Ken Kiff

Person Cutting an Image

1965–71

Not on display

Artist
Ken Kiff 1935–2001
Medium
Tempera on hardboard
Dimensions
Support: 610 × 610 mm
frame: 670 × 670 × 58 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1983
Reference
T03612

Catalogue entry

T03612 Person Cutting an Image 1965–71

Tempera on hardboard 24 × 24 (610 × 610)
Inscribed ‘Ken Kiff’ on reverse
Purchased from Nicola Jacobs Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: 13 Britische Kunstler: eine Austellung über Malerei, BC tour, Neue Galerie-Sammlung Ludwig, Aachen, December 1981–February 1982, Kunstverein, Mannheim, February–April 1982, Kunstverein, Brunswick, June–September 1982 (repr. p.46); New Art at the Tate Gallery 1983, Tate Gallery, September–October 1983 (repr. p.18); Ken Kiff, Paintings 1965–85, AC tour, Serpentine Gallery, January–February 1986, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, March–April 1986, Arnolfini, Bristol, May–June 1986 (3, repr.in col.)
Lit: Timothy Hyman, ‘Coming to terms with the Time-Spirit’, London Magazine, XXIII, nos. 9 and 10, December 1983–January 1984, p.88. Also repr: Martha Kapos, ‘Chagall and Figurative Painting’, Artscribe, 52, May–June 1985, p.32

The lengthy period of execution of this painting, from 1965 to 1971, is associated with the artist's choice of the medium of tempera and pastel. It is one of his earliest paintings in the style he now recognises as a part of all his subsequent work, and it was, for instance, the third in date order in his retrospective exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 1986. The artist wrote (letter of 6 August 1984):

At the time when I began that painting, being very unsure where I was going with painting, I started working on gesso on hardboard so that the images could be scraped off or radically changed many many times, and yet a paintfilm which was clear, probably translucent, and above white, could be kept. I didn't see, nor do I see now, how this could be done with any other medium. Though I'd used tempera before, mixing it myself, with these paintings (of which there were six in all) I used Rowney's ‘egg’ (ie. egg-oil emulsion) tempera. It behaves much like tempera and was convenient for paintings which really have nothing of the laboriousness and attention to detail which the purist tempera painters usually have.


The group of early paintings (in fact more than six) in this medium were shown at the Serpentine Gallery in 1986 as numbers 2 to 8, where they were dated from 1965 to 1979, and there is also, in addition, another painting ‘Woman Taking her Clothes’ (24 × 24 ins.) which was not exhibited since it was still unfinished. All of these were altered considerably during the painting, although ‘Person Cutting an Image’ less so:

The ‘Man Cutting an Image’ (like the pastel, which was begun earlier) was always a figure against a dark background. But other presences in the darkness, a window, the table and whatever was happening on it, all these things came and went, and changed the picture fundamentally. Doing two versions - I suppose always a way of thinking about what one is doing - may have had a technical point with this painting: a soft matt translucent black is easier in pastel or tempera than in oil (letter of 24 August 1984).


The pastel version (22 × 30 ins., private collection) has the same composition, but the table is a darker colour and the features of the head are drawn in a different way, as if also seen in profile inside the full round of the head.

In these two letters the artist gave no direct account of the subject, but described some of its associations:

I hope that [these] paintings, having become whole as one works on them, become more serene for the viewer as he continues to look at them. That the black background dovetails into the figure, reaches into it as the head reaches into the darkness, or that other sharper black shape, the scissors, reaches into the image on the table ...


And the general implications of the subject:

Things being split apart, divided or even destroyed - I think I do a lot of subjects like that, but always I hope the real subject is wholeness, or the movement towards wholeness.


The image is related to that of another painting of similar date. ‘Man Reading with a Paraffin Stove’ (oil on canvas, 60 × 48 ins., 1964–5, collection of artist) shows a seated figure, full length and in a comparable pose, staring at a painting of a head that is probably his own, or even a mirror. A pair of scissors is open on the floor near his feet. That the ‘image’ he looks at is a self-portrait is far more explicit than in the Tate Gallery's painting, but there is a possibility that this identification is continued there as well.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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