Catalogue entry

T02323 CASEMENT TO INFINITY 1930

Inscribed ‘Leon U 30’ b.r.
Oil on canvas, 30 × 25 (76.2 × 63.5)
Presented by Garth Underwood 1978
Exh: The Neo Society, Godfrey Phillips Galleries, May–June 1930 (55, as ‘Casement of Infinity’, repr.); Leon Underwood, Archer Gallery, June–July 1971 (46); Leon Underwood and 12 Girdlers Road, New Art Centre, November–December 1976 (12, dated 1929)
Lit: Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, 1974, p.131 and repr. fig.94

‘Casement to Infinity’ is one of six paintings exhibited by the artist in the first and only exhibition of ‘The Neo Society’, at the Godfrey Phillips Gallery in May 1930. The artist's collection of newspaper cuttings (in the Courtauld Institute Library) includes a favourable review from R. H. Wilenski (Evening Standard, May 10, 1930), referring to Underwood's paintings as ‘symbols of metaphysical ideas’, but also a report (Daily Sketch, May 17, 1930) that the artist had removed all his works from the exhibition after he had been told that one of them, ‘At the Feet of the Gods’, ‘was not fit for reproduction in a newspaper’. The objection was that the still life in the painting included an enema, but the artist defended the work as ‘a mystical symbolism of modern civilisation as I see it’. Underwood was one of ten artists in this exhibition, but the only one whose work is now represented in the Tate Gallery collection.

Underwood's career is marked by abrupt changes of style, deliberately undertaken whenever he considered his message could most appropriately be expressed in a certain way. The six paintings shown in ‘The Neo Society’ exhibition were one such use of a certain style for a short time, in this case symbolical still lifes. Following a visit to Mexico in 1928 a number of Underwood's paintings were of subjects from Mexican history. Three of these - ‘Coast of Yucatan’, ‘The Fates’ and ‘Chac Mool's Destiny’ (all of 1929) - are a departure in his painting and a move towards the style of ‘Casement to Infinity’ of the next year, in that they are designed around a steep, theatrical perspective and combine unrelated objects as if in a narrative. It is likely that he borrowed this from the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, which had been exhibited at Tooth's in October–November 1928, after Underwood's return from Mexico. De Chirico's paintings of sculptures of gladiators and classical horses in interiors resemble Underwood's ‘Chac Mool's Destiny’ particularly, and correspond with his interest in extending the meaning of sculpture. The paintings of 1930 were still lifes of contemporary objects, and a further source for Underwood was undoubtedly the marine still lifes of Edward Wadsworth. These had most recently been exhibited in Tooth's in May–June 1929, and typically featured shells, a distant view of the sea and a sharp separation of foreground and background, all also present in T02323.

Underwood's message in these paintings is not explained directly by the titles, but was discussed by him in 1972–3 with Christopher Neve, who writes of the subject: ‘the accumulation of still-life objects has paradoxically to do exclusively with the passage of time and contemplation: growth, in the roots, in the egg and in the spider busy spinning on the gnomon of the sundial; the single fallen wing to suggest arrested flight, and, instead of the traditional metaphysical symbol of decay - the fly on the skull - Underwood has put a butterfly: a thing of great beauty given poignancy by the extreme shortness of its survival’ (op. cit. p.131). The painting was not exhibited by the artist after 1930, and from this time he was more concerned with sculpture than painting.

The wooden frame was carved by the artist. The signature, which was originally in brown, was repainted over the varnish before the painting was acquired, and in older photographs is not visible.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981