an edited correspondence between Alan Davie and James Hyman
April-July 2003Dear Alan,
It was wonderful to see you and Bili again yesterday. I was very excited to see all the new paintings! I'd love to find out more about how you work on them. I know that in your paintings of the 1950s the handling of paint was incredibly free, but there now seems to be a greater deliberation.
Can you tell me more about your working process and how it has changed over the years?
With all good wishes to you and Bili,
Mainly, ideas and forms come intuitively out of the act of painting, driven by an intense inner urge to create, without any specific pre-conceived formal concept.
In paintings of the 1950s, on the whole, colours were randomly spread onto the board and black was generally used to draw forms within the colour areas. Then the emerging suggestions of form were accentuated and made firmer with the addition of more colour. I was then faced with a totally 'unknown' image, which acted as a revelation of something hidden, but was somehow recognised as having great significance.
Sometimes the discovery of such forms would stimulate me to develop them in other works, which I would be working on at the same time - seldom do I work exclusively on a single picture.
There is still a similar process going on today as with the early works. Occasionally, a painting will be completed A LA PRIMA but, on the whole, there occurs a great deal of reworking and adjustment. Assessment leads to alterations according to conscious considerations. Later, I may realise that these developments didn't really work, which in turn can lead to a mental confusion. Often this leads to what could be considered a 'DESTRUCTIVE ACT', which may facilitate an unpremeditated development and an exciting new ADVENTURE into an entirely new concept.
When I receive a new batch of canvases, I usually start a new work every day. Eventually I find myself working on several works simultaneously. Large works are no longer painted on the floor (there is a more contemplative, meditational mood) and there is no longer the crazy, relentless urge, which necessitated working fast with liquid paint.
I have been making drawings with a brush on paper for many years - often laying out say ten sheets on the floor.
On each I make a mark or simplified form, but each time in a different place. Then I continue to add another, repeated on each page, but in a different direction - over and over. Inevitably this results in a series of variations on an evolving theme, through spontaneous improvisation. In this way, many ideas for paintings have been discovered, and eventually carried forward in different scales and media - often leading to a series of variations on a single theme, which originally evolved from drawings.
Lots of love
I know how central painting is to you, but the other day you stressed to me that you see your life as a unified whole, that all your experiences are interconnected. Can you tell me some more about the way that your different activities feed your art?
For example, you have a parallel career as a musician. You trained as a classical pianist in the 1920s and studied cello and flute, and a CD of your free -form music from the early 1970s has recently been released. You were a jazz musician in the 1940s, a free-form musician in the 1970s and music has always been important to you. Do you see this as a separate activity or as being related to painting?
With all good wishes
The various creative activities are, as it were, interchangeable. Improvising, say on a flute or clarinet or cello or whatever, is for me the same as using a brush on paper. Melodic lines or note shapes or marks and signs are all very similar, whether visual or aural.
With a piano, the harmonic development and interlocking of lines with chords, are very much like visual forms and colours (after all, the formation of elaborate inter-connected wave patterns is happening be it visual or aural. To me it is the same).
Jazz is a medium where I would be carried (out of myself) by an intoxicatingly rhythmic urge (strongly reminiscent of sexuality) and creating (in a kind of trance) elaborate melodic lines floating on a sequence of chords making movements and loops and lunging forms entirely by intuition, but without any conscious intention or preconceived plan.
At lunch yesterday we were talking about the gardens you created at your home in the Caribbean and about your other home, an old farm in Cornwall. How do these different working environments affect your practise as a painter? I know, for example, that brush drawings are usually made in Cornwall but that painting takes place in Hertfordshire. Do these different living environments have an impact on your work?
With all good wishes
As to differing environments affecting the work - strangely enough the surroundings don't appear to have any positive influence (apart from the odd Carribean palm tree and volcano in the 70s). I am working in a realm of my own, wherever I may be.
Gardening can become an intimate collaboration with nature herself, a 'joining of hands'.
Nonetheless, your experience of nature has always fed your work: In the 1960s you took up gliding and spent over 2,000 hours in the air in your own glider. You were also a keen sailor with your own yachts. You also swim and dive.
Can you tell me about your feelings for nature and the way that this informs your work? Is the desire to fly in the air or to swim underwater comparable to the desire to paint?
With all good wishes
I have always been deeply moved by nature, but never have I ever attempted to translate this appreciation directly into ART.
If ART is to be related to NATURE, then, in my case the creative energy and drive of NATURE itself is being channeled through me via the work.
Even in my earliest paintings I was always vaguely aware of making contact with a magical natural flow. I had to keep within it or I was lost.
Flying a sailplane one would think was very far away from painting - but the experiences ARE related. A natural talent for feeling the forces of nature always guided me, and I would soon understand the natural flows of the air. Air became a solid substance within which one can soar - I think of that magical day in the Alps flying my own super sailplane - being towed off the ground by a power aircraft and being dropped 200 feet above a mountain village: laboriously finding streams of rising air on the lower slopes - slowly making my way higher (understanding the natural flow) - using a 5,000 foot vertical cliff face above a lake - eventually reaching 10,000 feet and from there instinctively following the 'Goddess of the air', forward onto the main mountain ridge and eventually, after 3 hours, climbing in silken-smooth lift to 16,000 feet to the top of the rising air mass.
On the way down, I passed very close to 6 climbers roped together in the last part of an ascent, and, pulling in very close, waved to these 'mere mortals'.
This is a very SPIRITUAL experience, and a losing of the ME in a total involvement with nature.
Painting can attain the same joyous losing of the ME in a supernatural revelation.
In the sea one has the same kind of experience - swimming down 40 feet, I find myself on the inside of a vast shoal of multicoloured fish (eye to eye) - I become a fish.
Sailing a yacht brings the same revelation when one becomes ONE with the air and the waves - understanding the need to continuously adjust the angle of the sails to the wind and the direction of the boat through the water. This also can bring the thrill of a total mystical experience within natural forces.
Lots of love,
PS Off to Cornwall Sunday, God willing!
I hope the trip down to Cornwall went fine.
I wanted to follow up on your reference to nature: although you write that you have not attempted to translate this appreciation into art, in recent years you have painted landscapes as well as streets and houses. This seems like a big departure
It's interesting how the nature of the work has gradually changed.
The early works seem more related to music - being mainly abstract with subtle movements of moods and formal rhythms - suggesting an illusion of space.
The later works demonstrate how the visual arts can differ radically from music in that they can include direct representations of real objects - this I am finding more and more exciting.
I now feel free to make use of any image, symbol or sign from whatever source, which engages my attention and merits inclusion in the work.
A late development is the inclusion of elements from landscape - also figures of birds, animals, boats, etc. etc.
I have become fascinated with the depiction of landscape per se and recently completed a series derived from the works of a Venezuelan Primitive painter, BARBARO RIVAS, whose work I found very exciting when I discovered it in Caracas.
When abstract marks are made on a surface, the addition of a horizontal line complete with images of houses and trees, transforms these marks into gigantic forms in an illusory space. This space can be interpreted as sea, sky or land.
Brushed marks on a surface invariably are suggestive of forms in space. I find it extraordinary that one can give an illusion of a real pictorial landscape with paint on a surface, yet embodying my own highly personal painterly qualities
Lots of love
I was very interested in the way that you wrote of your many different activities from sailing to jazz. From your earliest statements in the 1950s you were already writing about art as a Zen experience . Can you tell me some more about how you experience the moment in these activities, about your loss of self and the mystical nature of this communion?
With all good wishes
We haven't seen the sky for five days - nothing but rain and fog.
We decided to have a walk on the cliff tops - bitterly cold wind - dressed in woollies and waterproofs - we make our way down the rocky steep path towards the little beach at Porth Chapel - marvelous flowing yellow gorse in great swathes with bluebells between, and intense clumps of red campion and sea pinks of every shade of magenta in the green. Cold winds off the dark sea. Big waves rushing to the high tide mark.
Suddenly a patch of blue sky appears over the hills - the sea changes to a dark purple with turquoise in the shallows - glaring white crests washing on the golden sand - we sit above the beach in sunshine and two grey-headed jackdaws come very close searching for grubs. Sunshine transforms the landscape - God touches us with his little finger. Seagulls on the sand, sensing the rising of sun-warmed air, circle up and up, higher and higher, into the blue.
Three swans suddenly fly overhead - SUCH JOY!
Such experiences produce a mystical revelation .
In a curious way, creative work can be similar. I am engulfed in a dark mist of uncertainty - the brush moves sluggishly on the paper - I follow the brush. Gradually mysterious images begin to appear - a strange animal, suggestions of landscape - numbers and magic signs - I wrote across the space instinctively - (CAPTURED BY DEMONS) - I place the drawing on a clean sheet of paper and stand back amazed at what I have done.
Lots of love
I hope the weather in Cornwall has improved.
We've all just got back from a week in Paris, where we saw some wonderful exhibitions including Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre, a Nicolas de Stael retrospective at the Pompidou Centre and an antiquarian book fair which had some extraordinary illuminated manuscripts from the fifteenth century.
I know that, one inspiration for you has been illuminated manuscripts and I know that you also admire the Bayeux Tapestry and have done a series of gouache studies of the tapestry, which give prominence to words as well as images.
I also thought of you when I saw the incredible 16th Century Mughal Indian miniatures at the British Museum. There is an incredible intensity of colour, a wealth of detail and multiple centers of attention.
In your own work you combine words and images, using words and phrases, in a variety of different languages and scripts. I know that sometimes the words and text comes to you spontaneously but that you have also taken words of text from various books. Can you tell me something about these various sources?
I look forward to hearing from you.
With all good wishes to you and Bili
Interesting that you were impressed by the medieval manuscripts in Paris. They have always been a great inspiration to me and probably led to the use of a combination of script and painted images in my paintings and drawings.
I have always been fascinated by the combination of text and pictorial image found in illuminated manuscripts: so many times the embellishments do not actually illustrate the written narrative. Indeed so often we find grotesque imagery which bears no relation to the story.
The same applies to my work - initially words were used as the titles of pictures where often there was no obvious connection: THE HORSE THAT HAD VISIONS OF IMMORTALITY, BANANA TIME, GOLDEN PIG, MARVELOUS MOUSE, PROPHET IN A TREE, PORTRAIT OF A BUDDHIST, ETC., ETC. A title usually had no direct relation to the visual image.
Probably the first painting to contain words was BANANA TIME (1961), the writing of the words being the culminating act in the production of an entirely spontaneous work.
The titles enable the spectator to 'ENTER' the work from an 'irrational' view-point, as it were. One becomes 'LOST' in the image and is compelled to recreate 'meanings' for one self and thus enter a world of painting of one's own making (A REVELATION).
Inclusion of script within the works can be quite automatic (a kind of surrealist act) - a flow of subconscious ideas.
I am reminded of James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake', which I discovered when I was a soldier during the war and was devoted entirely to poetry as a creative medium.
So the marriage of poetic and pictorial elements became the outcome in the later painted works. After all, the words we use in our own written language are all originally evolved from pictographs - changed and refined over many hundreds of years.
I often resort to a surrealist method. I will take a page of a book and chose at random words or phrases from it to add to a picture. Glancing through pages I halt intuitively at a phrase, which has some crazy relevance, and make use of it. This is particularly true if the phrase doesn't have any positive relationship to the work (the less the better). But ultimately, the phrase finds its own relation to the visual image, thereby creating an enigma and a new psychic experience.
Words from a foreign script are often used - particularly from a language which is unknown to me - such as Spanish, which seems to me to have a particularly evocative FEEL and musicality.
A creative experience can have infinite possibilities, which makes a work of art (any work of ART) a kind of everlasting GENERATOR of emotions.
You write that your work 'can be quite automatic (a kind of surrealist act) from a flow of subconscious ideas' and also mentioned James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake'. These suggest both surrealist and modernist aspects to your work.
Can you tell me some more about this relationship to surrealism? Did you meet any of the surrealists on your travels, or through Peggy Guggenheim whom you met in Venice. Did the early automatic techniques of Miró, Masson and Ernst interest you?
I would also be very interested to know more about how you see your work in relation to that of the American Abstract expressionists, which I know you first encountered in Venice.
I hope you are both well and look forward to seeing you shortly,
With all good wishes
I don't think I knew much about Surrealism but certainly came in contact with it through the Peggy Guggenheim collection. My work has long had what one might call a 'SURREALIST' character in its use of the irrational, but never directly in response to these artists' work.
The Abstract Expressionist movement was in fact a general drift towards an attempt to liberate the artist from standard conventions and came from a general recognition of the importance of the subconscious in creativity - in all the arts, not just painting. Many of us had the same urge to find a way of reaching the hidden source and at the time most of us recognized the importance of Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of Jung.
Being by nature a poet, painter and creative musician, I became actively involved in all three arts, was part of the 'free music' scene and wrote a lot of 'free' poetry.
My work did appear to relate to Pollock in the way the paint was used.
If we wanted to make a large painting very quickly, using instantaneous largely sub-conscious direct means, one naturally had to work with the canvas on the floor, using liquid paint and large brushes - hence the fact that some of the paint qualities are similar in the work of both of us. We were both very interested in primitive art and ceremony, particularly the art of the American Indians.
When we first went to New York for my first show at Viviano Gallery, we were met off the plane by Dore Ashton, the eminent art critic, and quickly rushed to a party in our honour where all my American contemporaries were invited - I believe they were all there.
It was a great surprise to find my work immediately admired by so many of them - particularly Jackson Pollock. I felt I was being accepted as ONE OF THEM.
We actually spent a weekend with Jackson at his home in Long Island where he took great delight in showing us around the marvelous countryside. We had a lot in common, although I wasn't particularly impressed by the DRIP paintings and he, himself, had realized that there was no future in just pouring liquid paint onto a canvas.
For a British artist who had been dismissed by the London critics as of no significance, to find so much real appreciation, and to be selling to the major museums and collections from my first New York show was quite overwhelming.
I remember, of all the 'crits' of my first London show, Wyndham Lewis was the only one who felt that there was something special about me (but then he himself was a very great artist!!)
We didn't spend much time with the other artists at that period, being in New York for such a short time, and, anyway, I have always been a very shy person!! and never enjoyed spending much time with other painters!
When we were in the studio the other day, looking at the recent paintings with their complex imagery and multi-lingual inscriptions, we joked that in a Davie there is 'the whole history of art'.
You have included an incredible range of cross-cultural references in your recent paintings: African masks, Ashanti gold weights, Ethiopian art, Indian painting, Carib petroglyphs, Australian Aboriginal artIt's an amazing list!
Your home is similarly filled with African and Oceanic objects. Placed side by side with your own paintings and gouaches they seem to enter into a dialogue with one another. Do you think of your work in terms of such a dialogue across cultures and time?
Can you tell me about the way that your interest extends beyond the formal qualities of these objects to an engagement with different world cultures?
With all good wishes to you and Bili,
I see in tribal art forms, images, signs and symbols which I recognize (DEEPLY WITHIN MYSELF). Some of these signs actually occur automatically in my own spontaneous black brush drawings - I tend to agree with JUNG when he talks about 'archetypal images'.
Also, I have made several series of works informed by tribal arts, which have been a means of development: Hopi studies, Jain studies, Australian, Carib etc. etc. I thereby find myself immersed in a universal human creative condition which is timeless and shared by all of us.
There occurs, as you suggest, a DIALOGUE between my painting and the tribal sculptures which stand in our home alongside the pictures - they live very happily together. I feel they both embody a spiritual essence which is timeless and beyond cultures or history.
Many times I have made studies of forms from various 'primitive' cultures and indeed felt compelled to make use of some of these elements within my paintings. Such images are incorporated into the paintings and become, as it were, my own. These studies become paintings in their own right and are still DAVIE pictures. There is a merging of cultures - this, of course, also happens between different primitive cultures themselves, accepting influences etc.
I feel strongly that I am, as it were, - TAPPING IN - to the vast store of imagery which makes up our artistic heritage from CAVE ART onwards - and of course - being of CELTIC origins one can discern a link with ancient NORDIC culture.
Strange how so many elements exist simultaneously in diverse cultures, such as the spiral forms in CELTIC, AUSTRALIAN, Caribbean, INDIAN etc. There are countless examples of ARCHETYPAL IMAGERY.
When we were living in the West Indies, the discovery of the pre-historic PETROGLYPHS of the CARIB INDIANS coincided with my finding of a book on the subject by the greatest authority JANINE SUJO from VENEZUALA, who subsequently became a friend and enabled me to see some of these incredible stone engravings at first hand. They became a great inspiration in my work.
Such images, the meanings of which are unknown to us, make me think of the origins of art and of language. Marks become signs which can convey meaning from their magical evocations. These mysterious languages are often only translatable by initiates and men of magic.
As well as these archetypal images, your recent paintings often combine clearly defined objects with explosive areas that are much more abstract, areas where the paint is extraordinarily free. At the studio you described these areas to me as 'ectoplasm' and told me about your interest in alchemy. Can you tell me more about how this interest has informed your work?
With all good wishes
The workings of the early alchemists strike a meaningful note to me and Jung's PSYCHOLOGY AND ALCHEMY has long been a source of inspiration.
The work of alchemy does seem to correspond closely to what I am doing: there is a search for the essence; the ever elusive answer to the question of origins in the magic that is life - a delving into the timelessness of existence in its myriad forms. Divine visions can appear out of elaborately worked processes.
MAGIC REVELATIONS COME OUT OF THE MANIPULATION OF BASE MATERIAL SUBSTANCES.
There is a kind of alchemy in the way that coloured matter spread on a surface can be magically transformed into a vision of form and space - a splattering of brilliant MULTICOLOURED paint becomes a luminous event in the heavens, A CLUSTER OF JEWELS, a harmonic sparkle - colour and space become united in a transmutation of delights, passions and moods. Such is the stuff I am working with.Alan
Your writing suggests that creativity is both an ecstatic and a revelatory experience. Can you tell me some more about the relationship between these physical and spiritual levels.
With all good wishes
Creative energy is akin to sexual energy. What can be closer to the mystery of creation than the sexual act? The driving force of the universe - truly a LOSING OF THE SELF IN MYSTICAL UNION.
Some of my works do seem to evoke an erotic mood. But again I stress that 'unintentionalism' is the key word (never by intent).
Over the years, the imagery in my work has become clearer, more defined, but the final conclusion remains the same - born out of intuition.
Yet, I must stress that intuition is not the only factor - self-conscious striving plays a part - a kind of 'getting rid of the old skin' like a snake, to be renewed again. Truly it takes THE WHOLE SELF to produce ART. NOT the subconscious alone.
The true artist must recognize the magic when it occurs: The Revelation of the HIDDEN UNKNOWNoccurs, it seems, a kind of ecstatic vision, some kind of RELIGIOUS revelation that is out of a timeless sphere and beyond understanding.
As I have actually written on some works:
IMAGES ARE NOT MADE AS ART OBJECTS BUT AS CHANNELS of COMMUNION WITH THE DIVINE
Lots of love
Published in 2003 / James Hyman Gallery
Published in October 2003
Including over 40 illustrations
This publication is available from the gallery, priced at £10.00
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