Berck-Plage is one of a series of four prints by Peter Hobbs collectively titled the Ehrenzweig Suite. The series exists in an edition of seventy, of which this print is number fifty-eight. The group is comprised of two screenprints, a lithograph and a work that combines both techniques. They are abstract in character, although figurative elements can be decoded. In another print in the series, House Lithograph (Tate P11778), a rectangular box is roughly outlined. Its interior is filled with thick, black marks so densely worked that they almost form a solid block of colour. Above the box, a configuration of lines suggests the outline of a pitched roof, transforming the arrangement of expressive marks into something readable as architecture. House No.3 appears to rework the same image. However, the rectangular box is overlaid with a three-colour screenprint. The interior space is divided up into three flat blocks of colour - black, yellow-ochre and brown-ochre. In Berck-Plage (Tate P11776), the same house-like structure can be identified, but it is radically altered. A central ochre plane evokes the colour of sand, while various staircase motifs may suggest the staircases to and from public beaches. These staircases, depicted frontally, aerially and as if curling into the distance, play optical tricks that distort the sense of depth and space within the image and lend it a diagrammatic feel. Also, squeezed between blocks of solid colour is a screenprinted photograph of a woman exposing her buttocks while turning to smile for the camera. Finally, Female Box (Tate P11777) takes further the diagrammatic character of Berck-Plage. Flap-like extensions to the central rectangle suggest the structure of a cardboard box which has been opened out and flattened. Solid blocks of ink contrast with bold black and white stripes. Letters and numbers evoke instructions for assembly, and dotted lines are reminiscent of 'fold here' directions. Space and depth are again ambiguous. This is typical of the whole group of prints, which all employ techniques to destabilise the unity of the image.
These prints may have been made in response to an article written by the educationalist Anton Ehrenzweig (1908-1966) the year before, entitled The Metaphysical Double Space of Peter Hobbs (1965), which was reproduced for Hobbs's exhibition at Marlborough Graphics in 1966. David Mellor has commented on Hobbs's contempt for formalist versions of contemporary art, preferring what Ehrenzweig, his champion and mentor, called 'poemagogic art'. 'Poemagogic art' was a term coined to describe art that prompts two conflicting perceptual responses that are destined never to be resolved. On one hand, there is what he calls 'differentiation', where pictorial detail, figure against ground, is legible. On the other, there is 'de-differentiation', which describes a scattered, unstable imagery that forces the viewer's attempt at focusing to 'give way to the vacant, all-embracing stare' (Anton Ehrenzweig, p.67). 'Poemagogic' art is achieved when these two kinds of imagery are locked in creative conflict. Ehrenzweig used psychoanalytic theory to explain how this kind of imagery mirrors the conflict that forms the core of every individual's psyche.
Hobbs' Ehrenzweig Suite continues his preoccupation with the box form, which had interested him from roughly 1961. His analysis of the relationship between the inner and outer spaces of a box can be read as an attempt to create a tension that might be 'poemagogic'. In his essay on Hobbs, Ehrenzweig wrote: 'His present work is based on the analysis of an inner "box" space turned inside out where the unfolded interior space seems to be richer, more real and bigger than the environment that contains it … Sometimes the inner "metaphysical" space is flat, purposely deadened by hard strips, sometimes it is represented in a more illusionistic technique, but always in contradiction to the treatment of the space outside. Opening the lid of the box seems to be a catastrophic moment of contact between two contradictory systems.' (Ehrenzweig, [p.1].)
Anton Ehrenzweig, The Metaphysical Double Space of Peter Hobbs, exhibition pamphlet, Marlborough Graphics, London 1966.
David Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1993.