John Bratby, Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, review: 'second-rate'

2
Venice - The Doge's Palace by John Bratby
Ropey: 'Venice - The Doge's Palace' by John Bratby Credit: John & Patti Bratby/Jerwood Gallery

This exhibition tries– and wholly fails  to convince that John Bratby is an overlooked great of British painting

What a brilliant ruse for an exhibition. In order to mount its new retrospective of the British artist John Bratby (whose thickly painted images of everyday life won him notoriety in the Fifties, as the leading exponent of the so-called “Kitchen Sink” school of social realism), the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, invited local people who owned paintings by him to lend their works of art.

The artist had spent his final 16 years in the town, and the gallery, with some chutzpah, decided to “crowd-source” its new show. It was a calculated risk: estimating that there are as many as 3,000 paintings by Bratby, who was enormously (and, some say, disastrously) prolific, still in private collections, the director of the gallery, Liz Gilmore, anticipated that many people would come forward for the institution’s “Bring us your Bratby” day last autumn.

Even so, the response was staggering. In total, the Jerwood received more than 300 submissions, with enquiries from as far afield as New York and Dubai. An independent panel then whittled down the long-list to a final selection of 66 works.

'They taught me immobility in Madras' by John Bratby (c.1959-60)  Credit: John Bratby/Jerwood Gallery

Realising that Bratby’s output would benefit from judicious editing, Gilmore wanted to fashion a lean and “serious” retrospective for the artist – something, she says, that has never been done before.

At this point, it would be wonderful to report that the show is a revelation, rehabilitating the reputation of a difficult, even brutal, painter, who fell from grace in the Sixties, and is often written off as a money-grubbing dauber. During the second half of his career, he dashed off ropey “likenesses” of celebrities (two portraits he did of Paul McCartney in 1967 have been reunited for the first time in this exhibition). His late views of Venice, in turn, were simply awful.

The reality, though, is that Bratby (1928-1992) is no overlooked great of 20th-century British art. It is true that he fashioned a readily identifiable style, characterised by crude, meaty brushstrokes, and lots of impasto in the manner of his contemporaries Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. He also had a penchant for humdrum subject matter – in 1956 his Still Life with Chip Frier was purchased by the Tate.

He was not a suave painter, capable of elegance or refinement, but one who worked at high speed, brandishing bright colours with gusto. His pictures are direct, with a spirited, rough-and-tumble quality. He even described his slipshod style as “Tubist”, since he encrusted his canvases with squiggles of intense pigment, squeezed straight from the tube.

'Jean with Dog' by John Bratby (1954) Credit: John Bratby/Jerwood Gallery

The trouble is, there is something about Bratby’s pictures that strikes me as fundamentally meretricious. Take his customary use of impasto paint. With, say, Auerbach or Kossoff, this feels authentic and hard-won. But with Bratby it feels like pastiche – a mannered, superficial question of style, with little relevance to the subject matter.

There is an awkward mismatch between his desire, as an accomplished draughtsman, to present his subject in a descriptive fashion, and the expressionistic way in which he slaps down paint. He rarely resolves these contradictory tendencies, and the results can be ridiculous: his girl with a shaded face, sitting in a garden, for instance, looks like she has suffered terrible burns.

One can only conclude that he painted as he did because he thought it appeared modish. Yet the cumulative effect of all this “vigorous” brushwork is claustrophobic. Everything – clothes, eyes, furniture, flesh – has exactly the same clogged and dingy quality. When it came to capturing different textures, Bratby was ham-fisted. In addition, many of his compositions feel incoherent.

I am aware this sounds harsh: there are some bold pictures in this exhibition – such as his witty still life, Holyland (1961) – suggesting that Bratby should not be written off as wholly second-rate. Also, I relished visiting this show because it provoked such a strong reaction.

However, having planned the exhibition with such originality, the Jerwood, in my opinion, missed a trick. Had the gallery positioned Bratby as a kind of people’s artist, capable of inspiring passion, then that would have worked. But Bratby the radical modern painter? No way.

Until April 17. Information: jerwoodgallery.org