The Art of Love
Normally I’d run a mile from a romance-themed show opening just before Valentine’s Day, but the range and sheer quality of works brought together in Pure Romance at the Redfern Gallery transcend the cheesiness of its timing. There’s an abundance of boys, ballet and bosky landscapes which span from Christopher Wood’s 1927 stage designs for Diaghilev’s ballets, to several dreamy scenes by 1950s Neo-Romantic Keith Vaughan and up to Alessandro Raho’s portrait of a rosy cheeked young “Ben” resplendent in a Moschino t-shirt emblazoned with a giant heart, painted just a couple of years ago.
Like all good romances, this show is tinged throughout with a sense of melancholy and the passing of precious time. A youthful Cecil Beaton photographs himself posing for a portrait by Christian Bérad in the South of France in 1930s and in turn snaps the now long-deceased artist-aesthete Rex Whistler reclining with sprawled abandon on rocks at Cap Ferrat.
Fast forward to the Eighties, where Snowden photographs Yves Saint Laurent tracing Monet water lilies into the dust of a large gilt mirror and an ageing Nureyev displaying his still-magnificent torso. Elsewhere maverick dancer Michael Clark strikes a dandyish pose, complete with swooshing cloak and leashed saluki, slyly subverting his swash-buckle with a pair of stilettoes. In the late Nineties Jack Pierson captures the beauty of his naked young men more straightforwardly by bathing them in the bleached light of the studio.
But any whiff of sugary sentiment is sharply countered by the erudite literary chic of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s screen prints which splice Proust with The World of Interiors; or the more recent revisiting of Diaghilev by artist and former Punk musician Linder, who embellishes black and white vintage photographs of the Russian Ballet dancers with vivid smears of enamel paint.
Then there is the pair of memento mori tableaux made by the late, great artist and film maker Derek Jarman who died of AIDs-related illness in 1994. Here the thick, tarry black-painted surfaces, studded with pearls, shards of glass and a redemptive circle of corn seeds, stand as a more savage reminder of the cruel price that can be paid for love.
Pure Romance takes its title from Patrick Procktor’s painting of pale wilting blooms. The work of this now largely forgotten figure, especially his deft, delicate watercolours of effetely lolling youths – is another high point of this show. A friend and contemporary of Hockney, Kitaj and Peter Blake, Procktor painted and swung with pretty much everyone in 1960s London, but by his death in 2003 had sunk into alcoholism and obscurity. However his work is now being appreciated by a new generation of younger painters such as Alessandro Raho, Silke Otto-Knapp, Elizabeth Peyton and Kaye Donachie, all of whom have work in this show and all of whom confirm that a romantic sensibility – albeit often of a bittersweet kind – continues to thrive in today’s art world. Happy Valentine’s Day.