Denis Bowen

Crystallised Landscape


Not on display

Denis Bowen 1921–2006
Alkyd paint on canvas
Support: 632 × 970 mm
frame: 642 × 981 × 22 mm
Purchased 2002


Crystallised Landscape is one of a series of paintings by Bowen which is closely associated with the rise of Tachisme in Britain during the mid 1950s. This type of abstraction, characterised by dabs or splotches of colour (tache is the French word for spot or blotch), placed great value on the physical act of painting. For some painters the tache was theorised as an existential act, symbolising the freedom of the individual, for others, such as Bowen, it was a manifestation of the collective unconscious and the spiritual. His practice, which was steeped in quasi-Zen philosophy, involved the use of meditation to ‘empty his mind’ of thoughts. Once he had reached a state of ‘hyperconsciousness’, he would build up an image with rapid strokes, splashes and drips, using such unconventional materials as oil paint mixed with sand and household emulsions (Gaskin, p.44). Each picture was produced in one continuous session like Georges Mathieu’s (born 1921) abstract paintings. Bowen knew Mathieu, who had given a televised painting performance at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1956 to mark the opening of his exhibition there.

The explosive appearance of Crystallised Landscape is typical of Bowen’s tachiste paintings which have such titles as Atomic Landscape and Fission. It is divided horizontally by an upper area of red and a lower section of black. Working up from the bottom of the picture, patches of colour, reminiscent of Nicolas de Staël (1914-55), are applied over the black section with increasing frequency, eventually forming a dense conglomeration of taches in the centre of the painting. The cracked impasto achieved in this section is closely related to Alberto Burri’s (1915-95) and Antoni Tapiès’s (born 1923) matière paintings of the earlier 1950s, which Bowen knew well.

The landscape allusions of the title and format may be rooted in Bowen’s experiences as a naval radar technician during the Second World War. He recalls being moored off Portsmouth and seeing the night sky, which was criss-crossed by searchlight beams, reflected on the black surface of the sea (Gaskin, p.44). He has identified this image as part of his subconscious vocabulary and one which may be the source for many of his tachiste paintings. Although small scale, there are clear links between Bowen’s pictures of this period and other British artists, for example, the early work of Robyn Denny (born 1930) and Richard Smith (born 1931).

Further reading:
Fiona Gaskin, ‘British Tachisme in the post-war period, 1946-1957’, in Margaret Garlake, ed. Artists and Patrons in Post-War Britain, London 2001
Peter Davies, Denis Bowen, London and St Ives 2000, p.19, reproduced in colour, p.54

Toby Treves, revised by Heather Birchall
October 2002

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