A pioneering Modernist who's in the frame again

He committed suicide forgotten, but Keith Vaughan is a master, says Adrian Hamilton

The glaring omission from Tate Britain's current show on Picasso's impact on British artists is any representation of Keith Vaughan.

More than any other British painter he embraced Picasso's return to classicism in the 1920s and 1930s and, together with the influences of the other great Modernists such as Matisse, De Stijl and above all Cézanne, forged his own path of figurative art in the postwar period.

That hasn't helped his reputation since. Once regarded as Britain's pre-eminent painter, his Modernism and his figuration were quickly overtaken by the brash Sixties and their excitement in popular imagery and commercial profile. Vaughan, introverted, obsessive and seemingly backward looking, was sidelined to die a suicide in 1977 aged 65.

A century after his birth, it is time to take a new look at this artist whose pre-occupation with the human figure and with sexual anxiety make him in many ways contemporary in feel. Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, near his birthplace in Selsey, has started the proceedings with a welcome and convincing retrospective. It's not large – just three rooms – but it covers most of his output from his early sketches as a conscientious objector in the Second World War through his best-known figures set in landscapes and includes the landscape pictures which, while lesser known, made up around half his output.

Through them we see him break out from his initial categorisation as a "Neo-Romantic" along with Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Michael Ayrton to develop a style very much of his own in his exhilarating Assembly of Figures series in the 1950s and 1960s to his final near-abstract landscapes. If it were just a matter of combining the line of Picasso's nudes with the form and structure of Cézanne's Bathers, Vaughan might be considered a somewhat limited artist. "I believe," he said, "a painter has only one basic idea which lasts him a lifetime. Mine is the human figure."

He was much more than that. But he was right in the sense that most of the better artists have continuously searched to explore the possibilities and seek to break the boundaries of particular forms. In Vaughan's case, what makes his paintings so original and, more often than not, so compelling is the tension he brings to his works – between man and nature, between flesh and form, colour and shape. For him art was a search for climax and release, as much sexual as intellectual, from the conflicts he felt in himself and exposed so frankly in his journals.

That he was homosexual had a lot to do with it. His figures are not openly erotic (although some of his private sketches were) but his concentration on the male nude and the extraordinary way in which he invests even the most abstract figure with a sense of flesh through his palette and brushstroke put him quite apart from any of his artistic heroes.

You can stand in the central room of the exhibition devoted to his figurative art and see how the muddy palette of the Cézanne-inspired Group of Bathers (1951) brightens up and pares down in the brilliant Assembly of Figures VII (1964), how he creates a moving, jostling mass out of paint patches in Crowd Assembling I (1967) how he reverts to blocks of colour in the Matisse-like Musicians at Marrakesh (1966-1970). It's the same in the next room with landscape as the early idyllic views of woodmen and children in the countryside are succeeded by the more Cubist Village in Ireland(1954) and the later semi-abstract Cenarth Farm (1962) and Mortimer's Farm (1971).

If Vaughan never reached the stature of the modern masters he so admired, he certainly took their lessons and made them his own.

Keith Vaughan: Romanticism to Abstraction, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (01243 774557) to 10 June

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam