Bacon, Auerbach ... Keith Cunningham? Meet the nearly man of British painting
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2016-10-14 Size:
The myth of the difficult outsider, whose rebel genius is misunderstood……

Inspired by Goya … Keith Cunningham, Head No 6, c1954-60.

The myth of the difficult outsider, whose rebel genius is misunderstood by the establishment, is one of art’s oldest and most compelling fables. In French, the word for such a troubled talent is maudit: cursed.

This romantic stereotype of the misunderstood artist whose work will only be truly appreciated by future generations is rooted in truth. Great artists really can exist outside the markets and establishments of their time. Heading through Hoxton, east London, in search of the latest lost and rediscovered genius of British art, I passed the William Blake pub. In British art, Blake is the definitive gifted outsider. Shunned in his lifetime by the Royal Academy, struggling to find any audience for his radical and ravishing artist’s books, he is now universally revered for his vision.

Keith Cunningham with Bobby, his widow.

Does the same destiny await Keith Cunningham, a forgotten artist of postwar London whose paintings have been rescued from oblivion by the Hoxton Gallery?

Cunningham, born in Australia, studied alongside Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff in the early 1950s and was regarded as their equal. He graduated with a first from the Royal College of Art. In a recent letter to the Hoxton Gallery, Auerbach remembers that Cunningham “looked into the college to look at the model, then sprinted to his room to paint the model he had seen from memory”.

Cunningham made a brilliant start as a professional painter, with exhibitions and acclaim. Then he suddenly stopped exhibiting. He still painted, but kept the results private. Only now, after his death in 2014 at the age of 85, has a selection of his canvases been put on view.

Sadly, Cunningham was no Blake or Vincent van Gogh producing works of deathless genius in obscurity, but just another talent that went astray. Painting is very hard. Talent does not always bring results.

Keith Cunningham, Fighting Dogs, c1954 - 1960.

Frank Auerbach has generously praised his old classmate, calling his college paintings “very distinguished ... full of nervous life”, but Cunningham’s messy, half-hearted daubs cannot seriously be compared to Auerbach’s achievements.

It looks as if Cunningham had plenty of macabre, melancholy fun alone in his studio. Ignoring the market, shunning fashion, painting purely for himself, he muses in these paintings on death and violence. His best works – and the ones adorned with red “sold” stickers – are expressive depictions of skulls. As a student, he used a bursary to visit Spain, where Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado must have enthralled him, for his works ape their freedom and savagery. This has not gone unnoticed by the curators, who have placed some of his pieces in a sinister, dark back room that evokes the gallery where the Black Paintings hang in Madrid.

Dogs fight, human bodies lie as if dead, tortured faces emerge from the dark. There are echoes of Auerbach at his darkest and Francis Bacon at his most visceral. Yet these resonances are feeble.

Feeble echoes … Keith Cunningham, Skull No 5, c1954-60. Photograph: Sylvain Deleu Photographer/© of the artist, by courtesy of Keith Cunningham Estate.

Compared with the great British figurative painters who were his contemporaries and friends, it appears as if he simply gave up attempting to paint at a high level. Did he lose faith in himself? These are Sunday paintings, playful, amateur efforts, albeit with an absurdist sensibility and the remains of originality.

Why did he give up? Cunningham, the exhibition reveals, had a successful career as a graphic designer and teacher. When asking why he relegated painting to being a private activity or hobby, perhaps we should take into account the changing visual culture of the 60s, when design and advertising boomed and the painted image was no longer seen as the only way to make art.

The search for lost geniuses goes on. They have to be out there. Maybe time for a half at the William Blake and a sad toast to talents that die on the vine.

[Editor] 张艳