An important work by Davie from his famous 1958 retrospective. This is Davie at his most confident and creative as he conjures wonderful forms, symbols and creatures from his subconscious. Piercing whites, reds, pinks, yellows and blues emerge from an azure background. This is a work of tremendous physicality and colour. As in several of his masterpieces, Davie has a central pedestal like form as a focus for the composition and a source of magical creation. Primordial signs appear which have many and varying meanings at different times for Davie. Majestic in both scale and sheer power, A First Movement in Green is illustrative of this triumphal time for Davie, a painter working at the height of his skills and international success.
During the early 1950s, a time when British artists had limited exposure to the latest painting from America, Davie earned the reputation of being first European artist to embrace the action painting of the Americans and the influence of Miro, Klee and Picasso. For Davie these artists captured the dynamic energy needed to stimulate a new growth in painting. He quickly became the enfant terrible of post war British art - jazz and action painting, Jung and Zen, a conjurer of images. Davie was much admired by Pollock and Rothko and by Peggy Guggenheim and Stanley Seeger, who were among the most important collectors of the 1950s.
‘This was a time when creative people in all the arts were striving for a “liberation”…a setting free of the natural pictorial flow of letting go – we had a vague notion that complete freedom would lead to infinite possibilities’ (Alan Davie, letter to Jeremy Lewison, March 1997).
Davie first encountered the radical forms of abstraction coming out of New York in 1948 when he and his wife took up a deferred art school travel scholarship and set off around Europe and then America. Unlike other British artists who made straight for Paris and stayed there, Davie went to Paris, but then ventured further afield. His experiences in France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain were transformative. After hitchhiking to Switzerland and walking around the Matterhorn, the Davies went to Venice. Their arrival coincided with the 1948 Biennale, the first after the war, in which Peggy Guggenheim displayed her collection of Surrealist and contemporary American art in the Greek Pavilion. Davie spent five consecutive days at the exhibition and was introduced to and inspired by the work of Pollock, Motherwell and Rothko. While in Venice he also met the legendary patron herself. Guggenheim saw a natural affinity between Davie’s work and certain American action painters. In a letter dated January 1949 she wrote: ‘In Venice I discovered a young Scottish painter who works like Pollock. It is funny to be influenced by Pollock instead of Picasso. That just shows how time is marching on’ (Peggy Guggenheim, 16th January 1949, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington). She purchased Music of the Autumn Landscape of 1948 and became a good friend and important early supporter of Davie.
This trip reinvigorated Davie and on his return to London he took up painting with renewed zeal. For him artistic merit had little to do with either skill or technical accomplishment. Good colour did not come from the use of lovely paints, or beautiful line from an elegant brush or a finely controlled point, but from deep within. Like Pollock, the post-War giant of Action Painting, in the early 1950s Davie took to the floor, approaching his canvases from above and exuberantly attacking them from all sides. Although his works of the 1950s share much of the gestural determination of his transatlantic contemporaries, Davie never considered himself to be part of a particular movement. Rather, his objective was a search for a formula for the magical conjuring of the unknowable. Influenced by the Surrealist strategy of automatism, Davie began his canvases without a predetermined idea, allowing him to tap into unconscious imagery. He put his faith in the gift of improvisation that had made him a good jazz musician; he painted swiftly and violently, responding to flashes of inspiration. This musical heritage is very evident in A First Movement in Green.
‘Davie’s work is a confession, a declaration, a personal search for illumination: that it has a relevance beyond himself is for the artist a happy accident. He is not concerned with self-expression, nor with communication, not with the depiction of reality, although one might say that the search for reality provides the motivation of his art. Painting for him is the symbolic expression of life itself; and life a search for the unknown and seemingly impossible. Davie pursues an activity that is a very fundamental one, for the urge to draw and paint is universal, though only the child and primitive remain free of this inhibition imposed by a civilized society. In his emphasis on the initiative as opposed to the intellectual, Davie takes his place among other great figures of our time’ (A. Bowness (ed.), Alan Davie, London, 1967, p. 175).
Paolo Marinetti, Milan
Wakefield, City Art Gallery, Alan Davie in Retrospect, March 1958, no. 57: this exhibition travelled to Nottingham, University, April - May 1958; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, June - August 1958; and Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, September - October 1958.
A. Bowness (ed.), Alan Davie, London, 1967, n.p., no. 190 (illustrated).
D. Hall and M. Tucker, Alan Davie, London, 1992, p. 172, no. 239.