In 1956, Lawrence Alloway, then assistant director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, discussed Magda Cordell's work as a European development of American Action Painting and in terms of American popular culture. In his catalogue text for her exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, London, in January 1956, he suggested that with her work, and that of other unspecified European artists,
A style has developed which preserves the physical means of action painting (with its lexicon of sensuous effects) but in which the physical act of painting is not the end. The problem the artists have set themselves is to establish images in the way of painting without becoming merely formal; to reconcile the plenty and variety of paint with the compulsion to found iconographies. (Alloway, p.3).
Elsewhere in the text, he provided the following list of words suggested to him by Cordell's work:
solar, delta, galactic, amorphous, ulterior, fused, far out, viscous, skinned, visceral, variable, flux, nebular, iridescence, hyper-space, free fall, random, circulation, capacious, homeomorphism, variegated, reticular, entanglement, multiform, swimming pool, contraterrene (Alloway, p.3).
The breadth of cultural references within this list was typical of Alloway's interest in an anti-hierarchical and inclusive understanding of culture, and seemed to provide a template for critical readings of Cordell's work. The critic Basil Taylor, for example, described her paintings as 'a marriage between Jackson Pollock and The Thing from outer space' (quoted in Robbins, p.64).
However, as far as painting is concerned, the lineage of such a picture as Figure (Woman) with its highly textured surface and sack-like body is more easily traced through the Art Brut paintings of the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), whose work had been exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1955, than through the Action Painting of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), of which very little had been seen in Britain before the Modern Art in the United States exhibition opened at the Tate Gallery in January 1956. Indeed, the critic Reyner Banham had noted the Art Brut origin of Cordell's figurative work in his article 'New Brutalism', published in The Architectural Review in December 1955. Comparison of Figure (Woman) with Dubuffet's Tree of Fluids, 1950 (Tate T07110), for example, demonstrates the clear similarities between Cordell's figure paintings of the late 1950s and Art Brut.
Regarding the impact of American popular culture on her work, Cordell has stated that her interest in it was only as part of a much wider reappraisal of visual art in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939-45); this was one that she hoped would lead to the creation of a new iconography within visual culture that might help 'prevent the repetition of the inhuman and unseemly past' (Robbins, p.190). Thus while Cordell, as a member of the Independent Group, a loose coalition of artists whose activities centred on the Institute of Contemporary Arts during the early to mid 1950s, shared Alloway's non-hierarchical appreciation of culture, she was not committed to American popular culture per se.
For the critic Stephen Bone writing in the Manchester Guardian on 13 January 1956, the authenticity of Cordell's brutalism was part of a primitivist aesthetic intended to act as a foil to the 'hygiene and organisation' (quoted in Robbins, p.65) of the postwar technological age. More recently, however, critics have considered her paintings of women as signs of heroic femininity. Jacquelynn Baas has argued that the recognisable cohesion of Cordell's radically distorted female figures represents 'a triumph of the human organism over injury and change' (Robbins, p.65). For the art historian David Mellor they
act as signs for an internal and - crucially - maternal body, unrepresented in British art of this moment. They resemble Munch's undulating and sickly accounts of women and otherness, but shorn of his misogynies and fears. However, a new fear - a new hysteria - is present here: the paintings radiate another sickness in their red womb/X-ray connotations. Here is the hellish terror of 'atomic dust,' of the cancerous glows vented at the heart of the nuclear pile, as at Windscale in Northumbria in 1958. These tumours swell and wither on the painted ground of an imaginary body which resists over-coding by consumption.
(David Mellor, 'A "Glorious Techniculture" in Nineteen-Fifties Britain: The Many Cultural Contexts of the Independent Group', in Robbins, p.235).
In this context, Figure (Woman) may be considered as part of a new family of excessive female bodies that emerged in the mid 1950s, which includes works by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Germaine Richier (1902-1959), among others.
Although it is likely that this picture was painted in London, it is not known exactly where.
David Robbins, The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1990, pp.64-7 and p.190
Lawrence Alloway, Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Magda Cordell, exhibition catalogue, Hanover Gallery, London 1956