Artistic Identity in a Transatlantic Age: Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, and the New American Painting

By Acker, Emma | British Art Journal, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Artistic Identity in a Transatlantic Age: Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, and the New American Painting


Acker, Emma, British Art Journal


The explosive impact of New York school painting on a generation of artists working in Britain after the Second World War is well documented. Although the British press and public were slow to respond with enthusiasm to the new American painting on view at the 1956 Tate Gallery exhibition Modern Art in the United States, for many artists of the period the work was a revelation. The loose, gestural brushwork and bold abstraction of abstract expressionism presented postwar British painters with an astonishingly liberating break from the French artistic traditions in which they had been steeped for so long.

The artists living and working in St Ives were no exception. Despite its distance from the international art capitals of London, Paris, and New York, this small fishing community on the Cornish coast had evolved from a colony of picturesque landscape painters in the 19th century to a mecca for artistic modernism in the 20th, home to artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo. With its reputation as a radical art colony by the sea, St Ives became a centre for the artistic exchanges between Britain and the United States in the postwar period. During the late 1950s and early 1960s a number of American painters--including Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Mark Tobey--as well as critics, curators and dealers--such as Clement Greenberg, Hilton Kramer, William Seitz, Martha Jackson, Bertha Schaefer, and Catherine Viviano--visited St Ives and met with many of the artists there.

Patrick Heron (1920-1999) and Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) were among the so-called 'middle generation' (1) of St Ives artists whose abstract works in the mid-1950s were borne of the dialogue between a European tradition of the French masters and an Atlantic culture of modernity embodied in the new American painting. Heron and Lanyon responded immediately to the freshness, immediacy, and openness of abstract expressionism, recognizing in its radical simplicity an ideal language for expressing their artistic concerns. These concerns differed in many ways: Heron's art was deeply formalist--an art of, as he termed it, the 'purely pictorial', (2) while Lanyon was preoccupied with the visual as well as the symbolic dimensions of landscape, often incorporating Cornish history and myth into his paintings of the region. Both artists, however, were ultimately concerned with conveying their experience of a place and a landscape in which they were deeply rooted.

Their work reflects the almost immediate influence of the American painting on view at the 1956 Tate exhibition--both artists retreated from a cubist-inspired concern with contours, layerings, and pictorial depth to an emphasis on shallow space, bold colour and brushwork, and all-over design. Yet while Heron and Lanyon initially embraced American abstraction, they eventually chafed at what they viewed as the stultifying dominance of the New York art world, and fought to maintain their artistic identities amidst the increasingly dogmatic framework of international modernism. This struggle manifested itself in their artistic practice as well as their political activism--in the case of Heron, a crusade against what he viewed as the chauvinism in the New York art world and advocacy for the importance of British modernism, and for Lanyon, an ardent defence of regionalism in art. By examining the paintings, critical writings, and personal correspondence of Heron and Lanyon, I wish to shed light on their simultaneous incorporation of and resistance to abstract expressionism--a striving for artistic independence shared by many of their contemporaries in Britain.

The American invasion

The years following the end of the Second World War were marked by tremendous social and economic change in Great Britain. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the reconstruction of Britain became the primary focus of the new Labour government. …

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Artistic Identity in a Transatlantic Age: Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, and the New American Painting
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