Stanley William Hayter



Not on display

Stanley William Hayter 1901–1988
Oil paint and string on canvas
Support: 813 × 1006 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Nicholas Themans Trust 2019


Murder 1932–3 is a painting that is read as both an abstract composition of shapes, lines and colour, and a semi-figurative scene. The title ‘Murder’ encourages the viewer to associate its forms with the violent act of killing, and so parts suggesting the human figure take on added narrative and emotional significance. Further detail of the narrative content (who is involved in the murder, as well as when and where it takes place) remains unspecified.

On a shaded brown ground, a broad angled plane of thinly-painted white meets a thick black horizon line in the distance, demarcating a three-dimensional space. Three roughly tear-shaped forms have been painted on top: a central flat grey tusk, a bright red circle with extending limb on the left and a yellow circle and curl on the right. A long line of string has been fixed (either glued or stitched) to the surface of the canvas, creating new shapes over the top of these painted forms. The longest continuous line describes in relief parts of a figure lying down – one arm hangs to the lower right and a leg juts in the opposite direction. A separate smaller circle of string takes the place of the figure’s head. The string has been painted to match the colour of the canvas upon which it has been fixed, so it is mainly white, but also grey, red, yellow and black in parts. Some painted black lines accentuate the curving dynamism of the forms and provide punctuation at the place where sections meet: a black circular outline and a small black dot possibly represent parts of the body (a head, eye, breast or navel) but, because they are non-explicit in meaning, they also remain a part of the abstract rhythm of colour and form.

In 1926 Hayter moved from London to Paris, where he set up a studio, ‘Atelier 17’, which was envisioned as a centre for research in printmaking. During the 1930s this became a forum for surrealists, such as Joan Miró, André Masson, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, as well as other avant-garde artists, such as Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso. Hayter also exhibited alongside these artists from 1933 onwards. Murder was made at the time when the researches of Hayter and his colleagues into the qualities of the printed block and line were in full flow. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Hayter relocated to New York where the studio again flourished, working most notably with the painter Mark Rothko (1903–1970). Hayter returned to Paris in 1950, re-establishing the studio there.

Murder is one of few known works by Hayter in which collaged elements play an integral role in the composition. His use of string here specifically extends the surrealists’ process of automatic drawing in a new direction. Other works by Hayter of the mid-1930s, such as Deliquescence 1935 (Tate T00637), are similarly characterised by complex semi-figurative arrangements of curves and dark energetic straight lines. These are less explicit in their reference to the human form but instead suggest the shapes, growth or movement of insects, rocks, water or other natural substances or life forms, and they often lack the narrative aspect of Murder.

Hayter is most significant as a catalyst for surrealist expression in Paris (fusing the language of automatism with the engraving tool) and for making a link between the surrealist movement and artistic circles in Britain. The abstract biomorphic composition of Murder, delineated mainly through the line of string, becomes a violated, fragmented body, linking it to a strain of surrealism that connects Miró and Masson in France with Paule Vézeley and Henry Moore in Britain. While a small grouping of French surrealists used string to draw lines, this was very rarely done by British artists. The strength of the resulting image is thus different to the more subdued figurative landscape painting Deliquescence or the fragmented abstraction of Ophelia 1936 (Tate T03408), and shows Murder as a rare kind of British surrealist expression prior to the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London.

Further reading
S.W. Hayter, exhibition catalogue Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1957.
Pierre François and François Albert, Hayter: Le peintre – The Paintings, Montreuil 2011, illustrated p.31.

Rachel Rose Smith
August 2018

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