At the age of 86, one of England’s leading social commentator painters holds his first retrospective to mark a museum’s re-opening. His figurative work is rich and diverse in topic and technique.
– By Chris Woodcock –
This summer marks an artistic ‘coming-out’ in the heart of England. One of the country’s most trenchant social historian artists emerges from a lifetime of ‘self-imposed isolation’ to share a glimpse of his extraordinary exposés of modern life and death.
In his first retrospective exhibition – delayed, rather aptly, till the end of Covid lockdown – Chris Fiddes, aged 86, lifts the veil on around 50 of his extraordinary works. Most of them are acute social and political commentary. All are painted in oils. They range in mood from dark, savage and sinister to frenetically energetic.
The common denominator is a drive to chronicle diverse cultural, social and political episodes of the last seven decades through the lens of a self-confessed artistic misfit.
He is conscious of his outsider status: “My story, unfortunately, is that of a man ill at ease in his own time, yet aware that art, in the past, has been of far greater relevance to the struggles of mankind than is the art of his own time.”
In observational quality, nuance and inventiveness the canvasses rival the output of the great satirist printmakers and painters of the 18th century – like Gillray, Hogarth and Goya. Yet, in style and technical relish, Fiddes’ paintings are idiosyncratic interpretations of anti-establishment thinking, each one inventive in topic and storytelling as well as ingenious in composition and fiendish use of perspective.
Northampton Museum & Art Gallery, hosting the retrospective to mark its re-opening after extensive redevelopment of the gallery spaces, is permanent home to 21 oil paintings by Fiddes as well as some preparatory sketches. In their collection, and in this show, is one of his earliest paintings, ‘Kowloon Riots.’ It was painted in 1956 in response to the quelling of the riots that Fiddes witnessed while on his National Service in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and it was shown at the RBA at the time.
“I have never been able to wipe these scenes from my memory. They were to give me my direction as an artist.”
This early experience gave him new focus and paved the way for things to come: “This carnage, and the interrogations that followed changed my perspective on all the art that I had done previously and at art school. Suddenly, it all seemed irrelevant – and, somehow, arrogant.”
A documentary maker was born. In the 1970s, his newfound resolve prompted him to travel to Belfast during the heat of the Troubles to record, first hand, on both sides of the line, the despair and destruction. Three of these powerful paintings are in the show. Since then, though no longer a war documentarist, he has never eschewed risk in his choice and treatment of subject.
In his mature years, Fiddes has become a contemporary non-conformist with a twist. In a deliberate attempt to shun Modernist thinking and trends, this former art historian and teacher chooses to create his conveyor belt of pictorial polemic (there are literally hundreds of canvasses not in the show) from a solitary studio setting, based on a purist approach: he relies on traditional painting techniques dating back to Rembrandt, most notably in his insistence on grisaille underpainting and layering-up of translucent and opaque colors.
He has amassed a huge collection of oil paintings. Topics vary from macro themes like immigration, innovation and artificial intelligence to mundane realities, like bullying and boozing. The paintings in this exhibition reflect this diversity: many are in the public spotlight for the first time.
The show is also aptly named, in two ways. Appropriately, Challenging Perspectives suggests an uncompromising artist sailing, solo, against the tide of the fashionable art world; it also reflects the daredevil compositional and perspectival challenges with which Fiddes likes to test himself.
Beyond these topical and technical antics – revealing an acrobatic octogenarian mind – is Fiddes’ lifelong struggle to accept how art has changed alongside societal, technological and historical contexts. He feels that the art world has lost its way, that the ‘tastemakers’ have come unstuck and that all he can do is fight back by pushing against the boundaries of modern thinking, producing his provocative visual documents and re-injecting traditional draughtsmanship skills.
“I have believed in my art with a passion, for why else would I go on doing it? Because I’ve not gone with the herd, there is a distinctiveness about it, which a growing number of people appreciate.
“I hope this show may make people think again about some of the social issues that currently bedevil us – or see them in a new light. And that’s a form of immortality. It’s the sort of success that I look for. And, if I have painted my pictures with care and thoroughness, that is why.”