Sticking to their guns

While others turned to abstraction after 1945, British painters clung to their figurative instincts. It was a polite but powerful art, says Adrian Hamilton

After the Second World War, American artists rejected the European past and took to Abstract Expressionism. The Russians put a stop to artistic creativity completely. The Germans went dark and introverted, while the Japanese went in the opposite direction, all glossy, bright and consumerist. And the British? Well, they remained very British despite the war, despite the victory and despite even the Swinging Sixties, continuing a concentration on the figurative, a carefulness with colour and a fascination with form which was there before the war and still continues today. It was a polite art not a revolutionary one, ironic rather than committed, introverted rather than radical.

Does this make British post-war art essentially provincial in its concerns? A new exhibition at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London of 40 works by 10 of the leading painters of the 1950s and 1960s would suggest it was. But it also shows, in some of the paintings at least, just how good polite art could be and how impolite some artists were. It has a handful of really wonderful paintings, and a range of good ones, all beautifully displayed in the spacious rooms of the Haunch's newly refurbished gallery on New Bond Street. For anyone who wants a quick feel of the style of Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Richard Hamilton, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Lucian Freud and others, it's an easy pleasure.

Burdened with the title Mystery of Appearance: Conversations Between Ten British Post-War Painters, it's been curated by Catherine Lampert, former director of the Whitechapel Gallery and a great enthusiast for British art of the period. Which is all to the good. Whether you buy the theme, which aims to provide a fresh way of looking at these artists by seeing them as not only contemporaries but also as relating to each other, is another question. Of course the artists of this period, most of them from the Slade and the Royal College of Art, knew each other, were aware of each other's work and were conscious rivals. But the bonds weren't close enough – indeed they were as notable for their fall-outs as their friendships. No matter. What we have, and all the better for it, is a selection of works that are worth seeing in their own right and a grouping that enables one to enjoy them without the pressure of didacticism.

A first room of nudes provides as good a way as any to appreciate what the British artists of the time were up to. The nude is one of the most traditional of artistic genres and these are mostly very formal works, conservative in subject matter, coolly detached in observation. With William Coldstream and Euan Uglow the precise geometric calculation is made obvious. With Auerbach and Kossoff, the composition is as planned, but the core is in the texture of the paint itself. It's not the human figure that seems to intrigue them as much as the form of art and what you can do with it.

It's when you walk through the arch to be faced by Francis Bacon's monumental Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez from the Aberdeen Art Gallery that you lose the coolness and feel the greatness. A major influence on the younger generation, as well as intimate with several, Bacon has the same concern with form. The architectural background to this painting, he claimed, was from Degas' painting of a trapeze artist in the National Gallery – a reference point for most of the artists here.

Compared to Bacon, it has to be said, many of the artists seem studied if not actually insipid. Beside Bacon's Pope is an early David Hockney, Man in a Museum (Or You're in the Wrong Movie) from 1962, based on an Egyptian painting seen in the British Museum. It shows all his fluency with colour and brightness of invention, but the irony of subject as title is too forced to be memorable.

The late Freud is represented by an equally self-consciously "witty" drawing of Bacon with undone trousers and his shirt pulled behind. It's a jeu d'esprit rather than a moment caught. Nor is his early Girl on a Turkish Sofa really convincing, despite the portrayal of the contorted nudity in the manner of Degas which he was later to make his own. He is best as a portraitist with a poignant Portrait of a Woman (Portrait of Lady Anne Tree) of 1950. The National Portrait Gallery is due to hold a show of his portraits next year and it should be devastating.

If it's humanity you want, however, you need to go to the two painters of European Jewish parentage, Auerbach and Kossoff. Long underestimated as artists on the British scene, the show has some particularly fine examples of their work. Kossoff has a charming A Woman Bathing (Study After Rembrandt) in which he makes the female subject of voyeurism into a depiction of innocent self-absorption, while Auerbach is represented with a powerful depiction of the stuff of landscape, Primrose Hill, Winter Sunshine.

If anyone's reputation should be continuously on the rise it is that of Richard Hamilton, who taught several of the younger artists. Known mostly for his pop art, he is here represented by a couple of marvellous, graphic nudes and a stunning heliogravure based on Finn MacCool and several photo-based oils. Gerhard Richter, still alive and the subject of a tremendous retrospective at Tate Modern, may take most of the honours for this kind of work, but at his best Hamilton was his equal.


The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations Between Ten British Post-War Painters, Haunch of Venison, London W1 (020 7495 5050) to 18 February