Keith Vaughan

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Keith Vaughan
courtesy Agnew's
'Figure Group', 1956, by Keith Vaughan

Keith Vaughan's life was too much agony, not enough ecstasy. Dead from a drug-and-drink overdose in 1977 ('65 was long enough for me' he wrote, tallying up his years in a final, unfinished journal entry), he cuts such a tragic figure in British modernism that even a relatively uptempo selection of paintings and drawings like this carries a melancholic note.

On one level, his work is straightforward enough. Like many of his generation, after WWII Vaughan looked to Paris for inspiration, to Picasso and Braque. He caught what Wyndham Lewis derided as the 'French flu'. Critics at the time wondered if the resultant, blocky, quasi-abstract trend in British art was anything more than a misunderstanding of cubism, its radical vision reduced to a sort of decoration.

Looking at a painting like Vaughan's 'Village at Sunrise' (1948), you might agree. Yet there's something mistily, mystically resonant in much of the British artist's work that takes us on a path of romanticism back, via Graham Sutherland, to Samuel Palmer – particularly in the ink and wash 'Landscape with Sheep and Shepherd, Derbyshire' (1944).

The tussles between figuration and abstraction, tradition and innovation in Vaughan's work were heightened by the battles in his head. Despite the countless erotic drawings of men he made in private, the shadowy figures (derived from life studies but usually deprived of genitalia) which he huddled together on canvas after canvas seem like chaste evocations of human frailty, monuments to thwarted desire.

Several works here – a sinuous 'Group of Figures' from 1973 and the fevered overlays of 'Les Illuminations' made two years later – show that Vaughan was a more varied artist than he is sometimes considered. But it's the sad beauty of his work that endures. Anyone under his spell should make the trip to Chichester, where a centenary exhibition (Vaughan was born nearby in Selsey) is at Pallant House until June 10.

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