The painting refers to the biblical story of Cain and Abel as recounted in chapter four of the Book of Genesis. Cain was thrown into a rage of jealousy when his brother Abel’s offering was accepted by God instead of his. In his fury he killed Abel. As the first occurrence of murder in the Bible, the story has had considerable interest for artists over the centuries. For Vaughan, who had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War (1939-45), it is likely the story had a special poignancy.
Cain is depicted standing in a louring landscape clutching Abel’s limp body. In his right hand is the weapon, possibly a bone of some sort, with which he has bludgeoned his brother. Abel’s head, bearing an almost serene expression, lolls pathetically against Cain’s massive chest. In contrast, Cain’s tormented face, reminiscent of a tragic mask, stares out of the picture, his eyes unseen and his hair windswept as if caught in a storm. In a deliberate compositional conceit, the weapon, and Cain and Abel’s heads are all aligned along the central vertical axis. The latent homoeroticism of the picture is consistent with much of Vaughan’s work.
Vaughan’s pictures up to 1946 conform to a type of English painting which has been called Neo-Romanticism. This strain of art, which flourished during the war, combined the idyllic pastoralism of Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) with a romantic sense that the natural world threatened mankind. In its subject Cain and Abel tends more towards romanticism than pastoralism.
The pitting and strange blotches on the figures’s green flesh is achieved by combining watercolour, gouache, pen and ink, and a wax resist. The resulting surface is well suited to the theme of physical corruption and decay which permeates the work. This technique was used by several of Vaughan’s contemporaries, including Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and Henry Moore (1898-1986).
This picture was painted in 1946 about the time that Vaughan was demobilized. He had joined the army as a conscientious objector in 1940 and served as a non-combatant until March 1946. Throughout this period he continued to paint and draw, though wartime restrictions limited his paintings mainly to gouaches on paper.
Keith Vaughan: Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 1962, reproduced, pl VIII
Malcolm Yorke, Keith Vaughan: His Life and Work, London 1990
Keith Vaughan, Journals 1939-1977, London 1989