Provenance: Private Collection, London, acquired from the artist in the 1950s.
Exhibitions: The Challenge of Post-War Painting: New Paths for Modernist Art in Britain 1950 - 1965, James Hyman Fine Gallery, London. 3 June - 4 September 2004. William Turnbull, Heads and Figures 1953 - 56, James Hyman Gallery, London, 23 September - 12 November 2004.
Literature: William Turnbull: Heads and Figures 1953 - 56: Rare works on paper from a private collection, James Hyman Gallery, London, 2004, (cat. 1), front cover (p.1). The Challenge of Post-War Painting: New paths for modernist art in Britain 1950 - 1965, James Hyman Fine Art, London. 2004, (cat. 6), illustrated p.33.
After four and a half years in the air force (1941-46) Turnbull attended the Slade School of Art (1946-48), before using his three year post-war grant to live in France, staying in Paris from 1948-50. There he absorbed vital new stimuli, across a vast span of time and culture, to produce art with little precedent in London.
One such stimulus was cave painting. Before the war Turnbull had acquired a book on cave art and whilst living in France he had a chance to visit the famous Lascaux caves, where he saw first hand the untutored immediacy of these raw early responses to man and animals. Turnbull would pursue a similar rawness in his own presentation of the human form.
Turnbull's heads of the early and mid 1950s are appropriately direct, an art brut that was far removed from conventional representation or canons of beauty. In them Turnbull sought to avoid existing vocabularies, to find a new, personal language. As the artist later recalled they began from the language rather than from representation. It was important for him to start from the material and then go to the image as a means of avoiding naturalism. The idea of defining such work in terms of abstraction or figuration was anathema to him. He later wrote of these paintings 'I didn't want to "transpose a head from three-dimensional reality to a flat surface - but to imagine what a head would be if flat squeezed between two pieces of glass like a micro-slide and made of paint marks.' (William Turnbull, quoted in (Richard Morphet, 'Commentary', in William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, Tate Gallery, London 1973, pp.31-32)
In asserting flatness in this way, Turnbull succeeded in marrying a key modernist concern with a new form of representation of the human form. We are grateful to William Turnbull for his assistance in cataloguing this work.