Cliff Holden, original photograph by Bryan Long

Cliff Holden

Documents: 1994

ABSTRACTION IN FIGURATION

I first came to Sweden in 1952 and again in 1956 and in that year I stayed. I did not come as a refugee, a political exile, or economic self-seeker, nor did I emigrate here. I was invited on each occasion by the Swedish painter-sculptor Torsten Renquist. I stayed on and it became a habit. Some people live out their lives in places they don’t come from, assigning themselves to a strange people and an alien sense of land and city, e.g. James Joyce, Samuel Becket, Picasso, Kandinsky, etc. and my answer to those who ask if I am now a Swede is similar to that given by Orson Welles who lived in Madrid for 30 years. “Mr. Welles,” the press asked. “Are you a Spaniard now?” He answered, “ Don’t be silly man, I am Orson Welles.”

I am still considered an “outsider” in Sweden, as shown by the catalogue of the Modern Museum - I am represented there by three paintings which are listed, not among the Swedes, but in the back pages reserved for foreigners. In contrast, both Kitaj and Hockney enjoyed both American and British status. My value here, if any is perhaps that I have acted, as the critic Torsten Bergmark once said, as a catalyst in the Swedish cultural life, especially in my earlier years here.

Previously, in the years 1944/45 in England, during discussions with my master, David Bomberg, I conceived the idea of the Borough Group that I organized in 1946. As I was most active, and at Bomberg’s suggestion, I was elected the Borough Group’s first President during 1946/48.The Borough Group was active for five years before disbanding in 1951.

During that time the Group organized seven exhibitions, which were greeted by critics with abuse but most often with silence. Certainly there was no understanding of our ideas, our work, or what we were trying to do. But the abuse was not so virulent, as with the Impressionists, as to create a climate of negative response. In contrast, continental groups like the Cobra, the Cubists, and the Blaue Reiter Group, which existed for less than two years and exhibited twice, were treated, not only with respect, but also with reverence. Everything foreign in art in England is given value over the home product. Even the “School of London”, which exhibited in Copenhagen at the Louisiana Museum recently, was, like the School of Paris, composed of painters of many nationalities.

Two members of the “School of London”, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossof, worked very closely with us, the Borough Group, for some years, gaining stimulus and direction. Auerbach spent seven years with us; whereas Kossof had only two years with Bomberg after the Group had disbanded. Sadly, apart from being stimulated and using thick paint against the thin paint of the time, neither of these painters understood what we were striving to do. They both used the thick paint and the gesture as a gimmick, instead of as a means to create a unique image. They never became members of our group preferring the security, support, and patronage of the Establishment. Their work had more in common with the gestures of the Paris based Swede, Bengt Lindstrom, Wilhelm De Kooning, and Karel Appel, than with the Swede, Evert Lundquist (who painted even thicker) or us.

The work of Lundquist was a revelation to me when we first met, in that he appeared to be grappling with the same kind of problems that we had struggled with for years. Lundquist used perhaps even thicker paint than Auerbach but the result being a complete integration of light, space, and form, revealing a unique image. It was my greatest regret that I was never able to arrange a meeting between Bomberg and Lundquist.

Our group existed to further, extend, and develop the ideas of our master, David Bomberg, who, in turn, acknowledged and paid tribute to Cézanne as the Father of the significant developments in art in this century; and like Cézanne with his “little sensation”, Bomberg coined the phrase “the Spirit in the Mass”, but always refused to give a further definition. The nearest he would come to this was in saying that it was “something that in essence lives but is not life; beauty and truth which is near but is not God; something boundless, beyond measure; something unidentifiable but which has form which is not synonymous with, nor can exist as form only.” In his book “Unquiet Landscape”, Christopher Neve wrote that “Bomberg did not only respond to landscape: there is a fervent sense in which he became it”, so that “he has become both picture and the view.” For both Bomberg and myself, touch was of paramount importance, as was the engagement of all the senses, in the physical act of painting. Again, we both had a philosophical background and found justification and stimulus in the Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley’s “New Theory of Vision”. Bomberg often said that one should paint like a blind man and there is confirmation of this attitude in Monet; half blind during the last twenty years of his life, he repudiated Impressionism and made his greatest paintings. For, as Cézanne said: “One paints with one’s hands not with the eyes.” I have written previously, in a tribute to my Master, after his death, that if we reject Alberti’s view as superficial (that painting is solely the representation of things seen) and rather accept Cennini’s idea that painting is the revelation of what the eye does not perceive, then we immediately come to a closer understanding of what we were trying to do - and the kind of struggle I am still involved in today.

I once wrote that “had Cézanne lived another 25 years something other than Cubism and Fauvism might have developed.” It was, therefore, that we looked back to Cézanne for our continued development. We dismissed Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, for reasons that would need a whole book to enumerate. But I will give one example of our divergence from Cubism. In a given set of forms, as, for example, in the human figure, a change of related directions is the only factor which differentiates between the character of one form and another, and gives each image its peculiar character. We work through movement. Movement usually means the volition or locomotion of objects in relation to other objects; but, in terms of drawing, movement is used in a sense peculiar to static form, the movement that lies within and around the object and oneself. This is one of the main points of divergence from the Cubists, who were merely concerned with the movement of the artist in relation to the object. Directions were conceived as angles intersecting and defining the planes of the form; but the illusion was still optical and so not so very different from discursive form.

In 1952, I was introduced to the print medium silk-screen, or ‘serigraphy’, during an exciting two hour session with Torsten Renquist and Sven Olof Ehren. Here was a medium through which one had the capability and the possibility of manipulating and preserving the images that tend to get lost in the process of painting. I began to experiment with the screens, not only making one-off proofs, but also by releasing the screens from their static reproductive role and, thereby, evolved what I call, for want of a better word, “action printing”. As early as the forties, our group was using a terminology for ideas similar to those used by the American Tachiste and Action painters whose work first came to England in the middle fifties. But, although our terminology was similar to theirs, our intentions and commitment, in our view, were more profound. The only idea we appeared to have in common with the Americans was that we had begun to consider the canvas or panel as an area to explore and analyze an actual or imagined object through space relations. Object and space were one and of equal value. Thus the picture surface was no longer the medium for a picture so much as an event. Within the area of activity on the canvas or panel, the painting then becomes a game like chess. There is logic in painting but, unlike chess, as Goya once said, “there are no rules in painting.”

In 1955 the English painter and critic Patrick Heron wrote: “In painting merely to observe is to subscribe to the heresy of realism; and merely to project a rhythm is to subscribe to the opposite heresy of non-figuration.”

[Page last updated: 8th March 2005]

© Cliff Holden 2004-2015