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1957 John Bratby, Masculinity, and Cigarettes

Soon after he emerged on the British art scene in 1954 as a member of the so-called Kitchen Sink Painters—a name coined by David Sylvester to reflect their focus on domestic, ordinary subject matter—John Bratby submitted works for exhibition at the Royal Academy. These unsentimental, drab, but often defiantly contemporary paintings were initially controversial alongside the more traditional works submitted by Royal Academicians. The Artist Smoking With His Wife was one of several works Bratby exhibited in the Summer Exhibition of 1957 (Fig. 1). Bratby depicts himself smoking, an activity he also depicted the artist James Brady, a thinly veiled version of Bratby himself, doing in his first novel, Breakdown:

Cigarette smoking, he dimly thought, was not as good as it was cracked up to be. The smoke got into one’s eyes, behind one’s spectacles, and the cigarette burnt one’s mouth. Then he realised his cigarette was all used up, and that the stub was very very short, burning him. Unhappily he relieved himself of the cigarette, and lit another one, by holding the old to the new.1

As the novel continues—telling the story of Brady’s descent from his artistic success and family life to adultery, violence, madness, and eventually death—he smokes constantly, usually while he works. Smoking acts as a sign of artistic and personal agony.

Smoking occurs with similar frequency in Bratby’s own paintings. It is a central part of Self-Portrait in a Mirror, where he holds a cigarette between his lips as he looks and paints, as well as Three Self-Portraits with a White Wall, where he adjusts his pose and clothing in a series of portraits as he moves the mirror across the wall in front of him—in two, he smokes a cigarette. It may have been, in part, that the effects of cigarette smoke in front of his face presented an interesting and challenging subject to paint. In The Artist Smoking With His Wife, the smoke billows from his mouth in either direction and obscures part of his face.

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Smoking cigarettes also had a particular set of gendered connotations in the 1950s. Until the 1920s and 1930s, smoking had been considered a largely masculine pursuit. It was only at this moment that smoking became something socially acceptable for women and was marketed to them: it became sociable, stylish, fashionable, and feminine.2 In the 1950s, filtered cigarettes were developed and largely framed as healthier alternatives, in response to emerging concerns about the dangers of smoking. Again, they were initially aimed at women. In response, the Marlboro Man advertising campaign was developed by Marlboro cigarettes in America in 1954, before being rolled out internationally.3 By the 1960s, the Marlboro Man was, famously, a cowboy, but in the 1950s, he took the form of various manly figures. This American advert from 1955 focuses on a man who enjoys smoking Marlboro cigarettes while working on his car: “I’m a guy who likes to work on my car. I like to take it apart and put it back together”, he says, rather matter of factly in a monotone voice.4 Smoking in the 1950s had a freshly reinforced connection to rugged masculinity, which was specifically American in origin.

Contemporary representations of rugged masculinity in popular and artistic culture in the 1950s were never too far from a cigarette and were also closely connected to the growing influence of American culture. James Dean starred in Rebel Without A Cause in 1955 before dying in a car crash later that year (just two years before Bratby painted The Artist Smoking With His Wife) and publicity photographs famously focused on Dean smoking or holding a cigarette. Dean had come to embody the image of the rebellious, restless, and misunderstood middle-class teenager, while his early death had transfigured him into a lost Hollywood legend. While Bratby is too old to evoke Dean’s rebel here, he also seems aware of the detached cool that smoking could evoke, and would have seen the humour in aligning himself (fat and balding) with such a cultural figure. If you were interested in art in the 1950s, the cigarette would also have been synonymous with Jackson Pollock. Martha Holmes’ widely reproduced photographs of Pollock at work depicted him with a cigarette dangling from his mouth (Fig. 2), as did Time magazine in 1949; Pollock’s own works, like Full Fathom Five famously includes cigarette butts that dropped into the wet paint.5

The comparison with Pollock appears to have been something that Bratby reflected on. In Breakdown, James Brady paints an art student while thinking, anxiously, about an affair he is having with a woman called Esmerelda:

Brady sniffed and pulled at his cigarette; then he coughed to clear the irritation in his throat, sending showers of germs over his model who stood near him … As the art student model talked of Jackson Pollock painting with chicken wire in the desert and of Pollock’s death in a car accident, Brady thought about his affair with Esmerelda, an affair which he would gladly terminate if it was up to him to make the decision.6

Here, Pollock’s untimely death—in a car crash, just like Dean, where his mistress Ruth Kligman was injured and her friend Edith Metzger was also killed—is evoked as a means, unsettlingly, for Brady to imagine escaping the consequences and responsibilities of his infidelities.

There is an artist’s model present in the painting, of course—Jean Cooke, artist and Bratby’s wife. She stands nude behind him, her body picked out with thick smears of pink, white, yellow, and blue paint (Bratby always seems to paint her as if she is bruised and cold—Cooke’s own self-portraits wrestle back her own image and autonomy in response; she exhibited consistently at the Academy during this period too). Violence was a frequent aspect of their relationship (Bratby acknowledged this himself) and the potential for the archetype of masculinity to which Bratby seems to gesture in his portrait to erupt into violence—to meet a fiery end in a car crash, for example—seems present in the image. There are two red warning lamps included in this painting—they hang, strangely, from the ceiling, one behind Jean on the left and one alongside Bratby on the right. These were used on the roads in Britain up until the 1970s to warn drivers of hazards. Here, the protruding red lamps suggest an unsettling awareness on Bratby’s part—of self and of the male image.

  1. John Bratby, Breakdown (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1960), 24.↩︎

  2. See Richard W. Pollay, “Puffing, Propaganda, and the Public Interest”, Public Relations Review 16, no. 3 (1990): 39–54 and Anon, “Men, Women, and Gender in Cigarette Advertising”, Selling Smoke, online exhibition, Yale University Library↩︎

  3. Barry Vacker, “The Marlboro Man as Twentieth-Century David”, Advances in Consumer Research 19, no. 1 (1992): 753.↩︎

  4. See↩︎

  5. Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five, (1947).↩︎

  6. Bratby, Breakdown, 77.↩︎

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Explore the 1957 catalogue