Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Maxwell Doig at Messum's St James's, Mayfair, London

It’s always interesting to watch the way an artist develops and grows. And it’s especially interesting seeing one who was once so preoccupied with the human form that as a student he studied human anatomy move away from painting figures to painting buildings instead. True, his central concern with the figure had always been the architecture of its form, with all its various positions and angles, rather than with the individual personality of the model (he was certainly never a portraitist). Yet in a way Maxwell Doig is still painting figures: in his attention to their character and individual detail, his buildings and boats and abandoned objects seem almost like individuals, in the same way Paul Nash once described trees as being like people to him, each with their own particular personality.

Maxwell Doig, Moorland Gable End (acrylic on canvas, 660 x 860 mm) 

            Perhaps, then, painting people was Doig’s route to now painting the buildings he records in his distinctive, inimitable manner. Certainly he himself feels that he has brought the awareness of balance and poise gained from his early anatomical studies whilst a post-graduate student at the Slade School of Art into these new works that have preoccupied him for the last six years. Indeed, as good as his paintings of people were, in buildings he has perhaps found his true subject. As he acknowledges, he has always had a fascination with them, and he is only surprised that he didn’t start painting them sooner. It wasn’t until he was approaching his fifties that he first saw them as an appropriate subject for his art. With the growing feeling that he had taken the figure as far as he could, he was gradually losing interest in painting people. It was then that he was struck by the idea of painting buildings instead. 

            He had always been interested in the shape of a suddenly glimpsed gable end, or the decayed surface and texture of the derelict factories that surrounded him in the town where he grew up and still lives – Huddersfield, in West Yorkshire. The turning point came in 2014, however, with a derelict house not far from home that particularly interested him. ‘The building itself I had always liked and photographed for years,’ he remarks. ‘The transition moment happened in the studio, when I realised I could use the surfaces and textures I normally used in the background for figures, as the central subject.’ This building became the large painting Gable End– the first of a series of studies of one side of this house viewed at different times of day and in subtly different lights. ‘It was,’ he acknowledges, ‘a turning point for me.’ And it all came so easily. When he started painting buildings he found it all perfectly natural – like he had always been doing it. So much so that it surprised him that he hadn’t started doing it much earlier.

            They were and still are often the sort of places passersby simply overlook. One of the wonders of this part of Yorkshire is the sudden transition from urban to rural: the industrial revolution kicked off around here partly because of the easy access to water power, and large buildings can be stumbled upon in unexpected locations. ‘They’re so big many people just seem to overlook them,’ Doig remarks of the old mills that dot the landscape. ‘With the exception of Peter Brook in the 1950s and ‘60s, nobody paints them.’ One that features strongly in this exhibition is Lord’s Mill, a Grade II listed building in the village of Honley, not fat from Huddersfield. Built in the early 1790s and subsequently expanded, it was in use until at least the 1950s, when its roof was destroyed by fire. It is now abandoned – boarded up and graffitied. ‘It’s like I’m the only person who’s really looked at it,’ he observes. ‘It’s nearly as old as America – it’s amazing! But it just goes unnoticed – the location’s fantastic, in a wooded valley, really romantic. It’s like a Bruegel, or one of those early painters from Ghent – valley, wood, river, rolling hillsides.’ 

            Certainly when seen like this they are the Modern Romantic’s equivalent of Tintern Abbey, the Welsh monastic ruins captured so famously by J.M.W. Turner in the 1790s, just when buildings like Lord’s Mill were going up (built, like Tintern, on the wealth generated by wool). And when seen up close there’s plenty there too to attract the attention of the discerning artist: old roof lines, patches of plaster, mould and decay, the sandstone of the region carrying its age interestingly, telling the stories of these places, their history, the records of past industry and past lives. These stones certainly speak. 

Maxwell Doig, Lord's Mill with Fence in Snow (acrylic on canvas, 1020 x 750 mm)

            Doig makes a great deal of the sudden juxtaposition – so frequent in this part of Yorkshire – between the urban and the rural. Seeing his work as ‘essentially romantic’, he does not look at these buildings or the detritus of heavy industry as an intrusion upon the landscape, but rather as partners and compliments to it. The Colne Valley was another of West Yorkshire’s centre of industrial activity. But as Doig remarks of the scrapheap he discovered there that is also the subject of a number of paintings and prints in this show, ‘it fits really nicely with the landscape – big chunks of heavy machinery, the abstract, geometric shapes.’ The same is true of the boats he saw on the Isles of Arran and Mull during a trip to Western Scotland in 2019: they fit neatly in to their similarly rugged landscape, one that has been the place of human habitation and activity for centuries. They are like the past life of the mills and the scrapheaps after snow – a jigsaw of pattern that reflects poignantly on former glories.

            His feeling that he was doing something worthwhile in this new direction was confirmed a few years ago when Doig discovered what he calls ‘the subtle, quiet’ work of the English painter Algernon Newton (1880–1968). To my mind, Newton was one of the finest RA’s of the twentieth century, his oddly brooding and slightly surreal paintings of urban canals, suburban houses and bare English countryside not having quite the attention they deserve – though he is highly collectable. ‘There's a particular stillness and quality of light which resonates with me in both his landscapes and architectural works,’ Doig explains.

Maxwell Doing, Pennine Hillside with Church Spire (monoprint, 380 x 290 mm))

            One noticeable development in Doig’s work since his previous exhibition at Messum’s in 2018 is his widening viewpoint. These recent paintings often incorporate more of the landscape, as the artist has stepped back from buildings that previously almost completely filled the frame and in which the heavily textured surface of stone and plaster could be read almost as landscapes in themselves. This widening of view in part reflects his increasing confidence and ever growing technical ability as an artist. But he has also become even more interested in atmosphere, ‘in doing more with light and mood – pushing it all a bit further,’ as he says. This concern with varying and changing impressions and effects of light and ambiance is seen most clearly in the series of paintings of the early nineteenth-century lighthouse at Flamborough Head, not far from Bridlington, on the North Yorkshire coast. This is a place he has known since first making holiday visits there as a child, and his new works advance on the paintings of the same building exhibited in 2018. As the artist explains, 


I wanted to explore it further by painting it at different times of the day and with different weather conditions. For example, Early Morning at Flamborough Head Lighthouse(dark blue sky, bright white lighthouse) is a view from the east at 6 am, summertime. Sea Fret at Flamborough Head Lighthouse(pale, misty image of lighthouse) was painted in winter, whilst Late Afternoon at Flamborough Head Lighthousewas painted in spring ... I love to paint white buildings, especially lighthouses – the way they reflect light, especially when the sky is darker than the lighthouse. It's an exciting contrast to the sandstone buildings of my native West Yorkshire, which tend to absorb light. Alongside this, the coastal weather at Flamborough is constantly changing. The position of the lighthouse and shape of the landscape means the viewpoints and angles are many. 


            With his insatiable attention to detail and his fascination with light and atmosphere, we are reminded of another West Yorkshire artist, the Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893). Though he particularly loved to paint by night, the parallel with Doig is most notable in the latter’s monotypes. In these one-off works such as Twilight Gable Endwith Treesand Winter Scrapyard in SnowDoig skillfully uses black and white to convey a deep sense of mood. They are a fantastic compliment to his colour work.

            Doig is certainly not standing still. With his growing confidence together with his keenness both to continue exploring his own back yard whilst simultaneously widening his travels further afield, it is exciting to see what he will do next.


Thursday, 11 June 2020

Jeremy Annear at Messum's London

Black Polka (2020)
oil on canvas, 150 x 120 cms
The Cornwall-based artist Jeremy Annear has a new exhibition at David Messum's new gallery in Bury Street, St James's Mayfair, London, opening this week, June 2020. This is the essay I wrote to accompany the catalogue.

It might at first seem odd to call Jeremy Annear a Surrealist, but it’s not a bad place to start. With titles like ‘Dream I,’ ‘Nocturnal Muse’ and  ‘Harbour Moon III’, and with their mysterious evocation of place and mood, there’s a subtlety to these enigmatic, inviting paintings that speaks of a more distant and different world – like one glimpsed, half-darkly, in a mirror.
            It is exactly a century since the French poet André Breton began his experiments in ‘automatic writing’ that led him to the invention of what he called ‘Surrealism’. It would go on to become one of the most important literary and artistic movements of the twentieth century, embracing artists as diverse as Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and Paul Nash. And it’s fifty-three years since Annear – then a young student at Exeter College of Art – met Roland Penrose, one of Britain’s leading Surrealist artists, advocates and collectors. Breton had died the previous year, and Penrose was in Exeter helping to curate ‘The Enchanted Domain’, a city-wide celebration of Surrealism. Participants included a number of other key figures in the British Surrealist movement – among them E.L.T. Mesens, Conroy Maddox and George Melly. Annear’s job was to help Penrose in hanging an exhibition of Surreal art.
            Even now, over half a century later, Annear’s recalls that experience with pleasure. But did its influence rub off on his art? He admits that he does see something of Surrealism in his early work, whilst collage – a significant Surrealist technique – has been something that has interested him greatly over the course of his career. 
            But at first glance Annear’s powerful current work must clearly be placed in the great tradition of twentieth-century British abstraction. That movement had as its leading figure in this country the painter Ben Nicholson. He was no Surrealist – indeed, in the mid 1930s, when Nicholson was at the height of his powers, Abstraction and Surrealism appeared entirely antithetical. Yet one of the key influences on young Nicholson had been the Cornish naïve artist, Alfred Wallis. Famously, Nicholson had run into the retired mariner outside his little terraced house in the back streets of St Ives in 1928. Wallis was just the sort of untrained, visionary ‘outsider’ artist the Surrealists liked to fête – in the way the Parisian Surrealists admired the self-taught tax collector, Henri Rousseau.

Cabaret-sur-Mer (2020)
oil on canvas, 60 x 40 cms

            It was family holidays in St Ives in the early 1960s that first led Annear to Modern European Art: it was exactly there as a teenager that he first knew he wanted to become a painter. Though Paul Nash had extolled the powerful potential of the ‘Seaside Surrealism’ he had discovered in the Dorset town of Swanage in the 1930s, St Ives offered a different mode of Modernity. This was definitely and definitively a town of Abstraction – witnessed in the presence of leading abstract artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. The influence of the art being made by artists such as these was enough to draw Mark Rothko, the doyen of American Abstract Expressionism, to St Ives in the summer of 1959. 
            As Rebecca Wright wrote in Studio Internationalon the occasion of a Rothko exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in October 2011, 

Although the St Ives School has, at times, been presented as derivative of Abstract Expressionism, by exploring how American artists made the pilgrimage to St Ives to make contact with British artists this exhibition confounds any accusation of imitation. Instead, it reveals a collaborative dialogue in which artists from either side of the Atlantic are growing and learning together. It somewhat levels the geographic playing field, no longer pitting Abstract Expressionism as the dominant player, but presenting both groups as preoccupied with a similar endeavour.

What Wright does not note, however, is that one of the influential spurs towards Abstract Expressionism had been Surrealism. The great American Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell was, first off, a Surrealist. And it was Motherwell who during World War Two encouraged a young Jackson Pollock to take lessons at the exiled Atelier 17, the famous Parisian printing school run by the English Surrealist, Stanley William Hayter (whose work Annear greatly admired, and who was a considerable influence upon him).

Three Beats in a Bar X (2020)
pencil and ink on paper, 21 x 30 cm

            The link between Abstraction and Surrealism was thus quite close (both historically and for Annear himself). Indeed, in 1940 Ben Nicholson used the phrase ‘abstract Surrealism’ to describe the work of his friend, Henry Moore, who was still exhibiting sculpture and drawings with the British Surrealists. But then, as Moore observed, ‘All good art, has contained both abstract and surrealist elements, just as it has contained both classical and romantic elements – order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious. Both sides of the artist’s personality must play their part …’ Thus in Annear’s work – as in Moore’s – we have a fruitful meeting of these two key Modernist movements. And one must always remember that the artist Annear most admires is Braque, the French artist he calls ‘my painting father – the highest influence’.
            So if Annear is an Abstract artist with a small debt to Surrealism, what are we to make of his relationship to landscape? Born in Exeter in 1949, and having moved from Devon to Cornwall in 1987, he is deeply rooted to the landscape of the West Country. But although he loves exploring the outdoor world, interestingly he does not really consider himself a landscape painter – or even a Romantic. He doesn’t feel like he analyses landscape, though place is still important to him: as he states, his paintings do make ‘odd connections between places and ideas.’ 
            This comes out most clearly in works that – in their titles at least – clearly relate to very particular locations. Cameret-sur-Mer and Roscoff in the Finistére commune of Brittany, for example, are two places that inspired a number of works in the current exhibition. Across the course of five visits to north-west France in 2019 he was deeply struck by the impression the Atlantic Ocean makes upon the coastline there. He explains that these works all ‘relate to harbours, to harbour structures and the large wrecked trawlers along the coastline, with their extraordinary colours and shapes often against a winter sky. I’m very fond of Roscoff.’ Likewise, the ‘Siesta Song’ trilogy, with their rich, rust-coloured browns, were inspired by a period spent painting in Spain, and suggest what he describes as ‘the reverie of after lunch wine and music.’
            When present in a landscape, Annear explains that he sees shapes, colours and forms through the periphery of his vision, and that these might give him inspiration and ideas. But his work is neither narrative nor topographical, and despite the occasional references to particular locations, these are decidedly not paintings of places. All are painted at home in his studio in Cornwall, away from places of inspiration, where he searches for what he calls his ‘given language’ and learns to speak it ‘as fluently as I can.’ He works in silence, but likes to play music between periods of painting. Jazz and chamber music are great passions – something that, again, titles such as ‘Black Polka’, ‘Blue Meolody’ or ‘Contra Tone’ reflect. But as he explains, he never has a particular title in mind whilst he’s working; these always come afterwards, with each finished work evoking a mood when he looks at it, and inspiring the name he chooses to give to it.  

Eclipse VI (2020
oil on canvas, 30 x 25 cms

            On his process of painting, Annear states that he always paints in oil, always onto an earth or ochre ground, working wet into wet, building up, scraping off, giving the works their extraordinary patina. With decades of experience behind him, he hardly uses a brush anymore – fingers, rag, palette knife are his primary tools. From a distance the paintings look smooth and pure of surface, but when you look closely you see the marks, the under-drawing, the smudges and fuzzy edges – the edges are very important to him. He ‘just lets it all happen,’ he explains – and here we may look back to Surrealism, and the realm of chance and ‘happy accidents’.
            As those years of experience emphasize, there is always something pure underlying what Annear does. Born into that fundamental denomination of the Plymouth Bretheren, he joined the Russian Orthodox Church some years ago. Religion thus also plays a significant part in his contemplative approach to his art, what he sees as the psychological relationship of shapes and ‘a preoccupation with a kind of mystical geometry’. (Among the works of art that decorate his studio, there are numerous little religious icons; his own work is obviously very different, but one can see the connection between them.) He goes further, talking of  ‘the mystical element of faith’ and ‘a search for perfection that will never come – yet that I’m always hopeful of discovering.’ 
            Contemplative is thus perhaps the final word for understanding and appreciating Annear’s most recent work. These are paintings that need to be looked at, returned to, pondered over, contemplated – like the contemplation and calm that has gone into creating them. From simple shapes and colours, lines and curves and a devotion to edges, borders and boundaries, emerges profound beauty and meaning.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Surreal Origins

This is the opening section of my introduction to the catalogue of the Dulwich Picture Gallery's exhibition, British Surrealism (2020).

Surrealism … is first and foremost a method of investigation and contains in itself a force which has always existed, a faculty as permanent as dreaming. Of course, Surrealism is an historical phenomenon … but its faith is that it always has existed, and always will.

               Georges Hugnet, ‘1870 to 1936’, in Surrealism, edited by Herbert Read (1936)[1]

‘Except for André Breton,’ the young English Surrealist poet David Gascoyne wrote in 1935, ‘the Surrealist movement could never have existed, for it is as difficult to imagine it without him as it is to imagine psycho-analysis without Freud.’[2] Born in Normandy in 1896 to a family of modest standing, Breton had just started training for a medical career when the Great War erupted in July 1914. Conscripted into the artillery, he was eventually assigned to the Service de Santé des Armées, working behind the front lines with the casualties of war. In 1916 he had the good fortune to meet the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), one of the leading figures in the Parisian avant-garde. Around the same time he met Jacques Vaché, an eccentric young writer, painter and soldier who had also been hospitalized by his war injuries. Breton was fascinated by Vaché’s love of costume and disguise: ‘He created an atmosphere for himself that was both dramatic and full of spirit,’ Breton recorded, ‘while arming himself with a pack of lies that he would toss out with no compunction.’[3] Vaché could only survive the horrors of the Great War – as gruesomely delineated in Percy Delf Smith’s 1919 etching, Death Awed – by finding humour in it. ‘How funny it all is!’, he wrote to Breton following his return to the Western Front in the summer of 1917.[4] At the height of the conflict, as Breton later recorded, ‘It was everything just to stay alive … Writing or even thinking were no longer sufficient in themselves. It was necessary at all costs to give ourselves the feeling of movement, of noise.’[5]
            Later that year Breton was transferred to a psychiatric centre attached to the French Second Army. There, in daily contact with mentally traumatized soldiers, he encountered the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis attempted to penetrate the traumatized unconscious through such techniques as the close examination of dreams, jokes and free-association, and our concealed attitudes to – and fears of – sex, ridicule and death. In a world purporting to be highly civilized, yet descending into the throes of mass-suicide, Freud’s work was deeply influential. Breton started recording the stream-of-consciousness accounts of the patients in what was in effect an early example of Surrealist ‘automatic writing’.[6] And then he discovered the mysterious Isidore Ducasse, better known by his pen name, the Comte de Lautréamont, author of The Songs of Maldaror (1868-9). The last link in this haphazard chain of causation was the art of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, whose curious metaphysical work Breton first saw in Paris.
            These were the literary, painterly and experiential foundations of what would grow to become one of the most outrageous and influential cultural movements of the twentieth century. The word ‘surreal,’ now such a commonplace, was first coined by Apollinaire in 1917. The French prefix ‘sur,’ which means ‘above’ or ‘more than’, suggested for Apollinaire a realism pushed or extended beyond itself. But in Breton’s interpretation it was intended to have a much wide range of senses: exaggeration, paradox, surprise, absurdity, the marvellous and the irrational. Apollinaire died of Spanish flu two days before the Armistice of November 1918, whilst Vaché – who ‘objected to being killed in wartime’ – died in Nantes in January 1919 from an overdose of opium that Breton considered deliberate.[7] By this date, Breton had joined a subversive new cultural movement. Conceived by the young Romanian poet Tristan Tzara in neutral Switzerland in 1916, Dada is perhaps best described as a highly provocative, anarchic ‘Art to end Art’. A reaction to the horrors and absurdities of the War, it merged painting, sculpture, music and poetry with performance, its participants congregating at the Cabaret Voltaire, a small bar in Zurich that hosted exhibitions and variety shows. Dada’s participants were young German, French and Romanian exiles and escapees from the war, none of whom, as one member recorded, with ‘much appreciation for the kind of courage it takes to get shot for the idea of a nation which is at best a cartel of pelt merchants and profiteers in leather, at worst a cultural association of psychopaths’.[8]

The Zurich Dadaists were united by their pacifism, their hatred of international politics and their love of culture. In their banners, posters, performances, collages, sculptures, music, songs, poetry and paintings they seemingly collapsed all meaning into the nonsensical babblings of a baby, or the playful ridiculousness of a child’s hobby-horse. ‘Dada was a spectacular form of suicide,’ David Gascoyne recorded in 1935, ‘a manifestation of almost lunatic despair ... the concrete expression of an almost universal state of mind, a state of mind that had existed even before the outbreak of the War.’[9] In 1917 Tzara opened a Dada Gallery in Zurich exhibiting works by an eclectic range of avante-garde continental artists, including Jean Arp, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Amedeo Modigliani.[10] But the movement was open to all – if they had the imagination.[11] Along with fellow French poets Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, and the painter Francis Picabia, Breton eagerly joined the Dadaists, their Parisian group paralleling off-shoots that sprung up in Berlin, Hanover, Cologne and New York.
            Dada quickly became the avant-garde movement du jour, heralded (if far from understood) worldwide. In April 1920 a British journalist in Paris wrote that the secret of Dadaism ‘apparently is to say anything ridiculous that comes into your head.[12] Tzara and Breton soon fell out, however, with Breton announcing in 1921 that ‘the only way for Dada to continue is for it to cease to exist.’[13] By that date he was already experimenting with what would become his new movement: he later identified 1920 as the year his explorations in language ‘assumed the name of Surrealism, a word fallen from the lips of Apollinaire, which we diverted from the rather general and much more confusing connotation he had given it.’[14]
            Surrealism was officially launched in October 1924, when two rival factions published their respective manifestoes. A brief conflict over authority followed, which Breton and his allies won. But whilst Surrealism promised freedom, Breton strictly controlled its official participants, and members could be expelled if they failed to meet his rigid expectations. He was thus not always liked, and made enemies among those who, whilst admiring Surrealism’s aims, did not wish to be so closely regulated. Rightly or wrongly, in the British Surrealist Desmond Morris’s opinion Breton was ‘a pompous bore, a ruthless dictator, a confirmed sexist, an extreme homophobe and a devious hypocrite.’[15] Yet Morris, like many other Surrealists, drew on the dynamism that sprang from its debates and disagreements, and which seemed to feed the movement, driving it ever onwards.
            As a writer rather than an artist, Breton penned the Surrealists’ chief texts, as well as publishing his own surreal poems and novels. His manifesto offered precise definitions of the new movement:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism rests in the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected heretofore; in the omnipotence of the dream and in the disinterested play of thought. It tends definitely to do away with all other psychic mechanisms and substitute itself tor them in the solution of the principal problems of life.[16]

Surrealism revelled in dreams, juxtapositions, unconscious acts, chance, déjà vu, madness, surprise, disinhibition and the exploration of the subconscious. As Breton declared: ‘I believe in the future resolution of those two states, apparently contradictory, dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may say.’[17]
            As well as looking to the future, Surrealism also looked backwards – to various progenitors and ‘pre-surrealist’ figures. These included controversial writers such as the Marquis de Sade, whom Apollinaire had once described as ‘the freest spirit who ever existed’.[18] The poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Lautréamont were all also named as precedents of the Surreal in literature, and in 1936 Georges Hugnet published an essay tracing ‘a thread of Surrealism’ leading back at least as far as 1870. As he explained, Surrealism’s faith was ‘that it always has existed, and always will.[19] For as Apollinaire had previously pointed out: ‘When man wished to imitate walking, he created the wheel – which does not resemble a leg. In this way he committed an act of surrealism without knowing it.’[20]

[1] Georges Hugnet, ‘1870 to 1936’, in Herbert Read (ed.), Surrealism (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), pp. 187-8.
[2] David Gascoyne, A Short Survey of Surrealism (London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1935), p. 58.
[3] André Breton, ‘The disdainful confession’ (1924), in André Breton, Jaques Vaché: War Letters, translated and edited by Paul Lenti, The Printed Head, Vol. 3, no. 1 (1993), 17.
[4] Ibid. p. 40.
[5] Ibid. p. 17.
[6] See Clifford Browder, Andre Breton: Arbiter of Surrealism (Geneva: Droz, 1969), pp. 6-8.
[7] André Breton, ‘The disdainful confession’ (1924), p. 20 and p. 49.
[8] Richard Huelsenbeck, ‘En avant Dada: A history of Dadism’ (1920), in Robert Motherwell (ed.), The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (New York: George Winterborn, 1951), p. 23.
[9] Gascoyne, Short Survey, p. 24.
[10] Ibid, p. 27.
[11] Huelsenbeck, ‘En avant Dada’, pp. 28-9.
[12] ‘Paris week by week,’ The Observer, 4 April 1920.
[13] Quoted in Gascoyne, Short Survey, p. 42.
[14] Andre Breton, ‘Surrealism: Yesterday, To-Day and To-Morrow,’ This Quarter, vol. 5, no. 1, September 1932, p. 14.
[15] Desmond Morris, The Lives of the Surrealists (London: Thames and Hudson, 2018), p. 52.
[16] From André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (1924), quoted in Gascoyne, Short Survey, pp. 61-2.
[17] André Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1924), quoted in Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965), p. 70.
[18] Neil Cox, ‘Critique of pure desire, or when the Surrealists were right,’ in Jennifer Mundy, Surrealism: Desire Unbound (London: Tate Publishing, 2001), p. 248.
[19] Georges Hugnet, ‘1870 to 1936’, in Herbert Read (ed.), Surrealism (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), pp. 187-8.
[20] Quoted in Willard Bohn, The Rise of Surrealism: Cubism, Dada and the Pursuit of the Marvelous  (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), p. 135.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Maxwell Doig at Messum's Gallery, Cork Street, Mayfair, October 2018

Maxwell Doig, Abandoned Farm near Marston Clough, acrylic on canvas on board

   A really good artist makes us look at the familiar in new ways; things we might once have passed by without a second glance become suddenly remarkable. Paul Nash did it with his winter landscapes and paintings of trees; Maxwell Doig does it with the gable end of an old building, a deserted farmhouse, or the clock tower of an abandoned woolen mill. What at first sight seems ordinary becomes, through his hands and eyes, extraordinary. And you can never look at those things in quite the same way again.

            It has taken years for Doig to reach this remarkable point – to be able to look, say, at the Flamborough Head lights
ouse in North Yorkshire, and paint it in a way that no-one else has quite achieved before, ‘to see it anew,’ as he says.
            His artistic journey started young. ‘I wanted to be a painter even as a little kid,’ he told me when I visited him recently at his Huddersfield home. Skipping A Levels, at sixteen he went straight to Batley Art School, already ‘dead set’ on becoming an artist. A significant early encounter came when a friend introduced him to the veteran Huddersfield painter, David Blackburn (1939-2016).  ‘I don’t know any artist to whom I can compare him,’ Sir Kenneth Clark once observed. ‘Blackburn is not a landscape artist, not an abstractionist in the ordinary sense. He is a painter of metamorphosis.’
            Doig would never quite become an abstractionist, and looking at his work today you see little direct link with Blackburn. But it was Blackburn who really taught the teenage Doig how to see, and how to draw – starting with the simple things: a still life of fruit or flowers on a table, or an allotment seen out the back of Blackburn’s modest terraced house. The seasoned artist taught the young student a valuable lesson: that he did not have to draw everything he saw in the world; you could pick out the salient points, and abstract from it.
            ‘He changed my life,’ Doig admits.
            What he learned from Blackburn helped Doig get into Manchester School of Art, and from there to the Slade School of Art in London. Artists who can draw well have always attracted him, and draughtsmanship has long been the raison d’etre of the Slade, from Henry Tonks, Augustus John and Stanley Spencer to William Coldstream and Euan Uglow. Though a graduate student specializing in printmaking, Doig spent hours in the life-class, and he also studied human anatomy at University College Hospital. By the time he left the Slade he was already selling his work, and other than a brief stint teaching part-time at Leeds Metropolitan University he has made his living ever since as a professional artist, recognized for his skill as a painter and his confident yet idiosyncratic approach to his subject matter.
            His art has not stood still, however. His post-Slade period was when he came closest to full abstraction, but he has moved from there through a close focus on the human form towards the intense yet dream-like realism captured in buildings, boats and allotments that characterizes his latest work. He has always shown a keen interest in the surface of his works. ‘In a way,’ he tells me, ‘it’s all about the surface, the texture.’ That’s why, when he draws, he uses monotype – a print medium that, as the name suggests, only produces one or – at very most – two images. He has a wonderful feel for texture, for surface, patina and palimpsest – prints and paintings alike are very tactile works; there is this almost irresistible urge to touch them, to run your fingers across their surface. His flat, featureless skies deliberately accentuate the texture of his walls, his grass, his trees – even a fall of snow.

Maxwell Doig, Gable End, acrylic on canvas

            Doig is also very much concerned with – and located in – place. Though he can travel as far afield as Dungeness in Kent to paint the boats and extraordinary seaside landscape there, most of his current work is concerned with the local landscape around him in Yorkshire, and the buildings and allotments that characterise his neighbourhood. Doig sees himself as ‘reflective, inward looking,’ a Romantic – and he enthusiastically acknowledges the power of the local landscape upon him.
            Seeing Doig as a Romantic, we might link him also with William Blake, whose most famous words come from his epic poem ‘Milton,’ better known as the lines to the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ put to music a century ago at the height of the Great War. If Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ are to be interpreted as the new-fangled factories of the urbanising industrial revolution, then Doig in Huddersfield lives right among their decay. Whilst Blake worked at the beginning of the Romantic era, here we find Doig at the end of it, painting and carefully recording de-industrial decline and our gradual disconnection with the sublime.
            ‘These empty dwellings,’ he tells me, ‘they make people stop and look. My pictures trigger memories – forgotten emotions, perhaps?’ They are places where people have lived, loved, worked and sweated out their lives, be it on a factory floor, in a boat or in the green fields of Yorkshire. Something remains, remembered and yet half-forgotten. And Doig records – making the momentary immortal.