The paintings of DH Lawrence

DH Lawrence's paintings contain all the raw sexuality promised by his writings, and their nudity duly threw the establishment into turmoil, says Jonathan Jones

It's hard to imagine that David Herbert Lawrence will ever again be read with the passion and recognition that people evidently felt 40 years ago, when his cultural war was still not won. That war was against a Britain dead, he argued, from the neck down, a culture that denied the life force, that was revolted by the very existence of the body.

A dire puritan legacy, going back to the Elizabethans, still poisoned the 20th century in perverse forms, such as Bloomsbury intellectualism, which Lawrence thought was as cold and unconnected to the dirty flow of existence as the Midlands industrialist forcing thousands of workers to live in ugly, hope-murdering slums.

The frigid citadel came crashing down in 1960, when Penguin Books was prosecuted at the Old Bailey for publishing the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover; Lawrence became a 1960s icon, even though he had died in 1930. He's always going to be famous. But read?

When we read Lawrence today, we can't help skipping bits, then skipping more and more. Where are the dirty bits in Lady Chatterley's Lover? All you find is mildly lubricious preaching. Lawrence can't evoke sex - all he can do is declaim what a great thing sex is. And to us, reading him now, this makes him a historical figure. We read James Joyce's Ulysses and Leopold Bloom is our contemporary. We read Lawrence's Women in Love and wonder what the hell these people were so steamed up about.

The war is over; sex won. Lawrence was in the advance guard, but like many an old soldier he has been pensioned off, with a chest full of medals in the shape of an academic curiosity that will doubtless endure.

Sex is far too big nowadays to require his services. Sex doesn't need any defenders, least of all one who preached that "the phallus is a great sacred image: it represents a deep, deep life in us that has been denied, and still is denied".

The publication of a book of DH Lawrence's paintings is unlikely to restore him to life. He never claimed to be a technically skilful artist, and he was right to be modest.

Many of Lawrence's paintings are hilarious - awful and a bit weird. His attempts to draw the human body make you think of Jim Shaw's collection of paintings bought in American thrift stores, or the bad bodies that populate John Currin's deliberately kitsch daubs.

I would like to add "but they have something", but that would be exaggerating the case. What actually "has something" is Lawrence's art criticism, especially his essay called "Introduction to These Paintings", included in the original Mandrake publication of reproductions of his paintings in 1929 and reprinted in the new book.

And yet Lawrence's paintings, and what happened to them, demonstrate more clearly than anything else why he will always be a central figure in the cultural history of the modern world.

As a writer, Lawrence followed the principle advocated by Saul Bellow's Augie March that "everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining".

He doesn't seem to edit himself, believing that every word is sacred. It leads to some fantastic wild swells of intellectual energy - the style reflects the ideas perfectly in being "natural", just thrown on the page apparently unrevised. It is him, it expresses him - but that doesn't stop it tasting sometimes of soupe des longueurs.

There is, none the less, a thorny grandeur about Lawrence the writer. But the painter? There was something logical, even inevitable, about his deciding, late in his short life, to add visual art to the ways in which he campaigned for a fuller, more reverent sense of bodily existence. Lawrence is a writer who expounds a vision. And a vision implies the visual. From William Blake to Alasdair Gray, writers who have a burning image in their minds have sought to share it, in not just words, but pictures.

Blake was Lawrence's model as an artist-writer. He made copies of Blake's works and called him "the exception" in Britain's depressingly bereft art history, "the only painter of imaginative pictures, apart from landscape, that England has produced".

Lawrence might have been a modern Blake - if he had been able to draw. He had always dabbled in art but it was in the late 1920s, as he tried to get Lady Chatterley's Lover published, that he started to make paintings with an argument.

He painted erotic visions with a reverence for the naked heroic body and extensive quotations of the physically explicit art of Renaissance Italy. Renaissance themes in his Boccaccio Story and Leda and the Swan unfortunately don't mean a Renaissance confidence in depicting bodies. Arms and legs taper bizarrely, heads are tiny, torsos warp in odd ways; everyone looks slightly deformed - the women more than the men.

Lawrence is a lot happier painting men nude than women. The most successful pictures are of men - and of the cock, which Lawrence believed must be recognised as the sacred thing it is. The Boccaccio scene revolves, with an Uccello bounciness, around a peasant's member.

Best of all is Dandelions, a painting of a naked man pissing. This is really quite good. In other pictures, men have huge buttocks, while women are undefined. It reminds you once again that the most memorable erotic moment in Lawrence's fiction is when the men wrestle in Women in Love.

Lawrence's paintings have always been famous - not for themselves, but for their fate. On June 15 1929, an exhibition of the expatriate author's art opened at the Warren Gallery in London. It was an immediate, crowd-drawing scandal, with the British press doing its job of revulsion perfectly; "frankly disgusting" (The Observer), "gross and obscene" (The Daily Telegraph). Twelve thousand visitors were counted before the police acted, seizing 13 paintings, including Boccaccio Story, Fight With an Amazon, Leda and the Swan and Under the Mango Tree.

What's fascinating is Lawrence's reaction. Although he had consciously set out to shock prissy "castrated" minds, he reacted to the seizure of his paintings with distress rather than glee. He did not, as some of his supporters (who included Jacob Epstein, Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf, the entire intellectual establishment he so despised) expected, make a fight of it.

The gallery wanted to make this the cultural battle that would instead come in 1960 over Lady Chatterley's Lover. But if the case were lost, his paintings - held, surreally, in a cell - would be burnt.

Lawrence couldn't bear this. He loved the pictures. They were part of him. A deal was struck; his paintings were returned to him on condition that they never again be shown in Britain. Today they are in collections in New Mexico and Texas.

Lawrence's refusal of martyrdom is a revelation of how distant a cultural figure he now is. The cultural theatre of outrage is so much part of our time that it's hard to conceive of a man who so rigorously said what he meant and meant what he said, who never dreamed that symbolic violence might make good publicity. So why did he show the paintings at all?

In his essay, "Introduction to these Paintings", Lawrence enunciates one of his most precisely damning outlines of British culture. It is all the more powerful for beginning with an accurate observation: that "the English produce so few painters".

Lawrence, for once, is not being original - no one would argue with him when he points out that Britain simply does not have a tradition of visual art to compare with France or Italy, or for that matter Germany (where's our Cranach?). But why?

"The fault," argues Lawrence, "lies in the English attitude to life. The English, and the Americans following them, are paralysed by fear.

"That is what thwarts and distorts the Anglo-Saxon existence, this paralysis of fear... It is an old fear, which seemed to dig into the English soul at the time of the Renaissance. Nothing could be more lovely and fearless than Chaucer. But already Shakespeare is morbid with fear, fear of consequences."

Most of all, the consequences of sex. Lawrence argues that Hamlet is crippled by sexual dread of Ophelia, that a panic over syphilis fed the terrors of English Puritanism, and that this legacy has benighted English art: "Vision became more optical, less intuitive... look at England! Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, they are all already bourgeois. The coat is really more important than the man. It is amazing how important clothes suddenly become, how they cover the subject..."

Cunningly, he twists his argument to take in not just Britain's comparative lack of Old Masters but the attenuated, coldly intellectual, timidly unsensual way in which the British took up modernism - exemplified by the Bloomsbury set. Lawrence's essay develops into a critique of the Bloomsbury critic Roger Fry's book Cézanne: A Study of Development, in which Cézanne is praised as an artist of "significant form".

Lawrence on Cézanne is good reading - he sees the tensions in Cézanne between bourgeois 19th-century convention and an insatiable, frustrated desire to grasp fully the physical world. Cézanne's apples are, Lawrence argues, the first true physical objects in modern painting.

Lawrence exhibited his own paintings, it seems, to prove something rather than change it. When the British establishment reacted as he surely wished, he had final proof that he was right - that the British disgust for the physical was so extreme that a painting with a penis in it would shake society to its foundations.

He was correct about British art at least. His denunciation of the bodiless, sexless version of modernism touted by the likes of Roger Fry could not be more bang on. And it has to be true, as he claimed, that the peculiarities of British art - strong on landscape but absolutely lacking, in its entire history, a single artist of the human body to compare to Picasso, or Michelangelo, or Degas - must say something about the nation's emotional history.

He was more of his (European) moment than he knew, as an artist and especially as an art critic. In the 1920s, French and Spanish artists fixated on the body, mocking the good taste with which critics such as Fry, and their French equivalents, had veiled modern art.

Instead of pure abstraction, surrealists indulged in fetishism, copro-philia, whatever else they could find in the Marquis de Sade. This went along with a deliberate celebration of the kitsch in painting - most provocatively in Picabia's pornographic paintings.

The kitsch aspects of Lawrence's pictures may be deliberate too. As well as Cézanne, he admired Renoir. Perhaps some of the awkwardness of Lawrence's art - his smoothed puffed colours - is not accidental but deliberate; Renoiresque kitsch, adding to the confessional honesty. Lawrence was the priest of love, but perhaps it is in his paintings, intentionally or otherwise, that he comes closest to straightforward profanity. Here, at last, are the dirty bits.

· DH Lawrence's Paintings by Keith Sagar is published on November 28 by Chaucer Press, priced £25.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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