Artwork of the Month - June 2017

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Berlin Blues series as shown at the Tate retrospective, 1972

The Berlin Blues series, 1965 – 1966
Oil on canvas

The extraordinary series of paintings known as Berlin Blues was painted predominately in 1965, after Scott returned from his year long residency in the German capital. The distinctive character of the works owes much to his experience of living in that city. The colour that gives the series its name was a pigment Scott discovered while he was staying there. As he wrote in a letter to the Tate Gallery on 25 November 1965 (in answer to a query about Berlin Blues 4, in the Tate’s collection): ‘It is one of a series of Blue pictures started in Berlin 1964 – The title has no significance apart from the discovery of this particular blue pigment in Berlin.’ (Among the paints found in Scott’s studio is a small tube of ‘Pariserblau’ in the Mussini range of artists’ colours produced by Schmincke, a firm in Düsseldorf.) The paintings, which marked a new departure for Scott, were also a response to the vigour and excitement of the cultural life he experienced in Berlin. It was the first time he produced a major series of paintings that had no link to visual reality, abandoning those references to still life that had been an almost constant presence in his work to that date.
Norbert Lynton has suggested a link between the Berlin Blues paintings and John Flaxman’s Royal Academy lectures on sculpture, singling out Flaxman’s words about composition: ‘The forms are the pyramid erect, inverted or lateral, the circle and the oval’ (Lynton, 2004, p. 312). Much closer to Scott’s immediate experience, however, was the Egyptian sculpture he was able to see in Berlin housed in what was then the old Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin (now the Neues Museum, which reopened in 2009). As an artist already drawn to the Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum, Scott would have taken full advantage of Berlin’s famous collection of Egyptian artefacts (indeed, his son Robert remembers visiting the Egyptian collection with his father in 1964). His deep appreciation of the emblematic qualities of limestone reliefs, the flatness of the imagery, and the idea of the blueness of the Nile (triggered perhaps by the discovery locally of a particularly desirable blue pigment) come together seamlessly in these large abstract compositions.

Scott himself, in the 1972 lecture he recorded for the British Council, made a link between the Berlin Blues series and his mural painted for the Altnagelvin hospital in Northern Ireland: ‘In 1963 I had again a reversal of attitude due I think to working on a mural during the previous two years. My paintings became more flat and again close to some of the very simple, almost minimal, statements that I had made ten years before. Related directly to the mural is the Berlin Blues series of which in the Tate exhibition I showed a group. In this group the colour is a strong blue and each picture has a repetitive theme that implies my concern at this time with my attitude to mural as well as public art. I felt relieved that I could expand and go beyond the ties of easel painting.’ Certainly, the Berlin Blues paintings, when hung together in a particular sequence, take on the character (and visual impact) of a large-scale mural. Viewed in this light, it is tempting to see the series as Scott’s answer to the Berlin wall – he made a group of works that could, together, be seen as a ‘wall’.