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Eyes across the Atlantic: Britain's fertile relationship with American painters

In the past weeks we've had major exhibitions by six of the most celebrated American artists: Roy Lichtenstein, George Bellows, Frederic Church, George Catlin and Man Ray. Each of these invading Americans has something to contribute.

One of the highlights of my childhood in wartime Manchester was watching, with a crowd of one’s fairly ragged contemporaries, the morning muster of the American soldiers stationed nearby. Their parade ground was the bare Tarmac in front of the row of local shops. After the men had had their mail distributed, they were, by our tiny rational standards, showered with a cornucopia of cigarettes, chewing gum, sweets and chocolate. If one asked nicely, one could get a packet of Wrigley’s gum, an entire Hershey bar or a tube of Life Savers – a brief glimpse of paradise.

It was many years later that I learned that our impoverished, adult civilian population did not love the Yanks as we urchins did. I had long forgotten this part of my childhood but recent art events have reminded me that they may not necessarily be either overpaid or oversexed but they are indubitably over here, again.

In the past weeks, we have had simultan - eous major exhibitions by six of the most celebrated American artists: Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern, George Bellows at the Royal Academy, Frederic Church at the National Gallery, George Catlin and Man Ray at the National Portrait Gallery and R B Kitaj, whose oeuvre is so large that he has been posthumously shared between the Jewish Museum in London and Pallant House in Chichester.

Some of these great exhibitions have now closed in London but Catlin’s show is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23 June and will be at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from July to October. Ray closes in London on 27 May but will be at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 22 June to 8 September. Lichtenstein will be in Paris at the Pompidou from 3 July to 4 November. Church will be at the Scottish National Gallery until 8 September. Bellows is at the Royal Academy until 9 June and the two Kitaj shows end on 16 June. Alas, neither of the last two artists will continue their travels; but for the avid metropolitan gallery-goer, it has been a period of infinite riches.

Each of these invading Americans has something either important or interesting – or both – to contribute. Lichtenstein’s principal trademark remains the conversion of the tiny dots of comics for the semi-literate and the lovelorn into the large, coloured dots of his massive blow-ups of genuine trash. This has not turned him into a great artist but, even as a one-trick pony, he has been the most influential painter of the pop art movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ray is a portraitist of genius, a formal challenger to the informal and contemporary Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ray differs from Cartier-Bresson by possessing a sly, erotic humour. He has captured for cultural posterity almost the entire range of the writers, intellectuals and artists of interwar Paris.

In 1924, he made a photograph of the rear view of a nude with a violin soundhole super - imposed in black on each side of her spine, so that she is a violin as well as a woman. He titled the picture Le Violon d’Ingres. The mention of Ingres is surely a reference to Ray’s earlier work as a surrealist painter and therefore a little spurt of self-knowledge that his photographs are less important than his paintings.

The Catlin portraits are of Native Americans and his images are worth a hundred Hollywood versions of these warriors and their families. The Bellows show is of parti - cular interest because this fellow student and contemporary of Edward Hopper, if previously known at all over here, is considered a master of the boxing ring and not much else. The Royal Academy reveals him as an accomplished painter of nudes and some wonderful land-, sea- and cityscapes.

In 2002, Church’s landscapes dominated the Tate’s exhibition “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-80”. Now, his sketches are on display in Edinburgh and if we were unaware of the finished large painting, we would be happy to view these as finished and masterly works. As his English-born mentor Thomas Cole noted: “Church has the finest eye for drawing in the world.”

The posthumous double show of Kitaj can be seen as an act of justice. In 1994, when he was alive and living in England, his retrospective show at the Tate Gallery was savaged by the critics, with one or two notable exceptions. Kitaj was a formidable painter on a grand scale and the twin shows in London and Chichester reflect his role in the American invasion and stress what a loss he has been to painting in England.

The concept of an American invasion is not new. When Joshua Reynolds became, in 1768, the first president of the Royal Academy, his most influential fellow founder member was the American Benjamin West (1738-1820). West’s best-known picture was The Death of General Wolfe, which caused him to be idolised in England.

Later on, another American painter, John Singer Sargent (1856-1924), contributed to Britain’s effort in the First World War with his portrait, on one huge canvas, of all of the British generals in that conflict. He also created that huge and emotionally powerful painting of a column of blinded soldiers walking in a line, guided by the shoulder of the man ahead, which is now in the Imperial War Museum.

So while the “special relationship” between Britain and the US may be political twaddle, there’s a lot to be said in favour of that relationship in art.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once