Alan Davie was a vital post-war link between British and international art. Colette Swires introduces a retrospective of his 65-year career at Tate St Ives.

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  • Alan Davie, 'Fairy Tree No. 5' 1971

    Alan Davie
    Fairy Tree No. 5 1971
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1727 x 2134 mm
    Presented by the artist 1972 Alan Davie

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Alan Davie Susan’s Delight 2003 Woodcut 570 x 510 mm

    Alan Davie
    Susan’s Delight 2003 Woodcut
    570 x 510 mm

    The Art Fund Hugh Stoneman Archive.
    © Alan Davie & Tate St Ives.

  • Alan Davie Holy Man's Bird Meditation 1960

    Alan Davie
    Holy Man’s Bird Meditation 1960

    © the artist

When confronted by one of Alan Davie’s canvases from the 1950s and 60s, the eye is drawn to the spontaneous gestural brushstrokes, thick multi-layers of paint and dried drips capturing the frenzied activity of its creation. His early work bears a strong resemblance to the works of Jackson Pollock, and indeed Davie was perhaps the first European artist to encounter the work of the emerging New York School and appreciate its worth.

Davie, who was born in Scotland in 1919, trained at Edinburgh College of Art and in 1941 was awarded a travel scholarship. Inspired by the vibrancy of works of Picasso, Henry Moore and Marc Chagall exhibited at the Venice Biennale of 1948, he put together a small exhibition of his work from which the legendary Peggy Guggenheim bought a painting, helping to launch his career.

It was Guggenheim who introduced Davie to the work of Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. By the mid-50s he was socialising with them in New York, and in 1956 the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased one of his paintings. But although Davie found inspiration in their work, he never regarded himself as an Abstract Expressionist - indeed, he has never felt that he belonged to any specific artistic movement. The term ‘action painting’ is often applied to his work, but for Davie art is not about the expression of emotions experienced during its creation. Rather, it is a matter of looking beyond the painted surface of the canvas and responding to the image it evokes.

His method involves drawing rapidly, unconscious of subject matter or composition, developing his ideas through a series of drawings and gouaches before working up the composition on canvas. His most recent works are series of gouaches commissioned for the exhibition at Tate St Ives. In the 1950s and 60s he painted directly onto several canvases at once, making gestural brushstrokes until images, signs and symbols took shape. The Surrealist artists Andre Masson and Max Ernst were among the first to use this method of painting, and the exhibition explores the connection between Davie’s techniques and those of the Surrealists. Paul Klee talked about ‘going for a walk with a line’, an idea which appealed to Davie, while the element of fantasy in Klee’s work and his subtle balance of abstraction giving way to figuration, as shapes emerge and become identifiable, relates to Davie’s works.

More recently, Davie’s works are figurative with as many layers of symbolism and meaning as there are layers of paint on the canvas. Fascinated by ancient art and the philosophies of other cultures, Davie has studied Zen Buddhism and Indian mythology. The signs and symbols in his work are an eclectic mix of the ancient and those conjured up by his own imagination. Birds, snakes and wheels are among the identifiable motifs, which he feels relate to ancient symbols signifying the female sexual organ, the sun or the moon. His paintings have no specific meanings and are open to different interpretations. He believes in the Zen concept of free association of ideas and universal meaning.

Davie spends his winters in the Caribbean and summers in Cornwall, which with its Stone Age monuments and standing stones he regards as a wild, primitive, timeless place that provides inspiration for his work.

An accomplished jazz musician, Davie’s exuberant and colourful paintings have many musical motifs, as does the title piece of the exhibition, Jingling Space 1950. Spontaneity and intuition are prerequisites for jazz, but Davie shrugs off any attempt to relate music directly to his methods of painting. For Davie, painting is not a means of depicting his own life experiences. Instead, it is a way to tap into the subconscious mind, to seek spiritual enlightenment by committing to canvas what he refers to as the ‘inexpressible’ through a series of images and symbols.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 8