Anthony Green is one of the UK’s best loved figurative painters. His work has consistently occupied an artistic position quite apart from the status quo, yet throughout his career he has managed to culture a steady popularity and enjoy a loyal following.
For his most recent exhibition at Curwen Gallery, he focuses on his many ‘everyday adventures’ which include looking at flowers, having a nap and admiring his wife.
Review by Robin Spalding
Upon entering the exhibition, the first thing one notices is how joyful Anthony’s new work is. A cheerful palette of ice cream colours explode from the walls, announcing that spring is here and that Anthony Green wants to have a nice chat about his daily life (albeit in pictographic form). This ‘conversation’ is about the day to day trivia of his quintessentially English, middle class life.
On 10th March Anthony Green gave a real ‘chat’, an informal lecture really, on his work at Curwen Gallery. This article is largely inspired by that talk. When Anthony arrived that day, in his characteristically eccentric and rambling manner, I started to understand what all the fuss was about concerning this renowned painter. His paintings were on the walls, Anthony was talking in front of them and everything was in its right place…
He proceeded to give one of the most engaging and informative artist talks I have ever heard. Not only because he spoke well about an interesting subject, mostly in fact because Anthony Green, as a man, is the necessary accessory to his paintings. His character doesn’t just complement them- he actually embodies his work… and his work embodies him. The two are as inseparable as Gilbert & George or Richard and Judy.
Although colourful, jubilant and ever so slightly self-indulgent, this work never becomes the decorative froth that it would be in danger of being if it were produced by a lesser artist. Green displays the skills of a master with his adept use of paint and in the shaping of his beautifully rendered boards, which are cut to fit the contours of the images in his head.
The individuality of his artistic vision somehow manages to tie his quixotic images together in a manner which seems entirely natural. The quirky shaping of his work is not a gimmicky pictorial device. They are simply the most appropriately shaped objects to hold a painting of their particular subject. He never feels the need to ornament the image with excess background material simply to fill a conventional squared canvas. He just cuts the platform to fit the subject, which makes a lot of sense. The painting is just the subject, distilled from its environment. This is how an image appears in the memory, without the infinite limits of a scene directly observed from nature.
A fine example of this practical approach to painting our perceptions of memory is A Head Full of Flowers. In this painting a vase of flowers is poured into the cut-out profile of the artist’s head. This head watches another vase sitting on a table, which is painted onto a board cut into the shape of the artists head. As a written explanation, this appears to be quite a convoluted image, however the painting is actually very simple and articulate. It shows Anthony Green, the artist-voyeur, looking at the image in his head of a vase of flowers on a small table.
By illustrating the minutiae of his everyday life, Anthony Green converts these images in his memory into a painted autobiography which document the trivia of a ‘normal’ existence. He makes his private life into public life and forms a gentle soap opera based on the Green household. A surface reading of these works gives an enjoyable, jigsaw- type sketch of his contented life, describing impressions of people, places or events in a light-hearted tone.
To look a little further into his work, Anthony Green makes the ‘normal life’ seem somehow quite heroic in a time when many of us have a tendency to champion the lives of the super wealthy, the super famous and the super beautiful. Anthony Green’s paintings make the ‘normal life’ into a special event, quite equal to the lives of celebrities which constantly grace the pages of our magazines and computer screens.
He works to restore the significance of the everyday adventures in a modest life. By doing so he creates objects which counter-balance the glamour of a contemporary culture which is predominantly celebrity driven and so helps to maintain a wholesome equilibrium. In a historical sense these scenes have an equal capacity to be mythologised. In fact, they reflect our times far more accurately than the documentation of celebrity culture which, in terms of volume of surviving artefacts, will largely characterise this period of history in times to come.
These paintings can be seen as fitting into a canon of artworks which date back to Neanderthal man, with primitive artists depicting elements of their everyday lives on the wall of their caves, their tools and their vessels. Man has created images to describe his everyday experience since the beginning of time and, even with the self-critical nature of contemporary art, its function in society will always be to describe our experience. Anthony Green continues this tradition without shame, quite comfortable in the knowledge that his work sits outside of contemporary artistic fashions. It is artwork like this which will become the relics of the future as they follow the conventions of the ancient past.
These works continue a tradition of image making that is primordial in origin, in describing our lives through self-created images. For a psychologist or cultural historian these works are timely relics and describe the living conventions of The Everyman in this time period. What is particularly interesting about these images is the choices made by the artist as to which remembered images to spend time laboriously creating and so making permanent. Why is it that a particular image excites his imagination so much that he feels the need to encapsulate that memory in a material that will outlive him?
His choice of subject is probably made impulsively, without a thought of what a psychologist or cultural theorist may read into it afterwards. Anthony Green deals with the basic passions which stimulate him, his love for his family, most specifically his wife, flowers, his garden, his house. That is not to say, however, that these works aren’t, unconsciously perhaps, dealing with some immensely profound subjects. With his own life as a case study, Anthony Green deals with many of the most important existential questions of love and death, youth and aging, success and failure.
During the talk he gave at Curwen Gallery, Green mentioned how he often felt ashamed of his work being so sentimental, particularly during his time at the Slade School of Art in the late 1950s. I suspect Anthony was actually being slightly facetious in saying this – however I think it’s important that this work is sentimental – it is entirely justified when dealing with life situations of such great importance.
In his early career he mentioned that he was bombarded with pressures from his contemporaries to conform to the dominant Abstract Expressionist trends in painting at that time. He admits that during this period he was in danger of becoming “a second rate artist” as his work was actively shunned by his peers and tutors. Although he found the Abstract Expressionist works exciting, he also found them “vacuous.” He didn’t want to paint expansive colourfields with carefully positioned ‘zips’ a la Barnett Newman. He had “fallen in love with narratives,“ and as importantly, with Mary Cozens-Walker.
During his younger years he painted her “plain,” to conform to current fashions. Apparently he wanted to paint her pretty but it took him many years before he could muster the courage to paint her as he sees her; as an almost supernatural beauty. In his new work though, he has at last discovered the self-assurance (and faced up to his responsibilities as a husband) and depicted her as the glamourous, semi-mythical beauty that she no doubt appears to him.
In The Bureau, Afternoon Sun we see his wife Mary as her idealised self, calmly arranging flowers with a gentle but knowing smile on her face, while Anthony potters around behind her, watering wilted flowers. The allegorical references are clear; while she remains an unchanging vision of loveliness in his head, he feels himself in decline. Hopefully she will forever appear to him in this same form, without the effects of age and as a towering idyll of perfection.
The reality that she ages like anyone else, is irrelevant. What we are seeing in these paintings is how Anthony Green views the world. His paintings are the subjective transcriptions of the images in his head which define his life. Although they focus on Anthony’s experience alone, they could be seen as emblematic of all of our individual worlds and the way we see, remember and interpret reality; not as it is, but through glasses which are coloured with personal bias and our experiences of the past.
Everyday Adventures with Anthony, his Family and the Flowers is an exhibition about a 75 year old man looking at both his past and his present wearing rose tinted spectacles. Fortunately, he happens to be a man gifted with an extraordinary creative vision and the skills of a master craftsman. Because of these quite wonderful abilities he manages to pull off a wildly exciting depiction of some of the many images in his head. They form a lyrical autobiography of remembered scenes which, whatever level they are appreciated on, are immensely gratifying and engaging.
19 March 2015