My Favourite Painting: Mike Leigh

The film director and writer chooses 'The Subway' by George Tooker, an artist who John McEwen describes as 'one of the most original and mysterious American painters of the 20th century'.

Mike Leigh on The Subway by George Tooker

‘I love this wonderful painting for both its craft and its meaning. Bleakly witty, yet expansively compassionate, Tooker captures the essence of the alienation of modern urban existence.

‘His characters are archetypal, yet individually characterised, and there’s somehow an underlying message about the fraught coexistence of women and men. And how beautifully Tooker uses his painstaking skills with egg tempera to achieve his evocative world, simultaneously dead real and strangely eerie.


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‘There’s a huge difference between this world and that of my films and plays, yet I do feel a particular rapport with Tooker. Perhaps it’s something to do with the way he choreographs his characters, or is it just his sense of humour and pathos?’

Mike Leigh is a writer and film director. His most recent film is Peterloo.


Mike Leigh


John McEwen on Tooker and The Subway

The New York artist George Tooker worked counter to artistic fashion for much of his career. He painted figurative pictures of commuters and offices that express feelings of anxiety and isolation peculiar to city life in the technologically driven modern world. Art fashion was for abstraction, from muscular Expressionism to bare Minimalism, and only loosened its doctrinaire hold as he entered old age.

In the 1980s, Tooker was rediscovered by a younger art-world generation, who lauded him as one of the most original and mysterious American painters of the 20th century.

Tooker was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Bellport, Long Island, where he studied painting as a boy with a local artist. He read English at Harvard, but continued to draw and paint and, after military discharge on medical grounds, he studied painting at the Art Students League in New York. There, he adopted the ancient and painstakingly slow medium of egg tempera, which suited his contemplative temperament and reduced his output to, at most, four paintings a year.

A trip to Italy in 1949 consolidated his use of the medium, when he saw the egg-tempera works of the Old Masters of the early Renaissance. Two of his favourites artists were the perspective pioneers Uccello and Piero della Francesca.

The Subway uses perspective to create an Existentialist nightmare. In the maze of dead ends, the several but solitary figures appear lost. The woman’s dress is a contrasting red, a colour that signals alarm.

Latterly, Tooker wintered in Spain with his partner, William Christopher. On the latter’s death in 1973, he converted to Catholicism. In 2007, Tooker received the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest award to an artist.


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