Bernard Cohen: Things Seen | Flowers

As a 19-year-old, Bernard Cohen produced a sad painting called The Wasteland. A blurry pattern of lines drip down the canvas like rain on a London bus window. It was painted in 1952, a drab, downbeat time for the city.

Later in that decade though, the British painter went to Paris, and was deeply inspired by his wanderings there. Particular inspiration came from the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle, and Monet’s Nymphéas, on show, then as now, at the Orangery of the Tuileries gardens. In Paris, unlike in London, it seemed like a brighter time of post-war renewal and hope. The art that came from that city in that period - on display recently in this show at Hanina Fine Arts - reflected the mood.

Bernard Cohen: Things Seen (installation view)

This new exhibition at Flowers celebrates Cohen’s 90th birthday, and lays bare the long-term artistic inspiration he gained from his Paris years. There’s a shared regularity, clarity and brightness in the six identically-sized canvases on show, all painted this decade. Generally, the works integrate an irregular pattern of jagged black lines, containing flat acrylic paint colour fields.

The show notes reveal that the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle, with its dark leaded borders neatly dividing the luminous windows, was the direct inspiration for many of the works - most obviously in the misleadingly-named Fox Heads - Seen in London, on the left of the image above.

Though irregular, the patterns aren’t purely chaotic. If Monet’s “web of colour” inspired these works in general (the words are Cohen’s, from the show notes), then the composition of Velazquez’s Las Meninas informed the structure of some in particular. Squint at Portrait of a Painting, to the right of the image above, and you’ll see it.

The works on show at Flowers share a bright optimism, the optimism of a young man in a foreign city, who’s left drab darkness behind, marvelling at what’s in front of him. “The 50’s, those post-war years, called for one to open one’s arms, take a deep breath and work to make a wide and deep space,” Cohen adds.

“In short, something that expressed the joy of moving beyond war.” Beyond wastelands, into a world of colour and light.

Bernard Cohen: Things Seen is at Flowers Gallery (London). 06 - 30 September 2023