My artistic career began with the battle of Hastings. Or to be more precise with the Bayeux Tapestry, which celebrated the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Nine centuries later, no-one was surprised when Alan Wright was chosen to decorate a classroom with a frieze copied from the Tapestry. I was highly surprised that I was chosen to be his partner.
For a week or two we escaped from mindlessly duplicating the teacher's blackboard text. We were free and virtually unsupervised. While the other kids wrestled with tedium, we were entirely engrossed by our work. At the age of ten I knew exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
A year later, at secondary school, I was awarded my only school prize. In one visit to the designated bookshop I had to find a suitable volume. After an hour of leafing through coffee table books, I was desperate to find something - anything. Then Nicholson's Mexican and Central American Mythology caught my eye and a love affair with precolumbian art began. I copied figures from the Aztec codices, ignoring their bloodthirsty context, thrilled by the clarity of line and colour. Years later I discovered the influence of Mexican work on Gauguin's later Tahitian paintings, and the impact of the Mayan sphinxes - the chac mool - on Henry Moore.
In my early teens my father encouraged me by subscribing to the Time Life Library of Art. The books arrived in no particular sequence, and ranged from the early Renaissance of Giotto to American contemporaries such as Rauschenberg and Johns. I drew faces from Brueghel, Bernini and Rubens and made painstaking copies of Japanese Ukiyo-E prints. I tried to fathom the doctrines of Seurat's Divisionism and Breton's Surrealism.
I left school and spent a few years writing, and drumming in rock bands. At the age of 22, I started to paint again. I wanted to know how Titian had painted figures - his famous 'glazes thirty or forty' laid transparently over a monochrome underpainting. I soon grew frustrated at the time involved - watching paint dry for days - and started doing oil sketches in a single sitting. The moon through a window; a sunset on the sea; the night sky above a beach; dark planets in science fiction skies. Without my intention, the images were suddenly stripped of representational meaning. The planets became coloured discs and the real had become 'non-objective'. I had become an abstract painter.
I spent the next two years in Art College trying to acquire the rudiments of craft and technique. Neither is conventionally taught in British art schools. I learned something even so. I passed an Advanced Level in art history. I penetrated some of the mysteries, finding out about rag papers and linen cloth, about fugitive pigments and the difference between French and Chinese hog bristles. I studied colour theory, discovered atmospheric perspective and read the theoretical work of artists as diverse as Joshua Reynolds and Marcel Duchamp.
For me painting was an act of play, never a chore. I cut classes so that I could paint. My approach was largely a response to the materials I was using. Certain colours mixed in watercolour fight to be separate. Different brushes and knives give very different effects. I adopted alkyd oil paints, which dry more quickly than conventional oils while still retaining the texture of the brush mark, unlike the original acrylic paints. I determined to use good materials in a craftsmanlike way.
I was fascinated by the gush of experimentation that immediately preceded the First War. I was deeply interested in the Blue Rider group and especially Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinskys' abstractions. I read their essays and those of their colleague Paul Klee. It seemed to me that a fascinating line of enquiry into colour, space and movement independent of the visible world had been abandoned with the outbreak of war. That traumatic event made all attempts at beauty in art seem trivial - 'decorative' or 'sentimental'. Artists progressively saw themselves as the society's conscience. They no longer felt it worthwhile to lift the culture's spirits. Humankind needed to be frequently reminded of its abhorrent nature in this novel form of puritanism.
Art turned to brooding upon the vile nature of humanity. The age of anxiety, of angst, swept away the old guard of Impressionism, of art for beauty's sake. Monet became the last acceptable master of the art of the beautiful. The anarchic Dadaists and the fascistic Futurists demanded the destruction of Art. The Surrealists elevated Freud and tried to probe the human psyche (blithely ignoring Freud's contempt for their productions). Abstraction retreated into geometry, often governed by obscure metaphysical doctrines. Mondrian dominated the interwar period with his 'neo-plasticism,' a pseudoscientific teaching founded in new age Theosophical teaching.
I found Kandinsky's pre-war abstractions far more interesting than any subsequent painting. I decided to mine the old workings, believing that a mother lode of precious material had been abandoned. My early attempts intimated an exciting direction, but I lacked the skill to pursue it. It seemed that the traditional skills had been abandoned. So I studied the techniques of painting, wanting to know how to achieve the effects I desired. The many layered technique of Rembrandt interested me most. I tried to understand the mysterious art of composition - whether spontaneous or systematic. I ignored the dicta that abstract paintings must not reveal space.
This was all bound up with a fascination for oriental philosophy and the psychology of perception. I was interested in the way the mind interprets reality. That interest developed into the hope of involving the viewer in the artistic process. I do not want to share my own perceptions through paintings, but to stimulate individual interpretations. I believe that art exists at the interface between the object and the viewer. Good art can stimulate new perceptions by encouraging thought rather than demanding compliance to the artist's will. In short, my view of art is democratic and participatory. But the viewer participates by viewing, not by taking part in the act of painting. Creativity is shared between the artist and the audience.
While still at college one of my pictures elicited the comment that it was hell from one observer and paradise from another. We all know that images dance in the fire; that clouds can provoke stunningly real pictures in the mind's eye. To inspire composition, da Vinci recommended that artists stare at clumps of moss until scenes form. Dali's 'paranoia critical method' relied upon similar perceptual fixation. I hope in a painting to provoke complex and changing scenes, intimations of strange spatial relationships in a world of pure colour. But these changing scenes all appear on the screen of the viewer's mind and depend on the innate creativity of the mind.
My direct, spontaneous approach comes from a long interest in Oriental ideas. Japanese Sumi painters draw quickly to outpace the cumbersome process of reflective thought. Like jazz or Indian classical musicians, they improvise in real time after many hours of practice. I plan carefully, but usually work rapidly to finish watercolours and to make oil underpaintings. I often spend months, even years, looking at an oil painting and adding to it layer by layer.
I began exhibiting while still at college. For some years I supported myself through painting before becoming a writer, media consultant and counsellor. I found the art world both cynical and shallow. The elitism manifested through exorbitant prices and a blinkered Emperor's New Clothes attitude left me confounded. Drawn into conversation artists, dealers and critics often proved ignorant of art history, aesthetic philosophy or the techniques of art. Instead art had become an expression of sloganized attitudes. In this morasse some genuinely life-giving individuals still swam. But all too many had accepted that the medium is indeed the message, and used very little to say nothing.
A comparison with the development of 20th Century music may be helpful. At the beginning of the century, Debussy, Stravinsky and Sibelius used traditional melodic and harmonic forms to make stunning new music. But as with painting after the First War music became more intellectual. Based as much upon thought as sound. In the last decade there has been a move away from the arid, elitist formulations of modern music. The trend that ignored the twelve-tone scale and had no truck with serialism, but continued expanding upon melodic and harmonic ideas, has come back into vogue. Many contemporary composers look to Shostakovitch rather than to Stockhausen. Of course there is nothing wrong in the stark intellectual journey of Stockhausen, but I find pleasure in the music of the popular contemporaries Gorecki, Part and Taverner.
I seek something similar in my own work - to revitalize the enthusiasm of the early Twentieth Century and shake loose the yoke of angst that has been made the conforming principle of the visual arts.
Perhaps the critics who proclaimed painting dead are right. If so, I can only say: Painting is dead! Long live painting!
Jon Atack, March 2000