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Keith Cunningham

Keith Cunningham

Australian painter, draughtsman and printmaker Keith Cunningham was one of the most compelling and enigmatic figurative painters of the twentieth century. With flurries of thickly applied brushwork in scorched or flesh-like tones, Cunningham isolates and disintegrates his subjects. From contemplative or contorted portraits to animals, lying lifeless or entangled in primal struggles, his unnerving works present extremes of experience, interrogating the boundaries between life and death, the animal and the human. After mysteriously retiring from exhibiting in 1967, Cunningham’s work was sealed in his studio until his death in 2014. The discovery of over five decades of unseen works has since led to a series of major exhibitions, shedding new light on the artist’s darkly expressive canvases.

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Daniel Culpan on Keith Cunningham

Daniel Culpan on Keith Cunningham

Artforum Logo · 01 Nov, 2022 @ 04:34

Stashed in a spare room until Cunningham’s death in 2014, the seventy-plus oils on canvas or board featured in “The Cloud of Witness” are dense with macabre moods and ever-lurking violence.With a background in graphic design (Cunningham left school at fifteen to work in the advertising department of premier Sydney retailer David Jones), the artist fled the sunniness of his homeland for the bleak landscapes of postwar London.

The Top 5 Exhibitions to see in London closing soon

The Top 5 Exhibitions to see in London closing soon

FAD Magazine · 26 Jun, 2022 @ 15:15

Tabish Khan the @LondonArtCritic picks his favourite exhibitions to see right now in London, all closing soon.

Spotlight: The Reclusive Australian Artist Keith Cunningham Produced Five Decades of Unseen Art. Now, It Is Beginning to Go on View

Spotlight: The Reclusive Australian Artist Keith Cunningham Produced Five Decades of Unseen Art. Now, It Is Beginning to Go on View

Artnet News · 10 Mar, 2022 @ 17:01

About the Artist: Australian artist Keith Cunningham might not be a familiar name but a new exhibition at London’s Newport Street Gallery is hoping to reinsert the artist into his rightful place in art history.

 

About the Artist

Australian painter, draughtsman and printmaker Keith Cunningham was one of the most compelling and enigmatic figurative painters of the twentieth century. With flurries of thickly applied brushwork in scorched or flesh-like tones, Cunningham isolates and disintegrates his subjects. From contemplative or contorted portraits to animals, lying lifeless or entangled in primal struggles, his unnerving works present extremes of experience, interrogating the boundaries between life and death, the animal and the human. After mysteriously retiring from exhibiting in 1967, Cunningham’s work was sealed in his studio until his death in 2014. The discovery of over five decades of unseen works has since led to a series of major exhibitions, shedding new light on the artist’s darkly expressive canvases.

Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1929, he left school at 15 to start work as a graphic designer. He moved to London in 1949, where he studied at the Central School of Design, now Central Saint Martins (1949–51). In 1950, he met fashion student Bobby Hillson, who became his wife, later playing an instrumental role in reviving interest in his work. Joining the Royal College of Art in 1952, Cunningham’s talent gained the attention of his fellow students’ and tutors’ attention, with painter and tutor John Minton remembering him as “one of the most gifted painters to have worked at the Royal College”.

Gaining access to Old Master paintings in Europe provided one of Cunningham’s central inspirations. Drawing on Old Master painting, he developed his shadowy portraits, and depictions of animals and birds, often dead, using powerful strokes of dark pigments. Awarded a travel grant after graduation, Cunningham travelled to Spain, which would also have a lasting influence on his work. Applied in thick layers, his paintwork often evokes parched land, baked beneath a Mediterranean sun. On his return to London, Cunningham had an instant impact on the art world. His work was accepted for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition and appeared in a group show at the Beaux Arts Gallery. His work was acquired by prominent collectors, including Hans and Elsbeth Juda, who sought to raise his international profile.

At the height of his success, Cunningham withdrew from the art world. Choosing never to exhibit again after 1967, he continued to visit his studio daily, storing his works in his studio. Meanwhile, he pursued a successful career as a graphic designer, and teaching the subject at London College of Printing. The reasons for this shift remain a mystery. As Hillson has said, “Nobody knows why. He never, ever said. But he carefully kept these paintings all his life.”

Following his death in 2014, he left behind 150 works in oil along with drawings and watercolours. Two years later, Hillson helped to curate an exhibition, Unseen Paintings 1954–60, at the Hoxton Gallery, helping to rebuild his profile. An exhibition at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in London followed in 2022, showing 70 works and exploring his role in the London art scene of the 1950s. The first publication dedicated to his paintings and drawings created between 1952 and 1966, Keith Cunningham: Paintings, was released by HENI in September 2023.

Since his rediscovery, Cunningham has emerged as one of the most distinctive figurative painters of this period. His brooding works offer a tantalising glimpse into the psyche of this enigmatic figure, his rich brushwork and existential themes continuing to resonate with new viewers.

Interested in Keith Cunningham?