Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Socialist-Expressionist: Peter de Francia (1921-2012)

I first encountered Peter at my interview in 1982 at the Royal College of Art in London. I knew of him as a socialist-expressionist figurative painter and draughtsman with first-hand connections to the Ecole de Paris and various Modernist figures. He was already working on his big book on Léger, which came out from Yale a bit later. Beckmann was another huge presence for him, and he’d been strongly influenced by contact with Renato Guttuso.

Photograph of Peter de Francia by James Hyman.  Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery
Photograph of Peter de Francia by James Hyman. Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery

Peter had the demeanour of a dishevelled, rather droll, down-to-earth ouvrier, in a blue cotton ‘French worker’s’ jacket. He habitually had a pipe, which he mostly seemed to be in the process of filling, rather than actually smoking. He had Romano-Gallic good looks, with heavy bags under the eyes, a shock of grey hair, and a deep voice and distinctive laugh that came from low in his chest. He directed my interview with great authority, for all his apparent informality. I had brought a large painting of a figure playing bagpipes (based on a 17th-century Dutch sculpture in the V&A museum, where the Royal College was also housed at the time). The painting led to a discussion of the French painter Jean Hélion, whose work indeed interested me a lot, and of the Chilean painter Roberto Matta, whom I had met briefly when I was an undergraduate at the Central School of Art. These were the right sort of references for Peter, and I was in.

Once I started at the RCA though, we didn’t really get on. He wasn’t comfortable with the small, rather cryptic and skeptical paintings I was mostly making. My interests in artists also turned out to include not just solid men of the Left and the Résistance like Hélion, but dubious types like Picabia, or like André Derain who Peter said ‘should have been shot’. (Derain had submitted to an obligatory artists’ tour of Germany during the Occupation.) Peter’s politics seemed very black-and-white. He was massively informed about political affairs across the world, and with him it was basically ‘which side are you on?’ Nuance and complexity he swept aside as weakness, and simply conversing with him could be difficult as a result. My natural equivocation exasperated him. At one point he asked – as if it might explain, if not excuse, my general ambivalence and perverse interests – if I was ‘some kind of Catholic’. I said no, I was an atheist from a Protestant background. He shrugged and walked away.

At the RCA in the early ’80s Peter liked to insist that the age of art ‘stars’ was over. He was thinking of the celebrities of Pop and abstract art that the college had produced in the ’60s (David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Bridget Riley); and one sensed he was glad to think that such notoriety for artists was a thing of the past. But of course, even as he spoke, Goldsmiths College in London (where he had been a former principal) was fomenting the YBA phenomenon, a yet more rampant and market-enmeshed star system. The Royal College at this period was – to its credit perhaps – no route to fame, and certain students of my generation jumped ship in search of a smarter career path. Peter did have favorite students whose careers he promoted, but this tended to mean landing them in good teaching jobs rather than in hot galleries. I think I had been earmarked as a likely golden boy, but now I wasn’t playing the game. He liked to use his influence generously, and he was infuriated when I went to Paris and sought out Hélion without first seeking an introduction from him, Peter. He exploded when I didn’t want to apply for a certain post-RCA opportunity he thought would suit me.

Nevertheless a few years after I had left the Royal College he learned that I had work in an exhibition in Paris and could not afford to go out for the opening. A check arrived in the post for the fare and a hotel, with a note saying this was a gift not a loan, and that he wanted to hear no mention of it again. I was hugely grateful, and went to Paris. Later on he asked ‘Did you get that money I sent you to go to Paris?’ which amused me in the light of his stipulating that he wanted to hear nothing of it. But I thanked him then, profusely.

After that we would meet up periodically in central London. He favored a continental-style bistro called Pélican, in St Martin’s Lane, despite his disapproving of nostalgia for an “Americanized” cliché of continental cafe society – something of which he accused his one-time comrade Kitaj. I was in contact with Kitaj, and Peter would say “Don’t mention that you’ve seen me – he’ll pump you for information!” Kitaj had included Peter in his “School of London” notion in the ‘70s, and in the associated Human Clay exhibition. The two men had since become estranged, I gathered, though Kitaj always spoke warmly of him. Peter could clash with allies as much as opponents. I once went to see him with the painter and writer Tim Hyman, closer to him personally than I was, also in terms of artistic “style,” and probably ideology. Peter got so irascible as the afternoon wore on that we eventually had to flee in disarray. But people tended to forgive Peter. He was a charmer as well as a tyrant, and very attractive. He addressed everyone as “my love,” and though it was often intoned with irritation, it did signify a basically benign intent. I think he had quite a few romantic relationships, and the impression was that when they ended it was without rancor.

At Pélican I would always have a Kir, a drink to which Peter introduced me, explaining it was named after a mayor of Dijon who created the drink when the German army had commandeered all red wine in the area. Peter would have Burgundy. I don’t think the symbolism of our differing dilutions of red was ever commented on, but he seemed to have accepted what he must have thought my rather bloodless socialism. He was great talking about European film, and literature. I was trying to catch up on some classics of French and Italian cinema and on non-Anglophone poetry. The painters I knew in more depth and I think it gave him pleasure to talk to someone of my generation who actually cared about post-war figures he felt close to and who were little known in the UK. Sometimes I would come with my then partner, a figurative sculptor whose work he liked. Again he was delighted that she was interested in artists like Zadkine or Laurens (he corrected our pronunciation – the S is sounded), or Ipoustéguy whom he especially supported.

Peter de Francia, Automated Soldiers 3, 1988. Charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery
Peter de Francia, Automated Soldiers 3, 1988. Charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery

With the exception of Philip Guston, he didn’t have much time for the New York School and its descendants. He seemed basically opposed to America – again politically, first of all, and then by extension culturally. “You actually like New York?”he’d ask, skeptically. I once made the mistake of saying I’d been quite impressed with Julian Schnabel’s film about the persecuted gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Peter erupted with disapproval. He was vetoing the film, and it was clear that what was unconscionable to him was the implied criticism of Cuba, especially by a director who probably personified the worst of American capitalism. Any possible inherent virtues of the film, or real injustices of the Cuban régime, could simply not be entertained. I was on safer ground when the conversation turned to the Tate Gallery’s acquisition of a group of work by the long-neglected French social realist André Fougeron, including a huge anti-American propaganda painting.

The Tate finally acquired a group of Peter’s work also, and hung a room of it, clearly bringing some satisfaction, for all his professed indifference and grumbles at how long they took to pay him. In 1983 he had had a retrospective at the Camden Arts Centre in London, and then periodically there were shows in more or less alternative venues (one at Wimbledon School of Art I remember), and sometimes with commercial galleries. From the ‘80s onwards he had been mostly drawing. His earlier paintings on canvas had always been very graphic, like his major piece The Bombing of Sakiet (1959), a big canvas indicting French actions during the Algerian war of independence. For years this work — which is now on long loan to the Tate — had slightly mythic status, locked in storage in the Tunisian Embassy in London. The jagged, narrative charcoals Peter came to concentrate on were – and are – widely admired for their poignancy and expressive energy. They sometimes have mythological motifs, sometimes historical ones. I recall him in his studio bringing out one sheet with a tremulous tenderness that evidently reflected his feeling for the subject itself – the death in prison camp of Robert Desnos. At other times his drawings are more poetically unspecific – an old man with a flower, a woman with a bird. Peter didn’t have a gallery at that time, and conflicts had often scuppered relationships with dealers. The inherent contradictions of functioning as an anti-capitalist artist in a capitalist system of course make for great tensions. In recent years, however, James Hyman Gallery has been representing his work and facilitating a reconsideration of his achievement.

When Peter got older and more infirm I visited him more at his house, in a handsome terrace hidden behind Elephant and Castle in south London. The studio was on the ground floor, and I was only allowed in there once, fleetingly. He lived mostly in the basement, where the kitchen and bathroom opened off the study/living room and were admirably old fashioned in their plumbing and appliances. The place teemed with books, letters, journals and papers. A typewriter was lodged in the middle of everything, from which issued his roughly typed and much-corrected letters. He would talk of his current correspondences, conferences and campaigns with Left-wing organizations all over the world. It felt like an international operations room. I sensed he had many contacts like myself, making periodic visitations.

In his last years he could no longer go down annually to his house in rural France, which was a great sadness to him. On one of my visits I brought a bottle of rough red from roughly the right area. As we drank he examined the label amusedly and declared that the wine was “probably made in Norwich,” emitting his inimitable, chesty, machine-gun laugh.