Catalogue entry

T04934 Untitled 1948

Black ink and watercolour on machine-made wove paper 235 × 312 (9 1/4 × 12 3/8)
Inscribed ‘S. Gilbert. 48.’ b.l.
Purchased from Noël le Gall, Neuilly-sur-Seine (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Prov: Bt from the artist by Noël le Gall 1987

These three works on paper [T04933, T04934, T04935] are vigorously and quickly worked. Two have figurative elements. Painted with black ink, T04933 has a face in the upper left which appears half-human and half-animal. In the bottom right is a butterfly or moth seen in profile. Similar faces are found in a number of Gilbert's painting of the late 1940s, and one such is combined with a butterfly in ‘Untitled’, 1948 (T04933, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982–4, 1986, p.175). The figurative elements in T04935, which is also painted in black ink, are less clearly identifiable. However, the drawing appears to have an animal's head, seen in profile, in the upper left, and a second head, seen frontally, in the upper right. By contrast, T04934 lacks figurative references, although it may be thought to evoke trees in a landscape. Underneath the vigorously painted, thick black lines are areas of red, blue, russet brown and grey washes.

It was Gilbert's customary practice to draw in ink and watercolour as a way of initiating subjects for painting: in conversation with the compiler (8 December 1988) he explained that drawing helped ‘launch’ him into beginning a painting. T04935 is drawn on tracing paper, now brittle through age, while T04933 and T04934 are painted on sheets of paper taken from a spiral-bound sketch-book. In 1949 Gilbert was to use paper from the same sort of sketchbook to print a monotype (P77188, see later entry). In conversation on 8 December 1988 the artist's daughter, Frances Gilbert-Weikert, recalled that in the period immediately after the war, Gilbert would ‘use any materials to hand as we were so short of money ... he used to take my school books’.

All three works were executed in Gilbert's studio, a ‘chambre de bonne’ in Montparnasse, Paris (see entry on P77187). Gilbert and his wife, the sculptor Jocelyn Chewett, had spent the war years in the Republic of Ireland and moved to Paris in 1945. Following the war Gilbert began to move away from his war-time vocabulary of imaginary and fantastic insect-like creatures towards a more neutral, abstract vocabulary of form and colour. Gilbert explained to the compiler, ‘The early works that I did in Ireland are defined figures, and defined insects whereas when I was working in Paris, they were disappearing in favour of abstraction’. However, it was as he was initiating this change that he became associated with artists of the Cobra group who saw in his earlier work close affinities with their own interests.

Gilbert has stated, ‘I do not know how this esoteric painting produced in Ireland without influence or followers was in fact essentially what the artist of the Cobra were producing ...contact with Celtic art similar to the original art of Denmark might well have been an unconscious influence’ (Stephen Gilbert, exh. cat., Court Gallery, Copenhagen 1971, [p.1]). Gilbert acknowledges that he was greatly influenced by Freud and Nietzsche, and has described certain childhood experiences as particularly formative. He recalls that, ‘We went to Ireland just after the First World War and in the Northern part of Ireland which is really wild and savage ... [with] spectacular cliffs, birds and animals and so on that lived there and that affected my imagination ... what one experiences as a child is what one carries with one all one's life’ (interview with Sarah Fox-Pitt in Paris on 1 June 1982, TAV 319AB). More recently, Gilbert explained to the compiler that:

the time was a war period and terrible things were happening. These [war time] images are an impression of the ferocity which existed at the time ... a metaphor ... a transcription of emotions. I didn't even realise it was expressionist at that time. I thought of it as a sort of dionysiac movement in myself because there was no one else doing it.

In 1948 the Danish painter Asger Jorn noticed Stephen Gilbert's work on exhibition at the Salon des Surindependants. Jorn was then galvanising interest and support for Cobra, and he found in Gilbert's paintings of the mid to late 1940s a strong echo of his own preoccupations. The urge to develop a mythical bestiary was felt very strongly by a number of Cobra artists. This aspect of Gilbert's work and his vigorous style created the basis for his involvement in Cobra. In conversation the artist recalled:

When I first met Asger Jorn he was going around the world, or Europe anyway, picking up artists who were not Danish and who had some of the qualities or spirit [of Cobra] and he was very pleased to have found me and I was very pleased to have found him, too, because I had thought that I was absolutely by myself. My expression was something that I hadn't come across in anyone else but when Asger opened up the door to all these artists in Denmark, then I saw that I wasn't so isolated.

As a result of Jorn's efforts, Gilbert was drawn into the activities of the group, and showed with them at the Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, in March 1949. In 1950, one of the fifteen volumes of the Cobra Library, Les Artistes libres, published in Copenhagen, was devoted to Stephen Gilbert, and reproductions of his work were introduced by an essay by Edouard Jaguer. Jaguer's essay is the only documented Cobra response to Gilbert's work and refers at length to the fantastic insect and animal imagery developed by the artist in Ireland during the war:

He employs the most ‘fantastic’ means that exist, the most terribly ‘real’. To proclaim man's torn, divided being to the world, his universe creates a legion of substitutes: insect-birds, insect-puppets, voracious butterflies, death's-head moths, sphinxes, harpies ... And these massacred figures of total perdition emerge from chaos to demonstrate the full extent of our aberration and the ‘urgent necessity to awake’. If Gilbert prefers the colours of fear, it is because he does not feel the moment has come to paint the world pink, or to spread his wings. With certain earth-colours, ‘burnt’ or blood-red, certain ochres, he chooses to express the particular air of devastation, of extermination which surrounds us.

(Edouard Jaeger, Gilbert, Bibliothèque de Cobra, no.10, Copenhagen 1950, p.3)

In conversation Gilbert explained how in Paris he moved away from the type of imagery admired by Cobra artists and became increasingly interested in abstract art:

as I was staying here [in Paris] for as long as I could, I was influenced by what was going on and I moved into abstraction and I parted from Asger Jorn. I had made all I could ... you have to be pretty young to work like that in that ferocious way. Abstraction was a great movement and no one would look at these [Cobra works] in Paris. For me it was something I wanted to leave behind and go into a purer type of expression without these external qualities.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996