Robyn Denny

Golem I

1957–8

Medium
Oil paint, paper and card on hardboard
Dimensions
Support: 1518 x 2438 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1972
Reference
T01523

Technique and condition

The support for this collage is a thin hardboard panel. Before 1972 the hardboard had a secondary support of rather crude battens of a roughly hewn wood, glued and pinned to the perimeter of the hardboard on the reverse. At this time it exhibited a general concavity. Due to the warp and the risk of flexing when handled, a protective frame and additional battening was added in 1972. This system could again be improved upon to provide more support and to help slow down the degradation of the hardboard as a result of acidity in the atmosphere.

The collage is constructed using paint and paper collage materials. The layering and distribution of the support, undercoat, paper and paint is extremely varied. The collage takes the form of cut and torn pieces of thick and thin paper, card, stencil, printed paper and corrugated paper. The application of the collage pieces with cow glue has been very rapid. There are remnants of paper where the artist appears to have changed his mind about the positioning of some of the pieces after he had glued them down and subsequently peeled them off.

The paint is applied in a very fluid and broad manner both before and after the attachment of the collage elements. The hardboard support is left visible in several places in the lower half of the painting. A white undercoat was applied mainly over paper in the top third of the painting but also directly on to the hardboard in places. The paint medium is difficult to identify through visual means alone. In places it has the appearance of poster paint but it is probably oil paint which has been heavily diluted with white spirit and has soaked into the unprimed hardboard. There is a considerable variety in the degree of gloss and surface texture both as a result of the degree the paint has been diluted and of the different surfaces it is applied to. Where it has been applied over the white emulsion it has more of the visual characteristics of an oily glaze.

There is no surface coating but there are localised areas where the surface is glossy.

The overall condition of the collage is fair. The paint is extremely underbound and prone to flaking in some areas. Delamination of collage pieces has got worse since 1972. There are several gouges and scuffs in the paint, paper and hardboard, however it is difficult to ascertain the status of all of these damages because the state of the paper and hardboard when the artist chose to use it is difficult to assess. There is a piece of paper material missing. The dust and dirt on the surface of this collage is masking the depth and richness of the blues and reducing the brightness of the light coloured areas.

Elisabeth Reisser
February 2000

Catalogue entry

Robyn Denny b. 1930

T01523 Golem I 1957-58

Inscribed ‘Denny 57–8’ b.r. and ‘Robyn Denny “Golem 1”/5 ft. x8 ft.
1957–8’ on back of hardboard.
Paper collage and oil on hardboard, 59¾ x 96 (152.3 x 244).
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1972.

Denny told the compiler on 30 March 1972 that the word ‘Golem’ was an ancient Jewish term referring to the fabrication of a human form and consciousness, out of disconnected elements by a conscious agency. Traditionally the word has both mythological and technical meanings. He chose it deliberately because the term is rather obscure and thus the title could nor be recognised immediately as describing the content of the picture. He wanted to prevent the painting from being interpreted literarily. However, the title also refers to how in the picture the construction of unrelated collage elements achieves form and significance.

Initially the picture was titled ‘The Rout of San Romano’. When Denny was painting ‘Golem I’ he was interested in Paolo Uccello’s ‘Rout of San Romano’ and much of ‘Golem I’ is related to the structures in Uccello’s painting. Denny however abandoned the original title because he thought that it would falsely encourage the spectator to see his own picture as an abstract version or translation of the Renaissance picture.

He said the picture was painted at a period when younger artists in particular were reacting strongly against what they believed was the traditional British demand of art: namely, that its function should be in some way the imitation of the external world and that it should be appreciated as such. His own generation at the Royal College of Art wanted to ensure that ‘the value of the picture lay in its own credibility, in its own pictorial reality’.

In T01523 there are a number of stenciled letters. Denny began to include words in his paintings in 1956 while he was still at the Royal College: however, often what had the appearance of words were not meaningful terms but merely letters composed together. At the same time, he was also using words to indicate the beginning of a sentence but the sentence was not completed. Thus the paintings were partly constructional, partly literary: the pictures were achieved by suggested or incomplete forms.

(In his thesis at the Royal College, Language, Symbol, Image, 1957, Denny considered how verbal expressions acquired either precise or general meanings in the very wide range of contexts in which words are used either as signs or symbols.)

Denny applied words and letters to his canvases by sticking on printed words or large stencils. He appreciates the formality and the precision of the stencilled letter. He said that his interest in calligraphy lay in the value of the word as a vehicle of language, as a symbol, and also as an image. However he also believed that the words and collage which he applied to canvas or board should not remain completely evident. Denny would attempt to destroy what he had finely ‘wrought’ and to leave only the faintest traces of what he had made earlier. He considers that in painting T01523 he was intending to make a palimpsest and thus to deface an inscribed surface in order to establish another inscription.

He said that this dual artistic process both of concealing an inscription or set of marks, and of suggesting that it still exists, hidden, imposes a burden of responsibility on the spectator: ‘the spectator has to enter into the spirit and sensibility of the work’. By this he meant that the significance of the work should not be self-evident: the spectator has to investigate and explore the picture in order to understand it. He thought at the time that there were ways both of inviting the spectator to participate and of controlling his interest by the hints and allusions which the forms suggested. T01523 should be ‘read’ from left to right.

He explained that the rhythm of the fluttering banners in Uccello’s ‘Rout’ suggested the use of corrugated paper for the central areas. He applied paint to separate out the undulations of the paper. The other paper in the picture was chosen because it was oil resistant.

Denny painted a second ‘Rout of San Romano’ in this period. It was also a collage painting, and of smaller dimensions, 30 in. x 48 in. However T01523 relates more specifically to the many collages and drawings which he was producing at this time, although none could be considered as preparatory studies for this particular work.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.

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