ALMOST a decade ago, there was an exhibition at the Royal Academy here in London that hasn't been forgotten. It was called ``A New Spirit in Painting.'' It offered a rather excitable challenge to the dismal assertion that painting is - or was - ``dead.'' Now, at the Barbican Art Gallery (through July 8), there is another exhibition that aims to present the ``old spirit in painting,'' to use the words of selector Tim Wilcox. The title - ``The Pursuit of the Real: British Figurative Painting From Sickert to Bacon'' - suggests a display of rampant traditionalism or some sort of comforting return to the pre-modern world of Old Master art. But it's nothing as simple as that.
The 11 painters shown, all concerned in one way or another with realism and the figurative, cannot be described as revolutionary. A degree of conventionality, of awareness of tradition, is written into their procedures. On the other hand, they are not trying to escape into some dream-past, deliberately ignoring developments in 20th-century art.
One or two of them, who had better be nameless, are milky or flaccid, producing just the kind of tame, boring academic ``realism'' that modern artists have rightly deplored. But most have a rigor, a toughness, an intensity of vision achieved because they have chosen direct and difficult confrontation between paint-image and perception of the objective world and because they are acutely aware of the ways the modern world - and modern art - have radically challenged traditional assumptions.
If ``modernism'' has done anything, it has interrupted - if not broken down - the concept of Western art as a fairly straight and continuing evolutionary line from ancient Greece to today. The primitivism, abstraction, and Surrealism of this century are not merely a development out of the past. They have been - and still are - a conscious, questioning, disruptive attack on or transformation of past values in art.
In recent years the irony has been that modernism's subversiveness has, in some quarters, achieved the status of academic dogma. By this weird reversal, the artists whom Mr. Wilcox in his catalog essay describes as ``working away'' at ``traditional, figurative based painting'' throughout ``the heyday of the avant garde'' and ``against the grain of artistic and intellectual fashion'' might come to be seen as somehow revolutionary. But his description of these artists as shadowy and even ignored misfits seems a little wide of the mark.
Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, William Coldstream, Euan Uglow have all been given a wealth of recognition and admiration for years. Two of them, for heaven's sake, were knighted!
It's true that Coldstream - whose careful paintings of studio nudes often do look like teaching examples - was for a long time a kind of token ``figurative'' artist for the modernists. But he was genuinely respected and admired.
Wasn't the dominance of the avant garde actually more fiction than fact? The truth surely is that the art world, in Britain as elsewhere, has never been other than diverse.
Significantly, three of the painters in the show - Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Frank Auerbach - were also in the earlier, ``new spirit'' show.
Wilcox is not the first to suggest, however, that the emphasis modernism has laid on originality - on each and every artist having to invent his or her own rules, vision and language - has led to what he calls ``a loss of foundation of any sort.'' But perhaps a ``foundation,'' with its implication of academic ground-rules or stylistic conventions, is not what we should try to retrieve.
What strikes viewer of this show above all is that even if all 11 of the painters shown are ``figurative'' and ``British'', they are still astonishingly different from one another.
Freud's works, for example, seem the ultimate in the triumph of realism over idealism or observation over convention. The interdependence of picture on subject and of our awareness of subject through picture are hardly in dispute in such paintings.
Freud scrutinizes with a kind of brute, close-up relish the fleshy, imperfect physicality of his human subjects. But for all his unshrinking and intimate realism, he is a selective exaggerator, not concerned with prosaic facts but with a highly charged shock, a fiercely expressive exploration of vulnerability.
His ``realism'' is strange, not familiar. His tactility has to do not with flesh merely but with paint-as-flesh. His paint surfaces and textures become potent forces with their own independent, painterly vigor, however much they refer to an external subject. And his relaxed but tense, sleeping, staring, abstracted figures have all the haunted appearance of hallucination. The viewer is as much in a dream as they are.
Why does Freud generally paint people he knows well? If he was a dispassionate, objective painter, the less he knew his subjects the better.
Sickert's theatricality - watered-down Degas - was more of this kind, a kind of scumbled, surface thing of lights and shadows.
Uglow's meticulous, scrupulous, measured studies of posed nudes or posed fruit - an amalgam, one might imagine, of C'ezanne, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Piero della Francesca - belong to another order of ``realism,'' coolly objective, calculated. They're admirable, certainly in their intriguing pursuit of a development derived from C'ezanne that is an alternative to what the Cubists took from that master's work.
But Freud's realist art bursts out of any historical matrix. Its potency and immediacy are as subjective and inwardly felt as the most expressive works of early Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock. Freud's isn't a mere realism. It takes the physical world head on, but he himself has said, ``There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so.''
As always, what matters is not the painter's optical responses but his vision. ``Realism'' - for all the emphasis it places on exhaustive observation, on art measuring up to the ``outside'' world, on shared reference points in everyday experience - can be as much as matter of ``vision,'' of imagination and subjectivity, as ``abstraction.''
After closing at the Barbican July 8, ``The Pursuit of the Real'' will be on view in Glasgow from July 28 to Sept. 16.