Wednesday, June 20, 2012

As this is the centenary of Vaughan’s birth, a number of exhibitions have celebrated his creative, and hitherto neglected, artistic genius. I recently visited a wonderful exhibition of the Selsey-born artist’s work at the Pallant House Gallery, just before it ended. But, fear not, there is more to come! The Osborne Samuel Gallery in London is also holding a centenary exhibition in November 2012, to coincide with the publication of a new monograph (

One of my favourite pieces is Neapolitan Bathers (1951). It is thematically representative of Vaughan’s work, as it depicts, like many of his paintings, male nudes against a landscape (He believed that most artists have one idea, and ‘mine is the human figure’). In this painting, two men are together, yet separated, one crouched over, the other moving away yet at the same time extending his hand as a gesture that invites. It is a work that, like much of Vaughan’s art, transcends homoeroticism and instead speaks of the human condition itself – of connecting and not connecting, of man’s vulnerability and fragility, and ultimately of tenderness.

Vaughan’s later nude images tend to be faceless, even headless. But, and herein lies a tension within his art, the depictions veer towards the abstract, yet the images are anything but formless. Instead, they are clearly human and male, yet at the same time anonymous and without identity.

The Assemblies series, of which there are nine, often depict crowds, individuals huddled together, yet a sense of togetherness, of connection does not seem to exist.

There is something profoundly sad and melancholic about much of Vaughan’s work. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that creates that feeling. What you see has an impact that extends beyond the image itself. The Singer (1947), for example, presents a young boy who, rather than singing seems to be silently screaming, is particularly haunting. I am also aware, having read Vaughan’s journals, that he himself felt like one of life’s spectators rather than participants. We cannot know, or should not even speculate, on Vaughan’s thoughts as he painted what we now see, but for me a sense of aloneness, and of sadness, lingers.