Conroy Maddox 1912–2005
Winter Criminal Term
Gouache paint and printed paper on paper
381 x 533 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Conroy Maddox 63’ in black ink bottom right, and on the back ‘Winter Criminal Term Collage Painting 1963’.
Presented by Pauline Drayson 1964
Purchased from the artist by Pauline Drayson prior to the exhibition at Grabowski Gallery, London in 1963.
Winter Criminal Term is an example of what Maddox called his ‘collage paintings’ – works in which collage elements are affixed to a painted background. Although Maddox’s production of collage paintings was at its height in the early 1960s, he had been working with this mixed media format since the late 1930s. The artist’s earliest recorded collage painting is The Ambivalent Emotion 1939. Winter Criminal Term combines material cut from magazines and newspapers, pasted over a multi-coloured background wash of gouache. On the left is painted the blurred, full-frontal face of a man wearing five trilby-style hats, positioned one on top of the other. On the right is an assemblage of collage elements. The uppermost image is a cut-out, cropped colour picture of a baby’s naked bottom and legs, held by a man in a checked dressing-gown. Below this is a small, torn-out section of a reproduction of a sepia-toned sketch by the French eighteenth-century painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, depicting the tilted head of a young woman wearing a necklace, titled Study of a Seated Woman (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The lower collage element is a black and white photograph of a horse cut from a newspaper. The background paint has been applied in thin washes of yellow and cream, and in parts in thicker and more opaque layers, such as in the painting of the hats. The dark grey wash of paint which runs along the bottom edge of the painting creates the impression of a floor, although it also can be seen as another of the painting’s horizontal colour planes. Unlike many of Maddox’s paintings there is no stark use of perspective here, yet the grey band serves to create an effect of pictorial space.
The rough painterly style of this work marks a radical departure from Maddox’s earlier collages and paintings, and is a feature of various other works from 1963, such as Out of the Hectic Courtroom of Recrimination and The Future on Our Terms. The use of flat colour fields is also representative of his work at this time, suggesting that the artist was influenced by contemporary abstract expressionism. In a letter to Tate dated 17 March 1964, he saw this development as ‘after all only another form of automatism which surrealism was exploring as early as 1924’. According to the art historian Silvano Levy, Maddox began experimenting with abstraction in the late 1950s, owing in part to the fading interest in surrealism in Britain at the time. Rather than viewing this work as significantly influenced by abstract expressionism, however, Levy considers Maddox’s collage paintings of 1962–3 as expressing a ‘rudimentary design and brash colour’ that was influenced by pop art, in particular, the work of R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007). The closeness of Maddox’s work to pop art during the mid to late 1960s has been commented on by the jazz musician and member of the British surrealist group George Melly, who suggested that Maddox preferred to work in a contemporary idiom rather than harking back to a previous and more immediately identifiable surrealist manner.
Although it was created within the climate of British pop art, Winter Criminal Term can be seen to reflect Maddox’s surrealist sense of effective and disturbing juxtapositions, represented here by the daily ephemera of newspapers and magazines. Stating that the theme was drawn from contemporary news events, Maddox wrote:
In the case of Winter Criminal Term, this collage painting was suggested by a number of events of a criminal nature that I read and heard at the beginning of winter 1963. The work itself becomes a form of bulletin board, and the design for the figure wearing the hats was, for instance, based on a murderer whose wardrobe contained some 300 hats. The other images represented by collage can be similarly identified, and are visual equivalents of criminal acts performed on a baby, a woman and a horse. The formal conception of the painting, the overall design, the colour form, as it were, on which the collage is worked was suggested by a peeling wall in a criminal court.
Following this explanation, the three collage images can be read as the ‘victims’ and the male head as the criminal. Other than disclosing that his choice of images was influenced by contemporary news events, Maddox did not comment further on the particular significance of the collage elements. His reasons for employing the Watteau drawing, for example, are uncertain. However, owing to the cropping of the image, the apparently slumped position of the woman’s head and the thin line of the necklace across the throat – possibly suggesting a cut or ligature – could be seen to imply the criminal occurrence to which Maddox alludes in his statement.
The tower of hats in Winter Criminal Term can be seen to refer to the work of Max Ernst, whose collage The Hat Makes the Man 1920 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), includes several piles of brightly-painted hats. While Ernst’s image is made from a commercial advertisement for hats, Maddox’s hats are painted, giving the sense of a playful game of citation. Albeit obliquely, Maddox could also be seen to play another surrealist game; by placing the three images in a vertical line he produces a disjointed ‘exquisite corpse’. This was a visual game played by the surrealists in which a body was created by piecing together disjointed images, usually created by various participants.
For Maddox, the juxtaposition of disjointed or isolated images was a primary characteristic of the medium, serving to create surprising and unsettling images. He wrote in 1942: ‘Collage brings into play the multiple aspects of the psychological disproportion of the elements of a natural event. By the isolation of certain photographic objects or parts of objects, it is possible to retain a series of dislocated and disquieting images that only needs reshuffling in order to create the unexpected.’ Accordingly, in the exhibition catalogue for his 1963 show at the Grabowski Gallery in London, the surrealist scholar J.H. Matthews described Maddox’s recent collages as ‘an act of provocation’, suggesting that they ‘denote disquiet, not comfort’. Winter Criminal Term plays with themes of violence and chance, which recur frequently in Maddox’s work. They are treated here with the artist’s sense of the absurd and characteristically black humour, which fellow British surrealist Robert Melville has described as ‘gleefully macabre’.
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.