CONVERSATION WITH KEITH VAUGHAN
After formative years Keith Vaughan has concentrated his task as a painter on the male nude. By and large, the male nude implies strength and female voluptuousness. Published extracts from Vaughan’s journal refers to Renoir, that key master of the female nude: “He indulged a purely personal delight…He painted in the same way as one might outline in one’s memory recollections and fantasies of pleasure…it really is not very difficult to paint this way. No struggle or search is required, no reaching out, no surpassing. It is not enough that he did it supremely well. There must be some quality measured in the ambition.” Whether we agree or not (I don’t. What about Renoir’s midcareer dissatisfaction with objective impressionism; what about his final pagan massiveness?) the corollary follows that Vaughan does struggle and search, reach out and endeavor to surpass. Other artists have found in the male nude their principal source of inspiration. Michelangelo, needless to say. Another, now forgotten, was Henry Tuke,
R. A. (1858 -1929), who multiplied canvases of boys bathing in a blue sea. To try to achieve what Vaughan spurns, a continuance of visual gratification. But the male nude thus abused cloys miserably. Its appeal to the eye is primarily architectonic even when sensible. The mighty Michelangelo marked the point with assured finality by distributing naked youths, unrelated to the biblical scenes they adjoin, like keystones along the Sistine ceiling.
Vaughan, too, treats the male nude as austerely as a classical builder the freestones of a mason’s yard. His nudes are buttresses and caryatids that uphold coherent compositions. His schematic forms are sturdy elements of solid structure. Usually hairless heads are quite round and remind one of the spheres seen on gate pillars at the entrance to Georgian mansions. If the body lies horizontal it serves the purpose of the lintel. The nudes are not isolated, but, in the best of pictures, integrated. They fit a landscape like pilasters the other elements of the wall. And of late, Vaughan’s striving, struggle and searching have been the amalgamation of figures and their surroundings in an almost non-representational cohesion. The thick substance of the paint plays an essential unifying part, no less than texture in a satisfying the monumental elevation. So firm an outcome crowns a long thoughtful process and attains a fine balance of mental and physical tension.
Born in 1912 at Selsey Bill, Sussex, the son of a civil engineer (who died in 1935) and musical mother, Vaughan inherited logic and sensibility. He is a good pianist. We need not go into details of his many friendships, which come easily to his quiet and frank personality, nor of the artistic impulses he met with in the course of extensive travels. He went to school at Christ’s Hospital near Horsham, Sussex, and gave an early indication of dogged artistic gifts. His first exhibition was of drawings of Cornwall, held at the school. Brangwyn murals in the school chapel stirred his ambitions. A large show of Gauguin and the Impressionists of the Louvre were highlights of a trip to France in 1937. He began handling oils at the relatively late age of twenty-seven. He registered as a conscientious objector and was drafted into the Pioneer Corps during the 1939–45 war. Strenuous physical labour was followed by the duties of clerk and assistant interpreter at a prisoner-of-war camp in Yorkshire. Army contacts lead to his meeting Graham Sutherland, who encouraged him, and a group of his own age, John Minton, Robert Colquhoun Prunella Clough and John Craxton. He shared their reverence at the time for the tradition of English lyrical landscape, of the early Gainsborough, of Constable and Samuel Palmer. The Picasso-Braque exhibition at the Tate in 1946 set sterner contemporary stuff before his eyes. The path of travail, then indicated, proved that the permanent one alongside a tenacious allegiance to Cézanne, whose own lodestar had been Poussin. Vaughan has been in Ireland, Italy, the U.S.A. (where he held the post of visiting artist at the University of Iowa), Mexico, and Greece. He told me that he is not one of those who can go to completely strange places and start painting it right away. He needs thorough familiarity before vision percolates to his brush. Drawing is different. He draws on the spot as an aid to concentrated observation. Even when he visits the National Gallery to look at an old master he takes a small sketchbook out of his pocket and makes diagrammatic memoranda. “How long can one look at the painting,” he asks, “without one’s attention wandering to paintings nearby?” And he himself answers “About twenty seconds.” Drawing memos enables one to look longer and more intensely. Likewise he paints nudes from memorized observation. Once or twice a month a model poses in his neat working room at the Hampstead flat he has lived in for ten years. The model’s appearance enters, as it were, the artist’s consciousness in the form of drawings. When painting, Vaughan paints in solitude. Deeply embedded understanding of familiar landscapes, mostly “nondescript” (his adjective) Essex of late, and of the human form, emerges and settles on the canvas. Although solitary then, Vaughan cannot function in a spiritual vacuum. Real studios with top lights and no windows on the outside world oppress him. “I had one once in my life, in America; it went with my job,” he recollects. “I kept on opening the door and peering round. Otherwise I would’ve felt at the bottom of the fish tank.” He believes that it might be wonderful to get as excited as Ben Nicholson about pure Euclidean shapes, squares, rectangles, circles, but to him “one shape is much as another.” And his comment on the statement of Kandinsky’s is illuminating. Kandinsky wrote: “The impact of an acute triangle on a sphere generates as much emotional impact as the meeting of the fingers of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation’.” Vaughan added: “Not to me, boy.” He reacts to realities and not abstract concepts, responds to warmth and not cold cogitation. And yet he is fundamentally an intellectual painter. His subjects must dwell in his mind before he can tackle them. While in Greece he painted nothing. Only a year later did he try to translate into pictures the milky quality of Greek light and colour. “Mountain silhouettes in Greece’, he remarks, “are not very different from Wales or the west of Scotland. The light is what tells.” The inward light is what tells.
Shall we start by talking about the opportunities in Britain for young painters? Do you think there’s any danger that the grants and facilities offered today make painting as a profession almost too easy to enter? VAUGHAN:
There’s no doubt about the opportunities, and of course I believe that all potential artists should receive every encouragement – both moral and financial. But I think I know what you mean. It is a fact that too many people nowadays take part, partly because they think it is a profitable career financially, and also because the alternatives in our highly mechanized society are usually so depressing. The idea of living as a small unit in the large production team is an awful prospect for a youngster, and the arts provide one of the few ways left in which a human being can exploit his own creative potentials. This is very fine, but the sad thing is that so many people become artists for this very understandable reason, but are not, in fact, endowed with sufficient talent. They would be much better if they became locksmiths or wheelwrights – any one of the almost extinct crafts that need skill, sensibility, judgment, but within a narrower field; the field of the craftsman rather than creative artist. The pity is that the student may very easily get a grant to carry him through four years of advanced training in art school, only to find at the end of it that he has to give the whole thing up, and take on either teaching or perhaps an unskilled job. If you won’t relinquish the idea of being a painter – and many won’t – he may refuse to acquire some sort of skill in another job, but prefer instead to sweep the streets in order to exist, by continuing to paint mediocre, unsaleable paintings for the rest of his life. Had this man been given the opportunity earlier of developing a minor craft, and doing it well, he would’ve been far better off; but there it is – society virtually has eliminated the craftsmen, except in the small country community.
The business of being a cog in a machine – is it having an effect on artists? I remember you writing once that art is an expression of individuals who, even though affected by social conditions, are partly outside them. VAUGHAN:
I think it is easier than that even for the artist to remain apart. He is enormously free, he is not in any sense “state-employed”, and if he has a market, it’s usually composed of buyers who don’t impose a subject matter or anything like that. He can paint what he likes. I would’ve thought it much easier for a painter to concern himself purely with painting and the problems of painting. Naturally an artist, like anybody else, is part of the society in which he lives. You can’t isolate yourself from the problems and conflicts that affect everybody else, though I do think an artist should not take an active part in social movements – say Aldermaston marches, or something like that – unless he really, honestly, feels obliged to. I don’t think that is part of his job. I believe you must remain to some extent detached though not isolated. He must feel and understand the problems which society is trying to grapple with, but see them from outside.
I think most artists in Britain do remain outside the social problems of the day. In fact, many seem to me to be almost lonely – especially when you compare artists here to those in France. VAUGHAN:
That is absolutely true. I think the French community spirit is lacking here. There is no easy social interchange. If I see a painter friend, it’s usually at home, by arrangement; there is no equivalent to the French café, in which, at the end of the day’s work, you just walk down the street for an aperitif, knowing you will meet one or two friends with whom you can relax and exchange ideas. This is a wonderful thing, but hardly exists here. There was a brief period in the late ’40s when artists and workers congregated in two or three special solo pubs, like the French House or the Wheatsheaf; but for some reason the habit broke up, the pubs were taken over by hangers on, the tiresome people who fawn around. It must be because the English painters preferred that way – perhaps there is something in the English temperament which prevents them from bothering. Mind you, I’ve never lived in Paris, and I’m not sure I would like that sort of thing, but it would be very pleasant providing you could escape it. I certainly can’t ever see me becoming an active vocal member of an argumentative group. BARBER:
Of course the whole French attitude to painting is so different from ours, isn’t it? You just said that an artist here was free because nobody tells him what to paint, But in France I also have a feeling that dealers, if nobody else, are always trying to make painters carry on with the successful ‘line’ that is selling well.
That is very much the French professional attitude to picture-making. They regard picture-making like bread-making, or any other Artisan craft, and they take great care to do it well; they’re professionally minded about it, and if they hit on a type of picture that goes down well with the dealers they don’t feel the least guilty or ashamed if they sit down and produce a dozen more like it: the English painter seems to have a sort of guilt complex about doing this. I have no moral compunction about it. Indeed if someone asked me to produce six variations on one particular painting, because six clients wanted either copies or variations, I would love to be able to do it; but in fact I will be unable to. I have sometimes tried, as a matter of interest, to copy one of my paintings, but I simply can’t do it, perhaps because I can’t get interested enough. When I try to do this, I can’t resist at one point improving on it – imagining I am improving on it – so that the final product is nothing like the original painting. In a way, I almost envy this professional attitude of the French – starting – say – six canvases one morning – laying the grounds beautifully, knowing what the end product is. The trouble is, I can’t do it. Knowing what the end product is going to look like bores me. It’s an attitude of mind, not of moral compunction. As far as I’m concerned, what keeps me going is the feeling that with every new painting I am poised on the edge of something and want to break through into a visual experience which I have never actually had before.
And all this, of course, is centred around the human figure. You’re generally regarded as being among the dozen greatest figure painters the last 20 or 30 years has produced – tell me something about the place of the human figure in your work. VAUGHAN:
It has a central place because I believe the whole problem of the painter is to deal, in some way or other, with the human situation. I don’t mean he necessarily has to be a figurative painter; it can be dealt with in a non-figurative way. But as far as I’m concerned the figure is the subject with which I am constantly, obsessively occupied; I always have been, and if somebody said, “Why don’t you do something else for a change, like a still life or an abstract?” I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s quite conceivable that a picture might end up, to all intents and purposes, looking like an abstract or a non-figurative painting, but it wouldn’t have started out that way. I believe a painter has only one basic idea, which probably lasts him a lifetime. Mine is the human figure.
But, as you say, painting that starts with the human figure may well turn out to look like an abstract. Non-figurative painters particularly often discuss the relationship between art and music, or colour and music. John Burger wrote recently that spaces is to the painter what time is to the musical composer. Do you agree with this? VAUGHAN:
Yes, up to a point. It is possible to make a rough parallel between the elements of time in music and the element of space painting, but like all these parallels between the arts, they can be taken too far. Each art has its own particular limitation. I think one of the biggest fallacies is to justify non-figurative painting on the basis of music. Non-figurative painters argue that musicians don’t need a subject, you don’t have to ask what music represents, each note is heard simply as one interval against another, so why – they argue – can’t you do the same with painting? But they seem to me to overlook one important factor; the eye and the ear operate in an entirely different way on the human mind. An unpleasant noise is very much more upsetting than an unpleasant sight. You can quickly close your eyes if you don’t like what you see, and even if you receive the monetary shock, it is forgotten instantly. But if you are subjected to an unpleasant noise you can be driven mad, and you can’t close your ears: the opposite is also true, for a beautiful sound has a much greater instant effect on the brain than a beautiful sight. If you’re suddenly plunged into the middle of the Beethoven Symphony or a Bach mass, it has an instant uplifting physical effect – you can feel it right through your body, from your head to your toes. But I can’t honestly say that if I stand in front of the pictorial masterpiece I get the same physical sensation. There are many have tried to relate colour to music, but speaking for myself colour harmonies do not impinge on my nervous system with the same intensity as musical sounds. It might not be so with other people, but I rather believe the doctor who suggested to me that the optic and oral nerves do in fact affect the brain in entirely different ways, and with an entirely different intensity. It just is not true to say that what can be done in music by pure sound can therefore be done just as well with paint. Painting has always been a representational art and if you remove the representational element from it, as a great many painters do, then you simply impoverish it. Even if you can’t see the representational element in the finished product it must be there to begin with; 4 to me painting which has not got a representational element in it hardly goes beyond the point of design. BARBER:
So you start with, say, a figure, and the painting grows as you work at your easel over a period of time. Does the basic idea would you want to paint take a great deal of thought and preparation first? VAUGHAN:
I have to start with a very uninformed yet quite intense sensation of something I want to do, when I have the sensation the pictures still has to be painted, And the first thing I must do is to come into contact with the actual painting itself; I have to destroy the new white rectangle of canvas which is put up; that’s the most intimidating moment of all; there are various ways of destroying it. For a long time I started in the same way as the American abstract expressionists would start – making marks, setting down a certain scheme of tone and colour and rhythmic structure. I knew roughly that it was going to be a vertical or horizontal picture. I knew it was probably going to include figures, but it wasn’t very clear – I didn’t know how many figures. The question of getting one’s feelings on to canvas rather than conceiving a complete idea and trying to illustrate it is very difficult to describe. Perhaps I can make it clearer by briefly outlining the changes that took place in my work in the ’50s. Up to then I had always conceived paintings in an old-fashioned way. I thought of an idea, I visualized it, I made many drawings, until the idea gradually clarified, and when I thought it was more for less complete, then when all the problems have been solved, I would start to paint it. But I found that once I started to paint the subject, the change of scale and medium often made me lose contact with the original idea. I could find it again in my drawings, but because I was trying to enlarge the drawing into a painting, I would lose contact again. It was almost as though somebody else was doing the painting – a copying process. This worried me for a long time, because the only point when the painting really started often came after weeks of work and despair, when I finally said, “To hell with the whole thing!” Then I would turn the canvas upside down, use the basic tones and colours that were there and re-define them, as it were. Not scraping them off, but expanding one area of colour, diminishing another, or simply to destroy the image that was blocking the way. Usually I found that I was still concerned with the original idea, but in a totally different form: it was the same painting, but the actual composition would be different; but instantly I was in contact with the actual canvas again, although the drawings were no longer of any self service. But I could not develop the painting within its own terms as it went on.
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