Artwork of the Month - December 2016

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Blue Still Life, 1956

Blue Still Life
1956
Oil on canvas
101 x 167.8 cm / 39¾ x 66 in
Private collection

Blue Still Life belongs to the series of monumental table still lifes, all in landscape format and measuring roughly 40 by 66 inches, which William Scott executed in 1956. Others in this series include Winter Still Life (Tate, London), Still Life, Blue (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and Brown Still Life, painted for the architect Sir Basil Spence, then President of the Institute of Royal Architects. These large still lifes of 1956 share not only a common theme and comparable dimensions but a similar structural division, with proportions close to the Golden Section. In each of the paintings, the lower band, roughly two thirds of the canvas, represents a tabletop, the upper third is a background, perhaps a wall. The scale of these works, and the careful arrangement of forms, bestows upon them a grandeur and a sense of gravitas not always associated with the still life genre. They call to mind the work of those painters whom Scott admired most – Chardin, Cézanne, Bonnard. Yet the overall vision – as well as the execution – remains uniquely Scott’s. Nowhere is this more evident than in the handling of paint, almost visceral in its intensity, which reveals every step of the artistic process.

By the mid-1950s, Scott’s reputation as a painter was established both in the United Kingdom and overseas. His 1953 one-man show at the Hanover Gallery in London, characterised by increasingly abstract works, had been visited by both Andrew Ritchie, then Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and James Johnson Sweeney, then Director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, who shortly afterwards remarked to the New York based dealer Martha Jackson that, ‘At last Britain has a painter!’. Sweeney’s admiration was genuine; in 1953 he acquired one of Scott’s works from the Hanover show, Yellow and Black Composition, for the Guggenheim’s collection and included it in the travelling exhibition Younger European Painters which opened in December that year.

Scott’s 1953 Hanover Gallery show was followed by another in September 1956, which closed only three days before the opening of his first solo exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. Blue Still Life was not included in either exhibition, which suggests that it was painted late in the year. It was selected by Scott and Sir Alan Bowness, then curator at the Tate Gallery, for the 1972 Tate exhibition William Scott: Paintings Drawings and Gouaches 1938-1971 so they both evidently regarded it as a key work, and it would surely have been exhibited in 1956 had it been completed in time to do so. Indeed, in many respects, Blue Still Life is a pivotal work, the most interesting of the 1956 still lifes. Emerging within it is the beginning of that compositional shift, from the relative austerity of paintings such as Brown Still Life to the richness of form which characterises the more abstracted table top still lifes of 1957. The recurring motif of the other large still lifes of 1956, the crossed saucepan handles raised high above the table, is absent in Blue Still Life. Instead, the handle of the pan points downwards, across the tabletop towards the viewer, the only painting of this date in which it does so. The effect is two-fold. Firstly, there is an immediate flattening out of the picture plane, here the tabletop is on the very limit of occupying a three dimensional space. Secondly, it results in a greater insistence, as the art historian Professor Norbert Lynton has argued, on an element hitherto not exploited in Scott’s monumental still lifes – space: ‘the large frying pan insists on space. We assume it is a circular pan, shown elliptically in a manner that recalls Cézanne’s way with dishes and bowls, and since we think of it as being circular it must also be occupying space in depth. … In his next paintings Scott would present crowds of kitchen utensils and sometimes a hint of a figure, and some of these works can strike one as quite playful. Here he seems to be on the brink of the adventure.’ [Lynton, 2006]

That ‘adventure’ was played out in the majestic, abstracted still life paintings of 1957 such as Honeycomb Still Life (Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin). As in these paintings of 1957, in Blue Still Life the number of objects is greater and their arrangement denser and busier than in earlier works of 1956. By accumulating the pots and pans Scott empties out the lower centre of the composition, a spatial device he consciously borrowed from Pierre Bonnard. While Bonnard had long been a painter Scott particularly admired, his example seems to have become especially relevant to the still life paintings of 1956–7.