Catalogue entry

T04926 Landscape at Les Baux 1939

Oil mixed with pastel and charcoal on hardboard 461 × 550 (18 1/8 × 21 5/8).
Inscribed ‘Minton 1939’ t.r.
Purchased from Michael Ayrton through the Whitechapel Art Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1958 and accessioned 1987
Prov: ?Given by the artist to Michael Ayrton
Exh: John Minton: 1917–1957. A Selective Retrospective, Royal College of Art, Jan.–Feb. 1994, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, March–April 1994, Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno, April–June 1994, Oriel 31, Davies Memorial Gallery, Newtown, June–July 1994 (4, repr. in col., as ‘Landscape with Buildings on a Rock’)
Lit: Michael Middleton, ‘Four English Romantics’, in Orpheus, vol.1, 1948, p.111; Frances Spalding, John Minton: 1917–1957; A Selective Retrospective, exh. cat., Oriel 31, Newtown 1993, pp.10, 59, repr.p.27 (col.)

Landscape at Les Baux’ depicts a group of buildings perched on top of huge hollowed out rocks set in a barren landscape. In the foreground of the picture three figures can be seen among smaller rocks. The standing figure clothed in white, and the kneeling figure clothed in pink, look towards a third figure in blue, who lies prostrate on the ground. The painting is dominated by blues and browns, so dark as to give the image an almost monochromatic appearance. The work has a rough, textured surface owing to the pieces of charcoal and pastel that were mixed in with the paint. The artist appears to have used a palette knife in places and also to have made marks with the handle of the brush.

In 1958 the Tate Gallery purchased a watercolour by Robert Colquhoun entitled ‘Two Sisters’, 1945 (T00815). It was discovered shortly thereafter that the watercolour's backboard was this landscape by John Minton. The find was noted in the entry on T00815 in Tate Gallery: Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 1964, vol.1, although the works were not separated until April 1987. When accessioned into the collection it was given the simple, descriptive title ‘Landscape with Buildings on a Rock’. Research on this painting undertaken in late 1994, however, identified the scene as being a rocky outcrop at Les Baux, France, and the painting was retitled accordingly.

T04926 represents Minton's interest in the works of the French Neo-Romantic painters, Pavel Tchelitchew, Christian Bérard, Kristians Tonny, Leonide Berman and Eugène Berman. Minton was particularly influenced by the paintings of the latter. Between the late 1920s and early 1930s Berman made frequent trips to Italy, visiting Naples, Padua, Verona and Venice, incorporating the architecture of these places into nostalgic, atmospheric pictures.

In the 1940s Minton and a number of his peers became associated with English Neo-Romanticism, whose leading protagonists were the painters Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Paul Nash. Like Sutherland, they became interested in artists of the English tradition, such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer. However, in the late 1930s Minton and his friends Michael Ayrton and Michael Middleton were influenced by the French Neo-Romantics, largely as a result of reading James Thrall Soby's book After Picasso (New York 1935), which discussed and illustrated the French painters' work. As ballet enthusiasts they were also impressed by Tchelitchew's and Bérard's set designs.

Michael Middleton told the compiler that Soby's book quickly became their ‘Bible’ (letter, 16 August 1990). Of most importance was the position Soby gave the French Neo-Romantics as potential alternatives to Picasso, who then dominated contemporary art (see Virginia Button, ‘The Aesthetic of Decline: English Neo-Romanticism c.1935–1956’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, London University 1991, p.203). Together with the Surrealists, they were the first painters after Picasso to ‘go behind all conspicuously modern art and to rediscover romantic sources of inspiration as well as of technique’ (Soby 1935, p.5). To achieve this they turned to Picasso's pre-cubist Rose and Blue Periods. Hetty Einzig writes that under the influence of the French Neo-Romantics, Minton and Ayrton came to focus on subjectivity and poetic intensity, and developed in their works a sense of transience of existence and a melancholic mood conveyed through ‘Picassoid’ blue (Hetty Einzig, ‘John Minton: 1917–57’, unpublished MA thesis, London University 1979, pp:12–13). To realise these aims they adopted stylistic elements from French Neo-Romanticism, including compositions arranged like stage-set designs and distortion of perspective and of the human figure.

Minton and Ayrton became close friends in 1938 when they were both students at St John's Wood School of Art (see Spalding 1991, pp.24, 25). In 1939 Minton spent about eight months in France, mostly in Paris, after leaving the school towards the end of 1938. He saw Berman's decor for Kurt Weill's ‘L'Opéra de quat’ sous’ and may have visited Berman's studio (see Spalding 1991, p.28). Ayrton joined Minton in Paris in April 1939. They knew that Berman had painted in Les Baux and this inspired their visit in late May. Les Baux is an ancient ruined town in Provence six miles from Arles, situated on a rocky outcrop. After two weeks in Les Baux Minton and Ayrton were back in Paris to attend six ballet performances at the Palais de Chaillot. They then returned, via Cassis, to Les Baux where they were joined by Michael Middleton (see Spalding 1991, pp.30–2). From Les Baux Minton wrote to his friend Edie Lamont (4–6 June 1939, TGA 927.1.6):

Les Baux is an extraordinary place ... once the capital of Provence, there are now forty-eight inhabitants, and the rest is fantastic ruins with enormous rocks strewn about in curious positions. The whole atmosphere is charged with romantic desolation. I did a lot of paintings and crowds of little drawings.

Mrs Ayrton wrote to the compiler on 7 May 1987 about this visit to Les Baux and suggested that the landscape depicted in T04926, ‘is fairly realistic, though the great rocks and the height of the hillside are compressed and the size of the buildings on the top rather exaggerated’.

Michael Middleton told the compiler that Minton was painting very quickly in this period, as much as a new painting every day. Middleton recalled that T04926 was painted at Les Baux. However, it is possible that it was executed in Paris. In July Minton wrote again to Edie Lamont reporting that, since his return to Paris, he had made three oils ‘all excessively dark, one quite large full of rocks and gloomy looking people. I have mixed lumps of charcoal and pastel in with the paint in one’ (18 July 1939, TGA 927.1.10). On the basis of the Tate Gallery's conservation report on ‘Landscape at Les Baux’, identifying the substances used to give a rough texture to the paint, Frances Spalding has written, ‘One of these paintings remained in Ayrton's possession. He later used it as a backboard for Colquhoun's watercolour ... Its bumpy surface contains matter which is most probably the pastel and charcoal lumps described in Minton's letter’ (Spalding 1991, p.33).

T04926 appears to be deeply indebted to the work of Berman in both style and subject. Berman's canvases were often heavily worked and, according to Soby, their ‘colors were so dark that they could only be seen in strong light’ (Soby 1935, p.34). Many of Minton's paintings of this period were also dark although it was unusual for him to incorporate materials into his paint, as he did in T04926. Minton would have known of one of Berman's paintings of Les Baux, ‘Souvenir des Baux’, 1933 from reproduction in Soby's After Picasso (pl.23). This shows a similar view of the curious rock formation and their shadows. Like T04926, it also includes three figures in the foreground. Minton may have been influenced by such scenes by Berman before he himself visited the region.

‘Boys in Landscape’, painted in March 1939 (repr.John Minton 1917–1957: Watercolours and Drawings, exh. cat., Hamet Gallery 1970, front cover) shows a lunar landscape of steep rocks on flat ground, with deserted buildings, and two boys in the foreground wearing rags. This work seems related in subject to both Berman's and Minton's scenes of Les Baux. Few paintings by Ayrton from this period are recorded, but his drawing ‘Fête Champêtre’, 1940–1 (repr. Peter Cannon-Brookes, Michael Ayrton, 1978, p.11, fig.8) has figures posing in a landscape similar to that of Les Baux.

In an article of 1948 Michael Middleton linked Minton's work to that of Berman. He wrote that Minton had found ‘in the East End and the riverside, the London equivalents of Berman's Venice’. However, acknowledging recent changes in Minton's style he continued, ‘The theatrical props and emotive devices of Parisian neo-romanticism have given way to purely visual intention and dislocation of line and tone’ (Middleton 1948, p.111).

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