in its heyday. In the middle of the 20th century, abstract art such as Informel and Abstract Expressionism, dominated the art world in Europe and the United States. However, at the same period, there was significant development in the figurative arts in Britain, which was led in large part by the School of London's painters. Eschewing the abstraction of the 1950s, these artists struggled to sustain the continuity of the British figurative tradition. The return of figuration would become one of the most important elements of contemporary British painting. It is very interesting that the figurative tradition has remained virtually intact and realism has maintained its eminence over the modernism's formal self-criticism and theoretical debates. Thus it is worthwhile to investigate features of the School of London and realism in modern British art.
My research positions the School of London in the mainstream of modern British realistic painting through the context its painters formed between British realist painters in the prewar generation and contemporary British artists working in most recent decade. I read their works as an amalgam of international influence and an indigenous tradition: Existentialism and British empiricism.
Understanding the background and appearance of the School of London requires an understanding of the influence of worldwide art trends and Existentialism on British art in the postwar period. The School of London painters' works have been widely considered derivative from French models, especially Existentialist art. That developed mainly in Paris, as represented by Informel. Existentialism as revealed in the works of the School of London, however, is less a follower of French Existentialism than it is something filtered through traditional humanism and empiricism in the social context and through personal experience and creativity in the individual context.
I considers British empiricism as another base of the School of London painters: 18th century British empiricist George Berkeley's theory of vision, which was revived in mid-20th century Britain, and the works of A. J. Ayer, a logical positivist regarded as an offshoot of British empiricism in the first half of 20th century. Those empirical factors in the works of the School of London painters can be linked to the realist figurative painters of an earlier generation.
In certain contexts of British realism, the School of London painters demonstrated various practices that influence contemporary British artists in many aspects. I propose that the realism of the School of London should be considered in the current of specific realism that goes back to the Euston Road School and the Camden Town Group.
In this research, I emphasize that the School of London had a significant role in the unprecedented prosperity of figurative painting and the internationalization of the British modern art. I focus on the figurative traits and realism of the School of London painters' work and regard it as a very different inflection placed on appropriations of French Existentialist art including Informel. Perhaps the most meaningful characteristic of British art could be its stronghold on the empirical sphere of life itself. Such a realistic tradition and empirical foundation are the conceptual ground for the appropriation and transformation of the School of London's work. This study of the School of London's social and cultural contexts could spur a more diverse discussion about modern British art.