Artwork of the Month - February 2016

Figure into Landscape, 1953

Figure into Landscape
Oil on canvas
114.3 x 152.4cm / 45 x 60 in
Private collection

I was brought up in a grey world, an austere world: the garden I knew was a cemetery and we had no fine furniture. The objects I painted were the symbols of the life I knew best and the pictures which looked most like mine were painted on walls a thousand years ago. I may begin a picture as a careful recording of a special sensation evoked clearly at a remembered time and place and by a continuous process of work, obliteration, change, an expression of an entirely different thing grows, a ‘figure into landscape’…
(William Scott, Nine Abstract Artists, 1954)

Scott painted two works with the explicit theme of ‘figure into landscape’, this one in 1953 and another the following year. Both reveal Scott’s interest at that time with what he termed ‘space construction’. The compositional structure has been pared back to the simplest of linear forms – black lines, a black square. Austere, yes, but traces of humanity remain. Like many of Ben Nicholson’s white reliefs, Figure into Landscape retains a handmade quality; uneven, wobbly lines across a fractured and fissured paint surface reveal the hand of the artist. And while in formal terms the painting is among the most insistently abstract of Scott’s career, the title deliberately destabilises this perception. ‘Figure into Landscape’ – the words invite the viewer to seek out a series of transformations. Abstract lines and shapes are but signs which ‘become’ a figure (the black square as head, perhaps) which in turn becomes a landscape, or do the two possible readings always remain. These ghosts of reality are perhaps why even Scott was ambivalent about thinking of himself as an abstract artist:

I am an abstract artist in the sense that I abstract. I cannot be called non-figurative while I am still interested in the modern magic of space…the things of life.
(William Scott, Nine Abstract Artists, 1954)