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BETTER late than never comes to mind, somewhat unhappily, when looking and Frank Bowling’s first major retrospective at Tate Britain.
Now 85, Bowling — Guyanese by birth — moved, aged 19, to Britain in 1953 and studied at the Royal College of Art. David Hockney and RB Kitaj were there too.
Comparisons are useless as all wash of him like water off a duck’s back.
His abstract expressionism is impressionistic and sensitive, aspiring to capture fleeting sensations, moods and feelings. In that sense his canvasses are representational.
The palette, each time, exquisitely chosen, measured textures cohabit harmoniously with flat surfaces and delicate contrasts ably aid the drama in each composition.
Middle Passage, 1970, has been compared with Turner’s Slave Ship painted in 1840 to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society and inspired by a 1781 monstrous event when a captain of a slave ship ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard to collect the insurance.
Bowling’s horror and foreboding, however, are all-encompassing, global — the reds and yellows are hellish, harsh and suffocating — only a sliver of fading green defines some long-lost sanctuary — racism’s the cancerous threat that consumes humanity.
But in Bowling’s canvasses, much as in in life, tragedy coexists with light-heartedness — in his case a subtly tender one.
Ah Susan Whoosh, 1981, or Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit to & from Brighton, 2017, are as touching as they are sublime paintings. While Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989, shimmers with meditative tranquillity.
Catching fleeting moments of emotion just as dealing head-on with the terrifying legacy of slavery is what makes Bowling an utterly contemporary and powerfully relevant painter today.
Until August 26 2019: tate.org.uk
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