PETER DE FRANCIA

 

4 MARCH - 2 APRIL

LONDON & EDINBURGH

  • Peter de Francia’s vibrant palette, dynamic compositions and evocative subjects reflect a style of painting that developed out of Picasso’s modernism. Some are dark and others untroubled. Best known for large scale, sometimes violent depictions of combat and struggle, de Francia also gave attention to bucolic scenes of industry and recreation. These two narrative threads, distinct at first sight, share a preoccupation with the human experience, sensitive but un-sentimentalised.

     

    Born in France to Italian and English parents, de Francia studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1938 and, following the wartime occupation of Belgium, moved to England, where he completed his studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Subsequently, de Francia was Principal of Fine Art, Goldsmiths College, and Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art. He was an influential socialist artist who was deeply invested in presenting the global realities of capitalism. Unlike many of his British contemporaries, his preoccupation was international.

     

    This exhibition brings together paintings from the 1950s to 1980s: both the overtly and quietly political. The essays below, written by long-time friend and former Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Philip Dodd and Dr Rachel Stratton at the Yale Center for British Art, chart de Francia’s career in the context of these works.

  • RECLINING FIGURES, 1974 signed on stretcher verso oil on canvas 106 x 168 cm (Edinburgh) EXHIBITIONS Royal Academy of Arts,...
    RECLINING FIGURES1974
    signed on stretcher verso
    oil on canvas
    106 x 168 cm (Edinburgh)

     

    EXHIBITIONS
    Royal Academy of Arts, British Painting 1952-1977, London, 24 Sep 1977 - 20 Nov 1977, no.226

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    • Peter de Francia Woman washing, 1950s signed on stretcher verso oil on canvas 91.5 x 71 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Woman washing, 1950s
      signed on stretcher verso
      oil on canvas
      91.5 x 71 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Lavender distillery with worker, 1956 oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Lavender distillery with worker, 1956
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)
  • The world may be catching up with Peter de Francia. If so, it has taken rather longer than it ought. His commitment to figurative painting, to the way the pleasures and pains (and sometimes horrors) of life are written on our bodies, his routed- and rooted-ness, his identification with the marginal, from migrants to people in rural life – all these make him our contemporary. That he is coming back into visibility is testament to the accuracy of the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ comment that ‘everything in the present changes everything in the past’.

     

    In 1957 Peter de Francia made two apparently incommensurable decisions. First, he joined the British New Left movement which was dedicated to developing a new kind of cultural politics. Peter contributed an essay on art, criticism and commitment to the first issue of Universities & Left Review. The following issue contained an essay by his close friend John Berger (the historian Raphael Samuel once told me that Peter and John were like conjoined twins in the 50s). Second, in the same year, Peter bought a house in the village of Lacoste in Provence where he would spend many summers. The essay apparently confirmed his engagement with political and cultural struggle; on the contrary, the purchase, apparently signalled his withdrawal. I am not so sure.

  • Peter de Francia

    It has been the ‘engaged’ artist who has been recognised - in displays at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and in collections such as New York’s MOMA. Two years after the Universities & Left Review essay, Peter de Francia made a large painting, The Bombing of Sakiet (1959, Tate), prompted by an atrocity committed by the French military in Tunisia, that some have called his Guernica. What followed, among much else, were a series of drawings and paintings named Disparates, in honour of Goya, that tried to find a satiric position from which to view a brutal world of power (one is in the exhibition).

     

    The de Francia shown in this exhibition is largely a different artist - the artist of ‘withdrawal’. If the public paintings (a term Peter preferred to political) seem indebted to Picasso and to Beckmann (Peter saw Guernica at the Paris Expo in 1937 and met Beckmann in New York in the 50s) these ‘pastoral’ paintings seem more indebted to French art including Manet and Millet whom Peter much admired. I knew Peter for more than thirty years – sometimes we agreed and sometimes we were furious with each other. But it was a mark of the artist that his conversation could move, like his art, from tenderness and intimacy to large questions, to the ‘horizon’ (John Berger called him in an essay a ‘horizon artist’).

     

    When the great Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia died, Peter wrote to me saying that a piece of him had died along with the novelist. What bound Peter and Sciascia together was a sense that the public world was rotten, one of spectacle - hollowed out and cruel: a heartless and performative world where power ruled. On the contrary, many of the works in this two exhibition are very different. If one puts the ‘rural works’ together with the remarkable painting of the Algerian story teller in the exhibition (1964/5), the content of these paintings and the way marks are made provide an alternative to the heartless and spectacular public world (cf. Virgil’s war poem The Aeneid and his pastoral The Georgics). The rural paintings bring together the natural and the human world; it is blissfully hard to work out where the human world and nature begin and end. It is a world at ease. 

  • SHOE SHINE BOY, TUNIS I, 1957 oil on canvas 76 x 122 cm (Edinburgh)
    SHOE SHINE BOY, TUNIS I1957
    oil on canvas
    76 x 122 cm (Edinburgh)
  • In the Algerian painting, there is a small group of migrants who listen intently to a story teller on a boat. They are bound together not merely by the boat but by the shared experience – their bodies entwined through the paint in common concentration. Almost of these works are images which offer a sense of belonging impossible to find in Peter’s public paintings. In these works, the paint is often put on more lushly - as if there is an equivalence between the pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of paint – so different from the thin flatter surfaces of the public paintings.

     

    I remember interviewing Peter for a small catalogue that accompanied his display at Tate Britain. I suggested to him that, despite his admiration for Brecht, he did not follow the playwright’s injunction, ‘Begin from the bad new things, not the good old things’. ‘Peter’, I said. ‘you believe in the good old things’. ‘Absolutely’, he replied.

     

    The paintings in this exhibition return us to the ‘good old things’. When as an adolescent Peter saw Picasso’s Guernica, he also saw in the Paris Expo Leger and Charlotte Perriand’s great mural, ‘Essential Happiness, New Pleasures’. The title for this Fine Art Society exhibition might be ‘Essential Happiness, Old Pleasures’.

     

    PHILIP DODD
    Curator, author and broadcaster
    Former Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts

     


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  • Peter de Francia is best known for his large modern history paintings, most notably The Bombing of Sakiet (1959, Tate), a representation of the real-life trauma and violence of an infamous incident in the Algerian war. However, the paintings included in this long overdue exhibition offer a rather different insight into the oeuvre of this important but underrecognized artist. Peter de Francia’s deeply felt humanism emanates from the selection of works on view and the subtleties of human intimacy take precedence over social context. Take, for example, Reclining figures (1974), in which the pair take up the entire expanse of the canvas, bodies intertwined in a sexually charged, rhythmic dance of synchronicity and counterbalance. Painted two years into Peter de Francia’s tenure as Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art (1972–86), the work celebrates, through colour and texture, the play of sunlight over flesh. Here the concern is the relation of bodies to each other and their surroundings. They affirm that social dynamics are made manifest through material bodies and signal the artist’s mandate to imbue these bodies with ‘emotional imperative’ (his own phrase) through the expressive handling of paint.

  • Reclining figures is one of several paintings in the exhibition that depicts couples enjoying idle moments of repose, most of which were painted from the artist’s house in Provence. Often rendered in bold blocks of primary red, yellow and blue suffused with verdant greens – such as in Red and yellow vespas (1976) – these paintings have a pastoral quality that depicts a life removed from the urban, industrial grind. Several paintings include a bicycle or vespa – simple forms of transport that offered freedom of movement for a young, mobile generation.  In 1940, Peter de Francia had mounted his own bicycle to escape the German invasion of France and Belgium, propelling himself through the open fields, from Brussels, where he was studying art, to the Belgian coast, to avoid the roads crowded with fleeing refugees, a target for the Luftwaffe. In these paintings of scantily-clad couples, basking in the sun, lying or sitting in the grass, or astride a bike, he captures another kind of escape, to a rural idyll where freedom of movement and sexual liberation reign.

     

    Through the lens of a contemporary perspective, the power dynamic established by the white, male artist’s gaze on nude, often racially ambiguous female bodies, is unavoidable, yet in pieces such as Reclining nude with radio, there is a sense that the women are in command of their sexuality. The figure unwaveringly returns the artist/viewer’s gaze, while with one hand she turns the dial of a radio and with the other, opens the window to let the fresh sea breeze into the stuffy room.

     

    While the figure’s pose recalls that of Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore (1897, Courtauld Gallery, London), the depiction refuses to define her solely by an exoticised erotic, but instead shows her beckoning the outside world into her domain, a woman tapped in to a wider social system.

  • Of course, Peter de Francia’s conviction in the political imperatives of artistic practice also led him to the more typically realist subject matter of workmen, for example in Tunisian boy, bird seller, his rendering of a Tunisian shoeshine boy and in his paintings of a lavender distillery. Yet, the attention paid to individuals at work distinguishes the pieces from the conventions of realist representation, which often sought to illustrate the entire system of mechanised labour. In these works, Peter de Francia focuses on one individual’s experience: a shoeshine boy resting; a bird-seller intimately communing with the caged creature, or a single figure bent over a lavender distillery, his body mirroring the machinery he operates.

     

    Equal attention is paid to the personal labours of women washing as in Washing in the Garden I, or at their toilette. In these, the figures are generally bent over a washing bowl, running their fingers through their loose hair or gently lifting their limbs to scrub under their arms or feet. The artist’s keen aesthetic sensibility shines through in his rendering of the natural shifts in body weight, the curvature of the spine, an elevated arm or leg. These moments of self-care are as vital to depicting social reality as labour, for it is in these brief instances that the body is attended to and reclaimed.

    • Peter de Francia Disparates oil on board 160 x 152 cm (Edinburgh)
      Peter de Francia
      Disparates
      oil on board
      160 x 152 cm (Edinburgh)
  • De Francia’s mastery at capturing individual personality and character is especially evident in Algerian Story Teller (1964/5) and Village couple II (with dove) (c.1982). In the former, the man’s quiet but commanding presence is conveyed with a remarkable economy of paint, a few patches of beige that draw the eye to his full cheeks and prominent brow and the bold black lines that communicate the wisdom and kindness of his bespectacled eyes. In Village couple II (with dove), the relaxed informality of the pair is underlined by a cat shown leaping onto the back of the child at their feet.

     

    In the 1956 exhibition catalogue, Looking Forward, John Berger wrote that the artist’s use is to ‘giv[e] people the liberty to see and understand the world which surrounds them’. In this selection of works, through his expressive and lyrical handling of paint, Peter de Francia directs our attention to the intimate moments of human connection that make life worth the struggle.

     

    DR RACHEL STRATTON

    Yale Center for British Art


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    • Peter de Francia Women and boy with pink ball, 1970s oil on canvas 137 x 106.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Women and boy with pink ball, 1970s
      oil on canvas
      137 x 106.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Lighting lamps, 1970 signed and titled on stretcher verso oil on canvas 66 x 50 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Lighting lamps, 1970
      signed and titled on stretcher verso
      oil on canvas
      66 x 50 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Seated figures, 1970s oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Seated figures, 1970s
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Red and yellow vespas, 1976 signed and dated '76 verso oil on canvas 30.5 x 41 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Red and yellow vespas, 1976
      signed and dated '76 verso
      oil on canvas
      30.5 x 41 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Two figures and a vespa, 1976 signed verso oil on canvas 51 x 66 cm (Edinburgh)
      Peter de Francia
      Two figures and a vespa, 1976
      signed verso
      oil on canvas
      51 x 66 cm (Edinburgh)
    • Peter de Francia Washing in the garden I oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Washing in the garden I
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)

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    • Peter de Francia Resting figure - Joanna Drew CBE (1929 - 2003), 1951 signed oil on canvas 71 x 91.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Resting figure - Joanna Drew CBE (1929 - 2003), 1951
      signed
      oil on canvas
      71 x 91.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Lavender distillery, 1950s oil on canvas 30.5 x 41 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Lavender distillery, 1950s
      oil on canvas
      30.5 x 41 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Shoe shine boy, Tunis II, 1957 oil on canvas 76 x 122 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Shoe shine boy, Tunis II, 1957
      oil on canvas
      76 x 122 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Two seated figures, 1968 signed verso oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Two seated figures, 1968
      signed verso
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Seated nude oil on canvas 28 x 23 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Two nudes, 1970 signed verso oil on canvas 30.5 x 25.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Two nudes, 1970
      signed verso
      oil on canvas
      30.5 x 25.5 cm (London)

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  • 1921 Born, Beaulieu, Alpes Maritimes, France 1938-40 Studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels 1943-46 Trained at Slade...

    1921          Born, Beaulieu, Alpes Maritimes, France

    1938-40    Studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels

    1943-46    Trained at Slade School, University of London

    1953-68    Department of Art History and Complementary Studies, St Martin’s School of Art, London

    1961-69    Department of Art History and Complementary Studies, Royal College of Art, London

    1970-72    Principal, Department of Fine Art, Goldsmiths College

    1972-86    Professor of Painting, Royal College of Art, London

     

     

    SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS

    1969      New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh

    1977      Paintings and Drawings 1959-1977, Camden Arts Centre, London and New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh

    1990      Centre for Contemporary Art, New Delhi

    2006      Peter de Francia, Tate Britain

    2007-8  The Ship of Fools: Peter de Francia in Focus, Pallant House, Chichester

    2008      Modern Myths: Drawings from four decades, New York Studio School

    A full biography listing de Francia's exhibition history is available

     

     

    SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS

    Arts Council of Great Britain

    British Council, New Delhi

    Imperial War Museum, London

    Museum of Modern Art, New York

    National Portrait Gallery, London

    Pallant House, Chichester, Wilson Gift

    Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

    Tate Gallery, London

    Victoria & Albert Museum, London

    Yale Center for British Art, Newhaven, CT, USA


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    • Peter de Francia Two seated nudes, 1970s oil on canvas 61 x 46 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Two seated nudes, 1970s
      oil on canvas
      61 x 46 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Seated figure, 1974 signed verso oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Seated figure, 1974
      signed verso
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Seated figure, 1974 signed verso oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Seated figure, 1974
      signed verso
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Couple, blue bicycle (blue T-shirt) oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (Edinburgh)
      Peter de Francia
      Couple, blue bicycle (blue T-shirt)
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (Edinburgh)
    • Peter de Francia Couple, red bicycle, 1974-5 signed and inscribed 'Lacoste' verso oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (Edinburgh)
      Peter de Francia
      Couple, red bicycle, 1974-5
      signed and inscribed 'Lacoste' verso
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (Edinburgh)
  • Peter de Francia, Reclining nude, 1970s

    Peter de Francia

    Reclining nude, 1970s oil on canvas
    91 x 168 cm (Edinburgh)
    • Peter de Francia Washing in the garden II oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Washing in the garden II
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Lady washing hair oil on canvas 41 x 30.5 cm (London)
      Peter de Francia
      Lady washing hair
      oil on canvas
      41 x 30.5 cm (London)
    • Peter de Francia Couple washing hair oil on canvas 91 x 72 cm (Edinburgh)
      Peter de Francia
      Couple washing hair
      oil on canvas
      91 x 72 cm (Edinburgh)