Ivor Abrahams

Femme du Midi V


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Ivor Abrahams 1935–2015
Part of
Femme du Midi
Etching on paper
Image: 375 × 195 mm
Presented by Evelyne Abrahams, the artist's wife 1986

Catalogue entry

Group of ninety-eight screenprints, lithographs and etchings, various sizes [P11099-P11196; incomplete]

Presented by Evelyne Abrahams, the artist's wife 1986

This group of prints was bequeathed to Evelyne Abrahams by the artist's parents, Harry and Rachel Abrahams, on the understanding that she would present it to the Tate Gallery on their behalf. It represents the greater part of the artist's printmaking to date. Other works by Abrahams in the collection are a sculpture entitled ‘Lady in a Niche’, 1973 (T03369), a work on paper entitled ‘Winter Sundial’, 1975 (T02330), and a small number of prints: ‘The Garden Suite’, 1970 (P04001-P04005), ‘Sundial I (Summer)’, 1975 (P07384) and ‘Untitled’ [from the artist's book Oxford Gardens: A Sketchbook], 1977 (P08150).

Abrahams is primarily a sculptor, and many of his prints relate to particular sculptures. In the period 1967–79 Abrahams focused on garden imagery, exploring the relationship between art, artifice and nature. Many of the images used in early prints were based on small, relatively poor quality photographs of gardens reproduced in gardening magazines, such as the weekly Amateur Gardening and Popular Gardening, or, less frequently, better quality illustrations found in the series of volumes on gardens published by Country Life in the 1920s. This use of second-hand source material gives much of his printed output a conceptual quality, and links his work to Pop art. Abrahams has presented a large amount of source material relating to his printmaking of this period, including magazine clippings, photographs and sketches and acetate stencils, to the Tate Gallery Archive (TGA 8315).

The critical and commercial success of ‘The Garden Suite’ (P04001-P040054), published in 1970, helped establish Abrahams' name internationally, and in the following decade he went on to produce a significant body of prints, making approximately one print a month. The dealer Bernard Jacobson published many of his portfolios, and the Mayor Gallery organised a series of touring shows of prints and sculptures. In this period Abrahams was based in London, working at a studio in Leonard Street, EC2, from 1969 to 1982, and at the A & A Foundry in Bow from 1982 to 1992, with a second studio at Butler's Wharf from 1974 to 1979.

In 1979 Abrahams abandoned the garden theme for which he had become well known and focused instead on water-based imagery, using bathers and nymphs which were inspired in part by the landscape, myths and folk customs associated with the South of France. Abrahams and his French wife bought a home in Pézenas, in the Languedoc, in 1973, where he used the cellar as a studio. In 1988 they bought a house in the small village, Castelnau de Guers, in the same region, and have lived there on a full-time basis since 1992.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations by the artist in the following entries are taken from a taped interview with the compiler held on 18 August 1994. The entries have been approved by the artist.

[from] Femme du Midi 1979 [P11170-P11175]

Suite of six etchings, various sizes, on Vélin Arches paper, various sizes; watermark ‘ARCHES | FRANCE’; printed by James Collyer and John Crossley at J.& C. Editions and published by Bernard Jacobson Ltd; one of 5 sets of artist's proofs aside from the edition of 33
Each inscribed ‘Ivor Abrahams 79.’ b.r. and ‘AP’ b.l.

Each print in this suite is composed of three variously coloured elements: a partial female figure, a rock, and some vegetation (the precise nature of which is left unclear). The three elements are printed from separate, shaped plates, the outline of which is clearly embossed in the paper. This unusual use of shaped plates can be seen as an attempt to find an equivalent in etching for the idea of cut-out imagery that had been a recurrent feature in Abrahams' printmaking as a whole. The embossing of the prints may also be seen as related to the artist's engagement with low and high relief in his sculptures.

All except the first and second prints in the suite were based upon a series of four polychrome sculptures entitled ‘Effigies du Pays d'Oc’, produced in 1979 in an edition of four (in all cases, however, the sculptures lack the elements of vegetation. The sculptures and prints were first exhibited in Ivor Abrahams: ‘Effigies du Pays d'Oc’ at the Galerie Bonnier, Geneva in October 1979. The catalogue preface indicates that the sculptures were finished only towards the end of the summer of that year. The exhibition also showed a number of preparatory works relating to the series, namely, seven untitled mixed media on card works, five watercolours and twelve untitled monotypes.

In conversation with the compiler Abrahams said that the idea for the prints and sculptures came from Mardi Gras carnivals in the Languedoc region of France (the phrase ‘Pays d'Oc’ in the titles of the sculptures is an alternative expression for the Languedoc). In such festivals the local people decorate floats with tableaux vivants of seated women, a modern version of ancient rites relating to such themes as fertility and the changing seasons. In an interview given in 1986 (in Ivor Abrahams: An Exhibition of Sculpture. Models for Projects 1986, exh. cat., Mayor Gallery 1986, [p.5]), Abrahams spoke of his love of the South of France:

my instincts pull me all the time to the South and specifically to the culture of the Mediterranean. The way in which you can perceive and feel space is quite different there and so is the light and strength of colour. I spend part of each year in South West France. My wife is French, and I've been affected by some of the popular culture which flows across France between Italy and Spain. Sète, for instance, was on the Etruscan trade route to Spain, and Agde was a Greek port. I like this cross fertilization and the wonderful festivals and carnivals that are held in the South, often pagan in origin, with painted tableau, part of the living folk art of the Midi.

The ‘Effigies du Pays d'Oc’ sculptures marked a significant turning-point in Abrahams' career. He had removed the human figure from his earlier garden-based works, and now sought to reintroduce it. In a text written in 1982 he explained, ‘At the expense of sounding like the Expulsion myth, my “Garden of Eden” had to go.

This was finally achieved within the single figure format of “Effigie du Pays d'Oc” in 1979’ (in Ivor Abrahams: Sculptures 1972–82, exh. cat., Warwick Arts Trust 1982, [p.3]). The figures in Abrahams' sculptures are not whole, and in this way appear related to surviving fragments of ancient classical sculpture. In the same text, however, Abrahams talked about his interest in Rodin's use of the fragmented figure: ‘The “partial figure” took sculpture away from textual sources and conventions of subject matter. His [Rodin's] use of the torso, compresses and energises’. Linking this fragmented form to the partial images of photography, Abrahams continued, ‘The snap-shot like spontaneity or momentariness helps enormously in establishing sovreignty over the aesthetic whole. I need to de-emphasise parts of the figure in order to bring other elements into play. The more abstract and flat the sculpture becomes, the more colour and surface treatment take the weight’.

One of the most striking aspects of the sculptures is their colouration. The sculptures are made from stoneware with tin glazes, enamel decal transfer, printed by Chris Betambeau of Advanced Graphics, and hand-painting. In the same text quoted above, Abrahams explained ([p.2]) that his interest in polychrome sculpture had been aroused by seeing a reproduction of Picasso's ‘Glass of Absinth’, 1914 (Berggruen Collection, repr. Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1994, p.65, no.24 in col.), and that he had been interested for some time in articulating the surface of his sculptures with colour. ‘To break down the formal I often employed a pointillist or tri-chromatic effect, sprayed directly into the surface; trying in a sense to subvert the shape that I had made with colour ... This was in opposition to the usual sculptural concerns with object-space relation’. The prints in the suite ‘Femme du Midi’ closely echo the colours and patterning of the related sculptures. The artist confirmed that the sculptures and prints were made more or less at the same time, and could no longer remember which came first.

P11174 Femme du Midi V 1979

Etching 375 × 195 (14 3/4 × 7 5/8) on Vélin Arches paper 700 × 570 (27 1/2 × 22 1/2)

A predominantly green partial figure sits on a pale brown rock, with dark brown vegetation to the right. The print relates closely to the sculpture ‘Effigie du Pays d'Oc I’, 1979 (repr. Geneva exh. cat., 1979, [p.3]). A related monotype is reproduced on the back cover of the brochure accompanying the exhibition Ivor Abrahams: Recent Prints & Works on Paper, Hobson Gallery, Cambridge 1981.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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