Michael Ayrton

The Landscape of Cain


Not on display

Michael Ayrton 1921–1975
Wax, bone, resin and pigmented wax on plywood
Frame: 871 × 1250 × 117 mm
Bequeathed by Andrew Burt 2019


The Landscape of Cain 1958 is a relief work made from wax and real bones on wood. It dates from a period of experimentation in Michael Ayrton’s career, shortly after he had started to make sculpture. The work depicts a desert landscape with a cavernous dark cloud or opening, before which stands a male figure. Either side of the figure are totemic arrangements of animal bones, positioned as sentinels. The work is one of about twelve wax and bone reliefs made by Ayrton between 1958 and 1959. The surface of a wooden panel has been built up with a series of applications of wax, wax-resin and pigmented wax, with colours varying from pure white through to grey, cream, yellow, brown and black. Incised lines into the wax delineate a form of horizon line. The wax-covered bones – predominantly from chickens and rabbits – have been embedded within the wax and are linked by a matrix of wax-coated string. The wax figure at the centre of the composition stands forward of the surface, on some of the protruding bones.

For Ayrton, the story of Cain held deep resonance – wandering the earth as a punishment for his act of murder, he is a figure who palpably has no sense of his own destiny. Having given in to base urges, his resulting state of existence embodies an entrapment in a largely featureless and barren landscape. The bones in this work serve to emphasise this lifeless landscape but also indicate the nature of Cain’s crimes, framing his very existence. The small group of reliefs that Ayrton made using wax and bone vary greatly in their impact and subject matter. Some refer to the story of Icarus and Daedalus escaping from Crete – a myth the artist had only recently alighted on; others, like Midsummer 1958 (private collection, made using chicken breast bones and a crab), are ‘sun-drenched and optimistic’ (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery 1978, p.73). The majority, however, including The Landscape of Cain and Perilous Place 1958 (private collection), summon up a sinister, macabre vision of primeval desolation. These scenes recall Ayrton’s early interest in the northern Renaissance of the early sixteenth century, typified by Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Alterpiece 1512–16 (Musée Unter Linden, Colmar, France).

Ayrton consistently sought to create work that could be addressed through a multifaceted interpretative system, and many of his earliest sculptures used animal bones as a means of unlocking such responses to his work. Of this practice, he wrote:

To me the bone is so directly relevant to function, so absolute in shape, that it is, in itself, transcendental sculpture. A bone invites metamorphosis and re-creates itself in the process. The skeleton of a bird can become the bare trees of a mysterious landscape and the skull of a rabbit or the breastbone of a goose will show you how it became a helmet or wings or a fish. It will paraphrase a state of mind, arm a warrior, teach the ancient history of a species in a cryptic and ironic language. Bone is the carapace of the vitals, the scaffold of action, the most lasting monument to man and all other vertebrates.
(Ayrton 1966, unpaginated.)

The Landscape of Cain was exhibited at the Tate Gallery, London in 1958 in the Contemporary Art Society exhibition The Religious Theme (June – August 1958). The following year, eight of these wax reliefs were exhibited in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, London (5–25 June 1959), although it is uncertain if this work was included in this group. Ayrton recalled later that these works ‘were very ill received’ at that exhibition and that ‘the public reaction was one of alarm and distaste’ (Ayrton 1966, unpaginated).

After 1958, following his first visit to Greece that year, the landscape, myths and sculpture of Greece became Ayrton’s primary focus of inspiration; he concentrated especially on the myths of Daedalus and Icarus, and of the Minotaur (see, for example, Icarus Transformed 1 1961, Tate T00460, and The Evolution of the Minotaur 1963–4, Tate T15443).

Further reading
Peter Cannon-Brookes, Michael Ayrton, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery 1978.
Michael Ayrton, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1966.
Jacob E. Nyenhuis, Myth and the Creative Process, Michael Ayrton and the Myth of Daedalus, the Maze Maker, Detroit 2003.

Andrew Wilson
January 2009, revised June 2019

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