William Scott at the Hepworth, Wakefield
Isn’t there something about still lives, or nature morte, that corresponds to painting itself? Their near two-dimensionality, the synthetic arrangement and the stillness seems to echo the characteristics of a completed painting. And they are already in a way “abstract”, emptied of narrative and even of nature, in that it is dead. Only in their relationship to the viewer, often as anticipated meal, do they still live.
Perhaps this is what Scott had in mind when he said that they “convey nothing. There is no meaning to them at all but they are a means to making a picture” and that his paintings were abstract “as a still life by Chardin is abstract”.
Yet, without meaning they are also full of meanings, the table being an ancient metaphor for social life, and in the New Testament, for the kingdom of God. Scott’s paintings, nearly all still lives, on show at the Hepworth Wakefield until 29 September, even at their most abstract evoke other experiences ‘outside of themselves’ often employing straight forward sexual symbolism as in Still Life with Candlestick, 1949-50.
A phallic symbol works by visual pun, it’s a double image, and Scott uses double images in other ways too, a primary reading of a painting often giving way to secondary or tertiary ones. As well as the purely formal reading, a still life could also easily be interpreted as a landscape or a figure. The magnificent Blue Abstract, 1959, winner of the John Moores Painting Prize that year, is a good example of this, where the still life quickly gives way to the purely formal, and then evokes a landscape. In an earlier painting The Harbour , 1952, the formal arrangement of lines and colours is primary for me, becoming a representation of a harbour, itself already a symbol of shelter and nurture, and then becoming a reclining figure, recalling the bathing figure in Bonnard’s The Bath, of which Scott painted his own version, entitled White Reclining Nude, in 1956.
At the Hepworth show it is easy to see how the scale and simplification of the image increases through Scott’s career, almost always keeping the referent content of still life, figure or landscape, yet becoming increasingly abstract and universal.
Paintings like White, Sand and Ochre, and Still Life with Orange Note, as well as one of Scott’s latest paintings Orange Segments, remind me of the way that ‘pure’ colours refer to the outside world even in the names we give to them, and I experience a moment of confusion: “is orange a colour or a fruit?”
I wonder if the more abstract they become the more they invite multiple references, but increasingly ambiguous, subjective ones. Patrick Heron referred to Scott’s work as an “intensely personal amalgam of the figurative and non-figurative” and Herbert Read said that in Scott’s more abstract work he found “a sensuousness and a potency of evocation that I find completely seductive”. Isn’t this what happens with abstraction, and the modernist search for the universal? The more universal the image, the more particulars can be projected onto it. For me, the legacy of modernism that remains urgent is the form or process and content distinction, as well as the recognition of how easily the distinction breaks down, because form is always content at the next higher logical level. The content “an orange”, at at the next logical level is “a colour contained in a circle” in other words form, but at the next logical level that circular colour becomes content.
The most abstract paintings here are the ones from Scott’s Berlin Blues series, for me the highlight of the show, the blue forms becoming almost pure rhythm especially when each individual painting is seen as part of the larger whole of the series, (effectively achieved in the marvelous space of the Hepworth), blues pulsating against the whites of the ground creating after images that reverberate with the overall rhythm. Here, the associations are with music and dance, despite Scott’s denial that the blues of the title made any reference to “The Blues” explaining that it was named after the blue paint he discovered whilst in Berlin.
In this room and throughout the exhibition, the serial aspect of Scott’s method shows through, too much improvisation and imperfection to be systematic but certainly series, according to Scott every one of his paintings was related to the one before either as a “continuation of a previous painting or… a reaction against it” and I get a strong sense of that here at the Hepworth. It is a wonderful exhibition and a timely reminder of the brilliance of Scott’s oeuvre.
Written by Andy Parkinson
May 29, 2013 at 9:46 am
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