Magda Cordell

No. 12

1960

In Tate Britain
Artist
Magda Cordell 1921–2008
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1522 x 1017 mm
frame: 1559 x 1052 x 38 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2013
Reference
T13813

Summary

No. 12 1960 is a large, predominantly red painting with an oval shape in the middle by the Hungarian-British artist Magda Cordell. Cordell left the round womb-like shape unpainted so that the white gesso primed surface of the canvas shows through behind the abstract figure at its centre. The figure, possibly representing a woman, is schematically painted in oranges and reds. Around her are pools of white and yellow resin and areas of what appears to be airbrushed magenta paint. The paint surface around the figure is pitted and scarred. The title reflects the manner in which Cordell approached works of this period as groups or series of works.

The colours of the canvas, as well as its organic forms, evoke the body. The figure in No. 12 is both earth mother and embryo, potentially both the source of reproduction and its product. Encased in the round shape, with organs and body parts dissembled, the body is shown to be in a state of change and renewal. Such a metaphor was common in the 1950s when it was often depicted as fragile and threatening, both physically and psychologically. Yet Cordell was unusual in extending this brutalist and existentially inflected idiom to encompass the female body. The historian David Mellor has indicated that what he found exceptional about Cordell’s paintings ‘lies in their aspect of female signs; that is, they act as signs for an internal – and crucially – maternal body, unrepresented elsewhere in British art of this moment.’ (David Mellor, ‘A “Glorious Techniculture” in Nineteen-Fifties Britain: The Many Cultural Contexts of the Independent Group’, in The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1990, p.235.)

At a period in which American abstract expressionism and action painting was being assessed alongside European tachisme and the art brut of Jean Dubuffet (typified by the Opposing Forces exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London in 1953 organised by the critic Michel Tapié), Cordell’s paintings of women, first exhibited in 1955 at the ICA and the following year at the Hanover Gallery, London, drew much critical attention. For the critic Reyner Banham, writing in 1955, they exemplified the ‘New Brutalism’, along with the work of Alberto Burri, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Jackson Pollock and the architecture of Alison and Peter Smithson (Reyner Banham, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Review, December 1955, pp.154–63). Fellow critic and curator Lawrence Alloway described Cordell’s figures as ‘androids with a patina of pathos’, composing a word list that for him was suggestive of Cordell’s paintings: ‘solar, delta, galactic, amorphous, ulterior, fused, far out, viscous, skinned, visceral, variable, flux, nebular, iridescence, hyper space, free fall’ (Lawrence Alloway, ‘Foreword’, in Hanover Gallery 1956, unpaginated).

The predominantly science fiction analogies that Alloway made apply more to slightly later paintings like No. 12, than they do to paintings of the mid-1950s that are much closer to the language of Dubuffet. The colouring of No. 12, and the poolings and layering of resin and glazes, chime closely with the words in Alloway’s list that evoke a human fragility (‘skinned’ and ‘visceral’) as much as a ‘galactic’ ‘iridescence’. While contemporary painters like Dubuffet and Francis Bacon, Henderson and Paolozzi produced images of bodies under threat, wounded survivors of cataclysm, Cordell’s No. 12 is an image of a future body under renewal, not just surviving but triumphing over injury. In an interview at the time she painted No. 12, Cordell explained how:

When your car breaks and you take it to a garage they have to replace the whole of the defective part. But they can cut away huge pieces of your internal organs and you will grow them again or compensate for their loss. And also, all the time that your body is renewing itself, so in your lifetime you are remade countless times. This to me is an incredible thing.
(Magda Cordell, interview with Peter Rawstorne, News Chronicle, 1 July 1960, cited in Institute of Contemporary Arts 1990, p.65.)

No. 12 was exhibited in Magda Cordell: John McHale at the ICA in 1962 (cat. no.4).

Further reading
Magda Cordell Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Hanover Gallery, London 1956.
Magda Cordell: John McHale, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1962, cat. no.4.
Transition: The London Art Scene in the Fifties, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 2002.

Andrew Wilson
December 2012

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Display caption

Cordell’s paintings of women drew much critical attention at a time when American abstract expressionism and action painting was being assessed alongside European tachisme and the art brut of Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985). Here Cordell’s figure appears as both earth mother and embryo shown in a state of change and renewal. Such a metaphor was common in the 1950s where the body was often depicted as fragile and at threat, both bodily and psychologically, yet Cordell was rare in having extended this idiom to encompass the female body.

Gallery label, September 2016

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

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