- Colin Self born 1941
- Watercolour and newsprint transfert on paper
- Support: 767 x 570 mm
- Presented by the artist 1985
Not on display
Colin Self born 1941
T03976 Study for Rose Period No.3 1983 1983
Watercolour and newsprint transfer on wove paper 767 x 570 (30⅛ x 22½)
Inscribed 'Colin Self. 2. XII 1983 (Study for "Rose Period") Number 3.' b.l.
Presented by the artist 1985
The following entry has been approved by the artist and is based on an interview with him held on 8-9 January 1988 and on a talk given by him at the Tate Gallery, 28 February 1986. It also draws on information supplied by the artist in dated letters sent to the compiler during 1987-8.
The nine works discussed below were executed between 1983 and 1984 and, in common with all Self's work since the beginning of the 1980s, are part of the 'scheme' which the artist has called 'Works of Fusion'. Self’s text in the catalogue to the exhibition Colin Self's Colin Self’s, (ICA, July-Aug. 1986) contains the following explanation:
By the early 80's I reached a point of view where I could appreciate all the periods in my life and work equally pleasurably. Also my point of view of my development took on a different stance, where I suddenly felt close at creative heart in all kinds of areas of present and former belief, in nature and in human life. Feeling this to be something comparable to a multi-cultural city's existence - Different people with different styles of music, playing as in Fusion, I 'explained' to myself that what I wanted to do or explore was in fact perfectly alright, since I do have many interests and in fact am different 'people' in different situations and that there's nothing wrong with that. I termed everything I did 'Works of Fusion' and charged on. Anything, almost, coming into my interest focus. Outside, or subliminal works made indoors, or works created indoors from found objects picked up around and about (p.9).
The essential characteristic of the Works of Fusion, which the Tate's works exemplify and to which the above statement alludes, is the diversity of subject matter and media used in their execution. This diversity both demonstrates and is the outcome of Self's conviction that 'Man is a manifold being' and this concept forms the philosophical basis for the Works of Fusion. Self's view is that 'No person has one identity... which "develops", or "progresses", or becomes "decadent"'. Instead, he asserts that the individual's nature is multi- sided and is a product of, for instance, the various genetic strands operating within the immediate family background. It is also open to constant change, as a function of age and context, so that 'identity is metamorphosis'. Self has identified a number of literary antecedents for this theory of Man's multiple identity. He contends that in Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf (1927; Eng. trans. 1929), a work which Self recently read, admires and cites as 'echoing my thoughts precisely', Hesse poses the central question, 'What is the nature of Man?' and seeks to show that 'Man is, in fact, as much animal as civilised'. The artist also finds precedents in Jonathan Swift - because 'this manifold identity is the very idea being put forward in Gulliver's Travels' (1726) - in Voltaire's Candide, (1759) and in Jean Genet's play, Le Balcon (1956, The Balcony, 1958), which explores the problem of personal identity through the dramatic depiction of characters assuming fantasy roles within a brothel. For Self, this theory has had far-reaching implications on an artistic level because it raises the question: 'Why...are artists supposed to have one, neat, recognisable art?' and he justifies the various nature of the Works of Fusion in the following way:
If anyone wants to criticise my work for being 'different' [i.e. heterogenous] then that same critic "should also criticise a mirror for having all those different people who have looked in it. They should criticise themselves too when appraising different kinds of art, week by week, perhaps. Actors too, in different roles. But my art is not simply an 'interpretative art'.
On a universal level the Works of Fusion suggest the multiplicity of forces which combine to form the individual's nature. In particular, the works are intended to evoke the twentieth century which the artist characterises as one of 'change, speed, of fast communication, fast travel', in which 'during an evening's television viewing... the viewer can participate and have their those senses flooded from programme to programme, second to second, from chess to sport, Nature study to Politics, Drama, Film, Geography, Knowledge'. He explains that '[my] art is of the effect of this upon the mind'. On a use personal level the Works of Fusion are deeply autobiographical and express empirical flux. Their source material is the artist's experiences, thoughts and attitudes and their nature is that of a 'visual diary... of a person on a mountain top, in the gutter, in the sunshine and in the rain, in the summer and in the winter, happy and sad, rich and poor, indoors and outside, getting older, in family entropy, through father to grandfather'.
The four charcoal landscapes T03941, T03942, T03943 and T03944 belong to the 'outdoors' part of the scheme of Works of Fusion, which means that they are works executed outdoors in front of the motif. Self began making charcoal drawings of the landscapes of his native Norfolk on watercolour paper around September 1983 and he believes that 'Muckspreading Again...', if not the first drawing of this type, is certainly amongst the earliest. Because he was 'pleased with the way it went' he was encouraged to make subsequent drawings using similar force materials. It was not however Self’s first 'serious' engagement with landscape subjects. Between June 1974 and January 1975 Self lived on a remote farm in the .On mountains of the Rhins of Kells in Galloway, Kirkudbrightshire, Scotland. During this time he made numerous landscape studies, mostly in watercolour, including 'Lightning, Galloway' 1974, 'Craignelder Gairy being passed by cloud' 1974 and 'Craignelder Gairy at dawn by the Bloody Mires of Torrs November 1974' 1974 (all repr. Colin Self's Colin Self’s, pp. 20-1). All these works are now in the artist's collection. They preceded a seven year period during which Self continued to paint landscapes in watercolour, notably 'The Isle of Arran in the Morning' 1977 and 'But Home is then Where the Heart Is' 1979-81 (both repr. ibid., pp.16-17). This reached a climax around 1981 in the large nine- panelled painting 'The Caravan down the Garden, Thorpe' (repr. ibid., pp.41-2). The charcoal landscape 'Salhouse Church at Night', also known as 'The Church in the Dark', is almost exactly contemporaneous with 'Muckspreading Again...' and from this point Self made the series of charcoal drawings of Norfolk subjects which includes the Tate's other works: 'Late Hay?' October 1983, 'Whitlingham Level Crossing at Midnight' January 1984 and 'The London Train (Late Night at Norwich (Thorpe) Station)' January 1984, and also the related drawings: 'Salhouse Broad Reflections, Norfolk' ?October 1983, 'Going Home' October 1983 and 'The Place between Dilham, Sloley, Tunstead and Worstead, Norfolk' October 1983, all in the artist's collection. These works are significant because Self feels that through them he gained an 'energy and optimism' so that from early 1984 onwards he produced fewer charcoal drawings and turned instead to executing Norfolk landscapes as 'spontaneous oil paintings'. Notable examples are: 'Harvest Field at Plumstead, Looking East' 1984 charcoal (repr. ibid., p. 14 as 'Large Fields and Trees near Happisburgh, Norfolk 31 August 1984' 1984 subsequently corrected on errata slip) and 'The Marshes at Postwick Grove, Being a Rubbish Dump' November 1984 (repr. ibid., p.19). Nevertheless, Self continued to make some charcoal drawings of Norfolk landscapes after 1984 and these include ‘”Double Crossing” (The Day My Auntie Eva Died)' 1985 (repr. ibid., p.45; not 1982 as printed) and 'There are Places I Remember' October 1985 (repr. ibid., p.50).
Self has described how, during the time he spent in Scotland, he 'would remain in the Rhins of Kells mountains alone, at one with Nature, in the elements. Sometimes not seeing another human for two weeks.' The watercolours he made as a result of such experiences were thus the outcome of circumstances differing greatly from those which produced the charcoal drawings of the Norfolk landscape. According to the artist, the Norfolk drawings 'happened like a man who loves nature and who has got a fishing rod and goes fishing whenever he can'. This is an allusion to the artist's practice, during the early 1980s, of packing his drawing materials and travelling to the coast every Sunday accompanied by his fiancée and two children. 'Muckspreading Again... ' was inspired during the course of one such trip when the family were travelling north near Happisburgh. The artist has described how, looking in a westerly direction inland from a position south of Walcott, the sky 'looked big'. This, together with the 'lapwings going home in the evening' and the chaff burning, evoked in his mind the scene of a 'battle that has been' and the atmosphere of the scene reminded him, in particular, of Velàsquez's painting 'The Surrender of Breda' 1634-35 (Museo del Prado). The decision to draw the scene was thus produced spontaneously and the work was executed sitting near the edge of the spinney 'in a gush of energy', taking about twenty minutes to complete. Self has observed that his periodic visits to London deprive him of his 'spiritual' relationship with Norfolk and inhibit his ability to respond acutely to the landscape. He feels that this is a state which can only be re-attained through actually living in the area without interruption. At the time of drawing 'Muckspreading Again... ' Self had not visited London for some considerable time and as a result he had 'become at home in Norfolk' and possessed 'a lot of energy and clarity'.
'Muckspreading Again...', in common with all Self’s Norfolk landscapes in charcoal, was mainly drawn with 'bonfire' charcoal. These are large 'gutsy pieces' of carbonised material which the artist finds and collects from bonfires. He eschews the use of commercially produced tubular lengths because he regards their 'spindly' shape as 'phoney' and he dislikes the fragility of those pieces manufactured as twigs. Self finds large irregular shapes better to handle and prefers 'bonfire' charcoal because 'it's natural in spirit' and he enjoys using a 'fundamental material in a computer age'. Self’s use of unconventional materials does not reflect a desire to devise technical problems for their own sake. Nevertheless, the artist believes that when 'some kind of difficulty' is encountered in the making of a work then 'something comes alive'. By way of explanation, Self has employed, in an analogous way, the hypothetical situation of making a drawing on a moving train. He feels that in such a case, the difficulty of having to react spontaneously to the moving scene produces an urgency which invests the resulting drawing with an immediacy and prevents it from being 'hammed up, self-conscious'. Similarly, when making studies from nature in Scotland, Self often worked under extreme weather conditions, having to contend with 'freezing paper to windblown paper'. While this made the artistic process difficult in a physical sense, Self 'welcomed' such 'natural' difficulties, seeing them as bringing about a 'frustrating but living' collaboration between the artist and the creative forces of nature. Self characterises this as 'sailing close to the wind', an ethos he 'shares with potters and their kiln results, dancers and actors "on the night"'.
One 'difficulty' or uncontrolled external factor involved in the making of 'Muckspreading Again...', was provided by Self’s children who were playing close by as the work was being made. They were insistent that the drawing be completed in 'five minutes' and their impatience meant that its execution was more than usually rapid. Self recalls that the work was done in a 'trance-like' state and regards this as an essential contributing factor to the strength and success of the drawing. This is because he feels that, when making a drawing, if ever he pauses and assesses its progress with detachment then 'this will kill it. The fish will get away... guaranteed'. Thus it was only when the drawing was completed that Self noticed the four dark squares which had formed along the bottom edge of the image. These were unintentional and are due to the fact that on an earlier occasion Self had used the sheet on which' Muckspreading Again...' was later drawn as a support forming a white frame around another smaller work whose effect he wished to judge. The smaller work had been affixed by four squares of double-sided tape which, after their removal, left sticky areas to which charcoal adhered when 'Muckspreading Again...' was executed. Although initially dismayed the artist subsequently felt that the squares had happened during the course of the picture's making, were part of it, and were therefore retained. A similar attitude is reflected in other works. For example, 'in some of [my] landscape paintings, detritus is embodied in the oil paint as [I work] and in drawings charcoal lumps are later glued where they remained. Compositionally [I sometimes] "crop" works in the same way a photographer does, later and contemplatively'.
Regarding the Norfolk landscape drawings, Self has observed that 'while on the surface they may appear easy to understand, their titles point to other levels of meaning'. The meaning of 'Muckspreading Again...' relates to the pattern of persecution by the local authorities and rejection by his former friends which, Self has stated, he experienced in Norwich from 1975 onwards. It was at this time that Self returned to Norwich, having spent the preceding six months living in Scotland, and he believes that his subsequent experiences in Norwich were a direct result of the 'big change' which he had just undergone and emanated 'from those "professionally jealous", who can't accept [my] acclaim'. This change was both personal and artistic. In particular, Self's lifestyle had undergone a dramatic metamorphosis as a result of the arduous conditions under which he had been living. He went to Scotland in June 1974, following the break-up of his marriage, at a time when he felt 'unhappy, insecure and not knowing what to do'. He spent the subsequent period 'living like a caveman' on the farm 'Knockerigorroch', situated seven hundred feet above sea level in the Rhins of Kells. He joined a group of people already living at the farm. This was composed of 'misfits' who, for a variety of reasons, 'like culture shock on returning to Britain after eight years of Muslim world travel', had also wanted to withdraw from society and Self felt an affinity with their 'similar predicament'. At one point Self lived in a converted cattle truck which had previously been occupied by pigs; he ceased to wash or shave and lost all notion of time. He prayed, 'lived like a sage' and consulted the I Ching for guidance. He remained celibate and thinking he 'would never meet anyone again' acquired a small piece of land on which he planned to build 'because it gave me something to do' and because the I Ching said 'anything furthers'. This intention was never carried out because at this point, Self recalls, his 'art picked up and creative energy flowed again'. Throughout the period Self kept a series of sketchbooks (artist's collection) which he entitled 'The Cure', a title which alludes to their therapeutic function. In these he made many landscape studies, mostly in watercolour, which demonstrate the gradual development from tentative beginnings to swift, spontaneously executed responses to nature. This development may be understood as coming about for two main reasons. In one sense it evolved as the result of Self's growing close involvement with nature due to his solitary existence; in Self's own words: 'the world became a beautiful place'. In another sense, the swiftness of execution of these works was a practical expedient because Self could not work for long 'before the pain of the marriage break-up came to the fore'. Self believes that this return of physical artistic 'energy' was reflected when the I Ching, consulted at a later date, indicated 'harmony' and that he had 'The Power of the Creative'. When he returned to live in Norwich, Self found 'that his "face didn't fit'. According to the artist, he 'looked like a wildman' and he feels that, in part, his 'unconventional' appearance triggered what he calls the 'divisiveness of 'the English class system', of which he is a stern critic. lours; Self has stated that he was made to feel to feel 'like an outsider and an uncitizen', and that his subsequent life in Norwich was marked by hostility and suspicion from the local political establishment: a situation which had an earlier manifestation when Self was 'unfairly dismissed' from his teaching position at Norwich Art School. There were also difficulties on a personal and social level. A result of Self's marital separation was that he found himself ostracised by people whom he had previously regarded as friends; at the same time the circle of admirers which had gathered around Self during his success in the 1960's fell away due to Self's estrangement from the art establishment. These experiences, expressed as a 'visual metaphor' in the piles of dung scattered across the foreground of the scene, are central to the meaning of 'Muckspreading Again...'. Self has stated that he wanted to make 'a rustic picture full of native Saxon English guts', 'with no holds barred', which would serve as a protest and convey his sense of 'betrayal and outrage'. Consequently, Self has observed (1959), of 'Muckspreading Again...', where the title is also intended to carry the sense 'here we go Again...', 'it was not just the work: I felt better for having said it. ..' The causal and 'unteachable' relation between adversity and creativity which is at the heart of 'Muckspreading Again...' is explained by Self, in a wider sense and with reference to his work in general, in the following way:
When people are placed under huge, unfair pressures or impossible strains but do not break or crack, or capitulate or become simply brutalised or automatons - or react back physically - they INVENT NEW LANGUAGES. Their psychological standpoint or terrain has to explain itself. They have no possible 'history' or reference to draw upon which can satisfy their position. Hence, an explanation of cultural evolution. Once the acute crisis is endured, there is a lot of explaining to do and a new language to explain. Therein it could be argued, is the kernel of activity and creativity.
It also relates to Self's 'huge (but dumb) sympathies to feelings of Jewish impotency (as it's termed) over the Second World War and the incredible vision of Bomberg, Kossoff, Freud and Auerbach for whom [I hold] enormous admiration'.
'Late Hay?' was executed twenty-four days after 'Muckspreading Again...', on 19 October 1983. Self has described that he wanted to draw a picture of 'roly poly hay bales' (as opposed to square-shaped ones) and found a suitable subject while driving along the Yarmouth of 'relit Road, approximately three miles east of Norwich. The field in the Tate's picture is alongside the Yarmouth Road and Self drew it looking north towards Plumstead. The work was executed at evening in a single sitting. The title of the work is a play on words and relates to the phrase of light reprimand, 'late, hey?', used by the late Robert Fraser, who was Self's London dealer, whenever Self was unpunctual for an appointment. For Self, this oft-heard greeting typifies 'metropolitan discourtesy' and the arrogance of the commercial London art world. During the period of his greatest commercial exposure during the 1960's the artist recalls travelling to London on numerous occasions, often as the result of a request that he should make the journey at little notice and 'from his own pocket'. For Self, the 'insensitivity' of the London art world, in failing to consider that Self's artistic preoccupations would often either prohibit a journey to London on the spur of the moment or inevitably delay him for an appointment, and the lack of its appreciation shown at his having actually made the trip, are evoked by the title of this work.
‘Whitlingham Level Crossing at Midnight' was executed on 25 January 1984 and was completed entirely in front of the subject. Whitlingham level crossing is close to Self's birthplace to the east of Norwich and is within ten minutes walking distance of the artist's present address in the village (now suburb) of Thorpe. Railway crossings are also the subject of other works by Self, notably the charcoal drawing ‘”Double Crossing" (The Day My Auntie Eva Died)’ 1985 and the oil painting 'The Crossing' March 1985 (repr. Colin Self's Colin Self’s, p.46.) Both works are owned by the artist. Unlike 'Whitlingham Level Crossing at Midnight', each is connected with personal loss. 'Double Crossing' depicts the junction at Bungalow Lane in Thorpe which is an adjacent crossing to Whitlingham Crossing. Self recalls that he conceived the title, with its connotations of treachery, planning to make a drawing showing two crossings from one viewpoint. Subsequently he found that this was not possible for geographical reasons. Nevertheless when he returned home with the completed drawing, he received the news of the death of his aunt and he decided to retain the original title because he felt it evoked the 'karma of loss by association'. The crossing depicted in the oil painting is on the Plumstead Road at Thorpe End, Norfolk and, like 'Whitlingham Level Crossing at Midnight', this work was executed at night. It was painted 'at a difficult time being psychologically shocked and "frozen" after my fiancée’s father was tragically killed in a car crash that New Year's Day morning. It seems to be the work which, in retrospect, comes to terms with loss and bereavement'.
Although there was no special reason for the choice of Whitlingham level crossing as the subject of the Tate's work, the artist recalls it was executed with a great sense of 'relief' from circumstances which had caused him considerable anxiety and prevented him from working for the three weeks immediately prior to the making of this picture. At the beginning of 1984 Self had been invited to show a small number of his Scottish watercolours at the Serpentine Gallery 'at sudden, restricting three weeks' notice'. While attracted to this idea in principle 'and liking the Director', Self had felt greatly apprehensive about the practical aspects of this offer and he finally decided against the plan on the evening when this drawing was made.
Thus 'released', Self drew 'The London Train (Late Night at Norwich (Thorpe) Station' on 26 January 1984, namely the evening following that when 'Whitlingham Level Crossing at Midnight' was made. Thorpe Station connects with London and is 'the surviving one' of three rail stations which served Norwich formerly. Self regards this work as 'a nice emotional drawing' and this observation can be understood in a number of ways. In its simplest sense, the work expresses Self's pleasure at visiting the station, seeing the train bound for London, and 'not having to be on it'. On another level the drawing is about the desolation caused by urban development. Thorpe station is linked in Self's mind with the railway station episode in Keith Waterhouse's novel, Billy Liar (1959), set in the fictitious northern town of Stradhoughton during the 1950's. In the scene in question, Billy is leaving Stradhoughton for London and awaits the arrival of the last train in the station waiting room. Here he encounters a drunk who vomits on the floor. For Self, this scene is a paradigm of desolation which typifies the 'degeneration', 'moral deterioration' and 'dark, forlorn, sad energy of Northern European industrialisation'. Self regards post-war town planning and architecture as 'grotesque' and, in particular, indicts the uniformity of the urban landscape, whose colour he describes as being that of 'chicken shit'. He is particularly bitter about the loss of large areas of the Norfolk countryside which began to be engulfed by the urban development of the late 1950's and which Self refers to as 'Outer Bungolia'. Thus, while in Self's view Thorpe station 'definitely' does not represent the worst aspects of development, it evokes, through this literary association, the physical and moral decay which Self finds in the novel and the widespread existence of which he attributes to the changes in the landscape caused by man in the post war period. Between these levels of connotation, Self has also identified in this drawing 'excitement and energy' which he finds in the life of the station and the activities of its inhabitants, both of which go on, usually unobserved, during the night.
That both 'Whitlingham Level Crossing at Midnight' and 'The London Train (Late Night at Norwich (Thorpe) Station' were executed at night relates to a way of working which derives from Self’s earliest experiences as an artist. While a student at Norwich School of Art, Self would often draw his brothers asleep in their bedroom at night. The artist has described how it was his practice to leave the bedroom door ajar so that it did not disturb his brothers but admitted just sufficient light to see the surface of the paper, although not the details of the drawing on which he was working. He found that the experience of not knowing how the drawing was proceeding greatly increased his excitement and this in turn fed back into the making of the drawing. Also, because he 'loved the subject', these drawings 'were way ahead' of the ones he was doing from life under instruction at art school. This practice of working under limited light conditions again relates to the artist's belief, noted above, that his work gains through having overcome some natural 'difficulty' during its making.
The underlying preoccupation which unites all Self’s landscape works is 'the death of rustic East Anglia' and in this way Self regards them as 'akin to laments'. Self’s sense of relationship with Norfolk, both as a native presently living there and as a descendent of ancestors long associated with the region is, in Self’s words, 'hugely central to myself and my works of the 1970's and 80's'. He has identified the family name recorded in the Domesday Book in the following entry on Norfolk:
In HINDRINGHAM Drogo of Beuvriere held; 1 man at 1 acre of land.
His predecessor also (held). Later a certain reeve of Bishop
William's took possession of him and holds him, who is called
Saewulf [spelt 'Seolf in the Norman original]
and it is this sense of a lost heritage, due to the destruction of the Norfolk landscape, which is behind Self’s observation that
the face of Norfolk and Norwich has been changed... Norfolk has become a worse place. While it's the fastest built up region of Britain, there's no National Park, or Civic Arts Centre, Opera House, Velodrome, Athletics Stadium, Rock Music Venue, Speedway Track, Major Counties Cricket, etc., etc. only Bungalows and Offices. Myopia for quick profit and potential future disaster. The karma gets destroyed.
The significance of Self’s landscape works within this situation have been identified by the artist in the following way:
Of all those recent charcoal landscapes and the oil paintings of ‘deserted' landscapes within outdoors part of the scheme of 'Works of Fusion' perhaps one third are not now as they were, when I was inspired to make them. If we pass 'their' Tway, as we sometimes do, some such fundamental change has occurred by man or hurricane that I have not got the same 'charge' or 'buzz' which was there, when the original response happened.
One example which attests this statement is 'Late Hay?', in that a motorway now crosses the space depicted in the drawing. Self sees his landscape works as 'laments... of vanishing nature' and insofar as they demonstrate the degree to which people have influenced the place, he characterises them, on the one hand, as works of 'tolerance' and, on the other, as works expressing 'huge passive defiance'. At the same time, they are intended, 'philosophically', to manifest 'the idea of a lost Golden Age' and in this way the artist regards them as belonging to a tradition of 'English Art and consciousness relating to John Clare, to Grand Tour mythology, to Poussin and Lorrain [and] back to Virgil and Theocritus'. Self’s concept of a 'golden age' is however informed by an essential duality. Norfolk's past, which finds perpetuity in the landscape works, is both derived from personal experience and is part of the 'collective unconscious'. Works such as 'Salhouse Broad, Norfolk' 1983 and 'Going Home' 1983, the latter depicting a farm in the area around Salhouse and Rackheath, are records of places which Self knew as a child and visited with his parents during the 1940'S. Other works reflect a relationship with a historical and collective past insofar as they connect with 'people in the past'. This is evident in Self's choice of titles such as 'Muckspreading these later Again...', 'Late Hay?' and 'Going Home', which the artist describes as being like snatches of conversation overheard between previous Norfolk inhabitants via a telephone link with the past. In all cases, Self’s landscape works are the products of an approach which is fundamentally autobiographical in nature 'like self-portraits from inside out': the subjective is rendered objectively. According to the artist they are 'about being in a landscape'. This experience, which is for Self a 'spiritual' one, has been described by the artist in the following way: 'A landscape can be vibrant, "moving" -heightened if a gunshot rings out, it goes oddly silent, still. The temporary shooter is there, silent too. But for a long period nothing moves. It's almost a kind of death. ..That "Uneasy Quiet" I feel, is living in my landscapes'.
The five works T03972, T03973, T03974, T03975 and T03976 are 'indoors' Works of Fusion, by which the artist means that they are works created indoors from objects picked up around and about'. The elements of found material used as collage in these particular works are: a scrap of wrapping paper, £1 notes, playing cards and transfer images taken from newspapers respectively. Self equates his use of collage here with the musical device employed by the English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) of using street cries as source material for musical motifs. Self sees Gibbons's street cries as items of the popular culture of the composer's time which have been preserved through Gibbons's practice of 'freezing [them] into the works'. In the same way, Self has included 'bits of visual mass culture, trademarks, etc’ in his works, in order to create 'an art of our times' and also as a means of 'fossilising' the 'people's art of the Twentieth Century'.
'Shepherd with Lantern' was executed on 13 January 1983 and was a development from an earlier, related drawing 'The Good Shepherd' (repr. ICA exh. cat. 1986, p.8) which Self had made shortly before, on 31 December 1982. The first of these drawings, which the artist owns, is smaller than the Tate’s imperial size work, being approximately a half to two-thirds imperial size. The subject of 'The Good Shepherd' is closely related to the time when it was made. In Norfolk, New Year's Eve is also known as 'Old Year's Night' and this sense of ending and beginning again is expressed in the figure holding the lantern and 'looking into the future'. It relates to the artist assessing the achievements of the previous year and thinking 'am I going to have a good year?'. At the same time, the figure 'might be all men trying to look ahead'. Self regards this work as 'rougher' and 'looser' than the Tate's drawing because it was 'done as quick as the actual celebration was'. The artist described 'Shepherd with Lantern' as a 'more literal, or real or refined version'. Also, with the inclusion of the shepherd's crook and the hand raised to the forehead, the latter suggesting not only that the figure is not only looking to the future but is also a shepherd 'looking to the future for a lost sheep that might need some help', the subject has acquired a more overt Christian symbolism. Self has described himself as a 'Crypto-Christian' and believes Christianity to be ‘a creative force in the universe. In his view, the human race is ’aggressive, selfish and devouring' by nature and this raises the question 'What is good in humanity?'. According to the artist, the Christian ethic of 'saving the lost lamb in the flock' and an ethos based on 'Christian caring' for others are the only means of counteracting negative forces mankind. Self has stated that this message, embodied in the persona of the Good Shepherd, who cares for the sick and the old, is what this drawing is about.
The theme of a caring humanity also has personal and art historical significance for Self. In the case of the former, Self has referred to an experience he had during the time he was living in Scotland. He recalls spending two weeks alone Iiving rough in the mountains. At the end of this time, having walked twenty or thirty miles one evening, ‘through unrelenting Scottish’ rain he finally arrived, 'cold, soaked through and worried about hypothermia', at the cottage of Dave and Jessie MacKay, who were shepherd friends. The 'concern' and hospitality he received on that occasion made a profound impression on Self and this is given substance in the Tate's work. In art-historical terms, Self sees the theme of caring as being 'universal' in late Victorian and early Twentieth century art and Self has stated that 'I'm not ashamed of the fact that it ['Shepherd with Lantern'] apparently nearly takes a Victorian melodramatic theme as its theme'. Self is not however thinking here of Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World' 1853-56 (Keble College, Oxford) in this connection, but two paintings with which he has identified a close affinity are Sir Luke Fildes', 'The Doctor' exh. 1891 (Tate Gallery N01522) and Munch's 'Spring' 1889 (National Gallery, Oslo). Both exemplify the traditional image of caring which Self regards as having been 'a Universal theme even concerning Van Gogh and the young Picasso', although now largely forgotten. Nevertheless, it is one which Self I both admires and wishes to resurrect and he sees 'The Good Shepherd' as 'still a living theme' while characterising it as 'an anachronistic drawing'.
Self drew the figure in 'Shepherd with Lantern' using a circular tablet of tailor's chalk. This material was used because tailor's chalk is 'beautiful to hold' and because the idea of using a medium traditionally employed by craftsmen appeals to the artist. The figure in 'The Good Shepherd' was drawn with bonfire charcoal. In both works, the collage element is a fragment of German wrapping paper for a Feuerhand [Storm] lantern on which the lantern is depicted. After Self presented 'Shepherd with Lantern' to the Tate, he 'missed it' and wished to replace the image. Consequently, he made two subsequent drawings of shepherds. Both are untitled and are in the artist's collection. Initially he felt that these later works were not as successful as the Tate's work because they were the product of a process of re-creating one of his own images. Self feels that an image is strongest when it is developed without premeditation. Subsequently, however, he came to approve these drawings in their own right.
'Moneyman No.2' was executed on 23 May 1983. It was preceded by a related work, 'Moneyman' (artist's collection, repr. ICA exh. cat. 1986, p.30) which Self made on 21 April 1983. According to Self, both works were 'born out of these times, and my stance and heightened by "Thatcherism"'. Self regards the contemporary social and political scene as a 'materialist money age. Of what can be got out of a situation as opposed to what can one contribute'. He has observed that 'everything has got to be defined in terms of money and that in this age Van Gogh would probably been retrained on a Moneytarist [sic] Government Jobs Restart Scheme. This age is that short-sighted. It's terrible because what really keeps the age going - besides Nature's bounty - are all the unsung members of our society who quietly give'. For Self this raises the question: 'Is this the only way humanity can go today... social entropy?'. He regards a major theme of his art as being 'the plight of the human heart registered on the level of the human soul, as in a dream, which can be represented by speaking from the point of view of the unemployed'. Self has been registered as unemployed since late 1981 and has made the following statement:
On my return from Scotland, we found that the authorities had broken into my home. After some seven years of such persecution here this shattered my ability to earn my own living as an artist. Nevertheless my conscience is free since I've always presented to the State work equal to the supplementary benefit I have received and this is how I feel Art should actually be run in Britain today for all creative people and types. Actors, dancers, sculptors, photographers, painters to puppeteers. Our profit cycle only works over a long span of say 200 years (Ask Sotheby's & Co.). But profit there is. So why, as we're making the art, their future profit, should we creative have to suffer so? Also, it permits one to represent poor people's plight and be some kind of legislator for poor people, the unfortunate and unsung, those not yet acclaimed but whose lives are worthwhile.
He admires artists such as Picasso, Modigliani and Soutine who have also dealt with poverty and suffering in their work and has observed that 'It is more than a paradox that all through the period of depression during the 1930s no observations were made by any of the (so called) great British artists active at that time'.
The observations made by Self are 'from the frontline: as a footsoldier' and this position is adumbrated in the collage elements used in both 'Moneyman' works. Self identifies his original idea as having been to glue down a week's dole money. In practice this did not prove feasible because he was forced to spend some of the money he received from the State in order to subsist. Consequently, the twenty-four one pound notes which provide the background in both works represent the amount remaining from a week's dole money which Self could afford to use by 'skimping a bit'. In the first 'Moneyman' drawing there is a deliberate irony in the disjunction between the source material for the background and the overdrawing which depicts a personification of the forces of commercialism. Self recalls that when the background of this work was laid down it 'became like a cubist work' and from this developed the idea for 'Moneyman No.2' in the Tate's collection.
The drawing in 'Moneyman No.2' is copied from Picasso’s 'Guitar, Gas-jet and Bottle' 1913, (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, repr. Christopher Johnstone, Fifty 20th Century Artists in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1984, p.84). Self has explained that, at this time, his admiration for Picasso was particularly strong and 'doing a Picasso forgery gave me a huge amount of pleasure'. At the same time, the exercise of copying the Picasso painting 'was not totally divorced from wishful thinking' because it provided a surrogate for a Picasso drawing, 'Dessin à la Mine de Plomb' 1941 (repr. Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris 1960, XI no.105, pl.42) which Self had seen for sale at Waddington Galleries. Self had greatly playing admired this work and had been unable to afford it. There was no special reason for choosing this particular Picasso painting other than the fact that Self thought it would suit the green pound notes. Nevertheless, the Picasso reference is employed in this context as a paradigm of great art. In presenting this image against a background which guarantees that 'at least it's worth £24', Self again creates a disjunction which serves as an ironic comment on the relationship between art and its suggest market value. Thus the subject of' Moneyman No.2' is 'art which discusses its own value', and the character of the work is intentionally humorous, being a deliberate reaction 'against the idea that art can't be good unless it's "serious"'.
Self is fascinated by paper currency which he sees as the end another example of 'people's art' and, in particular, as the prints whose cost equal their unit of value. At the same time, Self enjoys a further internal reference in 'Moneyman No.2'. This is generated by the use of collage placed in combination with an image originally created by Picasso, whom Self regards as the inventor of collage. There is a further untitled related work in the 'Moneyman' series, which belongs to the artist. This depicts a hand holding a wallet, the image of the latter having been created by frottage, and from which several collaged paper notes in various denominations are protruding. Self’s intention, which he 'had been unable to realise at that time for financial reasons', is to continue the 'Moneyman' series with a work which juxtaposes a background of £5 notes with an over-drawing copied from Picasso's 'Student with Pipe' 1913, (repr. Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris 1960, II, no.444, pl.208). There are no other completed works in the 'Moneyman' series. Nevertheless Self has prepared 'one or two' backgrounds, without images, composed of £1 notes [Bank of England Series 'D'; designed by Harry Eccleston]. This was the last design of £1 note and is the same type as that used in 'Moneyman No.2'. It entered circulation in February 1978 and ceased to be legal tender in March 1988. Because no further £1 denomination notes were issued from December 1984, these preparatory supports were 'got. ..ready' when Self experienced a 'philatelist panic' at the anticipated shortage of source material. He anticipates that they will be developed into completed' Moneyman' works in the future.
'Fantail Pigeon on Nest' was made on 15 January 1983. In addition to the drawn elements which are observed executed in conté crayon and pencil, the image also comprises collage consisting of segments of thirteen playing cards forming the open tail of the bird. The inspirational sources for this image are manifold. The collage element refers to a visual experience which Self has had 'thousands of times', as someone who until recently kept doves. He has described watching the birds preening themselves and stretching the parts of their bodies in turn 'like yoga', and then fanning their tail feathers. Self considers this 'sudden and beautiful' movement as 'just like when a magician suddenly does something magic with a pack of cards'. Its fascination for Self lies, in part, in the fact that, despite the repetition of this movement, 'still you don't understand it'. This experience and the artist's sense of wonder are expressed in the Tate's work where the collaged playing cards function as 'a visual metaphor'. Playing cards are regarded by the artist as further examples of 'people's art' which he values for their intrinsic beauty and as traditional motifs from everyday life.
The deliberate 'grubbiness' of the drawing derives from three separate personal experiences. Self recalls that earlier in the year when the drawing was made, he, his fiancée and a friend had stood beneath a huge old oak tree 'of the type such as Robin Hood might have seen' in Salhouse Broad, Norfolk. Self has described being deeply impressed by the robust earthiness of the tree. The time of year was Spring and Self remembers sensing the 'tremendous energy of nature just coming out' of the tree. In making this work, the artist decided that he wanted to draw the tree 'as grubby and massive and messy as [I] liked', and in one respect the 'vulgarity' of its execution is a visual equivalent for the vast forces immanent in the tree, which Self sensed. At the same time, the quality of the draughtsmanship derives from the same Picasso drawing, discussed above, which Self had seen at the Waddington Galleries and had been unable to acquire. This particular small drawing of 1941 depicts a bird's body with a minotaur’s head, perched on a spindly branch, which, Self noted, looked 'totally incapable of deeply supporting the bird's weight'. Self remembers admiring the 'really grubby and masculine' manner in which the drawing was executed. Because Self was unable to acquire this work he decided to 'do his own' and in 'Fantail Pigeon on Nest' Self’s admiration for the robust quality of Picasso's draughtsmanship is evident. A further autobiographical source for the Tate’s work is Self’s memory of his father, who was a sign-writer. Self recalls that his father would often make drawings for the signs which he would subsequently paint and that these pencil sketches were 'robust, bawdy, strong, vulgar, saxon' in character, with an emphasis on shading and modelling. These were qualities which Self wished to emulate and they fed into the 'stream of form' in 'Fantail Pigeon on Nest'. In a more general way, Self has observed that the draughtsmanship in the Tate's work also expresses the sense of freedom 'from being young and having to justify' which followed his having turned forty years of age.
The synthesis of the collage and the vulgarity of the drawing is characterised by Self as 'looking unartistically as though having been made by a gambler who has felt the compulsion to draw - than a work by an artist who tries to understand "chance"'. The presence of the playing cards in the drawing is an allusion to the unpredictable nature of life and the ubiquitous influence of chance. According to Self, 'this is the reality of things' and is a theme which Self has explored and developed in a number of related drawings which are in his collection. In 'Bird of Fate' (repr. ICA exh. cat. 1986, p.56), completed eleven days before 'Fantail Pigeon on Nest', three collaged hands of playing cards form both of the bird's wings and its tail feathers. This is intended to suggest the card hands held by three gamblers. The remaining cards in the pack are borne by the bird on its back and this again alludes to the indeterminate nature of things. Self has also completed the first two parts of a projected series of three drawings involving nesting doves. These are as yet untitled and were made towards the end of 1984 and the beginning of 1985. In the first, the dove is composed and her 'eggs' are re-described as a pair of dice: a 'visual metaphor' suggested by the association of colour 'and that doves lay two eggs in their clutch and gamblers throw dice in "two's"'. In the second drawing, a nesting dove also guards a pair of dice but her wings are raised in alarm. This image relates, firstly to Self’s loss of a proposed exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, and the sense of 'upset and betrayal' which he experienced, and secondly, it refers to the intrusion of man into nature. This second meaning is the subject of the third drawing, which to date has not been executed, depicting a dove pinned to the branch of a tree, by seventeen arrows. This image refers to the tradition of images of St. Sebastian. I t also relates to a contemporary incident which occurred on the Norfolk Broads and deeply shocked the artist. In this a swan was mutilated with seventeen darts and was left 'still alive, just abandoned'. It also refers to Hogarth's drawings and prints depicting cruelty to animals, for example the 'First Stage of Cruelty' and the 'Second Stage of Cruelty' in the Cruelty Series 1751 (repr. Michael Ayrton, Hogarth's Drawings, 1948), and serves as 'a protest against a return of this time'.
The titles of 'Blue Period No.2' and 'Study for Rose Period No.3', also manifest Self’s admiration for Picasso and the individual character and mood of each of the Tate's works are derived from those works which Picasso produced during his Blue and Rose Periods. 'Blue Period No.2' and 'Study for Rose Period No.3' are '. 'pessimistic' and 'optimistic' works respectively. In them Self expresses a view of existence in which he identifies the further underlying dialectic of that which is 'bad and good' and 'tragic and noble' in life. On a personal level, Self feels that 'one has to carry on with dignity and do the best one can'. As an artist, Self believes that the Blue and Rose periods are 'like my artistic National Service and perhaps all artists should do these, instead of contemporary art jargonese rubbish like "basic design"'.
By way of explanation, and with reference to the 'Blue Period' works, Self has stated that 'every artist should be involved with the tragedy of man's inhumanity to man, for a period'. They are works which 'focus on man's disasters' and are 'about human personal tragedy'. Self’s Blue Period works are each composed of a central photographic image 'framed' by watercolour which has been applied in a variety of wash, staining and drip techniques. The photographic part of the image was achieved by taking a newspaper cutting, placing it face down on the support and, after soaking this in petrol, burnishing it with a spoon in order to transfer the image. In 'Blue Period No.2', the image was taken from a local newspaper, the Eastern Evening News, and depicts a line of corpses of children laid out after a massacre in Bangladesh. Whereas the tragedy which this image describes is the consequence of man's aggressive nature and the threat which he thereby poses, in 'Blue Period No.1', in the artist's collection, the subject is deprivation and the work shows a starving Indian family. In a subsequent, untitled, 'Blue Period' picture executed around the same time, which the artist also owns, Self used a news cutting showing a traffic accident as the central image and the subject of this work relates more specifically to human personal tragedy. At the time when the artist was interviewed, the artist indicated plans to continue the series of 'Blue Period' works with a work incorporating a photo- graph relating to the war in Beirut; on a larger scale, he intends to screenprint an image deriving from the Ethiopian famine onto canvas.
Self’s intention in making the 'Blue Period' works was 'to make something forlorn, about non-being' and the watercolour areas of each work are an integral part of this aim. The transfer photograph presents the subject of the work figuratively and this is complemented by the 'non-figurative and lyrical' watercolour which is 'used to express a mood of sadness and resignation'. In this respect, Self’s works 'connect obliquely' with Picasso's 'Blue Period' pictures which Self sees as being the product of a time when Picasso was 'poor, down and out, young and trying to survive in Paris'. In Self’s view, Picasso's 'Blue Period' works are 'an art of tolerance and compassion of huge humanity,' characteristics which he hopes are a part of the essential nature of his own 'Blue Period' series. The 'tachist' quality of the watercolour areas derives from sources which are autobiographical in origin. When Self was a child, his sign-writer father used to keep his brushes in good condition by cleaning them on the door of the household tool-shed. Over a period of years, the paint accrued and Self remembers 'reading' the drips and brush marks on the door in the same way he would a painting. This experience is reflected in the painterly area of 'Blue Period No.2'. At the same time, they refer to the 'sloppy, lethargic, abusive, crude, inartistic marks' which are found as graffiti in a contemporary urban context.
In the 'Rose Period' series the application of paint is 'jollier and less slobbering', in keeping with the contrasting nature of these works which represent 'the other side of life'. The Rose Period works are images of 'nobility and compassion' which the artist believes are virtues essential for man's survival. They are invested with a sense of hope and contrast with 'the philosophy interest in Dürer's time - where they literally sat and waited for the End of the World'. Like their 'Blue Period' counterparts, the 'Rose Period' works comprise a photographic transfer image framed by watercolour. However, the imagery employed in the 'Rose Period' works reflects their status as icons of hope. In 'Study for Rose Period No.3', there are two separate newsprint images, one above the other, both taken from the Eastern Evening
News. The top photograph shows the members of a London teenage theatre group who were visiting Norwich at the time when this work was made; the bottom photograph is of children playing in a Norwich park. In the two related earlier works: 'Study for Rose Period No.1' 1983 and 'Study for Rose Period No.2' 1983, both owned by the artist, the images used are: two nurses with a Down's Syndrome child sitting on a swing, and a girl in a swimming pool with a rubber dolphin. Self sees both nurses and children as 'positive forces for the future' and nurses, in particular are seen as personifications of the idea of compassion which makes hope possible.
The 'format' of the nine Works of Fusion discussed above is typical of the format of much of Self’s work, which the artist describes as 'smallish on paper of Imperial size'. The reasons for this are partly autobiographical and partly due to the strategic relationship between the scale of Self’s work and its 'central theme'. Self has described how, as a child, he 'would spend afternoons painting in watercolour (used like gouache) in the family's small bungalow. The eldest of nine children - one who died as a baby – space was always at a premium. The natural thing to do was to work small'. This 'necessity' for smaller scale works continued during his art education, a time which he characterises as dominated by the ethos 'Big is Beautiful'. Self has explained that' As an anarchist [I] worked small as [I] couldn't stand big, ugly, crude, public-styled pictures. That "might" was "right"'. Moreover, a further difficulty of large scale works was seen by Self as being that 'those who worked big must forfeit idea after idea in order just to physically accomplish one massive painting or sculpture'. Self reacted against this tendency. He has stated that he has always found it difficult to 'keep abreast of [my] "Fountain of Ideas" and consequently 'for this philosophy smaller work was most suitable and for this - drawing the best medium'. Self has consistently sought in his work to give expression to 'The Idea as a fundamental theme' and feels that 'The Idea, since [my] predecessor, Odilon Redon, has been long suppressed in art in favour of shapes, abstraction, flat surfaces. Consistency. Order. Regularity.' Thus the rationale behind Self's deliberate adoption of relative smallness of scale and his preference for drawing, as exemplified in the Works of Fusion, is provided by his statement that 'The Idea itself has become a central theme to [my] art'.
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984-86, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.273-282, reproduced p.273
- emotions, concepts and ideas(15,667)
- leisure and pastimes(6,745)