Ralph Rumney

The Change


Not on display

Ralph Rumney 1934–2002
Oil paint, household paint and metal leaf on hardboard
Support: 1524 × 1985 mm
frame: 1582 × 2044 × 51 mm
Purchased 1989


The son of a vicar, Rumney attended Halifax School of Art until 1952. Between 1952 and 1955 he spent much time living in France and Italy, though he visited London often enough to found Other Voices, a short-lived weekly art magazine. His first one-man show was held in Trieste in 1955, followed a year later by another at the Galleria Apollinaire, Milan. In 1956 the New Vision Centre Gallery, London, a non-commercial gallery committed to international gestural art, gave him his first solo show in Britain. Like many of the artists who showed there in the mid 1950s, Rumney's paintings reflected an interest in the process of mark making rather than the production of a finished work of art. Zen Buddhism and the collective unconscious as theorised by Carl Jung were central to an activity which was claimed to be beyond the ego. In his contribution to the exhibition catalogue Rumney stated, 'An act of creation must be autonomous and independent of the creator…a work of art…must not rely on the personality of its creator for its impact…The artist seeks to eliminate his personality in his work…The power of a work of art rests in its subject. The subject is independent of all formal qualities and becomes a violent and powerful entity in its own right. The artist cannot be objective…We have no intrinsic concern with drawing, colour, matière, surface or finish.' (Quoted in Garlake, p.126.) The 'subject' in this quote is the process of painting as an act of revelation.

Although the type of American abstract expressionism displayed at the Modern Art from the United States exhibition, Tate Gallery, 1956 had a profound impact on many British artists, Rumney, who had integrated himself into various sections of the European avant-garde and co-founded the Situationist International in 1957, considered his work to be within a tradition of political dissent rooted in European Surrealism.

The Change was first exhibited at Metavisual, Abstract, Tachiste at the Redfern Gallery, London in 1957,where it was displayed alongside abstract works by such artists as Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow, Robyn Denny, Paul Feiler, Terry Frost, William Gear, Adrian Heath, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Ben Nicholson and Victor Pasmore. According to Rumney, although the picture was painted on the floor of his flat in Neal Street, London, this practice was not a conscious imitation of Jackson Pollock's working methods but rather a pragmatic solution to the very cramped working conditions in his flat. In as much as the painting is the result of numerous dabs or taches of paint applied in an apparently unselfconscious frame of mind, it would appear to be an example of Tachisme. Yet incorporated into the painting is a loose grid of black lines. The grid emerged about midway through the painting process. According to Garlake, 'Rumney claims that he manipulated, rather than submitted to chance, because even with a drip and splatter technique, "You have to know where its going"' (quoted in Garlake, p.125).

Further reading:
Margaret Garlake, New Art, New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London 1998, pp.125-6, reproduced p.126, pl.49 (colour)
Gérard Berréby, Giulio Minghini and Chantal Osterreicher, Ralph Rumney, Le Consul, Paris 1999, pp.34-8, reproduced p.35
Toni del Renzio, Ralph Rumney: constants 1950-1988, exhibition catalogue, England & Co, London 1989

Toby Treves
July 2000

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Display caption

From the 1950s onwards Ralph Rumney was involved with a number of different European avant-garde movements. In July 1957 he co-founded the Situationist International, an anarchist group that sought to overthrow capitalism through subversive cultural acts. The Change, painted early in 1957, is constructed from randomly applied dabs of paint and a loose grid of black lines. The combination of chance marks and the ordering device of a grid has been interpreted as a visual metaphor for the interaction of the subconscious and conscious, as well as the spiritual and material.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

Painted on a primed 3mm thickness hardboard support. The hardboard had been reinforced originally by being pinned to a wood batten framework but by 1989, when acquired by the Tate, these battens had been replaced by a softwood canvas stretcher attached to the board with a synthetic resin wood adhesive.

The artist has indicated that the hardwood support's face was sealed with a rabbit-skin glue size before the application of the oil bound lead white ground layer. This layer is vigorously brushed and does not effect a complete coverage of the board. The artist also recorded that the greater part of the painting was in Ripolin, a commercially prepared household paint, but that isolated use was made of a relatively coarse pigment/oil paint made up by a London paint shop. Standard artists' oil paint may also have been used. Small pieces of gold and silver leaf have been incorporated in the design.

The hardboard support had already suffered some minor damages at the corners and along the edges when it was acquired by the Tate, this damage most probably having prompted the attachment of the stretcher to the reverse of the cardboard. The repair and retouching of damage to one corner had probably been carried out at the same time. After acquisition by the Tate the artist requested that another relatively small corner damage be repaired. The artist also expressed some disappointment at the dulling of the surface of the silver leaf that had occurred since completion of the painting. Some areas of the painting had been varnished since leaving the artist.

The artist had not seen the painting for several years but was generally pleased with its appearance and condition but had some reservations about the form and colour of the relatively new frame. This frame with his co-operation was replaced in 1989 with one closer in appearance to the original oak frame.

Peter Booth

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