Malcolm Morley



Not on display

Malcolm Morley 1931–2018
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2951 × 3748 × 36 mm
Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Evelyn, Lady Downshire's Fund 2001


Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Evelyn, Lady Devonshire Fund 2001

Malcolm Morley grew up in London during the Second World War. He attended Camberwell School of Art and then the Royal College of Art. In 1958, a year after graduating, he moved to New York where he has lived ever since.

Morley's oeuvre is characterised by its great stylistic diversity. This ranges from the Photorealism of the 1960s and 1970s, to the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s and the still life paintings based upon balsa wood models of the 1990s. Yet the motifs Morley employs show great consistency: images of cruise liners, tugs, aeroplanes and light houses continually appearing. With this recycled cast of motifs, Morley explores a range of themes to which he obsessively returns. Paintings evoking middle class aspirations and the American Dream, or paradise-like tropical islands contrast with others of the good life's dark underbelly in traumatic images of plane crashes, sinking ships and violent, mythic scenarios drawn from Greek tragedy. Morley's paintings reflect his interest in conflict and catastrophe, an experience he had grown up with: 'I was subject to bombing and brought up on war films.' (Quoted in Whitfield 2001, p.15.)

Since the early 1990s memories of childhood events and activities have played an increasingly significant role for Morley. As a child he enjoyed making model ships and aeroplanes. However, during the Blitz he witnessed his favourite model boat, HMS Nelson, being blown apart by a bomb which fell near his home. During psychoanalysis he recovered the memory of this 'loss of the beloved object,' (quoted in Adams, p.6) and, as a result, he started making colourful balsa wood models. He then assembled the model ships and aeroplanes into still life scenes from which to paint. Morley's works of the 1990s are painted in a trompe l'oeil style with heraldic clarity and obsessive craft. The paintings depict imaginary adventure scenes or sensational maritime disasters in which boats and planes from different epochs are juxtaposed, thus ignoring all historical specificity.

Mariner represents the summation of Morley's experiments of the '90s. It consists of brightly coloured reworkings of four earlier, model based, maritime disaster paintings. Man Overboard 1994 (Baumgartner Gallery, New York) is on the top left and Racing the New World 1995 (Emilio Mazzoli Galleria d'Arte, Modena) is on the top right. Slavonia 1994 (Mr and Mrs Donald M. Cox Collection) is on the bottom right and Keepers of the Lighthouse 1994 (Ninah and Michael Lynne Collection, New York) is on the bottom left. To create Mariner Morley scanned slides of the earlier paintings into a computer. An assistant then used the computer program PhotoShop to cut-and-paste a rough compositional draft. Morley then squared up the canvas with a grid, carefully painting in one box at a time. He also flipped the canvas in order to work upside down and attached transparencies of the earlier paintings to a light box next to the canvas to work from them more easily.

The finished painting appears as a chaotic amalgam of separate, discontinuous scenes. One brightly coloured trompe l'oeil image collides with another so that all perspectival logic is undermined. Toy galleons, tugs and yachts toss on the high seas. First World War model planes and hot air balloons soar in the sky. Planes and boats sink beneath the waves and a toppled lighthouse evokes Morley's childhood holidays in Morecombe Bay. However, despite the traumatic subject matter, Morley's painting suggests the games of a child in the security of the home, rather than the reality of disaster at sea.

Mariner combines Cubism's distortion of object and space with Morley's super-realistic, heraldic style. Morley juxtaposes disparate images to create a visionary painting inspired by childhood memories. Discussing the desired effect of his collage-like paintings, he relates his work to de Chirico: 'I am after making pictures that contain a combination of images that have the power to brand, in the way de Chirico hits. The images just get lodged in your brain - there is no way of dislodging them once they're there.' (Quoted in Juncosa, p.9.)

Further Reading:
Sarah Whitfield, Malcolm Morley: In Full Colour, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2001, reproduced (colour) p.17
Brooks Adams, Malcolm Morley, exhibition catalogue, Sperone Westwater, New York 1999, reproduced (colour) plate 10
Enrique Juncosa, Malcolm Morley: A Selection of Watercolours 1976 - 1995, exhibition catalogue, The Arts Club of Chicago 1996

Imogen Cornwall-Jones
December 2001

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