Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Barry Fantoni: Public Eye, Private Eye Thomas Williams Fine Art, London W1 - The Independent

Of a Saturday night, you can often catch him in the bar at the Chelsea Arts Club, swinging a tenor sax from side to side, blowing out his lungs. Today Barry Fantoni, veteran Private Eye cartoonist, is showing off half a century of paintings and drawings, large, medium and small – portraits of women, still lifes, landscapes, cartoons - in a high-toned, first-floor gallery overlooking Old Bond Street. There is no chronological arrangement about this show. You begin at the end, and end at the middle – which feels about right for this agreeably talented shapeshifter of a man. Some are on the walls, others are propped up on chairs. It all feels a bit sprawly and slightly raucously glass-clinking. The styles are all fairly casual mix’n’match too – it’s as if Fantoni  has been moving from tailor to tailor in the past fifty-odd years, trying on things for style, finding out what suits the moment. Is it to be the replication of a Rubens today or a take on Mondrian? Well, how does it look out of doors?

In the 60s, Fantoni was part of the Pop Art scene, and here’s a painting of the Fab Four in 1963 to prove it – painted in that rather flattened, brash, commercial way that the pop artists made their own.

Sometimes Barry likes to sit back and contemplate the passing scene – there is a small series of bucolic looking Spanish roofs here, and another - one of the best paintings in the show – of a corner of Clapham Common and the Windmill pub, dominated by beautifully wispy trees. When he paints figures (usually women) in a room, he places them very carefully, slightly off centre, to give the tiniest edge of anxiety, and focuses our attention – in fact, gives exaggerated emphasis to - the seductive power of the eyes. Much of the show sees him responding to figures in the public eye, catching the mood of the times for the dailies  – he had a spell as front-page cartoonist for The Times - keeping up with the relentless now, now, now of the present.

Here is Harold Macmillan sitting up in bed, rigid, looking like a startled puppet in desperate need of the absent puppeteer. Another drawing, of 1963, gently satirises that fierce, all-action queen of the ‘60s, the high-leather-booted Honor Blackman, sitting in front of a two-bar electric fire, wrapped in a shawl, reading a book called Acting for Late Starters, other books strewn carelessly about her feet – Yoga; How to Stay Young -  while her husband, partially concealed from view, catches up with the ironing. The satire gets a bit fiercer when he turns his guns on a moustachioed Billy Butlin, king of the seaside holiday camp business - except that Fantoni has drawn him as a Nazi camp commander, with rolls of barbed wire and watchtowers at his back. Could it really have been as bad as that for all those holiday makers during works’ weeks?

And just around another corner, there’s a scene from the fag end of the ‘60s, when everyone had grown weary of the cynicism of old Labour politics. Yes, it’s Harold Wilson himself, on a Private Eye front cover, craftily bibulous, with a ‘sod the lot of you’ look in his pouchy eye, and a glass of tonic wine raised up high to toast us for our infinite patience over a decade of scheming and procrastinating.

Which is the real Fantoni? Where is his heart in all of this? You may well ask. It’s quite difficult to say. The really fine work is not located in any particular decade. There’s a lovely and slightly sombrely watchful self portrait from quite early on, and some quite tenderly meticulous early landscapes of London scenes, almost as small as pages from Constable’s sketch books. And a pleasing nostalgia-soaked scene of Brockwell Park Lido in the summer, teeming with skinny – that dates it – frolicking bodies. But Fantoni always wants to be off and away. There’s always another mountain to climb, always another riff to be blown or another fine suit to stride out in.


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