Cecil Collins

Landscape with Heads


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Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Watercolour and ink on paper
Support: 387 × 559 mm
Purchased 1974

Catalogue entry


Pen and ink and watercolour on paper, 386 x 557 mm (15 1/4 x 21 15/16 in)
Inscribed by the artist in black ink ‘Cecil Collins 1940’, bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back ‘Cecil Collins | June 1940 | TOTNES Devon’ and ‘Hymn’; also ‘3’ and ‘?83’
Purchased (Gytha Trust) 1974

The artist

Imaginative Art since 1939, Leicester Galleries, London, April-May, 1942 (88, as ‘Hymn (3)’)
The Prints of Cecil Collins, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Nov, 1981 (v, repr. p.6)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (90, repr.)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (19)
Cecil Collins: The Dartington Years 1936-1943, High Cross House, Dartington Hall, Devon, Aug. - Oct. 1997 (no cat. no., repr. p.23)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6, London 1977, pp.82-4, repr.
Richard Morphet, The Prints of Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.7
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.170, repr. p.155, pl.102
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.105

Landscape with Heads was drawn in ink on machine made paper, from which there have been losses at the edges where the sheet was gummed down to a drawing board. Part of the image has been removed with a tear at the right edge.[1] The artist also scratched the surface (above the right hand head) and applied washes of watercolour which establish the landscape: yellow and rose in the sky, soft red and blue in the foreground. There are no signs of preparatory underdrawing, and the result is an energetic and spontaneous line.

Such spontaneity showed the benefit of the artist’s close exchange with Mark Tobey. In the mid 1930s, the latter was already producing paintings, such as Broadway, 1935-6 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York),[2] in which the free-flowing line showed his gradual assimilation of Oriental calligraphy. That Collins shared an interest in the resulting freedom is confirmed by his comments in a lecture given at Dartington in 1941, in which he used Nietzschean types to distinguish between classical Apollonian and expressive Dionysian artists. Referring to a slide of one of his own drawings, ‘showing vigorous pencil strokes with profile head emerging at top’, he remarked:

This simple scribble is first and foremost an expression of energy, of feeling. It is urgent in its need to release itself as soon as possible. Now this type of artist uses form to express emotion or states of being, and not form for its own sake. This type I call the Dionysian, who lives for emotion and to lose himself in ecstasy.[3]

Both the sort of work chosen and the self-identification with the Dionysian type, are telling indications of Collins’s thinking at the time. The spontaneity of line shown in Landscape with Heads was, therefore, considered as a release of emotional energy.

This contemporary view was considerably revised to encompass a more serene explanation when Collins discussed Landscape with Heads at length in an interview on 10 March 1977. The answers to a series of prepared questions were reported in Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6.[4] The dominant features of the drawing - ‘read, almost as if it were a score’ - were discussed there:

In a long horizontal phrase, a detached, zig-zagging element at the left moves across the surface of the landscape towards the pillar-like head ... The upward-facing head which occupies the centre of the composition does not play so central a role. It relates to, and extends, the horizontality of the element that is in motion; with it, it expresses the idea of sequential episodes in time. By contrast, the head at the right evokes timelessness.

The coming together of these contrasting elements constitutes a clash ... [and] releases a vision ... [which] is signified by the emission of rays from the eye (itself a symbol of inner consciousness) of the head at the right ... By contrast with the outgoing radiance of this eye, the eye of the upward-facing head is half closed, signifying that its energy is not conscious.

After identifying this device as signifying a ‘hidden’ and ‘dreaming energy, somehwat akin to the state of prayer’, the five foreground objects were described in terms of contrasting ‘fluid’ (to the left) and ‘crystallized’ energies (to the right). They ‘act as a pause’ in the sequence, while:

The contrast between the characters of the two heads is underlined by the horizontal one’s having an unstable base while the vertical one is approached by steps ... Despite the drama and energy of the encounter, the clash of the heads is in no way violent, as the expressions of the heads attest. It is hieratic and ritualistic, intended to engender serenity

The contrasting heads were also read retrospectively as gendered but each taking on an aspect of the other. Thus the ‘vertical head is masculine in feeling, yet internally its structure expresses flow ... [while] the horizontal head is more feminine, yet it is also harder’. The disembodied head functioned as ‘the expression or fulfilment of the life of the landscape in which it is set’, although the landscape ‘is the interior life of the head’. This paradoxical situation is partially resolved in the conclusion:

a crucial duality expressed by ‘Landscape with Heads’ is that between the visual and aural senses. For Collins, each of these is always present in the other, and all his works of visual art are both made in a musical way and haunted by an aural feeling. ‘Landscape with Heads’ is analogous to a dissonant chord, the very dissonance of which provokes its resolution.[5]

Such an assertion would seem to support the originally inscribed title, Hymn. The idea of creating a visual equivalent to a song of praise to God, however formalised by orthodox religion, seems to have attracted Collins, as he was to use the title for several works from this moment onwards. That these could vary considerably in their imagery is shown by the structured forms of a gouache of the same year, Hymn, 1940 (private collection).[6] In 1977, the artist instituted the change from what he considered ‘too particularized a title’ to the new one, ‘to accord better with his conception of the work as something essentially open, analogous to a sound’.[7]

This retrospective reading draws out the symbolism of the drawing in relation to Collins’s oeuvre, but minimises the contemporary context. The original inscription on the reverse includes the date ‘June 1940’. The 1977 interview is guarded about this, noting that it ‘very probably has a connection with the tense historical events of the month ... but no conscious connection was intended, for Collins’s works are in no sense programmatic’.[8] The events to which this refers were the series of Allied defeats at the hands of the Germans: the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk (30 May - 4 June), the fall of Paris (14 June) and the French armistice (22 June). The disembodied heads and the language of violence still used to describe them nearly forty years later suggest the artist’s response. Furthermore, Landscape with Heads is closely related to The Oracle, (private collection)[9] an ink drawing of very similar dimensions. This is specifically dated, ‘May 1940’, the month of the fall of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. Both works use a tightly worked and unfolding black line, with areas filled with calligraphic patterns, to show a visionary presence in a barren landscape. Although the artist stressed the lack of specific reference to contemporary events, the atmosphere of each is apocalyptic by comparison to the similarly handled but comic Procession of Fools, 1940 (Dartington Hall Trust).[10]

The robust directness of the calligraphic line distinguishes it from the delicacy of preceding works. While reflecting the perilous circumstances, this change also seems to show a response to the work of other artists. It may be related to the example of Picasso, found in the drawings accompanying the exhibition of Guernica in London in the summer of 1938 (New Burlington Galleries and Whitechapel Art Gallery) and in those published in Cahiers d’Art (no.13, 1938). Collins kept a copy of this number of the periodical in his studio. The drawings included Cubist heads, clearly echoed in Collins’s ink Head, 1940 (private collection),[11] as well as full figures in which the planes are filled with patterned hatching - a device used in the foreground objects of Landscape with Heads. As well as the lesson of Tobey, the evident spontaneity of Landscape with Heads may be related to the automatic drawings of André Masson; he contributed to the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1936, and had solo exhibitions in London in 1934 (Wildenstein) and 1937 (Mayor Gallery) of works related to the Spanish Civil War in which an equation between landscape and the body was repeatedly drawn. More particularly, an early automatic drawing by Masson, now known as Autoportrait (Le Dormeur), 1925 (whereabouts unknown),[12] appeared in Herbert Read’s Art Now (London 1933).[13] The lower part comprised the sleeper of the title, whose quickly rendered profile, shown recumbent and with closed eyes, is comparable to that at the centre of Collins’s drawing. Although in the 1977 interview[14] he denied any connection to Dali’s painting of the same theme, The Sleeper, 1937 (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam), these comparisons suggest that Collins had continued to draw upon Parisian Surrealist and related sources. It is appropriate to the date and implicit political content of Landscape with Heads that both Picasso and Masson were, at that time, using their drawings as a means of exposing the political decay of Europe.

Collins’s drawing may be identified with one of the six works that the artist showed in Imaginative Art since 1939, a predominantly Surrealist exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1942. The inscribed numbers on the reverse seem to be identifiable with no.88 Hymn (3).[15]

Matthew Gale
July 1998

[1] Tate conservation files

[2] Repr. Mark Tobey Retrospective, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Fine Arts 1968, no.13

[3] ‘Art and Modern Man; A Study and Interpretation of the Problems of Modern Painting’ lecture, 1 Oct. 1941; as ‘The Artist in Society’ in Collins, The Vision of the Fool and other writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich 1994, p.44

[4] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6, London 1977, pp.82-4

[5] Ibid. p.84

[6] Repr. Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.104, no.87
[7] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6, London 1977, p.84

[8] Ibid.
[9] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.105, no.89
[10] Repr. ibid., p.104, no.86

[11] Repr. ibid., p.105, no.88
[12] Repr. Florence de Mèredieu, André Masson: Les dessins automatiques, Paris 1988, no.34, p.30
[13] Art Now, London 1933, rev ed. 1936, fig.128
[14] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6
[15] Imaginative Art since 1939, Leicester Galleries, London, April-May, 1942

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