THE ARTIST DAMIEN Hirst has given London’s art lovers a great gift. In October 2015, he opened his Newport Street Gallery (near Lambeth Bridge) to the public. Housed in a former theatre scenery workshop, which has been beautifully modernised, the gallery puts on a series of exhibitions of artworks (mainly paintings) from Hirst’s enormous personal collection, which he has been creating since the late 1980s. The current exhibition, “Cloud of Witness”, which ends on the 10th of July 2022, is of works by an artist born in Australia, who created many of his paintings in London: Keith Cunningham (1929-2014). I had never heard of him before seeing the exhibition.
Cunningham arrived in London in 1949 and enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design, where he aimed to improve his skills as a graphic designer. In 1952, having developed an interest in painting, he joined the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), where he worked alongside now famous artists including Leon Kossoff, Joe Tilson, and Frank Auerbach. He exhibited in the prestigious London Group in 1956 and the two years following. This group had been formed as an association of modernist artists, who wished to escape the restrictive criteria of the Royal Academy. In 1964, he was invited to become a full member of the Group, but for unknown reasons he declined. By 1967, he had ceased exhibiting his work and was making his living as a graphic designer and teaching at the London College of Printing. Despite this, he continued producing paintings until his death. He kept his paintings hidden from view in a spare room. So, it is fortunate for us that Damien Hirst acquired many of them and put them on public display this year.
The Newport Street Gallery website (www.newportstreetgallery.com) describes his work succinctly:
“Cunningham’s paintings were produced in London during the post-war period, an artistic environment dominated by the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. A student at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1950s, Cunningham worked alongside major artists such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Jo Tilson.
Cunningham’s sombre paintings, coated in layers of dense, sculptural brushstrokes, are populated by skulls, fighting dogs and darkly altered human figures. Like his schoolmates and teachers at the Royal College, Cunningham was interested in figurative painting, transforming the reality of everyday life into loose, slowly disintegrating forms.
His canvases, like those of Bacon, Kossoff and Auerbach, are covered in powerful strokes of dark pigments conveying strikingly expressive forms. The Cloud of Witness seeks to redefine Cunningham’s role in the London art scene of the 1950s, highlighting not only his ability but also the variety of his inspirations. To this effect, it coincides with the major show at the Royal Academy of Arts, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, encouraging visitors to compare and contrast the works of these two artists.” Having already seen the Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy and works by other artists mentioned in the quote, I feel that it is a good summary of what we saw at Newport Street. My favourite works in the exhibition were some of the portraits and some of the more abstract works. Undoubtedly, Cunningham was a competent artist, but having seen the exhibition, I can understand why he is not amongst the better-known artists of his generation