“Anyone involved with the search for the Abstract would know that it was not a stunt. It was far too demanding, and powerful, for that.” Frank Avray Wilson, ‘Thinking About Painting’ 1990
This exhibition covers the work of Frank Avray Wilson from 1948 to 1962 and includes examples of his early experiments with formlessness, such as ‘Tropical Sea’ c1948, followed by tussles with cubism and geometry as in ‘Harbour’ 1952, and ‘Configuration’ 1953-7, before developing his ‘dream-like crystalline’ approach for which he became known, which makes up the main body of the show.
Born in Mauritius, Avray Wilson studied Biology at Cambridge University between 1932-5 and it was while involved in this scientific research in 1935, making a painting of a cell structure from under a microscope, that he had his ‘eureka’ moment;
“I drew some of the cells, colouring them with fast running watercolours, overrunning with Chinese ink. The result astounded me. Instead of dead replicas, the forms were bursting with life, looking more living than the cells when alive. From that day my attitude to painting changed… how could a drawing be experienced as more living than life? FAW, 1990.
In his writing “Reminiscences” from 1913, Kandinsky talks about the insubstantiality of the atom and the melting of reality: “one of the main obstacles [on the path to abstraction] was swept away by a scientific event. This was the further division of the atom. The disintegration of the atom was, to my mind, analogous to the entire world. Suddenly the thickest walls collapsed. Everything became insecure… I wouldn’t have been surprised if a stone had melted in mid-air before my eyes and grown invisible.”
Before this it was thought that the world was made of solid things, and the basic building blocks, atoms, were thought to be solid too. Following on from Einstein’s theories of particles and relativity in 1905, the unsettling discovery in 1911, made by Rutherford, was that the atom consisted of mainly empty space… then in the 1950s atomic scientist Oppenheimer declared: ‘The world that is revealed to our senses is only a world of appearances. The world of realty is hidden under the surface of things and this real world can be reached both by the mystic and the scientist, [and I would add, the abstract artist] each in his own way: the mystic by introspection and the denial of his senses and the scientist by mathematics and inductive reasoning [and the artist through intuition and experience].’
In the late forties, the world was being shaped anew, and populations were having to come to terms with the obscene destruction of two World Wars; artists had to work out where they stood and how they could proceed in this wasteland. Many turned to abstraction as a way of trying to make sense of an indeterminate world that had disintegrated on many levels.
It is no coincidence that a common resonance seen to be running through lyrical/informal/expressionist abstract painting in Europe from the ’30s to the ’50s is an intuitive vision of the microcosmic or atomic structure of the world; not just illustrated, but imbued with energy and a bursting vitality, in opposition to the more mathematical approach of geometric abstraction.