Ken Kiff

Triptych: Shadows


Not on display

Ken Kiff 1935–2001
3 works on board, acrylic paint, oil paint and pastel
Support: 1161 × 892 mm
support: 1188 × 992 mm
support: 1160 × 893 mm
Purchased 1987

Catalogue entry

T04888 Triptych: Shadows 1983–6

Acrylic, oil and pastel on three hardboard panels 1161 × 892 (45 3/4 × 35 1/4), 1188 × 992 (46 1/2 × 39), 1160 × 893 (45 3/4 × 35 1/4).
Inscribed ‘Ken Kiff’ b.l. of left panel; ‘Ken Kiff | Triptych: “Shadows” | (left-hand panel) | 1983–5, finished 1986 | Acrylic on board | with some areas of | oil on top’ on back of left-hand panel; ‘Ken Kiff | Triptych: “Shadows” | (centre panel) | 1984–5, finished 1986 | Acrylic on board, with | oil paint on top in some areas’ on back of centre panel; ‘Ken Kiff | Triptych: “Shadows” | (right-hand panel) | 1984–5, finished 1986’ on back of right panel
Purchased from Nicola Jacobs Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Exh: Ken Kiff: Paintings 1965–85, AC tour, Serpentine Gallery Jan.–Feb. 1986, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, March–April 1986, Arnolfini, Bristol May–June 1986 (75, in unfinished state, repr. pp.26–8, foldout sheet, in col., col. detail of left panel on front cover; left and centre panels also partly visible in photograph of the artist used as frontispiece)

The left panel of ‘Triptych: Shadows’ is dominated by a bright green tree in leaf, a red dog, and a four-armed male figure, painted in relatively thickly applied brown and white oil paint. Behind and to the side of the man is a reddish house, and to the left of the tree is a partly formed creature. In the centre panel a male figure, painted in pink with an area of purple, stretches his hand towards a wraith-like being who is set in an area of blackness. Behind the man is a house, and above is an area of bright blue sea, a yellow sun with eyes, and a pinkish sky. The right panel shows a golden-coloured female nude, variously coloured flowers with curvilinear areas of black shadow behind them, and, in the upper left, trees and an area of water. These last are drawn very loosely, with areas of the hardboard support left visible.

According to the inscriptions on the back of T04888, the artist began work on the left panel in 1983 and commenced the other two panels in 1984. In a letter to the compiler dated 4 April 1987, he provided the following ‘timetable’ of his work on the panels: ‘first one half-finished for a few months or perhaps a year, then the centre panel and then the right-hand one, both coming along pretty quickly. Probably long pauses, then all three worked on, from time to time. Experimented a little, for example, with having the “woman” in the middle, and the “centre” one on the right (even though it is larger), but came back to the group as it is now’. The different dates of the three panels indicates that the artist saw them as a triptych only in the course of working on them. In conversation with the compiler at the Tate Gallery on 8 February 1994, Kiff said that it was difficult to be absolutely precise about the dates because at any one time he had literally hundreds of works on the go. However, he felt that the dates inscribed on the back of the panels were probably correct.

Kiff completed much of his work on T04888 by 1985, and a photograph of it in this still unfinished state was reproduced in the 1986 Arts Council catalogue. A comparison of this reproduction and T04888 as it is now shows that, after the photograph was taken, Kiff added small green shoots under the feet of the black figure in the central panel and, most noticeably of all, worked on the golden-coloured woman in the right panel, painting over white pastel lines and generally firming up the shape of the figure. Kiff continued to work on the triptych right up to the moment it was exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery. He may have made some tiny adjustments after the show, but, he felt, it was more or less complete at the time of the exhibition.

T04888 is one of four triptychs begun by Kiff, and the second to be completed. Its left panel was conceived initially as a possible fourth panel for the first, ‘Triptych: The Cry; Rain on the Sea; The Street’, 1982–3 (oil and acrylic on board, 1140 × 2667 mm, repr. Ken Kiff, exh. cat., Nicola Jacobs Gallery 1983, [p.15, fold-out sheet] in col.). (When Kiff began work on these four panels, he was not absolutely sure whether they would become one or several works.) The first triptych and T04888 have a number of elements in common, although the function of these is different in each context. In the left panel of ‘Triptych: The Cry; Rain on the Sea; The Street’ there is a reddish monstrous figure, a partly formed green being, a sun and two houses. In the middle panel a man's head, surrounded by sea, watches as a cloud rains onto a skull around which grow some green shoots. (Kiff recalls that this panel was initially bigger than the surrounding panels, like the middle section of T04888, but was cut down at a certain point to the size of the others). In the right panel there is a figure, made up of a red trunk and legs and a green arm, and a clothed woman with golden hair holding a bunch of flowers. In between the two figures is a tall narrow shape, the colour of the hardboard, and a house. The upper part of the panel is painted white. At a certain point it became clear to the artist that the left panel of T04888 was ‘not necessary’ to the group of paintings that were to make up the first triptych: the third panel already embodied the idea of resolution with the golden-haired woman holding flowers and in the combination of the ‘big complementaries’, red and green, in the second figure. In conversation with the compiler Kiff said that some of the themes in the right panel of the first triptych were developed in T04888's left panel: the complementaries were given a new radiance in the brilliant colours chosen for the tree and dog; the house was repeated; and an echo of the tall, elongated shape, which in the third panel functioned as a path, river or a second arm of the red and green figure, could be detected in the shape of the tree. Kiff also pointed out how the main elements in the triptychs were arranged in a particular configuration: ‘In every one of the triptychs the image of a woman is on the right. There is a disturbance of some kind on the left, and in the central panel some kind of confrontation is hinted at.’

Before he began work on the first triptych Kiff had long been interested in bringing together separate images within a single work. A drawing entitled, ‘The Pilgrimage’, 1978–9 (repr. AC exh. cat., 1986, p.8) shows a tripartite division, and in conversation Kiff recalled that there were a number of other drawings from that period which juxtaposed separate images. However, the experience of working on the ‘Sequence’, a still incomplete series of over two hundred works on paper, was perhaps the mainspring behind Kiff's interest in triptychs. In conversation Kiff described the ‘Sequence’ as ‘a way of thinking’: it worked, ‘by saying, look, in number one there is yellow linked to the idea of a hill, in number 105 there is yellow linked to the idea of a hill but it is used differently. In number 51 there is a hill and that is a kind of dead yellow ... So there are all these linkages and networks’. In annotations on a draft version of this entry, Kiff added, ‘the “linkages and networks” include elements that people would commonly call “imagery” and elements that would commonly be called “formal”. The point of calling it a “way of thinking” arises from the rarity of thinking which can not only accommodate “formal” and “image” aspects, but as it were get underneath their seeming difference’. The triptych format allowed this sort of pictorial cross-referencing to take place in relation to groups of three images, though, typically, the images were also intimately related to a number of other works.

When working on the triptychs Kiff was very much aware of what he describes as the ‘terrific tradition of triptychs’. However, he was not particularly drawn to or influenced by this tradition: ‘You just have to shrug’, he said, ‘and go ahead with it’. In making the central panel of T04888 slightly larger than the other two, he was not referring to the traditional triptych format in which the two flanking panels serve as meditations on the theme announced in the generally larger central panel. He explained that when three panels are the same size, the central one can look smaller. To counter this optical effect he wanted the central panel to be slightly larger. As mentioned above, he had even experimented with having the panel with the golden woman in the centre, with the panel with the confrontation of the man and the wraith-like being on the right, despite its greater size.

In conversation with the compiler, Kiff said that one of the great influences on his use of a triptych format had been seeing a number of triptychs by the modern master Joan Miró at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona and in reproduction. He mentioned that one in particular, ‘Fireworks’, 1974 (Fundació Joan Miró, repr. Fundació Joan Miró, Obra de Joan Miró, Barcelona 1988, nos.1208–10) had been a great spur to him.

Talking about the way in which he painted T04888, the artist stressed the importance of the hardboard support. On a practical level, the board allowed Kiff to rework his images. ‘You could not do the kind of atrocious changes I do on canvas - you would go through the stuff. I change pictures to a quite shocking degree with razor blades and sandpaper. One way of keeping a fairly stable, thin paint film is to sandpaper the stuff off. You can't sandpaper off on canvas.’ The board also helped establish a tonal range. ‘If you take that hardboard colour into a bright colour, you are likely to go towards yellow ultimately (in fact, that is exactly what I do). But you can, of course, bring it up to other colours like red. You can bring it up into green colours, but that is pretty different from hardboard. But there is always the feeling, if I am going to do that, that the hardboard is the stuff, the basic first image, the first resonant thing. Other things are going to gradually grow out of it.’ The board conjured, in addition, a range of associations with particular types of art admired by Kiff. In a letter to the compiler dated 4 April 1987, he wrote:

I saw the Byzantine museum in Athens about ten years ago and was very moved by it, and for years had a reproduction pinned to my wall. The bare and broken wood on which the gesso and tempera of those images has been applied - I mean as we now see them - joins in my mind with the brown cardboard in some Braque collage; this to me is the sort of thing that goes on in the painter's mind all the time.

And, in the same context, he mentioned, ‘17th century paintings are often on brown, and old Chinese paintings on brownish silk’. Above all, Kiff sees hardboard as equivalent to the support used in Cubist collages, an essential part of the image, with painted areas functioning in a similar way to that of the collaged pieces of paper. This use of bare hardboard in Kiff's paintings draws attention to the painted surface, as Martha Kapos (‘Ken Kiff’, Art Monthly, no.118, July–Aug. 1988, p.23) noted:

The effect of [the bare hardboard] is to make one realise that although the continuous skin of paint is not sustained in a literal way, a sense of a continuous picture plane which integrates that brown into a luminous whole does extend itself created and unbroken in the mind. But this occurs almost in the teeth of the literal - as if the skin of the painting had been peeled back to show its skeleton. The beauty of painting with its images of creative freedom is brought right up against the dead, unmade empty materials; and we are made acutely aware of the actual stuff of painting

Kiff normally has particular ideas in mind when he begins a painting, but he does not use preliminary drawings to plan his imagery in advance. Working with pastel or charcoal, he draws an image onto the hardboard, and then works with a wet rag. ‘There is no paint on it, and I can wipe it all off with another rag. A picture can be growing like this for months.’ At this point Kiff may saw off a section of the board to achieve a correct balance between the image and the size of the support. Images grow and change as Kiff paints. The shapes ‘are like amoebae, gradually becoming more and more specific ... If that creature/thing starts to become red, OK, then it is starting to firm up a little bit. If it starts to shoot out four legs, then it is probably going to become a dog. If it starts to elongate itself, it is going to become a giraffe. It might split up and become other things still’. In annotations on a draft version of this entry, Kiff stressed that what was important here was the structural development of an image, which he described as ‘something basic to Surrealism ... and to, say, Jackson Pollock, and surely many current painters’.

The three panels of T04888 were worked initially on the floor. In some areas Kiff added pigment to ‘puddles’ of acrylic medium, allowing drips to form when lifting the panels to an upright position for further work. Generally, the paint film is thin, although there is evidence of alteration in the area of shadow above the dog in the left panel, and the paint is naturally thicker where oils have been used. T04888 shows a variety of textures. With a razor blade, curved between his fingers, Kiff scraped at the paint in certain places, for example, around the eye of the man in the central panel. This was not an ‘expressionist savagery to the figure, or, at least, not primarily, but a sort of going back into the shadow [the area of blackness underneath the figure]’. It was, in other words, a constructive, rather than destructive act.

Many elements in the imagery of T04888 are to be found in both earlier and later works. The two male figures, who were conceived as quite separate entities, are typical of the simplified ‘everyman’ figures of Kiff's work. They may be thought of, in part, as self-portraits, although Kiff does not entirely support this interpretation. In conversation with the compiler the artist commented, ‘If you dwell on that too much, I think it gets misleading, and you get into storytelling and narrative, and I don't think that is what I do (except I am damned close to it all the time) ... Yes, I am in the man-but I am in the woman also, and I am the hardboard rectangle as well, and, therefore, also, in none of them’. The elements of a man, dog, tree and house found in the left panel of T04888 can be found in a different context of ‘Pink Sky and a Hand From the Earth’, 1982–3 (repr. Nicola Jacobs Gallery exh. cat., 1983, [p.7] in col.). The same work contains a sun with a face and many-pointed corona, as does the left panel of Kiff's third triptych, ‘Triptych: Empty Street, Shadow Above a River, Sea Space’, 1986–8 (acrylic and oil on board, left and right panels 1220 × 914 mm; centre panel 1220 × 952 mm, repr. Ken Kiff: New Work, exh. cat., Fischer Fine Art 1988, [p.7] in col.). The golden woman in the right panel of T04888 recurs in ‘Full Fathom Five’, 1989–91 (repr. Ken Kiff: Recent Work, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art 1991, p.17 in col.), wading in water amid trees and flowers, while at the bottom of the picture lies a lifeless figure.

The meaning and role of such elements may be inflected or radically changed by their new context. Each time the elements are ‘locked into a fresh situation ... which affects everything totally’. In T04888 the four-armed man in the left panel, for example, is ‘just a hardboard colour, lifted off into white’. His extra arms were not meant to refer to the many-armed Hindu gods (in 1981 Kiff spent some time at the artists' camp at Kasauli, North India, and was strongly influenced by what he learnt there of traditional Indian art; see, for example, the four-armed woman in ‘Woman Affecting the Everyday’, 1983, repr. Nicola Jacobs exh. cat., 1983, [p.17], in col.). However, the artist said, ‘when you get extra anything, extra fingers, extra arms, extra legs, it must be extra powers, mustn't it? Extra ways of relating to things’. He added that the arms were ‘like flowers spreading out’, echoing the branches of the tree. About the man's eye, partly redefined in white pastel and enlarged, Kiff commented, ‘I am picking up on the leaves’; and he posed the question, ‘Is the eye going to become a leaf?’ The tree and the dog, he continued, were ‘similiar to each other’, linked by being painted in the complementary colours red and green. The tree's leaves were just sketched in, leaving some hardboard showing through, ‘so they are picking up on the fact that they are coming from hardboard’. The unformed creature by the tree was the beginning of the golden woman in the right panel. About this panel Kiff said, ‘The flowers are coming out of the board, and they are blossoming in different ways. She is blossoming’. Even the shadows have a ‘rhythmic’ quality.

Although the effect of each of the elements of Kiff's imagery is dependent upon its particular genesis and function within a particular work, the four triptychs share certain themes. The compositional relatedness of the first triptych, ‘Triptych: The Cry; Rain on the Sea; The Street’, 1982–3, and T04888 has been noted above. The third triptych, ‘Triptych: Empty Street, Shadow above a River, Sea Space’, 1986–8, was begun while Kiff still had T04888 in his studio. The left panel of the third triptych shows a sun, as described above, a tree in leaf which is similar in colour and shape to the tree in T04888, a grey house with a black roof or area of shadow above it, and what might be a hill, a path or cascading river. The central panel shows a pink male figure, with a black creature immediately behind him, standing on the edge of a black river with a flower on the other bank, with a large area of black cloud or shadow above them. The right panel is dominated by a watery expanse in which stands a female nude, with flowers either side of her. During his period as Associate Artist at the National Gallery 1992–3, Kiff produced a group of works which were all meditations on something else, generally, poems or other paintings. It was there that he began work on a fourth triptych (acrylic on board, each panel 1220 × 850 mm, repr. Ken Kiff at the National Gallery, exh. cat., 1993, p.26 in col., as ‘Unfinished Triptych’), which was a meditation on the earlier triptychs. The left panel of the new work is similar to the left panel of the third triptych, with a tree, shadowy house, sun and rising hill/path/river shape. The second and third panels, however, are much closer to those of T04888. In the central panel a pinkish figure stretches his hand towards a ghoulish figure set in an area of black shadow. In the right panel a walking female nude advances to an area of flowers, set among curved areas of shadow with blue sea behind her.

In the central panel of all four triptychs there is a black figure, or, as in the first, a skull. This presence can be seen, in part, as a manifestation of death, although it is always combined with signs of renewal in the green elements (see, for example, the green shoots growing around the skull or under the feet of the wraith-like form in T04888). More generally, the areas of black shadow, which act as a counterpoint or backdrop to the living presences in the triptychs, may perhaps be read as, at one level, the antithesis of life or consciousness. In conversation with the compiler, Kiff described black as ‘the nothingness behind things’, and cited his admiration for the use of black in the paintings of Georges Braque, particularly in a painting such as ‘The Duet’, 1937 (Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou): ‘Braque is a flower and still life painter. He is a painter of things that are here today and gone tomorrow. There is death all the time in him. So I do not think it corny to say that black may partly evoke death.’

The impulse behind the series of triptychs was, above all, ‘a structural one’, Kiff has said. However, the works can be seen as having been influenced in part by the artist's response to particular poems which dealt with the subject of death. ‘One of the poems I was relating to is Mallarmé's tribute to the poet Verlaine’, Kiff recalled. ‘Verlaine is hidden in the grass. He is saying he is dead, yes, and in another sense he is not dead, he is still with us. But he is hidden in the grass, and the grass is by the shallow stream which is spoken of as death. I kept picking that up.’ The poem was ‘Tombeau’, written in 1897 on the first anniversary of Verlaine's death. The lines quoted by Kiff come at the end of the sonnet:

Verlaine? Il est caché parmi l'herbe, Verlaine

A ne surprendre que naïvement d'accord
La lèvre sans y boire ou tarir son haleine
Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort.

(Verlaine? He is hidden among the grass, Verlaine
Only to surprise, naïvely in agreement, the lip without drinking from it or drying up its breath, a shallow stream ill-spoken of, death.)

(Brian Woledge, Geoffrey Bereton, Anthony Hartley, eds., The Penguin Book of French Verse,
1977, p.440)

The idea of death is announced also in the title and imagery of the related work, ‘Full Fathom Five’, 1989–91, a pastel version of which Kiff worked on during his residency at the National Gallery (repr. National Gallery exh. cat., 1993, p.8 in col., unfinished). The title is taken from a song of the sprite Ariel in Shakespeare's play The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them - ding-dong, bell.

Although the idea of death can be sensed in the pools of black shadow in T04888, the title ‘Shadows’ is not to be seen as related to the notion of ‘ghosts’. Instead, it may be relevant to relate it to the Jungian idea of shadow, which Kiff described as being ‘the other side of things’ and linked to the notion of the unconscious. For a period of twenty years Kiff visted a psychotherapist, whose orientation was broadly Jungian. Kiff describes himself as interested in Jung, but not in any way a dogmatic adherent. In fact, he has read relatively little of Jung, but has been greatly impressed by the ‘remarkable’ writings of a collaborator of Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, especially Problems of the Feminine in Fairytales (New York, 1976) and Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (Irving, Texas, 1980), which were based on lectures she gave at the C.G.Jung Institute, Zürich, in the 1950s. In this last-named book (pp.5–6) von Franz introduced the notion of the shadow in the following way:

In Jungian psychology, we generally define the shadow as the personification of certain aspects of the unconscious personality ... If someone who knows nothing about psychology comes to an analytical hour and you try to explain that there are certain processes at the back of the mind of which people are not aware, that it is the shadow to them. So in the first stage of approach to the unconscious the shadow is simply a ‘mythological’ name for all that within me of which I cannot directly know ... In general, when investigating it, we discover that it consists partly of personal and partly of collective elements. Practically, when we first meet it the shadow is simply a conglomeration of aspects in which we cannot make out what is personal and what is collective.

Von Franz describes the ‘shadow’ as a necessary complement to archetypal figures in fairy tales; but she goes on to make the point that the seeing of the ‘shadow’ is dependent upon the particular viewpoint of the individual and cannot be regarded as something objective and independent of the self (pp.31–2):

The archetype of the king can indicate the fertility and strength of the tribe or nation, or the old man who suffocates new life and should be deposed. The hero can be the renewal of life, or the great destroyer, or both. Every archetypal figure has its shadow. Is that shadow a genuine phenomenon or does it come from the way we look at it? We do not know what an archetype looks like in the unconscious, but when it enters the fringe of the consciousness, as in a dream, which is a half-conscious phenomenon, it manifests its double aspect. Only when light falls on an object does it throw a shadow.

In conversation Kiff did not describe how the idea of the shadow, or ‘the other side of things’, was related to T04888; but he did suggest that the black shadows in the painting were part of a sense of wholeness: ‘even the flowers’, he said, ‘have their own shadows’. However, he was keen to dismiss any notion that his works were particularly dependent upon psychology or were a form of self-exploration. Such a reading, he felt, was far too limited, as it was impossible to separate out the different levels of communication offered by a painting: ‘you can't say this is just conscious, this just unconscious, this just form, this just content.’ ‘I think I have been labelled by one or two people as a psychological painter’, he went on, ‘and that misses the point very badly’. His experience of analysis had taught him that the unconscious, by definition, could not be known, let alone be translated into paint. Discussing his interest in such artists as Kiefer, Schnabel, Baselitz and Viola, he added that many of these were probably no more or less interested in Jung than he.

The triptych was framed and glazed on acquisition. The artist recommends that the three framed panels are hung relatively close together, 115 mm (4 1/2 in) apart, and 885 mm (34 7/8 in) above floor level. Although he used inverted commas in his inscription of the work's title on the back of the three canvases, the artist has said that he prefers the title not to be punctuated in this way (conversation, 19 December 1994).

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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