(Above) John Copley, Study No 4: Waiting (1914). © the artist, britishcouncil.org
Exhibition: British Council Collection: Thresholds, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until March 12 2010
A month into the year, London is pulsing with exhibitions and events. Individually singular but adding up to something approaching collective appeal, this weekend alone you could explore Indian art at the Serpentine, fill the South London gallery with your own unwanted gems or venture into the robot zoo at the Kinetica Art Fair.
But if it’s an all-round entertaining delve through some of the most intriguing British art of the 20th century you’re after, head to this potent mix chosen by Paula Rego at the Whitechapel.
Tony Bevan, Portrait Boy I (1992). © the artist, britishcouncil.org
Never one to take a challenge lightly, the 1995 Turner Prize winner has marauded through the British Council Collection to find more than 50 prints, drawings and photos, dashing across themes from growing pains and death to sex, feminism, ghosts and bawdy smut.
In the hands of other artists the vault of potential material could have seemed onerous, but Rego makes it look easy, concocting a witty selection of works which are constantly suggestive, forever on the brink of dramatic movement or change.
David Hockney, The Enchantress With the Baby Rapunzel (1969). © the artist, britishcouncil.org
A dab hand at figurative insinuation herself, Rego leaves most of the action to the viewer’s imagination as the eyes are treated to absorbing, rich curiosities – Tony Bevan’s Portrait Boy charcoal seems to be physically ageing in shifting darkness. It is juxtaposed by the saturated colour and thick lines of Patrick Caulfield’s The Hermit, where a hooded figure sits with his back to us, watching over an edge.
Gerald Brockhurst’s The West of Ireland welds fairytales, lost innocence, childhood despair and comic proportion together as a pair of sisters stare through huge, vacant doll eyes into the distance, one fair and angelic, the other dark and satanic.
Lucian Freud, Head of a Girl I (1982). © the artist, britishcouncil.org
David Hockney leaves Rapunzel in the hands of the ugly guardian who locked her in lightless towers and cut off her hair in The Enchantress With the Baby Rapunzel, an engraving from a period when he took it upon himself to illustrate fairytales by the Brothers Grimm.
As texturally masterful as Copley’s Study No 4: Waiting is, the gaze of the nattily-dressed young woman at his gothic table makes her story more intriguing.
Graham Sutherland, Study No 2 for The Origins of Land (1949). © the artist's estate, britishcouncil.org
I’d like to think she’d committed some heinous crime and was about to make a run for it, although the point of an exhibition called Thresholds, by definition, is to see the precipice each character stands upon.
Lucian Freud’s flurry of lines making up Head of a Girl point to the possibilities and physiological torment of youth, echoed in Brockhurst’s Adolescence, where a nude looks uneasily at her own shadowy bedroom mirror reflection.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Painting for Pleasure and Profit (2006). © the artist, britishcouncil.org
It’s sensual and thought-provoking, but there’s a lightness of touch which allows it to work in the same room as Graham Sutherland’s primal transportation of the forces of nature onto canvasses.
Frank Auerbach goes for another head, scratching and scrawling at a fractured, eerie skull in chalk and charcoal, which feels like the exact opposite of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s globular gloop of a face, adorned with cauliflower ears, bulging eyeballs, a serpent tongue and spindly horns.
Even when they’re bemusingly weird, Rego’s picks always hold the attention.