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The What and the How
December/January 2016/17

“Man eating Jalabee” by Bhupen Khakhar, 1974

Hyman writes — again, perceptively and instructively — that in Beckmann’s painting, “What is registered is a structure equivalent to the complexity, and disorder, of our own lives.” That is noteworthy, but it is not all that art is for. Once, art reinforced — or even gifted us — our deeper sense of order. Surely we need some “Apollonian” to balance our artistic diet.

Will the centre ever hold again? Art may have to show it holding, first. Matisse himself, while cleansing the pictorial language, continued to dream of “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair”. Bourgeois, maybe. But what is so wrong with that now? The classicist F.L. Lucas wrote: “Our modern world has acquired a kind of demagogic resentment towards all poetic magnificence. We decry dignity. We despise grace.” Resisting that “demagogic resentment” could be another pressing cause for a new art in our time, after modernism.

Wherever you stand on such arguments, this is a book full of brave painting and sharp commentary, and unmistakably a work of conviction. It is, in fact, the work of a lifetime, and with it Hyman means to pass his life’s passions on. He is for the affirmation of “painting’s continuing function”; for painting as a means to life-affirming art. And he is endlessly, heart-warmingly, optimistic. He concludes: “In the painting of Beckmann and Khakhar, Kitaj and Salomon, a fully human pictorial language has surfaced, well equipped to mirror this new transitional world taking shape around us.”

The book does make a number of important historical points. It details the formative influence that Ensor and Chagall each had, in their moments, on other important modern painters, to an extent that cannot be ignored — the canon will have to be adjusted. The canon might also be enlarged to include a painter as unfairly neglected as Ken Kiff, who more than holds his own on these pages in exalted company.

Yet The World New Made is not a study meant for art historians. Really it is a manifesto. In surveying (some of) the places where painting has recently been, it is also suggesting where painting should go from here. Hyman is a committed art teacher, a major influence at the Royal Drawing School (formerly the Prince’s Drawing School) — and in young painters’ work his influence is often easy to spot. His previous titles (also for Thames and Hudson), Bonnard and Sienese Painting, are keenly read by art students in New York as well as London. Those students will read this book too; and it might just affect them as he hopes.

I may not wish exactly the same future for figurative painting as Hyman — I’d like to see re-skilled painting and some more coherent vision. Still, if his future were to materialise — a future in which it were at least agreed that, “Like true poetry, true painting goes deeper than concepts” — there would be so much more art to be excited about, and less to bemoan. That is made perfectly plain by this book: Hyman has provided the timeliest demonstration of how exciting painting can be, when so much seems at stake.
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