N.H. Stubbing (Tony Stubbing)

First Ritual ‘Christian’


Not on display

N.H. Stubbing (Tony Stubbing) 1921–1983
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1325 × 1095 mm
Presented by Mrs Yvonne Hagen Stubbing, the artist's widow 1986

Catalogue entry

T04874 First Ritual ‘Christian’ 1958

Oil on canvas 1325 × 1095 (52 3/8 × 43 1/4)
Inscribed ‘Christian Ritual | N.Y. 1958 | Stubbing’ b.r., ‘44 × 53 ins | OIL ON CANVAS | PREMIER RITUEL | “CHRISTIAN” | America July–August | 195<7>8]’ on back of canvas t.l., ‘STUBBING | 13 RUE DUROC | PARIS | VII | FRANCE’ on back of canvas t.r. and ‘“FIRST RITUEL” [sic] CHRISTIAN JULY 1957’ [7 crossed out and overlaid with 8] | OIL ON CANVAS STUBBING | 44 × 53 ins' on label taken from back of canvas t.l.
Presented by Mrs Yvonne Hagen Stubbing, the artist's widow 1986
Lit: Jane England, ‘Introduction’ in Rituals: N.H. (Tony) Stubbing, exh. cat., England & Co. 1990, p.4, repr. p.13 (not exhibited). Also repr: Limited edition postcard produced by Mrs Yvonne Hagen Stubbing 1987 (col., as ‘First Ritual’)

‘First Ritual “Christian”’, also known as ‘Christian Ritual’, is part of a large body of paintings, sometimes described by the artist as ‘Rituals’ or ‘Ceremonials’, that he made by placing his paint-covered hands directly on the canvas. Stubbing worked in this manner, first in Spain, and then in Paris and New York, between 1954 and 1968. He was then forced to stop painting with his hands through ill health, probably brought on by an allergic reaction to the paints he was using.

The surface of T04874 consists of an accumulation of the artist's overlapping hand-prints. Both hands were used. In some some areas he applied them flat onto the canvas, so that his palms and fingers registered fully. In other places he dragged his fingers across the surface or used them to rub the paint into it. The predominantly grey ground has been overlaid with a cross configuration, built up from a black, red and white hand prints, with a build-up of dark prints at the centre. The edges of the canvas have been left unpainted.

The earlier of Stubbing's hand-printed works, such as the Tate Gallery's much larger ‘Coral Variations 24’, 1956 (T 06641, repr. Tate Gallery Biennial Report 1992–4, 1994, p.58), generally have denser, closer textured, more evenly worked surfaces. Accumulations of marks are built up in agitated swirls and cross-hatching, and the form of the hand does not appear so overtly. In slightly later works such as T04874, the artist appears to have placed his hands more deliberately on the surface, in a looser configuration. The individual prints are easier to read and the images appear the result of a ritualised process. In the last series of hand paintings, dating from c.1966 to 1967, the element of ritual was more literally expressed when, as Jane England notes, Stubbing's interest in the shamanistic and Druidic rites, and the legends of Native American tribes, led him to incorporate ancient symbols and mythological references into his work (England 1990, p.4).

Stubbing lived in Madrid between 1947 and 1954 and the chief inspiration for his hand-printed works came from seeing in 1949, or before, the palaeolithic murals found in the caves of Altamira, near Santander, in northern Spain. Before starting to work in this way he had explored, according to his widow Yvonne Hagen Stubbing, various aspects of twentieth-century avant-garde art. His work ‘included Concrete Poetry ... and collage works. He also played briefly with Surrealism, and with Automatism, both among the stepping stones of the New York Abstract Expressionists’ (Yvonne Hagen Stubbing, ‘Newton Haydn Stubbing’, unpublished manuscript, April 1994). Describing two early paintings that pre-dated his Altamira-influenced works, Yvonne Stubbing continues:

Two 1948 canvases that predate [his visits to] Altamira and were still in his studio in London at the time of his death ... show rich dusky reds with shadows of black and umber in chiaroscuro compositions of deliberately unidentifiable organic forms. They were executed on dry textureless surfaces, giving the impression of having been painted on unprimed canvas. It was his work in 1951, two years after the first [Altamira] meetings, made of skeins of diagonal whites on blue and grey in wide brush strokes, that resulted in Stubbing's first exposure to an international audience in an exhibition in the Bucholz Gallery in Madrid ... Stubbing's work in Spain culminated in an exhibition at Madrid's Museum of Contemporary Art in 1954, in which his painting had developed into broad gestural loops intertwined with warmer tones, showing an ever-increasing energy. A number of his paintings that year suggested a de Kooning influence, as well as Pollock.

In the same year, shortly after the exhibition, we see the first painting where he was beginning to use his hands as a tool

The wall paintings at Altamira, discovered in 1879 and recognised from the beginning of the twentieth century as genuine, profoundly impressed Stubbing: according to Yvonne Hagen Stubbing, on first entering the caves he was moved to put his hand on one of the handprints and he found that it fitted perfectly (letter quoted in Robert Hobbs, ‘Haydn Stubbing - School of Altamira’ in Rituals: N.H. (Tony) Stubbing, exh. cat., England & Co. 1990, p.7). These images consisted of silhouettes of hands, made by applying colour around the area masked by the hand, or prints formed by pressing colour onto the cave wall.

In 1949 Stubbing became a founder member of the ‘School of Altamira’. This group of artists, which included Mathias Goeritz, José Artigas, Willi Baumeister, Eduardo Saura and Joan Miró, came together in 1949 and published a journal, El Bisonte (‘Bison’), named after the Altamira cave paintings. The group, which met regularly from 1949 to 1951, often in the caves, looked to primal sources and ancient tradition and ritual in their search for spirituality and meaning. Many members of the group were influenced by Surrealism and the School of Altamira may to some extent be seen as a continuation of the interest in primitive art and notions of ‘primitive’ or unschooled, subconscious creative impulses shown by avant-garde artists in the 1920s and 1930s. Miró had been particularly drawn to Altamira and he, Picasso and others used hand prints in their work in the 1930s. The impact of cave art on the art of Miró in particular is discussed in detail by Sidra Stich in Joan Miró: The Development of a Sign Language, exh. cat., Washington University Gallery of Art, St Louis (see, for example, ‘Apparitions’, 1935, a painting by Miró containing a prominent hand print, repr. ibid., fig.34). Robert Hobbs observes that there was no consistent style among the artists involved in the School of Altamira. Their ideas originated from a desire to establish a sense of continuity in art: ‘The School of Altamira believed that Cro-Magnon art ... represented a touchstone for all humankind’. Hobbs links the artists' intentions to those of earlier groups who had sought meaning in art of the past, for example, the nineteenth-century Nazarenes in Germany and the Pre-Raphaelites in Britain (Hobbs 1990, p.7).

In his catalogue forward to Stubbing's exhibition at the Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford, in 1965, Sir Herbert Read discussed the influence of Altamira on Stubbing's oeuvre: ‘One feature of the prehistoric paintings in the cave at El Castillo made a great impression on Stubbing - those mysterious silhouettes or the tracings of the human hand, the hands of men who lived 30 or 40,000 years ago. The meaning of these signs is unknown, but it is probable that they had some function in the magical rituals of prehistoric man ... they still convey a magical effect’. Comparing Stubbing's works with these earlier models, Read went on to say that Stubbing's paintings also evoked ‘some power ... some directness of feeling from the imprint and the gesture. A kind of action painting then, but with intentions rather different from those of the New York School’ (Herbert Read, ‘Foreword’, reprinted in England & Co. exh.cat., 1990, p.2).

In 1955 Stubbing moved to Paris, having been commissioned to design the sets and costumes for the ballet ‘Saeta’ for the choreographer Ana Ricarda. Before leaving Spain, he exhibited some abstract paintings in Madrid. In conversation with the compiler on 27 February 1990 Yvonne Stubbing compared these works to Abstract Expressionist painting, particularly the work of Willem de Kooning. In Paris Stubbing drew inspiration from the organic, agitated and rough surfaces of paintings by such artists as Jean Dubuffet, and from Yves Klein, whose work he came to know when both exhibited at the Iris Clert Gallery in 1957. There appears to have been no catalogue for Stubbing's one man exhibition there in March, but the gallery leaflet titled Stubbing includes a photograph of the artist sitting or standing in front of a large hand-printed painting of a type slightly earlier than T 04874. This work is closer in scale and technique to T06641, referred to above. In the photograph, Stubbing is holding up a similar though smaller work.

It was at about this time that Stubbing began to use both hands to make his paintings, having started out in 1954 by using his right hand alone. (An early example of these right-handed paintings is illustrated in England & Co. exh. cat., 1990, no.3 in col.). Hobbs (1990, p.8) draws a connection between Stubbing's hand paintings and Klein's ‘anthropométries’, made by models pressing their paint-covered bodies against paper or canvas under the artist's direction (for an illustrated account of Klein's ‘anthopométries’, see Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, New York 1982, pp.86–108). In 1960 Stubbing told a journalist that he was also influenced by Gothic painting, ‘where the hands are always the focal point of the pictures’ (see John Rydon, ‘A Handful of Paint’, Daily Express, 13 April 1960). The immediacy and freedom of Stubbing's paintings during this period have also been compared to the Surrealist-influenced procedures of the American Abstract Expressionists, and to the contemporary ‘tachiste’ painters in Europe, with their emphasis on surface, improvisation and the unconscious (England 1990, p.4). Among other artists Stubbing met in Paris during this period were Karel Appel, Paul Jenkins, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Sam Francis.

In conversation with the compiler, Yvonne Stubbing, who first met Stubbing in Paris in 1956, described how, when he moved to Paris in 1955, the artist had found studio accommodation at number 13 rue Duroc in the 7e arrondissement, the address inscribed on the back of T04874:

The studio he had in Paris was wonderful, on the top floor of Madame Pigeaud's building. She and her sister had inherited a big house and her father had been an architect before the turn of the century ... She must have been about sixty-five and her passion was ceramics. She had installed a kiln on the top floor. [Stubbing] ... must have met her because he studied ceramics in Spain ... she let him install himself up there and he had a very small place to sleep, which was almost like a closet, and then this big room to paint in. It was what the French call a grenier, an attic space, vaulted and rough-hewn, and a very elegant house down below.

Yvonne Stubbing recalled that when she first visited the rue Duroc in 1956, Stubbing was making works from ‘agitated’ handprints, rather than the slightly later, more ritualistic works like T04874. The artist did not like people to watch him at work. However, he explained his working methods to her and she saw the palettes he used during that period. She recollected his mixing the paint, then putting his hands in it, and his having talked about liking this direct approach:

I came into his studio for the first time [and] I saw these sort of agitated handprints. They were not centrifugal or ritualistic at that time. They were patterns that went all over with his fingers. More like multi-patterns and very densely done, like Bonnard or Vuillard - the surface, not the content. And it was very good, very lively ... Little atomic things pulsating - a bit Tobeyesque.

Yvonne Stubbing noted that, despite his poverty at the time, Stubbing used only the best materials, Robersons paints and primer and handwoven linen canvas. A photograph of Stubbing at work on a later hand-print painting, ‘White Eagle’, 1960 (repr. England & Co. exh. cat., 1990, p.8), shows him about to apply paint directly from his left hand. In 1960 he answered an enquiry about the development of his technique from Alfred Barr, then Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, confirming that he only used his hands to paint. The letter, headed ‘Paris VII March 27 1960’, is in the collection of the artist's widow. It reads:

I have used no other technique since ... about four months after the show at the Museum of Modern Art in Madrid in May 1954. I have here in Paris most of the last paintings that I did around the period of change-over which came very slowly and tortuously ... there was something rather shocking and disagreeable about seeing a hand-print and all the first period from 1954 onward was ... with the technique not properly felt as a motif - it took me all of 1955 and most of 1956 before I gained full confidence. A large painting exhibited by Iris Clert in a one man show in 1957 in Paris was of this period and was eventually bought by Martha Jackson and afterward by the Albright Gallery, Buffalo. Martha Jackson also had a smaller painting, light rose and white painted in 1955. These paintings although done in a ‘mural manner’ were painted with only the right hand. In America in 1957 was when I gained my fullest confidence and worked unashamedly with both hands from which resulted the ‘Rituals’ which you saw in Rome.

Yvonne Stubbing wrote to the compiler on 12 November 1994: ‘I am 99% sure that Stubbing didn't go to the U.S. until 1958. Martha Jackson would have chosen the works she exhibited ... from his Paris studio ... here is no trace of his presence there other than this [letter to Barr] ... and no studio’. In his letter to Alfred Barr, Stubbing continued:

Endeavouring to justify what most people criticised then as ‘affectation’ I comforted myself that such painters as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Constable and, to go further back, Goya (his etching technique of cutting directly onto the lithographic stone in his effort to improve his work profoundly influenced his later paintings), Rembrandt (whose early work was seldom impasto), all made their mark and were dominated through a technique that suited better their personality, whatever the critics said at the time.

When Alfred Barr first approached Stubbing in 1959 (letter dated 29 September 1959, collection of Yvonne Hagen Stubbing), he enquired whether the artist's technique had any connection with that of the Italian, Renato Christiano, whose paintings Barr had seen in Rome (see Christiano, exh. leaflet and loose typescript, Galleria Schneider, Rome, June 1959). Christiano's explanation of his work includes the statement that, ‘To satisfy my need for symbolic expression, I've used the imprint left on the canvas by my own hands and feet’. Stubbing hastened to say that he had never painted with his feet (letter to Alfred Barr dated 27 March 1960) and explained that he had not heard of Christiano until told about his work by Barr. In this he was supported by Alberto Sartoris (letter to Alfred Barr dated 15 January 1960 in the collection of the artist's widow) who had known Stubbing since 1949 when the School of Altamira was founded and when Sartoris had been President of the first International Congress of Modern Art of Santillana de Mar. Sartoris confirmed that Stubbing, who was five years older than Christiano, had been painting with his hands since 1954 while still in Madrid, whereas Christiano had started to paint with his hands and feet somewhat later.

On 27 February 1990 the compiler showed the artist's widow photographs of the inscriptions on the front and the back of T04874. Yvonne Hagen Stubbing thought that all but one, the figure ‘59’, were in the artist's hand. This would appear to be borne out when inscriptions are compared with the artist's handwriting. She believed that she or an assistant might have added the number ‘59’ when compiling an inventory of the artist's paintings after his death. The inscriptions on the front and back of T04874 appear to give conflicting information about the date, place of origin and the title of the painting. While it is dated 1958 on the front, two dates on the back, one on the canvas itself, and another on a brown paper strip, originally stuck to the back of the canvas and now separately preserved, have been quite obviously altered from 1957 to 1958. The letters ‘N.Y.’ by the signature on the front of the painting, suggest that it was painted in New York and this would be be confirmed by the inscription on the back, ‘America July–August 1958’. However, the artist's widow said that as far as she was aware, Stubbing was not in America during those months. As the address of the artist's Paris studio during the 1950s is given on the reverse of T04878 (the Tate's Gallery's earlier painting, T06641, carries the same address, apparently in the same handwriting), Yvonne Stubbing thought it very probable that T04874 was made in Paris, although she recollected that the artist did make a brief trip to America in 1958. She suggested that it was just possible that Stubbing may have taken the painting across the Atlantic, although he had no studio in New York until some time later. Stubbing exhibited in New York in April 1958, in a show titled ‘New Acquisitions’ at the Martha Jackson Gallery, but did not spend much time in America until he moved to New York in 1960. When he wrote to Alfred Barr on 27 March 1960, he was still in Paris but hoping to attend the opening of his one-man exhibition at the Michael Warren Gallery, New York, on 5 April 1960. In conversation with the compiler Yvonne Stubbing suggested that the artist may have signed the work later, perhaps in America. The brown gummed paper label, originally on the reverse of T04874, is stamped with the manufacturer's name ‘GOM[A]GE EXTRA’, suggesting that it is of French origin. This label gives the work's title as ‘“FIRST RITUEL” [sic] CHRISTIAN’ rather than the inscription ‘PREMIER RITUEL “CHRISTIAN”’ inscribed on the back of the work. Mrs Stubbing explained that the French spelling of ‘Rituel’ probably reflected Stubbing's espousal of French culture at the time and indicated that the current title, rather than the abbrievated version ‘Christian Ritual’, was probably the one preferred by the artist. In a letter to the compiler dated 7 December 1986 and in conversation on 27 February 1990, Yvonne Hagen Stubbing said that she thought it possible that T04874 was included in two exhibitions in 1959, Arte nuova held in Turin in May 1959 and Moments of Vision, organised by Herbert Read at the Rome-New York Art Foundation, Rome, in July 1959. In the absence of catalogues or lists for these exhibitions, it has not been possible to confirm this. Yvonne Stubbing was not sure whether the painting had been included in Stubbing's one-man exhibition at the Michael Warren Gallery in New York in April 1960. It is known, however, that a painting titled ‘Ceremonial’ was included because Alfred Barr contacted Stubbing about it (letter dated 29 September 1959, collection of the artist's widow).

Stubbing exhibited a number of hand-print paintings in group exhibitions held at Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, between 1957 and 1962. Among those illustrated in the catalogues are: ‘Painting, July 10th 1957’, oil on board, showing what appears to be a single, centrally placed palm print, surrounded by scumbling (repr. Recent Development in Painting, exh. cat., Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd, 1957 no.14); ‘Painting 16 July 1957’, a loosely worked watercolour of overlapping prints (repr. Actualités, exh. cat., Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd 1959, no.39); ‘Ceremonial Series: Northern’, 1958, oil on canvas, a work close in conception to T04874, consisting of very clearly outlined full hand-prints, radiating out from a central ‘explosion’ or sunburst of finger-prints (repr. Recent Developments in Painting, exh. cat., Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd, 1959, no.11); ‘Flower Ritual’, 1959, oil on board, and consisting of a series of finger marks radiating out from a central palm print on an oval ground (repr. Recent Developments in Painting III, exh. cat., Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd 1960, no.14); ‘Indian Ritual’, 1961, oil on canvas, consisting once more of a rectangular ground with a series of finger prints radiating out centrifugally (repr. Recent Developments in Painting V, exh. cat, Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd 1962, no.39).

Such illustrations demonstrate the shift in Stubbing's approach to composition from the closer matrices of the earlier works of c. 1955–6, towards the more clearly registered imprinted hand shapes of the works c.1957–9, and thence to the circular compositions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thereafter, Stubbing's hand-printed works assume a more pictorial aspect as he began to employ signs and pictograms in his work. The painting which is perhaps closest in type to T04874 is ‘Southern Cross’, 1958, another cross-like configuration of handprints (private collection, no repr. known).

Yvonne Hagen Stubbing was unable to tell the compiler how many ‘Ritual’ works were made but suggested that the artist sold a large number straight from his Paris studio in the 1950s. Although it has not been possible to verify that T04874 was the first painting to be titled ‘Ritual’, Yvonne Stubbing wrote on 7 December 1987:

It is interesting that [the Tate] chose a work seminal to his career, the first in a series that was to last in its circular and arced rhythms until 1963. Hadyn Stubbing was interested in the Druids early in the 1950s as well as the cavemen; everything had to do with the beginning of civilization. ‘Christian’ which he added to the title must have had to do with just that. He was a very religious man...painting to him was a devotional act.

Yvonne Hagen Stubbing did not remember having seen T04874 in Stubbing's Paris studio but was able to confirm that it always remained in the artist's collection. She explained how he used to put paintings away and how many were only revealed to her after his death. However, T 04874 was one of those that the artist had taken out towards the end of his life to look at again, despite the fact that his work was by then was very different. She had seen it a year or two before his death at their London house. According to Yvonne Hagen Stubbing (letter to the compiler dated 12 November 1994), the artist moved his belongings, from rue Duroc to London in 1960, either just before leaving for New York or on his return from America.

From bills and a friendly letter from Sir H[erbert] Read I see that my dear late husband had three studios one after the other before he finally settled in Brendon St. First, upon returning to England from the US; at Golly's Corner Garage, 111a Earls Court Road, London until early March 1965 (I think the paintings from Paris came here.) Then, from March 12 1965 for a year at 11 Motcomb Street, London SW1, and third, at the Studio in Kent which Read mentions in his letter as his new studio, May 30 ‘66, which was a barn attached to his parents’ place at Mortman's Hill, Smarden in Kent.

Yvonne Hagen Stubbing was not aware of any preliminary studies for Stubbing's paintings of this period, saying that, for him, ‘each canvas was a new start’. It appears that T04874 was probably made with the canvas tacked direct to the wall, and was stretched afterwards. When acquired by the Tate Gallery, the stretcher was too small and the image was not centred correctly. Following acquisition the work was restretched.

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

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