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
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