Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions in the Literary Tradition

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions in the Literary Tradition

Article excerpt

Keith Vaughan: Romanticism to Abstraction Pallant House, Chichester, until 10 June

Robin Ironside: Neo-Romantic Visionary Pallant House, Chichester, until 22 April

In recent years there have been a number of exhibitions of Keith Vaughan's work in commercial galleries, and his prices at auction have climbed steadily, but no major show in the nation's museums. Yet interest in his life keeps pace with the revival in his art (the standard biography of Vaughan, by Malcolm Yorke, is long out of print and avidly sought after), and 2012 as the centenary of his birth will see the publication of a new monograph, a catalogue raisonne of his paintings and an annotated volume of his final journals. Vaughan was a good writer, and although selections from his journals have been published before (in 1966 and 1989), the harrowing writings from his last two years have never before been published in unabridged form (Drawing to a Close, edited by Gerard Hastings, £29.95).

That they should appear now is a measure of the interest in this remarkable artist.

Although Vaughan (1912-77) became a master of the semi-abstracted male figure, his beginnings were tentative. Born in the Sussex village of Selsey (appropriately near Chichester), as a painter he was largely self-taught and began his career working in advertising. His early work is very much in the literary and romantic tradition of British art, and he soon came to be associated with the wartime neo-romantic painters such as Graham Sutherland, John Minton and John Piper. His work of this period is small-scale, linear and lyrical. Only later did he become more painterly in approach, moving towards a classical understanding of form, under the influence of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and de Stael. His later work was increasingly abstract, though landscape and the male nude remained his principal inspirations.

The suite of three first-floor galleries designed for temporary exhibitions in the new wing of Pallant House is given over to Vaughan, with a prelude in the approach corridor. The middle room is the heart of the show, literally and figuratively, containing some of his best large figure paintings hung on dark greeny-blue walls. Here is the great 'Assembly of Figures VII' from 1964 and 'Musicians at Marrakesh' (1966-70).

The first room concentrates on the early work, and is very engaging, including much of his book illustration and such memorable images as 'Ulysses II' (c.1938), a lovely figure group in browns and creams, 'The Singer' (1947) and 'Old Seaweed Hoist', a lithograph of 1953 based on an earlier oil. (A shame the oil was not available for loan. ) Unfortunately, the third room is rather a hotchpotch and makes no clear statement, bringing in some really rather poor images such as the Sutherland-esque 'Road out of a Village' (1946) and 'Cenarth Farm' (19623). There are one or two better things here, including 'Coastal Defences (Seaford, East Sussex), from 1959-62, and the Cubist-y 'Village in Ireland' (1954), but the room is not a success. The first two rooms on their own would have made a much stronger show.

The first major Vaughan exhibition I saw was at the Geffrye Museum in 1981, called Images of Man. I still have the catalogue and I remember how moved I was by the selection of the paintings and the power of the work. …

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