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ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY

This week's blog is written by Welcome Assistant, Emily Ward, who reflects on our current exhibition, John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink.

The gallery’s current exhibition John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink including the Kitchen Sink presents works spanning the career of the prolific British artist John Bratby (1928-1992). The title of the exhibition takes its inspiration from an article penned by art critic David Sylvester, in which he christened a movement of British art and literature in the 1950s as ‘Kitchen Sink’. 

The article identified Bratby, amongst others, as a new generation of artists who turned their artistic focus to representing scenes of ordinary life and people, and Bratby to this day is still strongly associated with the movement. But if ‘Kitchen Sink’, as Sylvester claimed, refers to the ‘ordinary’ then it is very hard to determine, after viewing this exhibition how Bratby could have ever fitted into this.

With the exception of Bratby’s early paintings that depict stark everyday scenes (including a painting in the Foreshore Gallery of his first wife, Jean, nude at a kitchen table, which has been messily strewn with the recognizable cereal and detergent boxes) the rest of the exhibition is dominated by works with brash, often fantastical use of colour, applied excessively, almost violently on to the canvas. 

His indifference to flattering his subjects is not spared even for the famous individuals in the exhibition. Furthermore, the very fact he painted so many of these point to the more elite and extraordinary world of celebrity. They are a world away from the stark ‘ordinariness’ of earlier works.

However amongst this artistic anarchy and colourful chaos, emerges some un-expected works. One that has particularly stood out for me is his Reclining Nude painted in 1963.

The reason why this work is so surprising in the context of the exhibition, is partly because the sitter has been portrayed in a sensitive, even tender way. The facial features of the woman are far less distorted, spared from the thick lashings of paint and garish colour seen in many of his other portraits. The expression of the female sitter and the more understated use of colours convey a sense of serenity. This is particularly poignant displayed next to Jean on Sofa (Jean with Teddy Bear), 1954, in which Jean’s expression appears to be deeply troubled, making viewing her nakedness feel uncomfortable and voyeuristic. 

I think what has also charmed many of us about the reclining nude, is the fact that the sitter is unknown to us; quite unusual in contrast to the famous faces and the subjects we know to have been close to Bratby. Without this biographical context driving our understanding of this work, the unknown sitter of the reclining nude allows us to contemplate our own story. Is this woman a friend, a lover? Perhaps just a spontaneous encounter? 

It is no wonder that the late painter and master of the modern nude, Lucien Freud, was so taken with this painting that he wished to buy it.

The fact that such unexpected works exist, hints to Bratby’s complex and erratic character; a trait that also strongly manifested itself in his writing. This unpredictability is what makes viewing his work so compelling.

It is perhaps apt that such a significant exhibition of Bratby’s work has taken place in his adopted home of Hastings. Not just because it is where he spent the last years of his life, but also because just like Bratby, Hastings has a tireless creative energy. A place that is vibrant and sometimes a little outrageous; anything but ordinary.

John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink, including the Kitchen Sink runs until Sunday 17 April 2016.

Images © Mike Fear  

11 March, 2016
Written by Emily Ward