The Subjective City exhibition devised by Oliver Bevan and co-curated with the late Terry Bennett of the Cleveland Gallery Middlesbrough. It toured to: Cooper Gallery Barnsley, Ikon Gallery Birmingham, Theatr Clwyd Mold, and Barbican Arts Centre London

Introductory essay by Oliver Bevan for 'The Subjective City' catalogue1989 


The important thing was to look at what was there outside the window, on the asphalt, along the street and down the drain, on the factory floor and in the shipyard, in operating theatres and in brothels, in allotments, in a railway crossing cottage or a contented hovel, along the washing line perspective of a tenement courtyard.

It was in subjects such as these that artists felt they were capturing the flavour of their time, tasting its excesses and its poverty, its prodigality and despair, its revolt and its trivial amusements; the world and its seamy side, undisguised. They saw through it - or thought they did - and loved it; they stigmatised it and were nevertheless totally caught up in it.'

Wieland Schmidt. 1978 catalogue essay 'Neue Sachlichkeit and German Realism of the Twenties.

Hayward Gallery Exhibition.

The city is a recurring theme in Western Art, evolving from the fortified place of safety surrounded by an uncertain wilderness in Medieval Italian painting, through the sinister melancholy of Piranesi, the glamour of Canaletto's Venice. the dramatic settings for momentous events in Goya or Daumier to the nineteen twenties. With the rise of the cult of the individual the painted city begins to have a double life.

The picture may celebrate, describe or indict, while acting also as a sounding board for the artist's emotional or symbolic needs. The Oslo paintings of Edvard Munch show hordes of bleached out figures milling along the Karl Johanstrasse, carrying eloquently with them Munch's own personal anguish. A similar quality is present in James Ensor's 'Christ Entering Brussels,' in which the seething city seems to stand for a tumultuous confusion in the painter's own mind. In both of these examples the subjective elements are in a state of balance with descriptive aspects, a balance that was to be tipped over by the appearance of Expressionism in Germany in the build up to the Great War.

After 1918 German painting entered the singular phase which is referred to as New Objectivity, Neue Sachlichkeit. This movement intended to turn its back on Expressionism in favour of a coolly descriptive style which would record the visual facts of everyday life. In practice the major artists of this tendency were swept back into Expressionism by their strong feelings of revulsion for the excesses and cruelty of life in the Weimar Republic. It is worth noting how few art movements of this century have been even remotely interested in the visual facts of everyday life. There are probably more horses than cars in the 20th century art, and if an archaeologist of the future were to rely on the paintings alone, he or she would come up with a completely unrecognisable picture of the present civilisation.

'New Objectivity' and the artists Beckman, Grosz and Dix, not surprisingly, have had more impact on the painters of 'Subjective City' than any other movement. Like the Neue Sachlichkeit artists, we have seen the excesses of Modernism if that term is taken to include a wider faith in the perfectibility of a technological society. The cities of Léger, Delaunay and Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau have not materialised. The exhalations and depredations of our urban civilisation threaten the survival of the planet. The mad, the sad and the desperate are on the streets watching cars as valuable as large houses glide by. Many artists of my generation have broken faith with modernism and turned a searching eye on their own surroundings and circumstances. This preoccupation with the immediate reality of urban life has been largely the province of the photographer during this century. Any painters tackling this subject have been vulnerable to charges of illustration. (Edward Hopper is a case in point.)

Ironically it was precisely photography which opened up new subject matter for the painter, directing attention towards the chaotic energy of the streets. And it was not only the professional photographer who had an influence. In the late eighteen nineties the first snapshot camera came into use, and its accidental cropping of the image certainly affected Degas and Bonnard. This revolutionary subject matter, the painting of modern life was largely abandoned to photography as the Modern Movement got under way, in favour of Still Life, Landscape, Portraits, Myth and Dreams. (That these traditional genres led in many cases to Abstraction does not refute my point, as most forms of abstraction can be traced back to one of them.) The great Realist canvases of Courbet, Daumier, Manet, Seurat and Degas led nowhere as far as the subject matter was concerned, with the exception of Neue Sachlichkeit and in a minor way the Camden Town Group in London. Instead, the harvest was magnificently reaped by the great photographers, Kertesz, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Bourke-White and Walker Evans amongst others. Their city paintings together with many memorable films of the city like The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) or La Dolce Vita (Fellini) have probably had as much effect on the artists of The Subjective City as any art movements.

The counter attack on Britain was a long time coming. It coincided with, and was seen as, a symptom of Post Modernism. Narrative Paintings selected by Timothy Hyman for the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the ICA in London, in 1979, demonstrated that while the putative mainstream were photographing floorboards and exhibiting glasses of water, a substantial number of equally ambitious artists were reinstating narration and description as legitimate functions for art. The New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy and The Hard Won Image at the Tate reinforced the point. Even so, relatively few works could be said to be about Modern life in the Neue Sachlichkeit sense.

The Subjective City presents fifteen artists for whom the city is a central concern. The show and its title are chiefly of my own devising, with the help of Michael Downs, Paul Butler who co-directed a pilot show of the same name at the Small Mansion Arts Centre in West London, and Terry Bennett of the Cleveland Gallery who turned a concept into a physical reality. Since my own city paintings began to appear in 1982 I felt the need to make contact with other artists in the same field and to put in context a kind of painting that was not only urban landscape nor the narration of city events, but a combination of those elements with a strongly personal, subjective viewpoint. Over a five year period I located the artists and the work now on view with the intention of creating a show which would communicate both the quality of life in the city itself, and a powerful sense of the intellectual and emotional world of each artist.

The viewer will find some of the canvases highly charged emotionally; there is anger, alienation, humour, paranoia, heroism, celebration, isolation, vulnerability, eroticism. Sometimes conflicting emotions appear simultaneously in the same painting very much as they do in reality. Each artist balances the public and private aspects which make for a sense of looking out at the city to see oneself more clearly, and looking inwards to see the city more clearly. Surely the struggle, the heroism of existing in the world at all which characterises the work of Paul Butler, must have its counterpart at a personal level too. The threatening intrusive quality of Lucile Montague's world, besides being objectively a true description, may also be a kind of private document.

What you are seeing is a compression o the city into concentrated extracts whose power lies in a metaphor. The city is a construction of human minds; it is like the mind itself. Innumerable pathways, blockages, sudden revelations, secret places, wild celebrations, the fall of light in a quiet street, the discovery of torture chambers beneath a respectable town house: these are equally events in the mind or in the city. If the imagery of these paintings moves, disturbs or delights, it is perhaps the result of this affinity between the city and the human mind - the subjective city.


copyright Oliver Bevan 1989