Gillian Ayres

#96. Alan Gouk writes on Key Paintings of the 20th Century; a Musée Imaginaire, Part 2

Joan Miro, “Painting”, 1953, Guggenheim NY, © 2018 Successió Miró Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris

“First the Giants, then the pygmies.”   Elie Faure

PART 2  

Notes Synthetiques ca. 1888  by Paul Gauguin: “Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature whilst dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than of nature”.

To Schuffeneker Aug. 1888: “Like music it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses. Harmonious colours respond to the harmonies of sounds”.

And in Diverse Choses 1898: “ The impressionists… heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centres of thought”.

The sources of these ideas, which were to prove so fertile for the development of abstract painting, lay in the literature of early German Romanticism, Jean Paul, E T A Hoffmann, the synaesthesic imagery taken up by Baudelaire, Schopenhauer’s views on music as reinterpreted by Wagner, and the cult of Richard Wagner in France, which influenced even the  young Cézanne, and the symbolist poets gathered around Mallarme (though some of these pronouncements of Gauguin antecede his friendship with the latter).

Wagner’s music, especially in The Ring, could be described as the triumph of bad literature over music, or the subjugation of music to the literary imagination. The idea that colour, like music, can express the “mysterious centres of thought” appeals to the literary minded, so it is not surprising to find it echoed in Baudelaire and Mallarme. (See the poem Les Phares by Baudelaire). It is for the most part foreign to the French line in painting stemming from Delacroix and finding its culmination in Matisse. Although Matisse echoes the Mallarmean aesthetic “to paint not the thing but the emotion that it arouses in the artist”, in practice his art remains wedded to the full lustre of the sensory world. The transpositions of colour, red for blue, black for azure, are less emotionally driven as arising from his discoveries in Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904/05, that degrees of saturation of hue can form the tonal structure, rather than oppositions of dark and light, just as simultaneous contrasts of colour create light rather than oppositions or gradations of warm and cool.

George Seurat and the theorist Charles Henry voiced similar ideas about the expressive role of line and colour in conveying emotion, on the analogy with music, independently of their function in representation. Chromoluminisme as practiced by Seurat and Divisionism as practiced by Paul Signac, endeavour to combine this emotive theory with the science of colour, a hyper-realism, the two sitting uneasily together, and with mixed results, Pissarro being one of the first to express disillusionment with both the pictorial outcome and the intellectual distancing inherent in the approach.


#76. Nick Moore writes on Gillian Ayres at the National Museum, Cardiff

Gillian Ayres, Cardiff installation shot from Gallery 2, l to r: “The Bee Loud Glade”, “Aeolus”, “Anthony and Cleopatra”, “Calypso”, “Ace”

Gillian Ayres at the National Museum, Cardiff, 8th April – 3rd September, 2017.

‘I suppose I am always trying to find something. I’m always looking for it. This has gone on since I was fourteen – and now I’m eighty five.’

A life lived backwards – for this review I will try an experiment and follow the more complex journey of the exhibition as it proceeds from the eighties back to the fifties, rather than the apparently more logical way of chronology from early to late…

The overarching sense of this exhibition is of a celebration of a painter whose work is vibrant, energetic and ambitious, but perhaps, above all, someone who has lived in painting. Ayres’s rich colour and attack, especially in the vibrant later works, bring a sense of play and uplift to these spaces – a feast for the senses in all respects, with the faded smell of oil, the sticky, tactile surfaces, and enough colour to last a lifetime. It was a bonus to have seating in the galleries (though I found the bean bags challenging – not so good for getting up again!) as it encouraged us to stop and sit, and open up to the work. When given some time to engage emotionally with the paintings (and physically because of the material and the scale), the experience can lift us into ourselves in a visceral way. In the first two rooms I would suggest that you can almost hear the swish, slick and smear of the paint as it is literally handled onto the canvas like an extreme version of finger painting – for this is what it is, a primary engagement with material, the canvas sometimes so heavily loaded that it sags under the weight.

The exhibition embodies forty years of a life in painting, with more than half the works being lent from private collections, and so rarely seen in public. It starts with the two rooms of paintings from the 80s, then meanders through a room with a selection from the 60s and 70s, and ends with what many think is the high-point of Ayres’s output, that of the 50s. The basis of the exhibition is a celebration of her connection with Wales, hence the emphasis on the first two galleries, work made while living in an old rectory in the Llyn Peninsular and as an external examiner at Cardiff Art School, before moving down to the Devon/Cornwall border in 1987. Proceeding through the galleries made an interesting journey backwards through time, enabling different connections to be made and it was breathtaking to be presented with a whole room (and it has to be said in the most beautiful space) of the 50s paintings as the climax to the show.

‘I got unhappy with teaching in art schools and just resigned one day, lost my London mortgage and cut to Wales. I thought I’d paint like hell. I just didn’t worry’.

Our journey begins with the most recent paintings shown, and it is in these from the early 80s that Ayres hits her stride again, having left teaching, abandoned acrylics, moved to North Wales, and thrown herself back into to an engagement with oil, colour and substantial texture on an ambitious scale. The chromatic intensity that soaked the interior of Ayres’s studio was echoed outside it by not only a profligate garden, but the presence of guinea fowl and peacocks. In these rooms we are surrounded by a selection of the idiosyncratic, recognisable flow of high key painting that hasn’t stopped since.