February 22, 2019

Wrestling with angels (and demons) at the Getty Museum

Is there something about being Jewish that can bring artists together? It’s a question that arises when considering four of the six painters whose work is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center as part of a new exhibition, “London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, and Kitaj.” The Getty is usually not the city’s go-to place for Jewish art so much as its nearby neighbor, the Skirball Cultural Center, but the Getty, along with London’s Tate Museum, which loaned most of the works to the exhibition, has nevertheless unwittingly created a show that leads us to ask whether being Jewish, even for those who do not seem particularly so, plays a role in their affinities.

The show presents the work of six painters of what has been called the “School of London,” who have, since World War II, according to the catalog by Elena Crippa and Catherine Lampert, “consistently explored the appearance and frailty of the human form.” One gallery is devoted to each artist, and it is easy to see that during a period when art was heading toward territories less figurative, even pop, this group, especially Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, reveled in the intense examination of human geography, from head to toe and all the fleshy regions in between.

Walking through the show, the Jewish connection among Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and R.B. (Ronald Brooks) Kitaj does not jump out at you like a rainbow tallit. Only the work of Kitaj, as presented here, depicts anything recognizably Jewish. Yet, looking into their families, experiences, proclivities and the times they inhabited, a Jewish picture does begin to form. 

“Self-Portrait” (1958) by Frank Auerbach. Photo courtesy of the Daniel Katz Gallery London

The exhibition catalog points out that the six were connected during their lives and careers by “mutual admiration,” but beyond that, two of the four Jewish artists shared an escape from almost certain death at the hand of the Nazis. Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 and escaped from Nazi Germany to England in 1939 via transportation arranged by writer Iris Origo. His parents later died in a concentration camp. Freud, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, escaped the Nazis in 1933, moving to Britain with his family.  

Adding to the four’s war connection, Kossoff, born in London in 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrants who ran a bakery, served during World War II in Europe, in the Royal Fusiliers. Kitaj (pronounced kit-EYE) was born in 1932 in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, near Cleveland; was in high school during the war; and by 1950 became a merchant seaman. During his career, he repeatedly painted a character he named Joe Singer, who served as a stand-in for those who survived the Shoah (“Joe S” can be seen near the top of one of his pieces in the show, “Cecil Court, London W.C. 2. (The Refugees, 1983-84).”

“Girl With a Kitten” (1947) by Lucian Freud. Photo courtesy Tate

It’s not easy to imagine this group sitting down to study Torah or Talmud, but as students of the human form, some of their work with the human figure can be viewed through Judaism’s sometimes matter-of-fact, and even graphic, approach to the human body. In the morning prayers, Jews praise God for “fashioning the human body in wisdom,” including “opening, arteries, glands and organs,” some of which appear prominently in Freud’s work.

Going psychologically deeper and darker, the introspective moods represented in Eikhah (Lamentations), chanted on Tisha b’Av with references to sick hearts and the wounded, and prophesies of “delusion and deception,” connect with these artists’ painterly expressions of love, pain and loss, and dark mood.

Their ease at going against the crowd is also something they share. Before the early 20th century, Jewish artists had to be rebels to paint the human form, because the Torah describes painting and sculpture of the human form as idolatry. The Russian painter Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), after drawing his town’s rabbi, was severely beaten for doing so by the rabbi’s son. It’s interesting to note that although these four painters in the Getty show were long removed from that prohibition, they continued to rebel by painting people and places during a post-war period when many artists’ eyes were drawn to geometric forms, shapes and color. 

With the story of Jacob’s dream of wrestling with an angel as a cultural touchstone, Jews have tried to come to grips with expressing their humanity, and these four fit into that tradition. Auerbach paints himself (“Self-portrait,” 1958) seemingly staring inwardly. Kossoff paints a “Father Resting” who could be either in mourning or in prayer, and Freud shows his mother in a saddened moment.

But it is Kitaj who wrangles the group together, connecting them through a setting taken from the Jewish life cycle. After the death of Elsi Roessler, his first wife, Kitaj, who had returned to the United States from London in 1965, moved to Hollywood and taught at UCLA. When he returned to London in 1972, he increasingly gave expression to his Jewish heritage. In the late 1970s in Los Angeles, he met an American artist, Sandra Fisher, and they were married in 1983 at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, which is Sephardic. (Built in 1701, it is the oldest synagogue in Great Britain.) 

In “The Wedding, 1989-93,” we see Kitaj — who studied the works of German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, as well as Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka (in 2008, posthumous shows of Kitaj’s Jewish art and writing were mounted at UCLA’s Archive of Jewish Culture and at the Skirball Cultural Center) — wearing a tallit and kippah standing under a huppah with Fisher, his bride. According to a description by Kitaj, Lucian Freud is standing on the left, Auerbach in the middle, Kossoff is shown poking his head in from the right and, for those who have ever wondered what David Hockney, Kitaj’s friend and best man, looks like in a kippah, here he is, wearing a nice blue-and-white one.

Unfortunately, the union represented on canvas as a kind of colorful kinetic simcha was not to last, as Fisher died in 1994, followed by Kitaj in 2007 in Los Angeles, and Freud in 2011. Caught in the frame of the picture, however, the figures and friends, and the expression of humanity they created, remain together.

“London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, and Kitaj” continues at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, through Nov. 13