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.