John Minton: A Centenary review – a wildly restless talent
Source:theguardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2017-07-06 Size:
"Mystery of the gifted artist” was the Mirror’s headline when the painter John Minton ……

‘Exhilaration stands in equal tension’: Summer Landscape, 1943 by John Minton.Photograph: ING

"Mystery of the gifted artist” was the Mirror’s headline when the painter John Minton was found dying in his London studio at the age of 39. Detectives discovered a bottle of sleeping tablets close to the body. The mystery, it turns out, was not the means but the motive. For Minton was “gay, generous, successful, popular – and a man without financial worries”, or so the paper maintained. Why would he want to kill himself?

Leaving aside the fathomless complexity of the human condition, and the fact that Minton was a severely depressed alcoholic, there is a traditional answer to this question. The story goes that he simply lost his footing as a figurative painter in the brave new world of 1950s abstraction. This hardly seems to have affected the careers of drinking partners such as Francis Bacon, Keith Vaughan or Lucian Freud. But it has some bearing, at the very least, on this beautifully curated centennial survey at Pallant House. Where, you wonder, in room after room, was this artist heading?

John Minton (1917-57) was an abundantly gifted draughtsman and graphic artist; a sometime neoromantic alongside Graham Sutherland and John Piper, painters inspired by the visionary landscapes of Samuel Palmer; and a charismatic teacher at the Royal College of Art. But he is possibly best known today for his lean and angular face, familiar from the doleful self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, and from Freud’s great likeness of his friend, the glassy eyes filled with sorrow and shifting reflections. This image, which opens the show, goes straight to the emotional truth.

Self-Portrait, c1953 by John Minton. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery © Royal College of Art

For in his short life, Minton proves wildly restless, changing style and mood as he roams the world. In France, in the late 30s, he paints muscular men sitting over the day’s catch, the many-coloured fish, with their heavy black outlines, like extracts of Rouault. In Corsica, in the 40s, he paints a cemetery of golden crosses and scarlet flowers beneath flaring green heavens, their colours charged with the noonday heat. In Spain, which he visited many times, he captures the inner darkness of a cart, in which a farmer dozes, against the ripe corn that blazes away towards a fierce blue sky.

In oil paint, Minton is high-chrome and heavy, effortfully pushing the pigment around the canvas. This suits certain images, especially of the sailors, labourers and fishermen to whom he was drawn. There is a kind of sullen lust in these paintings, or perhaps it is yearning: the paintbrush shaping the work-toughened bodies on the canvas as a kind of surrogate for the artist’s own hands.

That heaviness is ideal for his urban scenes too. A view across the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping, postwar, is like some magnificent blackened Venice. Back-to-backs rise up towards an ominous mineshaft beneath a dark scarlet sky, as if the whole industrial landscape was enraged.

Minton registered as a conscientious objector at the start of the second world war, then changed his mind and served a couple of years before being discharged on medical grounds in 1943. His drawings of blitzed London are superb, his pen catching every hairline crack in the bombed wharves of Poplar, seen from a soaring vantage point in 1941. He draws the Thames like wood grain or watered silk, his agile line catching every eddy and tremor. The sudden bomb-made voids ring out.

Deserted Garrison, 1947 by John Minton. Photograph: © Royal College of Art

Exhilaration stands in equal tension with desolation in these scenes. And the curators are surely right to suggest that some of Minton’s most lyrical landscapes were a refuge from army life, where there was no privacy. Summer Landscape (1943) is a most delicate gouache: moon shapes held in the contours of hills, sea colours in the sky, a nearly abstract network of wheat fields crisscrossed with tall corn. But near the centre, hidden in vegetable lushness, are two solitary figures in characteristic Minton pose – head deep in hand.

Many lovers are depicted in this show, but the portraits are generally silent and downcast, as if Minton was expecting the approaching disaster. What he can best give these handsome youths, one feels, is the grace of his draughtsmanship – a sequence of brief arcs perfectly adjusted to describe a boot’s toecap, the bulge of a groin or pocket, a couple of nimble hyphens for a nervous frown or the strain across a pressed shirt.

Tropical Fruits, 1951 by John Minton. Photograph: Courtesy Guy Morrison, London/Woolley & Wallis

The apogee of the show is not, for me, the final gallery of portraits but the paintings made in Jamaica in the early 50s. Here, Minton seems to be getting at something very pure and striking of his own. A huge street frieze is peopled with frozen figures, their faces blue-edged in the Caribbean streetlight. Palm leaves hang down like gigantic paper feathers. Three fishermen, up to their waists in the ocean, become dark torsos adrift in luminescent cloud. With their flat and collaged compositions, these works seem to prefigure the Caribbean art of Chris Ofili and Peter Doig.

But then everything goes wrong. Minton stops painting, starts again, stumbles and loses his grasp. The images are all awry. His last major work supposedly depicts the death of James Dean – not that you would know, from the muddled and compacted canvas in which the victim is barely discernible. Minton seems to be aiming for a mural, and for pop culture, and falling far short of both. A few months later he killed himself.

[Editor] 姜鑫

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