John Murphy

Investigations of a Dog (Pictor)

1984–96

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 2650 x 1990 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1997
Reference
T07323

Display caption

The title of this work comes from Franz Kafka's The Investigations of a Dog. It is one of a series of paintings by Murphy which each show a dog drawn in line and depicted beneath a diagram of a constellation. According to Murphy, the dog signifies man as the 'contemplative animal', endeavouring to name and understand the world beyond himself. The constellation, in this case Pictor (meaning easel in Latin), represents our attempts to give human meaning to natural phenomena. However, by painting the dogs in naturalistic poses, walking, sleeping, smelling, Murphy seeks to remind us that our lives are bound to the physical no matter how far we try to conquer our horizons.

Gallery label, August 2004

Technique and condition

The painting was executed between 1984 and 1996 on a single piece of medium weight linen canvas secured to a stretcher with steel tacks at the rear approximately every 75-85mm, all of which are original. The stretcher is of reasonably sound construction, although it has been expanded slightly during the painting's execution and is readily twisted out of plane. The stretched canvas was primed with one or two layers of an acrylic gesso by brush in broad vertical strokes, which are apparent on the reverse of the canvas. The gesso is very thin and the canvas texture is still very apparent through it.

The painting was carried out with oil paints, and the artist used a limited palette, consisting of a fairly warm brown, a much cooler and milky colour and the white and orange colours used for the three small circles. The application procedure consisted of first laying down the brown layer as a fairly uniform imprimatura layer. The outline of the dog was then sketched in very lightly, either with a broad graphite pencil or a very lean black paint. The milky layer was subsequently applied as a very thin scumble using a fairly wide brush and the outline of the dog is achieved by leaving the brown under layer to show through completely. The two white and one orange dots were painted last with a smaller brush over the background colour after this had dried completely. An intriguing part of the application procedure for this work is that it took the artist 12 years to complete. At a few places around the left and right edges there is evidence of a very thin black paint, possibly beneath the first brown layer.

The painting is not varnished or framed. The painting is in an excellent condition, but since it is neither varnished or framed will always be vulnerable to damage. The stretcher was recently strengthened with a piece of polyester sailcloth stretched behind the stretcher bars which should provide the paint layers with a much more stable support.

Tom Learner
October 1997