European Colours: Peter de Francia at Edinburgh’s Fine Art Society

Peter de Francia, 'Two figures and a vespa', 1976, oil on canvas
Peter de Francia, 'Two figures and a Vespa', 1976, oil on canvas

Peter De Francia (1921 – 2012)

Mon - Fri 10:00 - 18:00, Sat 11:00 - 14:00 (London Mon - Fri 10:00 - 17:00)

From: 4 Mar 2022

To: 2 Apr 2022

The Fine Art Society
6 Dundas Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians, Other

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An influential artist, writer and teacher, Peter De Francia was the son of an Italian father and English mother, born near Nice, grew up in Paris, studying in Brussels and then the Slade School of Art, London. He was an intellectual and profoundly European, ‘cosmopolitan by conviction’. 

In his early years, he focused on drawings of Italian subjects, such as working-class figures and everyday scenes. Having viewed Picasso’s Guernica, as a boy in 1937, and then witnessing the German invasion of Belgium, he would later depict the horror of war and plight of migrants in graphic artwork. Influenced by Hogarth, Léger, Beckmann and Grosz, he used metaphor and myth, satire and caricature to convey socialist political themes. 

This exhibition of about twenty paintings spanning 1950s to 80s, represents a superb collection of portraits and figurative studies to observe ‘la condition humaine’ through social and personal relationships. 

Peter de Francia, 'Portrait of a boy', oil on canvas
‘Portrait of a boy’, oil on canvas

To illustrate his distinctive, sensual style, Portrait of a Boy is a moment of quiet contemplation for this charismatic, fashionable young man. Such a delicate use of sunlight and shadow cast over the face to focus on the slightly perplexed, soulful look in his dark eyes.  

Peter de Francia, 'Courting couple on bicycles', oil on canvas
‘Courting couple on bicycles’, oil on canvas

Dr Francia spent the summer at his country retreat in Provence and this is the setting of many evocative rural scenes. With its structured block of intertwined, elongated, muscular limbs, Courting couple on bicycles is an extraordinary close up of these guys as they stop for a rest on a bike ride. Expressing a look of surprise as if caught unawares, this painting is akin to a quick snapshot of this intimate encounter through the zoom lens of a camera. 

Peter de Francia, 'Two figures and a vespa', 1976, oil on canvas
‘Two figures and a Vespa’, 1976, oil on canvas

First produced in 1946, the Vespa scooter is a timeless icon which brought mobility and freedom to young people as the essence of cool, Italian leisurely lifestyle. Relaxing in the sunshine are Two figures and a Vespa (1976), which colourfully illustrates the heat of the day – the man lying on the grass shields his eyes from the glare and the girl seems to be tanning herself in a bikini. The blank featureless faces emphasise their physicality, gestures and atmospheric stillness with a realistic, playful narrative to the scene. 

The artistic study of the bather strips away the concept of the classic nude to view the naked female body in a domestic setting. Protecting her modesty, The Valpinçon Bather by Ingres depicts the curved back view of a woman washing herself, echoed in a similar image by Mary Cassatt, La Toilette. Degas specialised in voyeuristic glimpses of women standing, crouching, lying in a bathtub, alone and self-absorbed as if spied ‘through a keyhole’.  

Peter de Francia, 'Women washing, 1976', oil on canvas
‘Women washing, 1976’, oil on canvas

Likewise, this is a recurring subject here to observe the closed world of the bathroom in Women Washing, 1976, both seated as one washes her armpits, the other drying her hair. Their naked bodies, breast, stomach and shoulder, are deconstructed in a bold linear pattern, with splashes of blue, green and yellow to contrast with the soft skin tone. The detail is marvellous, from the tilted angle of a head and pink-painted toe nails. 

Peter de Francia, 'Two women', 1960s, oil on canvas
Peter de Francia, ‘Two women’, 1960s, oil on canvas

The shared intimacy of a close friendship is also expressed in what could be a private têteàtête between Two women (1960s), not in voyeuristic manner but to illustrate their natural sense of freedom and femininity.

‘Remember that a picture, before being a warhorse, a female nude or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’. Maurice Denis

Peter de Francia, 'Tunisian boy, bird seller', oil on canvas
‘Tunisian boy, bird seller’, oil on canvas

Just like Manet observed daily life in French bars and cafes, and Millet’s pastoral farm scenes, he was fascinated in portraying the experience of work, such as Tunisian boy, Bird Seller. Dressed in just a grubby vest and shorts, the young lad looks compassionately at the caged bird, perhaps wanting to set it free but needs to earn a dinar.   

Peter de Francia, 'Village couple II (with dove)', c.1982, oil on canvas
‘Village couple II (with dove)’, c.1982, oil on canvas

Village Couple II (with dove) is a slice of dramatic theatre on the canvas, as they sit, staring into space with sombre, melancholic expressions. The woman holds a dove in her hands, Picasso’s Paloma symbol of peace, said to soothe worried thoughts and find renewal in the silence of the mind. But farcical humour too, as a child tumbles over on the floor, happily playing with a lively cat.  

In these figurative studies, De Francia created his own expressive aesthetic style through abstraction and distortion with a precise pattern of line, space, colour and contour in harmonious balance. This inspirational showcase illustrates his imaginative vision as an artistic storyteller observing with such poignant simplicity, all the emotional feelings of joy and sadness, love and friendship of the human spirit.

This show, at the Fine Art Society, Edinburgh is complemented by a second exhibition at the Fine Art Society, 25 Carnaby Street, London.

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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