Victor Willing

Place with a Red Thing


Not on display

Victor Willing 1928–1988
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2000 × 2502 mm
frame: 2042 × 2540 × 60 mm
Purchased 1980

Display caption

This imaginary scene contains an odd collection of items, dominated by the 'red thing' named in the title. Willing wrote that the red thing 'is a tumescent thing. So much a living thing that it bleeds. While painting it I did think of it as a seedling form, but with blood, in a place of stones...Later other associations, phallic, crucifixion, doomed whale, whirling movement came to mind. It comes up out of the earth, it is not resting on it only'.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 78 3/4×98 1/2 (200×250.4)
Purchased from the artist through House (Knapping Fund) 1980
Exh: Victor Willing: Paintings and Drawings, House, September–October 1980 (2); Victor Willing: Paintings since 1978, Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge, January–February 1983 (8, repr. in colour)

Victor Willing states of his working methods: ‘I almost always do drawings before I start on the paintings, though I would not say that I work from drawings. While I was a young artist, I never did drawings before starting the paintings - on principle. Rather theoretically, and following Bacon's line, I thought then that the canvas was the field of action and that you would only get a proper scale to the image if you made it straight onto the canvas. Unfortunately this resulted in my case in an extremely high abortion rate...’

Therefore his more recent works were almost all done after he had produced drawings which were very like the paintings. ‘When I say that I don't work from drawings I mean that I put the drawing away when I start painting (to get the scale right...). Usually the drawing is done in my studio sitting in front of a blank canvas so that I can see how the image would be on that scale’.

He returned to live full time in London in the autumn of 1974 after spending most of the previous twenty years in Portugal (with his Portuguese wife the painter Paula Rego). In 1966, when he was thirty-eight, it was discovered he was suffering from multiple sclerosis. The symptoms were not immediately troublesome but his condition deteriorated in 1974, partly because of various pressures he was under at that time. The economic collapse of Portugal caused a dramatic decline in his financial circumstances. There was also the strain of the decision to leave Portugal, combined with a general feeling of emotional isolation. ‘I began painting without any career ambitions at all. Simply I was trying to affirm, I suppose, that I - whoever that was - was still there. It was a very private, guarded and possible paranoid situation. I was having psychoanalysis ... I would say that the decline in my health was due to all these events and these and the consequent physical weakness and psychological confusion made the background to the paintings I was doing then-subsequently shown at the AIR gallery in '78. There is no anecdotal connection between the content and being ill.

'There is another connection which is of interest, I think. I have heard that people with M.S. sometimes get hallucinations. I have had hallucinations but due to special circumstances only indirectly due to my illness. In '74 I was started on a drug called ACTH. This is found to relieve M.S. symptoms in some cases. Luckily I was one of these and continue to get good results from courses of ACTH. It has however various side effects some of which are undesirable, including sleeplessness. On high doses I only slept 4 hours in 24. I was hyperactive. I would feel very tired but not sleepy, very calm but alert. In this state I would sit down in a comfortable upright chair, relax and stare at the wall. After a time, I could see through the wall - a scene, brightly lit, clearly defined on the other side, like a stage, spot-lit. No figures. No action, therefore, just a scene. The “life-size” objects would appear in three dimensions but as though already drawn in charcoal and pastel.

'I guess this would last about 20 minutes. I don't think I closed my eyes. I was certainly not asleep - there was never that metabolic change which accompanies sleep, but I would go well into it - so much so that on coming out I would wonder where I was. I developed a technique for coming out. It had to be gradual and gentle in order to keep the wonderful feeling that I had on these occasions. This was euphoria. I felt simply marvellous. Confident, relaxed and alert. I would remain in my chair and, taking paper and charcoal, simply copy down the scene. No interpolation was necessary, it had all been done for me - image both in the sense of symbol and form down to the mark. I did not have to do anything. Subsequently “meanings” might occur to me but in advance there was nothing’.

Of the red form, the ‘red thing’, in this picture, he comments: ‘I think that this is a tumescent thing. So much a living thing that it bleeds. While painting it I did think of it as a seedling form, but with blood, in a place of stones - permanent things, permanent as a tomb is permanent. Later other associations, phallic, crucifixion, doomed whale, whirling movement came to mind. It comes up out of the earth it is not resting on it only’.

(All quotations are taken from a letter of 7 October 1982.)

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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