Painted during his third year of living in Paris, Woman in a Courtyard is typical of Trevelyan’s work of this early period; the painting’s complex central element may be seen as a multi-part figure in an architectural setting or as an interplay of geometric shapes. Deliberately ambiguous, the whole image resists any attempt at a consistently representational reading. The outline of a carafe or vase contains at its base the lower half of a dancing, naked female figure which, once out of the spotlight, rises upwards and turns into the sinuous shape of a male dancer clothed in black, and in its transformation reflects a fascination with metamorphosis then current among the Surrealists. Trevelyan’s use of colour reinforces the sense of spatial ambivalence in which an apparently shallow pictorial space suddenly stretches right back to the wall of the courtyard, and is then denied altogether in the way the figures are painted. The same deep, smooth black is used for the male torso in the foreground and the night sky behind, while a crescent-shaped patch of cobalt-blue indicates the dancer’s left arm, doubles as the hair of a female head on his right, and is used again to suggest drapery or part of a swirling body. Throughout the painting, individual marks and areas of pigment function simultaneously as depiction and abstraction. The female head, for instance, is no more than a carefully-placed grouping of geometric shapes, her face a brown circle behind the lip of the vase which doubles as her lip, and her eye a black circle surrounded by blue where pupil and iris would be. Bisecting the face is a triangle whose two pale sides anchor the head to the picture surface and whose light-emitting quality is echoed by the cream-coloured highlights of interlocking rings, two of which occur at breast height of the female figure, but which seem loosely to bind the couple together.
The composition is well defined, maintaining a delicate balance between the exuberant dynamism of the dancing figure and the utter stillness of the nocturnal scene, set in a brightly-lit courtyard. Almost half the canvas area is black, and with the exception of three lines and one shape suggestive of an arm in brick-red, the tonality is somber and the colours cool, but the illumination is strong, creating a dramatic, theatrical effect. The device of containing an apparently moving, biomorphic entity within a box-like structure is reminiscent of early paintings by the Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) and very similar to another work by Trevelyan of the same year, Basewall 1933 (T05798) which also features organic shapes that cast long shadows and seem to hover above bare floorboards beneath a black rectangle of sky.
In 1933 Trevelyan was working as a studio assistant to the pioneering printmaker, Stanley William Hayter (1901–88), whose workshop, ‘Atelier 17’, from 1927 onwards attracted virtually every major twentieth-century artist interested in engraving, notably such Surrealists as Joan Miró (1893–1983) and André Masson (1896–1987). Trevelyan commented that: ‘Working in such surroundings I came to accept a language of painting that was somewhere between Cubism and Surrealism; one that was very far from my own natural way of seeing things’ (Trevelyan, p.26). He did not resolve this approach to painting until several years later, but Woman in a Courtyard does exemplify Hayter’s own goal of finding a balance between conscious and unconscious creation. Trevelyan takes as his starting-point a fusion of suggestive forms, but subsequently develops and enriches the image with motifs that regularly recur in his own work, such as the outline of an industrial building in the background which anchors the scene in space yet conflicts with the dizzying perspective suggested by the floorboards to the left of the figure, and that lead to a different vanishing point from those on her right.
Despite its effect of expressive energy and spontaneity, the painting has been several times re-worked, using both artists’ colours and household paint. It has been created in layers, with the pencil outlines of the vase form and building behind the wall being superimposed on top of the paint. Trevelyan signed and dated the painting in the bottom right-hand corner.
Julian Trevelyan, Indigo Days: The Art and Memoirs of Julian Trevelyan, (first published London 1957) Aldershot 1996.