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National Symbol by Alfred Cohen National Symbol, 1988, charcoal, crayon and chalk, 24.5 x 29.in; 62.2 x 74.9 cm. Estate of the Artist

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Alfred Cohen: An American Artist in Europe

2020 marks the centenary of the birth of the American artist Alfred Cohen – Max Saunders tells us about how Cohen made it big in Britain

Published on March 2, 2020



The American artist Alfred Cohen (1920-2001) won a travelling fellowship from the Art Institute of Chicago to study abroad for a year. He headed for Europe, and stayed for the rest of his life, living in Paris for a decade, before moving to Britain in 1960. Though he lived here for over forty years, he retained his US citizenship, and ended up speaking with a mid-Atlantic accent that meant for Brits he was still an American, and to Americans he sounded like a Brit. That sense of being both inside and outside a culture was important to him, and can be seen in his art, which is on view at King’s College London’s Arcade gallery in Bush House on the Strand, London WC2B 4PJ, from March 16th to May 22nd.

Cohen was born in Chicago, where his father had a second-hand furniture shop. Both his parents were Latvian Jewish emigres. He had a talent for drawing as a child, and took evening classes at the Art Institute, thinking he might become a commercial illustrator. When the US entered World War Two he volunteered for the air force, serving as a navigator based on Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

After the war, Cohen enrolled as a full-time student at the Art Institute on the GI Bill. He set up a portrait studio with two fellow-students, painting a number of celebrities such as bandleaders and actors, including Basil Rathbone, and Anthony Quinn, who became a close friend. He was surrounded by the great Impressionist collection of the Art Institute’s Museum, and entranced by his European emigre teachers, who returned to Paris whenever they could. The School of Paris was still the dominant force in painting; though New York and Abstract Expressionism would soon rival it. The exhibition shows Cohen, throughout his career, navigating an original and paradoxical course between the figurative painting of the European modern masters such as Matisse, Bonnard, Rouault and Soutine on the one hand, and on the other, the drive towards abstraction followed by artists like Sam Francis (whom he knew, and whose Paris studio he leased) and Nicolas de Staël.

On graduation from the Art Institute Cohen won a travelling fellowship to study abroad for a year. It was inevitable he would head straight to Paris. He and his first wife, Virginia, sailed on the Queen Elizabeth in 1949. It was a rough crossing, passing through a hurricane. In those days the British ships would land briefly in France before going on to dock at Southampton. A work Alfred made in his last years, when he turned to witty constructions or ‘assemblages’, looked back at the moment when he looked out of the cabin porthole and saw the French tugboat coming to guide the liner into Cherbourg. It was his first sight of Europe.

Cohen enrolled at the famous art school of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where the likes of Van Gogh, Soutine, and Modigliani had painted. Al Held was one of the other Americans studying there at the time. When his fellowship ended, his first wife took a job with the US government in Germany, and they lived in Heidelberg. Cohen’s first solo exhibition opened there in 1953, hosted by the United States Information Service, and toured nine German cities. As soon as she could get a transfer, they returned to Paris, where Cohen lived for the rest of the decade.

Hemingway was the role model for many of the American expats living in Paris then, and Alfred went with a group of them to make a pilgrimage to Pamplona. They hadn’t expected to see the master there, but Alfred spotted him at a café, and was taken over to be introduced by the journalist friend he was travelling with. When they said they were surprised to see him – he was still persona non-grata for his Republican stand during the Spanish Civil War, and his portrayal of it in For Whom the Bell Tolls – he answered, in perfect Hemingwayese: ‘We took a chance’.

Cohen lived what seems now a glamorous life in Paris: a studio on the Left Bank, meeting artists like Braque and writers like James Jones and James Baldwin, film stars like Orson Welles and Zero Mostel. He was given a Bugatti type 37 in exchange for painting a mural; toured the South of France; visited Quinn in Rome. He had his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1958, and got positive reviews.

But he also began to show in London at the same time, and had two successful exhibitions here. When he and Virginia separated in 1960, Cohen decided to start a new life in London.

His first sight of the capital in 1949 had been rather dismal. ‘This city is immense, grim and fascinating’, Alfred wrote to his in-laws: ‘The bomb damage is terrible, on every block are bombed out areas, business districts as well as residential areas. These people are suffering, things are mighty tough here’, though he was impressed by how people were ‘trying to get back on their feet’. ‘Altho this is a socialistic country’, he wrote (Attlee’s Labour government, elected with a landslide in 1945, was still in power), ‘the ruling class is still in evidence’; and gave a comic description of the ‘young men known as “Guards”’ frequenting Mayfair pubs, ‘complete with simpy faces, large mustaches, “school ties” and umbrellas. I thought this type existed only in the movies, but there they were’. He had loved cinema since childhood, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hollywood actors.

Returning in 1960, he found a studio in Chelsea near the river: ‘one morning I walked out and saw the light on the river and the houseboats and I knew that’s what I had to paint’, he said. He didn’t want to paint the familiar views across the river bank. ‘So I wheedled a pass from the port authorities and rambled round the docks where I managed to hitch lifts on the tugs which plied between Gravesend and Hammersmith. The crews were marvellous.’ They seemed to share his excitement at getting their world down on paper. The river and its docks had been the heart of London’s trade for centuries. But it was a world that was soon to vanish, as larger container ships took over and needed more accessible ports.

Cohen also got permission to climb to the very top of tall buildings like Tower Bridge, or new skyscrapers then being constructed such as Millbank Tower. One journalist described him as ‘The Spiderman Painter’, and photographed him sketching St Paul’s from the scaffolding.

"The roof of London was a natural place for me after four years as an aerial navigator. I felt like a bird, soaring over the surface of the river, dipping down when I wanted to. And what was also important to me was that I was the first to see it that way. The paintings were impressionistic – watery, Turneresque, suffused with light."

Conveying the effects of light and water would remain important in his art. But critics reviewing his 1961 show Aspects of the Thames saw that Impressionism was only part of the story of these commanding paintings. Anita Brookner described Cohen’s work as ‘abstract impressionism’. And the astute art critic for the Tatler pinpointed exactly how the pictures combined representation and abstraction: ‘Look . . . at almost any few square inches of a Cohen canvas and you have a little gem of abstract painting’.

Sunset from Blackfriars Bridge Sunset from Blackfriars Bridge , 1961, oil on board, 24 x 36 in; 61 x 91.4 cm. Private Collection

His exhibition called Aspects of the Thames, in London’s smart St James, marked the beginning of his most successful decade. Through Quinn, Alfred had met many of the film people then in London, some of them American exiles from McCarthyism. Pictures were bought by actors, directors and producers such as Sam Wanamaker, Stanley Baker, Carl Foreman, and Anthony Mann. It was the beginning of the ‘swinging '60s’, and London was an exciting city to be in.

In 1962 Cohen was taken on by the Brook Street Gallery, which specialised in modernist work by artists such as Picasso, Moore, Klee, Sonia Delaunay, Derain, Calder, Arp, Eileen Agar, and Victor Vasarely. For his first solo exhibition there in 1963, Cohen chose the theme of the Commedia dell’Arte – the Italian theatrical tradition including figures such as Harlequin and Punch. In the best-known paintings on this theme – by Tiepolo or Watteau, say – the figures tend to be presented as light-hearted, in a carnivaleque or bucolic spirit. Picasso’s are contemplative, sometimes melancholy, but calm. Cohen explores darker themes of anger, desire, deceit, and betrayal, as well as expressions of joy and vitality, all treated with an existential rawness and depth.

The Entrance of Columbine The Entrance of Columbine, 1963, oil on board, 22 x 30 in; 55.9 x 76.2 cm. Private Collection

This exhibition too sold out, and appealed to theatre people. The actor James Mason saw a Punch figure in the window, and went straight in to buy it. The gallery told Alfred to hurry and bring in more paintings. The Daily Telegraph called Cohen’s technical achievement ‘formidable’, and declared him ‘one of the best draughtsmen at work today’, adding that ‘Only Picasso in one or two early works has in our time touched such depths through the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte’.

A lot of artists meeting with this kind of success and acclaim would have continued to plough the same furrow. But Cohen kept transforming his style and technique before the work became formulaic. In 1961 he had met my mother, Diana Saunders, and in 1963 they decided to move to the countryside of Kent, ‘the Garden of England’, but still within easy reach of the capital. Alfred never forgot how, while they were packing up their things for the move, they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination over the radio. Alfred was a child of the Depression and the New Deal. His political heroes were Roosevelt and Kennedy – the fact that Kennedy had been stationed near him in the Pacific gave Alfred a sense of a connection.

Most of his life had been urban up to this point. Now it became rural. And he was surprised to find the Kent landscape a fascinating challenge: ‘It was Kent that engaged my feelings more fiercely than any other place I can remember’, he told the writer Philip Oakes. He started painting the landscape at once, and realized he would need to transform his technique once again:

"What hit me was an incredible feeling of privacy. Driving along a country road I felt the hedges crowding in on me. The leaves were so thick that they were like a wall. We passed a hedge-cutter and he glared at us as if we’d interrupted some ritual. Then he stepped down into the ditch and disappeared as though he’d been absorbed by the landscape. Everything was so impenetrably, all-over green that I could think of no way of getting into it as a painter. The way I’d been working simply wouldn’t do."

From the mid-1960s Cohen’s paintings became more heavily worked, with increased impasto; many of the effects achieved by working the paint with a palette knife. As Oakes explained: ‘He evolved a new style, using paint like a sculptor, laying down slabs of colour, carving it with his brush so that the fields and hedges and houses seemed to be hewn from the canvas’.

He returned to the ports and coastlines of the English Channel, now seen from both sides, and rendered in this new style.

Coastal Picture Coastal Picture, 1966, oil on board, 8 x 10 in; 20.3 x 25.4 cm. Private Collection

In the late 1960s Cohen moved to the prestigious Cork Street gallery Roland Browse and Delbanco, which put on exhibitions of artists such as Rodin, Sickert and Matthew Smith. Critics continued to admire his marine pictures of this period. Apollo magazine noted:

"Many subjects have engaged the expressionist fervour of Alfred Cohen; in these recent paintings, the boats and houses of the coastlines of France predominate. He reacts with a fierce passion to direct experience that is organized into a formal structure ... His emotional power and exuberantly vigorous response infuses his paintings with an intensity that makes much contemporary expressionism look feeble."

But the art world had changed dramatically. Pop and conceptualism had taken over, and figurative painting was side-lined. Cohen continued to paint and draw, and to keep refreshing his style, for the rest of his life. He continued to show in London and in other British venues. He sold abroad too in these years – in California, France, Japan, South Africa. He was less in the public eye, but didn’t let that deter him from his vocation to paint.

In 1978 he and Diana moved further from the metropolis. They felt Kent was becoming too developed, and bought the old School House in the remote Norfolk village of Wighton, near Wells-next-the Sea. East Anglia had always appealed to artists. Its flatness makes the views and skies vast. The light is intense and changes dramatically. The coasts and sunsets are spectacular. It was only after they’d moved into it that the Cohens discovered that another artist had lived in the School House years before – the sculptor Henry Moore, whose sister had taken the job of village headmistress while Moore was studying at the Royal College of Art. The Cohens even dug up an old block of marble, discarded by Moore when it broke his chisel. The School House made an ideal studio, and in the 1980s Diana opened the School House Gallery there, which she still runs, showing striking but affordable modern art by both local and international names, and also selling some of Alfred’s work.

Alfred was fascinated by the World War Two history of Norfolk, which had been full of American air bases, especially for the ‘Mighty Eighth’ air force. It was in this period he produced a brooding charcoal drawing of a bald eagle titled ‘National Symbol’ (see image at top of page).

After cosmopolitan London, and Kent with Europe just across the Channel, Norfolk must have made Alfred feel his Americanness more keenly. Many of the older villagers rarely left the county. And socially it still had a feudal air: much of the land still owned by a few families with vast estates, like beautiful Palladian Holkham Hall nearby, with its deer park, and enormous windswept beach.

But one of the advantages of remaining American was that British class boundaries didn’t apply to Alfred. Through the Gallery the Cohens were befriended by the county families. Lady Joan Zuckerman, who also painted, became an especially close friend. Her husband, Solly, had been Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, and they were close to the Royal Family. Diana gave Lady Zuckerman an exhibition, and one day the phone rang and they were told to expect a royal visit the following day. A fleet of black Range Rovers surged down the village street, perplexing the neighbours, and in came the Queen Mother and her entire house party. Alfred had been scornful of the Royal Family as being only interested in horse racing, not modern art. But he was charmed by the Queen Mother, who was accompanied by a painter, the historian John Julius Norwich, and a very cultured group, and was full of stories about visiting Henry Moore and what she’d seen there. When a Chicago Jew went to live in what had seemed the middle of nowhere it was the last thing he’d have imagined happening to him.

The Life Boat Cafe The Life Boat Café 1988, oil on paper mounted to hardboard, 22 x 26 in; 55.9 x 66 cm. Estate of the Artist

In a sense, ‘national symbols’ were always on his mind. His paintings of ports and coasts and ships abound with flags. They are never just picturesque scenes, but reflect on borders, crossings, departures, arrivals. Remember that porthole. As with Jasper Johns, his flags and other national symbols are ironic comments on nationalism rather than nationalist. He would certainly have abhorred the Little England mentality of the Brexit fundamentalists. Yet he also found a poetry in those pockets of England – and the Norfolk coast is certainly one of them – where the last remnants of an older England can still be glimpsed, hanging on precariously. You see this particularly in a series of paintings and prints he made of old-fashioned shop fronts in his last decade, at once nostalgic and wry:

The London exhibition is one of four different displays put on to mark Cohen’s centenary in 2020. They are:

16 March to 22 May - Arcade at Bush House, South Wing, King’s College London, Strand WC2B 4PJ
9 May to 31 December - The School House Gallery, Wighton, near Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk NR23 1AL
20 June to 10 January - Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Castle Hill, Norwich, NR1 3JU
12 October to 31 December - Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norfolk Road, Norwich NR4 7TJ

For further details see: www.kcl.ac.uk/events/alfredcohen

Max Saunders is the author of Imagined Futures (OUP 2019) and the biographer of Ford Madox Ford. He was Director of the Arts & Humanities Research Institute at King’s College London till 2018, and in 2019 became Interdisciplinary Professor of Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham.

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