Vol 1 No 4
We sent the following questions to a number of British painters to use as a point of departure for a statement on their work. We print the replies in alphabetical order. Roughly two-thirds of those we approached were willing to commit themselves or felt they had something useful to say.
(a) What, in your opinion, is the most important development in British painting since the war?
(b) British sculpture has, in recent years, won unprecedented international acceptance. Do you consider that British painting deserves, and will eventually enjoy, a comparable success? If so, to what qualities do you attribute the likelihood? If not, do you consider the fact a source of weakness or of strength?
(c) Assuming that such a thing as an international style exists, how do you see your own work in relation to it?
I cannot answer these questions because they seem impertinent to my situation. I think of painting as something that happens to a man working in a room, alone with his actions, his ideas, and perhaps his model. He is affected by his circumstances, and by the standards and events of his time, but he seems to me to be the sole coherent unit.
I cannot think of British painting as an entity, I do not understand the phrase international style’. These concepts seem to me irrelevant to an activity which postulates the persistence of unique and individual experience.
Important developments abroad in sculpture and painting were usually ‘discovered’ in Britain thirty years later. A little of this is still going on. We have just witnessed, to a fanfare of trumpets, neoplasticism (1) ‘discovered’ in this British way.
It certainly was ‘not done’ to take the initiative and start something of our own for somebody else to follow.
Today, communication of all kinds being as facile as anyone could require, there is not much excuse for this peculiarly English and ‘endearing’ amateurism. Nor does this attitude of protecting holy ignorance spring from our ‘rugged insularity’, a refusal to learn from or to be inspired by other artists, even if necessary to plagiarize them. British painting has been as derivative as French art or Dutch art, but the derivation has invariably been safely in the past.
Today, British painters are not so squeamish. What was shown in New York last year or in Paris the year before, is quite likely, in the more frankly unashamed borrowing, to crop up in a fairly unmodified form in the work of an English artist next month, or at least next year. The penny is dropping much faster. This is good news, but I am optimistic enough to believe even better, namely, that work is being done here which is ‘out on its own’, and will eventually gain the respect and acceptance abroad which is enjoyed by British sculptors.
On the whole, and I can at once think of individual exceptions, British sculpture from the time of the Epstein ‘Rock Drill’, has been more independent, fecund, original and robust than British painting. The time lag that I have referred to has been missing. Some vigorous prospecting has taken place.
I think there is an international ‘style’ in present day painting. It is the way a painter, capable, boring and derivative, thinks he must paint to ingratiate himself. It contains the bundles of loathsome clichés favoured by slick international dealers. Such artists prostituted to the international ‘style’, are muzzled and hedged about with restrictions, and at the mercy of commercial tyranny, possibly worse than the social realist suffers in Russia. I personally would avoid this pseudo-international ‘style’ like the plague.
The best of current painting today in Paris, New York, or London, is unavoidably eclectic, stylistically. There is not much in common between Peter Blume, Mark Rothko, Andrew Wyeth, Mark Tobey and Barnett Newman, Americans; Robert Breer, Soulages, Masson and Bazaine, Parisians; Vordemberge-Gildewart, Karel Appel, Charley Toorop and Dirk Ket, Dutch; and Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Auerbach, British.
As you can see, stylistically, it would be easier to arrange them in categories, by stepping across geographical boundaries. Having done this, does the artist still radiate the national aroma? In the neo-plastic department, is Robert Breer obviously a Frenchman? Ben Nicholson, an Englishman living in Switzerland? and Vordemberge-Gildewart, a German living in Amsterdam? I would not be certain that I could spot them at a glance.
Finally, a reference to the recent Reith Lectures. Professor Wind very rightly drew attention to the dangers to painting of a toothless and obsequious lyricism. Painting should not lose its bite.
Of course, in the present time the lyricist is tolerably safe, the realist, the propagandist, the satirist and the social commentator are very unsafe; but paradoxically, the artists who imagine themselves most free are often the most restricted. As Eliot remarked of poets: ‘There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.’
When I am painting or thinking about painting, I do not associate myself with such a thing as the ‘international style’. I am mainly concerned with my own imagery. On the whole I feel that I belong to the European tradition rather than the international style, which I feel stems mainly from American painting. This I feel largely to be concerned with the importance of the gesture or mark, as opposed to the activity of making things on the canvas. The use of the word activity is deliberate here, as my painting is very much concerned with the act of painting. I suppose that my painting owes something to Baroque concepts of forms in space and within this general framework of reference, I am concerned with tensions and thrusts across the picture surface.
Surely the most important event since the war was the revival of abstract art in the early fifties.
Forty years earlier Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists had come close to abstraction but they had rejected it. In the thirties there had been several promising starts but with the sole exception of Ben Nicholson they had been abandoned by the various artists involved. At the third attempt in 1950 abstract art finally took root in this country. It is not really surprising with its background of false starts that those tentative post-war displays — the exhibitions at the AlA and Gimpel Galleries in 1951 and the group shows at 22 Fitzroy Street in 1952 — should have been met on the whole with bored scepticism.
It must be admitted that there were reasons for this attitude. English abstract art of this period with few exceptions owed little if anything to work being currently produced abroad. It is a point of interest that unlike most art movements, it did not stem from contact with actual works but rather from the written word of the pioneers of abstract painting, who reached us in English translation in the Wittenborn Schultz editions. A familiarity with the essays of Mondrian, Kandinsky, Arp and Van Doesburg backed by a few black and white reproductions preceded contact with their original works by several years. This had the effect of making much of the English painting appear dated and doctrinaire, but these slow, drab works were a means of testing some of the ideas inherited from the past, as well as formulating those of the present.
A further boost to English painting was given in 1959 by the exhibition ‘The New American Painting’ at the Tate Gallery. This sudden flare up on a wide front was provoked by the sight of the works themselves. The impact of their physical appearance was enough and precluded any necessity for aesthetic speculation: their presence was a stimulus that Europe badly needed.
By now it may be right to speak of an international style in modern art, but only if we bear in mind that it is one thing in the hands of non-figurative painters and another in the hands of figurative painters. Over fifty years ago, Rouault, seeing how the Fauves fussed about their limited decorative ideas, empty of human content, had cried out: ‘There exists no such thing as decorative art. Only art, intimate, heroic or epic.’ This was not meant to define the position of modern figurative painting but it points the moral.
Is scientific neutrality the right model for art?
That I am a figurative painter is also because I believe in painters who do not easily fit into closely defined trends but are of our times by the very nature of their talent.
Now, let me briefly add:
(a) The good I see in British painting since the war is that it has departed from its romantic isolation. That individual painters are doing more than that goes without saying.
(b) Sculpture in Britain has been dominated by the integrity of two men of genius. But I am afraid that the latter-day sculpture with which we associate the words ‘international acceptance’ is not so lucky; nor is there any reason to believe that this is due to severe standards or that by the same standards British painting would not pass the test.
As I see it, the same need for individual talent to free itself from the spell of up-to-dateness applies no less to sculptors than to painters. We too often forget that an artist is a solitary man with something on his mind. A modern artist more so.
(a) The most important development in British painting is the emergence of commercial dealers prepared to market the work of young painters and particularly the post-war abstract painters. Note that I give no opinion as to the benefit (or otherwise) of this to British painting as a whole. In addition, the British and Arts Councils have had an excellent impact both abroad and at home. I am not able to comment on art movements or specific artistic events, though I am aware of many excellent individual works which are as good as the best in our tradition.
(b) The success of British sculpture is due to Henry Moore. There is no comparable painter. This may not be so aesthetically because it may transpire that there are as many good paintings as sculptures coming out of Britain. The success of sculpture is probably due to many factors besides the excellence of Moore’s work among which is the readiness of architects to use sculpture in new buildings. There is a strong tendency today, outside Britain, to employ painters for mural work. Britain has lately begun to commission painters in this field. If British painting is to achieve a comparable success to sculpture it must be prepared to paint large and the painters must be given the opportunity to travel. Specific qualities of British painting which might make it more acceptable in the ‘international’ sense are no different from any academic qualities such as for instance makes painting acceptable to the Royal Academy. There is at present a so-called international style to which aspirants to the honour of the word ‘international’ should pay homage.
(c) Assuming that an international style exists I would say my own work does not belong to it any more than to other academic styles. I am not persuaded that the international style and art are the same thing. I hope they are different because I believe that art comes from other sources and that its qualities are often inhibited by the Biennale system which encourages the gallery work or eventually the work of propaganda.
Ideas, like food, are transportable. Like food they don’t always travel well and are often best consumed on the spot where grown.
That a certain kind of contemporary painting should be called ‘international’ is a contagious and flattering notion, but let us distinguish between success and history.
International styles have existed in the past. They express requirements held in common and begin with architecture, they are largely anonymous.
Discoveries are individual. Turner and Constable starting from an accepted tenth century style ended by exploiting their own, which arose from their own desires and conflicts. Cézanne also.
I am not an isolated phenomenon, but I have my own problems of subject and the illusion of appearance (that great Cheshire cat!). Conflicts once generated must be cherished, even though I am condemned to resolve them as I go along. I cannot afford to throw them overboard in favour of a current style, though to ignore what is going on around me would be as short-sighted as for a scientist to ignore the discoveries of other scientists.
To feel good is reassuring, but it is not the same thing as being good. In the same way it is a temptation to feel ‘modern’ or ‘international’ or anything else that is in the air.
It would seem not to be a question of whether or not ‘British painting deserves international success’ as you put it, but rather (like some British sculptors) some British painters may receive it.
The ‘international’ line may be more fruitful than the idea that British painters were by nature condemned to be romantic and lyrical, which seemed to be current in the immediately post-war years; at least it has broken the bars of that particular prison at the risk of becoming internationally packaged goods.
Artists are accustomed to taking risks, but in the end they must be personal risks. I would rather be labelled after I am dead. Also at that time, concealed about my person, will no doubt be discovered a trade-mark stating country of origin; but where exactly it will be found I cannot tell, because I don’t spend my time looking for it.
It is hard to pin down one decisive or single development. If the American impact seems to be obvious it is reflected more in attitudes than in painting itself. For younger painters the time-honoured peephole to Paris has been replaced by a window looking out over the Atlantic. And of course results have to be judged against a different background. There is more of everything — galleries, painters, art students. The mood is ‘outward’ — a deep desire to avoid dreaded provincialism. The niche labelled ‘English eccentric’ doesn’t appeal any more. The peculiarly English pastoral cubism of the war period seems a long way in the past. But nothing coherent and identifiable as a movement has replaced it. There has always been in England a deep suspicion of foreign influence yet an utter dependence on it. A sort of half turning away instead of building on it. The Americans were always trying to find themselves by rejecting Europe. When after 1945 they absorbed the European avant-garde they began to express a truly American look. In the same way I suppose Poussin became the extreme exponent of the French spirit via Italian art.
In a derogatory sense I don’t know what is meant by ‘international style’. There has always been an international style because of certain ideas and tastes being in the air at given periods. There are the good and bad artists always. People who are indifferent to art tend to moralize by their use of epithets like ‘modish’. There is a perpetual standard way of producing a ‘modern’ picture. You only have to think of all those cubist-style apples and mandolins of the twenties. I don’t think it matters very much and in any case a flavour must be given to a period. Granted that a ‘modish’ international style exists, a peculiarity of today is that local variants are more marked. You couldn’t talk of schools before the war except as provincial dependents of the Ecole de Paris. Art has become more truly international and I don’t think that is such a bad thing. That is its proper role after all. The person drinking next to me in a pub is much less likely to understand what I am getting at than an art student in Tokyo. National characteristics are right and proper, but painting soon becomes top-heavy with ‘other’ things. It should simplify understanding.
I don’t think British painting is likely to win wide international acceptance in the immediate future any more than in the past. A painter here and there is, and will be, appreciated abroad; because, as in the past, he has conserved and consolidated personal convictions and an individual gift, not because he has allied himself to a movement or thrown in his lot with international styles, though he may quite sensibly be influenced by both; and unless he is conscious of them is likely to be living in a backwater. Blake has never really made it abroad as a painter; Turner has, at intervals, and has then been forgotten again. (It looks as though ‘wide international acceptance’ has now come for him, a hundred years late.) Constable was admired by Delacroix, maybe; Turner meant something to some Impressionists; Kline has expressed admiration for the drawings of Augustus John; Masson has been influenced by the watercolours of Alexander Cozens. But it is all very desultory and haphazard, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t remain so. The real merit of British painting is that it is at its best romantic, unclassical, particular, fanatical, self-obsessed and the result of close observation in a misty country that has longish winter evenings. The climate has produced Bewick and Jack Smith, with all their similarities and differences, Cotman and Roger Hilton, Stubbs and Keith Vaughan, Fuseli and Francis Bacon, and the drawings of both Romney and Frank Auerbach. It might produce a Henry Moore of painting at any minute. Meanwhile I am all for British sculptors being internationally celebrated. Till now they have had a longer rest than the painters from being so.
The important development in British painting has been towards abstraction — objective and subjective — in a way that expresses character, environment and temperament.
I don’t think British painting will enjoy a comparable success to that of our sculptors yet, although it deserves it—maybe because of lack of previous prestige, and some law of averages. The great prestige of Henry Moore abroad has helped enormously to create interest in our younger sculptors. In my opinion our best painters are easily comparable with, if not better than our sculptors, with the special exception of Henry Moore of course. Acceptance will come, for we have at least two painters of international stature to give it prestige and one of supreme interest.
We are experiencing an intense interchange of ideas in every field of activity, and this fortifies or impresses our character and sensibilities — the greater artist will know how to develop his insularity within the stream of influences.
There is no international style except a general instinctive conformism, which becomes an academism, brought about by exchange exhibitions, publicity and books, etc. There have been international styles before, Gothic architecture, early music modes, Latin language and Post-Renaissance painting and sculpture.
The easy interchange of culture forms enables the peculiarities of these forms to overlap at all sorts of levels, but, as ever, a small minority of individual artists emerge from the general stream and show special characteristics. In my own work I have absorbed influences, mainly European, but I feel it has an individual character, probably Celtic, because of its basis in proliferation and metaphor.
I believe more in the development of individual painters than of painting as a whole. Major break-throughs in painting are made rarely, and by great individual effort, not by groups, although the group may contain one of these individuals and can raise the intellectual and emotional temperature of the environment. I think that since the war the painting situation in England has got better and at the moment I feel it to be the most viable situation yet.
1) I wish to extend myself, not painting.
2) I want to solve my problems, not the problems of painting.
3) I want to increase my comprehension and awareness and to communicate with myself more clearly.
I think that international acceptance of painting and sculpture overlaps, but does not equate with its true value. Painting is fundamentally an egocentric activity, a communication with oneself, an obsessive thing. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Matisse and Mondrian worked closer to themselves as they grew older. It seems difficult to me for anyone to say what they deserved, and impossible to say what a national group deserves. What seems more certain is that when national groups are internationally accepted, this is not necessarily anything to do with the quality of the painting or sculpture.
At the time of making something I am never concerned with direct communication with anyone. After the event I stand as a spectator and decide whether to modify, keep, or destroy. Then the image is seen by others who may view aggressively or passively, bringing their prejudices, expectations, hopes, etc., to it.
Communication by painting is an extremely complex and subtle thing. How much you receive from a painting is dependent on whether you are in a position to be able to receive. Blindness of the mind is very common. The biggest variants in the chain, Concept-Painting-Spectator are the subjective reactions of the spectator. Style must be the result of internal pressures. The intensity of will and love involved in making the thing will emanate from it. I use canvas and wood collage amongst other things to maintain the physical presence of the surface and to work against illusion. I use these materials to make an emotional equivalent with what I feel, not a correspondence with objects outside the painting. Inevitably the traces of time and the personality of the painter occur, but it is a mistaken concept to consciously use new contemporary materials or old traditional ones from a manifesto point of view, to prove that you are either ‘Modern’ or ‘Traditional’. To be consciously ‘Modern’ is too naive, and to be consciously ‘Traditional’ is to kill the thing you stand for. The impetus must be an inner necessity.
I do not set out to be an ‘International’ painter, just as I do not set out to be a ‘British’ painter. Good parochial painting is infinitely better than bad internationally accepted painting, but great painting is always more than national. Probably the last way to gain a lasting international significance is by setting out to achieve it on a stylistic level.
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