Artwork of the Month - August 2016

Red Figure, 1954

Red Figure
Oil on canvas
166.4 x 100.3 cm / 65½ x 39½ in
Signed upper left W. SCOTT
Private collection, UK

On 15 August 1953, William Scott finished his six-week stint as a guest instructor at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada. The experience had been mixed; although Scott was impressed by the dedication of the students, he felt the standard of work was behind that found in Britain due, mainly, to the inadequacies of the basic training on offer to art school students. For their part, staff at the school were not entirely convinced about Scott, feeling that his ‘predilection for modern art, while quite right and proper, gave the impression of a rigidity of point of view which a bigger man would have avoided.’ (Donald Cameron, letter to the British Council, 20 August 1953). Nevertheless, the trip to North America allowed Scott to visit New York; before returning to England he took up an invitation extended by the art dealer Martha Jackson, staying at her gallery at 22 East 66th Street as well as her house on Long Island (Jackson would later represent Scott in the USA). On 17 August, Scott sent his wife Mary a postcard of the Empire State Building writing, ‘New York in a heat wave is terrific 96[°F]. I am staying at M. Jacksons gallery in great luxury. Sweeney [James Johnson Sweeney] is over in England, he left a message for me. A[ndrew] Ritchie [Director of MoMA] is very nice having lunch with him tomorrow. I am having lunch with [George] Dix Tuesday. Going to M. Jacksons home for week-end to meet artists.’ Among the artists Scott met were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

The New York visit proved a pivotal moment. Scott was to say later, ‘It was not until 1953 that my pictures could be regarded as large by British standards of painting. By 1953 my pictures now appeared to have reached a stage of total abstraction and I was now one of that very small band of British abstract artists much ridiculed by our critics and given few opportunities for showing our work... In England there was very little knowledge of American painting apart from the work of Jackson Pollock. Twenty years ago American art had not yet crossed the Atlantic. During my visit I met many of the now well known painters: Rothko, Kline, de Kooning. The experience was a surprise and a shock. I realised that the Americans had made a major discovery in painting putting abstract painting on its right scale. It was not the originality of the work, I recognised its origin, but I was overwhelmed by its audacity and technical skill. Here I thought was a public art and an art that was right for America. My reaction to American painting was, I think, to make me realise that my origin was in Europe and that I was resolved to take advantage of what I had learnt from America and I returned to put some of my former ideas of still life and figure into a larger format… I looked again at my most recent abstract paintings. I came to the conclusion that there was in fact no reason why I should continue with abstraction. My experience in America gave me a determination to re-paint much that I had left unfinished in the terms of symbolic still life. With the example of Ben Nicholson, whom I much admired, there was no reason for me to be devoted solely to abstraction and I embarked on a process of rediscovery. My pictures now contained not only recognisable imagery but textures and a freedom to distort. I again painted a profusion of objects that spread themselves across the canvas, often clinging to the edges leaving the centre open, a painting device used by Bonnard and today by many young painters.’ (script for British Council Recorded Illustrated Lecture, 1972)

Red Figure belongs to this period of experimentation. Painted on a far larger scale than his earlier work, the almost full length nude has indeed been stretched out to meet the edges of the canvas, the body flattened out so as to almost resemble one of Scott’s table tops; yet the head, visible enough to show a row of bared white teeth, ensures a vestige of the human form remains. The choice of colours, with shades of red predominating, and the coarseness of the roughly applied paint create a sense of savagery. As Norbert Lynton has pointed out, a useful comparison can be made between this seated figure and Willem de Kooning’s Woman paintings of 1950–53, one of which Scott had seen in progress when he stayed with Martha Jackson in East Hampton (Lynton, 2004). While Lynton sees this nude as ‘an extreme instance in the painter’s output, unique in its harshness and seemingly unambiguous note of horror’, the obvious affinities not only with de Kooning but with European painters such as Asger Jorn and Karel Appel of the Cobra group in Amsterdam and Dubuffet in Paris, show how alert Scott was to what was going on elsewhere.

These connections were tacitly acknowledged when Red Figure (also known as Red Nude) was accorded one of only 20 colour plates in the catalogue of the major exhibition organised by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 54:64: Painting & Sculpture of a Decade, which included 350 works by American and European artists and was shown at the Tate Gallery in April–June 1964. In a letter to Scott, dated 17 December 1963, Alan Bowness, one of the exhibition organisers, mentions Red Nude as one of the paintings Scott wanted to include, although it had evidently been earmarked for Documenta III. As David Anderson explained to Scott in a letter dated 3 February 1964, ‘The Gulbenkian people earnestly desire to have the RED NUDE (that’s OK) and SIGNS ORANGE AND OCHRE, which we and you have promised to DOCUMENTA. Alan Bowness says [i]you will prefer to have it in the GULBENKIAN. What about DOCUMENTA? Shall we simply replace this painting with another? If you can let us know which arrangement you prefer, that is, who you want to turn down, then we will take it from there.’ Even though Scott had initially wanted to include the painting in the Tate exhibition, he seems to have had second thoughts. In a letter to Alan Bowness of 24 January 1964 he expressed his reservations: ‘Red Nude to my mind introduces into the group too violent a change of mood and though it might be quite a good picture it is an odd one so not absolutely typical of what I may stand for.’ Bowness replied on 7 February saying that as a colour print of the painting had already been made it would have to be included. He went on, ‘Although you may feel that it fits in less well with some of the other works, I do think that it represents very well a side of your painting which people are perhaps in danger of forgetting.’