A Likeness, a film by Hero Johnson and Andrew Warrington, has just been released on DVD. It is a documentary about Patrick George: at 90, George is among the most significant living artists in England and probably the most elusive one.
The DVD is really an important document because so little has been published about George's work;
I think he has always been very unwilling to concede interviews and a comprehensive publication on his work is inexplicably missing.
Patrick George was a student of William Coldstream and a contemporary of Euan Uglow at the Slade School of Art. You can see images of his paintings here and on the Browse and Darby gallery website. An interview can be found on the Painting Perception website.
The film is extremely enjoyable and shows George discussing some of his works, briefly talking about his story and going about his painting routine. In a way, the film reminded me of El Sol del Membrillo, the exceptional film about Antonio Lopez Garcia.
In A Likeness, George doesn't lose his characteristic reticence: he talks at length about paintings, how he conceived them, how he went about working on them, but in fact he does not disclose much. Hiding behind understatement, he presents his work as a straight-forward activity.
" I try and paint things as they are, but there are things which are impossible, you can't pin it down and say that is how it is, you can only suggest how it might be. It looks something like this, to the best of my ability".
George conceals himself but so much can be learnt by the careful viewer about his vision, about the poetics of his works, which for me resides exactly in their apparent simplicity.
He has a modesty about his paintings as if not to reveal their technical side thus shattering their lyrical impact. It seems to me though that his restrained small talk is the only way his paintings can be spoken of, all the rest can only be done by looking. I think most serious painters cringe at the prospect of "explaining" their work !
Only here and there we get a glimpse of how complicated and sophisticated his art is, for example when he explains about the background in "Betsy"and even more when he discusses "At Arm's Length". The themes of his work are all touched upon in the film: the preoccupation with the picture plain, the struggle to represent reality, the effort to mantain interest, the quality of paint, the search for an inherent luminosity in the painting.
I found it very moving to see an ageing artist at work, on his own. It gives a sense of the incredible
physical stamina that painting requires. We watch him methodically and almost painfully setting up his easel outside: George is known to stand six hours without breaks in the field, in freezing weather.
I absolutely recommend this film ( I had to watch it more than once, there's more to it than one can take in on one view), it will broaden your understanding on the brilliant group of painters that gravitated around the Slade and it will renew your determination to work hard reminding you how high the bar was set.
PS: If you are interested in English painters from this period please consider pre-ordering the excellent book about Sargy Mann that is being turned into an eBook.