Rachel Cooke on Martin Gay­ford’s su­perb biog­ra­phy of post­war painters

A su­perb biog­ra­phy of the post­war painters whose fresh tech­niques and ideas en­er­gised art cap­tures their re­solve – and the bond be­tween them, says Rachel Cooke

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

Modernists & Mav­er­icks: Ba­con, Freud, Hock­ney and the Lon­don Painters

Martin Gay­ford Thames & Hud­son, £24.95, pp352

In 1942, which is roughly when Martin Gay­ford’s ca­pa­cious new sur­vey of post­war art be­gins, Lon­don was par­tially in ru­ins, many of its streets re­duced to piles of rubble and buck­led iron. “The si­lence, the ab­so­lute dead si­lence,” re­mem­bered Gra­ham Suther­land of his first en­counter with such deso­la­tion (com­mis­sioned by the War Artists’ Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee to record the dev­as­ta­tion of the blitz, he had trav­elled into the city from his house in Kent). Its build­ings seemed to him to re­sem­ble liv­ing, suf­fer­ing crea­tures; a lift shaft, twisted and yet still clearly vis­i­ble in the re­mains of one struc­ture, looked like “a wounded tiger in a paint­ing by Delacroix”. Where, though, did art fit among all this? Even as Suther­land sketched, this must have seemed an im­pos­si­ble, not to say ob­scene, ques­tion. But of course there was, un­de­ni­ably, beauty here, too: be­guil­ing new sil­hou­ettes, sul­phurous new colours. And quite soon, there would also be an open­ing sense of pos­si­bil­ity. New en­er­gies were stirring, their shoots tak­ing hold just like those of the pink wil­low herb that would shortly colonise the dead build­ings.

It is th­ese en­er­gies, dar­ing, in­domitable and deeply con­tra­dic­tory, that Gay­ford hopes to cap­ture in Modernists & Mav­er­icks – and as he be­gins, gamely de­scrib­ing the strange house in St John’s Wood that Lu­cian Freud and John Crax­ton be­gan shar­ing in the same year (the floors were cov­ered, for what­ever rea­son, with bro­ken glass), you won­der how on earth he’ll do it. Flux is al­most as hard to pin to the page as so-called ge­nius. Try to

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