Summary

In 1952, while working as Paule Vézelay’s (1892-1984) assistant, Bowen began exhibiting work with the New Vision Group at a coffee house on Northumberland Avenue in London. Among the works he showed there may have been Untitled (Brush Drawing No.1), a typically calligraphic example of Bowen’s informal abstraction of the early to mid 1950s.

Among the post-war École de Paris artists that Bowen encountered in the pages of Art d’Aujourd’hui and Cimaise was Pierre Soulages (born 1919). His heavy black and white compositions, combining structural weight and power to a fast, exuberant burst of energy, were particularly enthralling to Bowen. Like Soulages and Georges Mathieu (born 1921), he painted his pictures in one continuous and unpremeditated session. The practice of creating a painting in a single moment of psychic and plastic engagement resonated with the surrealist practice of automatism, and for Bowen served a similarly revelatory function. According to Bowen, the act of painting such a picture as Untitled (Brush Drawing No.1) was itself a process of visual revelation where the second level of the subconscious is related in terms of conscious reality. The active physical participation of the artist in the creation of his projected imagery is the extension of his sensitivity in pictorial terms. His concern with the active creating instead of with what he’s created leads the artist into a new field of activity where his concern is for his integration as a complete person to the mass and the structure of the environment in which he plans.

Bowen’s interest in the process of painting as the submission of the ego to the greater whole has clear parallels with the teachings of Zen Buddhism as expounded in such books as D T Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism, 1950, which was a seminal text for many abstract artists of Bowen’s generation.

Further reading:
Fiona Gaskin, ‘British Tachisme in the post-war period, 1946-1957’, in Margaret Garlake, ed. Artists and Patrons in Post-War Britain, London 2001
Peter Davies, Denis Bowen, London and St Ives 2000

Toby Treves
October 2002