Peter de Francia died on January 19th 2012, few days before his 91st birthday.
The following days, obituaries appeared on British newspapers and art magazines, both printed and online versions. Many of those were reproduced immediately by the Greek media, particularly noting that “the painter of ‘The Execution of Beloyannis’ has died”.
In the below selected obituaries we can sense the importance of Peter in modern British art and the impact of his work and style on students and critics. We can also learn more about the character of the man, his strong political and ideological views and his tireless artistic explorations, while we come across few of his most celebrated paintings and drawings when he was still alive.
Obituary in The Guardian, by Michael McNay (23/01/2012)
Excerpts: As late as 1977 the critic Richard Cork wrote: “Despite the prominence Peter de Francia commands as professor of painting at the Royal College of Art, his work is a more or less unknown quantity to everyone outside close friends and colleagues.” The occasion for Cork’s remarks was De Francia’s big solo show at Camden Arts Centre. The reasons for the previous semi-obscurity were diverse, but included the fall from favour of the leftwing of De Francia himself and others of the order of John Berger, the sculptor George Fullard, the illustrator Paul Hogarth, the scientist JD Bernal and the cartoonist Abu (Abu Abraham). Another and more pertinent reason was that De Francia, neither communist nor fellow traveller, was an intellectual in the French sense, actively engaged with ideas and politics, reviewing, writing books (including a major study of Fernand Léger), broadcasting successfully on art and becoming a talks producer for BBC Television.
Yet he had shows all round the world; latterly and fittingly, three exhibitions at James Hyman Fine Art, the gallery run by the author of a key book on the period, The Battle for Realism; and he combined this with teaching in several art schools, including the RCA.”
Obituary in The Independent, by Timothy Hyman (01/02/2012)
As far as I understand, Timothy Hyman, a painter/writer/curator himself, had a close friendship with Peter and therefore this obituary contains some interesting facts as well as Peter’s quotes.
Excerpts: The most neglected of all the “Big Beasts” of British art, Peter de Francia, has died at 90. Will this at last trigger a re-evaluation, especially of his extraordinary Drawing-Cycles? Despite his 14 years as Professor of Painting at the RCA (1972-86) de Francia never became a household name. There is no monograph on his work, and there has never been a comprehensive retrospective, though in the past decade his art has been more visible than ever before, prominent at both Tates as well as in commercial galleries. Like so many other painters of my generation, I found in de Francia an inspiring mentor.
[….] his real education was in Italy, in the reawakening of neo-Realism and in the studio of the Communist Renato Guttuso, whose denunciatory drawings Got Mit Uns were a lifelong influence. “The climate of discussion and debate in Italy was the only one in which I have ever felt at home,” he said. “Later, when I was removed from it, or when it had become attenuated, I felt I had lost the mainspring of my existence.
[….] De Francia never joined the British Communist Party: “I belonged to a generation who could not but be suspicious of the Soviets, yet I was immensely drawn to the ambitions of the Soviet Revolution. I have had to live with that contradiction, and still do.”
[….] RB Kitaj had admired de Francia and his work since his student days and now selected six drawings for an Arts Council exhibition, “The Human Clay”, which came to the Hayward Gallery. A further group at the New Art Centre a few weeks later, marked out his special territory – each drawing a kind of abbreviated, and half-mocking, History-Painting. My own favourite of all his works are the Drawings to Césaire, two of which were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Obituary in The Telegraph (24/01/2012)
This obituary also includes an extensive reference to ‘The Execution of Beloyannis’.
Excerpts: De Francia became best-known for a series of highly polemical works, painted during the 1950s, that addressed Left-wing obsessions of the time. The Execution of Beloyannis (1953) took as its subject the execution in Greece in 1952 of Nikos Beloyannis, a communist hero who had fought the Nazis, on charges of spying. An international campaign to save him, supported by Sartre and Picasso, had featured a photograph of the young man holding a red carnation.
De Francia’s Expressionist tribute, in which the semi-naked, awkwardly twisted bodies of Beloyannis and two comrades are seen from above, showed his outstretched hand loosening its grasp of the carnation, while his two comrades clasp hands in a last moment of solidarity. In its emotive power, the painting drew on previous depictions of political executions such as Goya’s Execution of the 3rd May and the iconography of Christian martyrdom, giving the painting a power which transcended the specific event that it portrayed.
[….] In later years, however, de Francia became better known as a brilliant and influential teacher at the Royal College of Art, where he was Professor of Painting, than as an artist in his own right. During the Cold War, as the Western art world fell in love with American Abstraction, de Francia’s refusal to adapt to the fashionable aesthetic meant that he suffered from critical neglect. The growing mistrust of art which attempts to convey a message, particularly a political one, led, as de Francia himself once admitted, to his feeling “increasingly marginalised, consigned to an Index of proscribed genres”. Yet he refused to compromise his principles, and to a select band of connoisseurs he remained one of the most powerful figurative artists of the last half century.
[….] De Francia remained unrepentant in his political views. Asked recently what advice he would give to a young, politically-motivated artist, he replied: “To obtain and read carefully a certain number of texts written in the very early days of the Soviet Union, for example Lunacharsky on culture. Read them and simply question where and how things went wrong.”
Obituary in artcritical.com, by James Merlin (06/03/2012)
This is a very personal article and one that I vastly enjoyed reading. It describes moments between James Merlin and Peter de Francia, initially in the form of ‘student vs teacher’ arguments and later through an established, mutual appreciation while it pictures a portrait of a de Francia with strong political views, confronting but inspiring, respected and highly esteemed by those near him.
Excerpts: I knew of him as a socialist-expressionist figurative painter and draughtsman with first-hand connections to the Ecole de Paris and various Modernist figures. He was already working on his big book on Léger, which came out from Yale a bit later. Beckmann was another huge presence for him, and he’d been strongly influenced by contact with Renato Guttuso. Peter had the demeanour of a dishevelled, rather droll, down-to-earth ouvrier, in a blue cotton ‘French worker’s’ jacket. He habitually had a pipe, which he mostly seemed to be in the process of filling, rather than actually smoking.
[….]Peter’s politics seemed very black-and-white. He was massively informed about political affairs across the world, and with him it was basically ‘which side are you on?’ Nuance and complexity he swept aside as weakness, and simply conversing with him could be difficult as a result. My natural equivocation exasperated him. At one point he asked – as if it might explain, if not excuse, my general ambivalence and perverse interests – if I was ‘some kind of Catholic’. I said no, I was an atheist from a Protestant background. He shrugged and walked away.
[….] He liked to use his influence generously, and he was infuriated when I went to Paris and sought out Hélion without first seeking an introduction from him, Peter. He exploded when I didn’t want to apply for a certain post-RCA opportunity he thought would suit me. Nevertheless a few years after I had left the Royal College he learned that I had work in an exhibition in Paris and could not afford to go out for the opening. A check arrived in the post for the fare and a hotel, with a note saying this was a gift not a loan, and that he wanted to hear no mention of it again.
[….] Kitaj had included Peter in his “School of London” notion in the ‘70s, and in the associated Human Clay exhibition. The two men had since become estranged, I gathered, though Kitaj always spoke warmly of him. Peter could clash with allies as much as opponents. I once went to see him with the painter and writer Tim Hyman, closer to him personally than I was, also in terms of artistic “style,” and probably ideology. Peter got so irascible as the afternoon wore on that we eventually had to flee in disarray. But people tended to forgive Peter. He was a charmer as well as a tyrant, and very attractive. He addressed everyone as “my love,” and though it was often intoned with irritation, it did signify a basically benign intent.
[….]He seemed basically opposed to America – again politically, first of all, and then by extension culturally. “You actually like New York?”he’d ask, skeptically. I once made the mistake of saying I’d been quite impressed with Julian Schnabel’s film about the persecuted gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Peter erupted with disapproval. He was vetoing the film, and it was clear that what was unconscionable to him was the implied criticism of Cuba, especially by a director who probably personified the worst of American capitalism.
[….] The Tate finally acquired a group of Peter’s work also, and hung a room of it, clearly bringing some satisfaction, for all his professed indifference and grumbles at how long they took to pay him. In 1983 he had had a retrospective at the Camden Arts Centre in London, and then periodically there were shows in more or less alternative venues (one at Wimbledon School of Art I remember), and sometimes with commercial galleries. From the ‘80s onwards he had been mostly drawing. His earlier paintings on canvas had always been very graphic, like his major piece The Bombing of Sakiet (1959), a big canvas indicting French actions during the Algerian war of independence. For years this work — which is now on long loan to the Tate — had slightly mythic status
[….] Peter didn’t have a gallery at that time, and conflicts had often scuppered relationships with dealers. The inherent contradictions of functioning as an anti-capitalist artist in a capitalist system of course make for great tensions.