Saturday, March 28, 2020

Scrub and quarry

Painting en plein air can bring many unexpected problems, from the bandits encountered by Thomas Jones to the waves that drenched Claude Monet.  The British artist Ray Atkins has not made it easy for himself:
'He sets up his boards – sometimes up to 10 foot wide, and weighing a hundredweight – in the landscape he's painting, tethering the work to the ground with rocks and leaving them in situ for weeks at a time. Obviously this method leaves the work at the mercy of the elements and of vandals - indeed, one of his monumental works of the Thames at Millwall ended up floating downstream after his secret painting place was discovered by local vandals.' (The Guardian, October 2012)
Wind is a particular risk if you're going to set up pictures on this scale - once one of Atkins' pictures ended up at the bottom of a quarry, as William Feaver noted in his catalogue essay for a 1996 retrospective.

Catalogue for the 1996 Ray Atkins exhibition at Art Space Gallery, Bristol

It would be easy to criticise this approach to painting as playing out the stereotype of 'man' against nature.  But William Feaver argued that
'there is no need to label Atkins 'heroic' in his persistence. The difficulties he makes for himself are essential to the outcome. Without them he would lack the resistance necessary for deep impetus. Painting on board rather than canvas gives him another sort of resistance. He dedicates himself to laborious cultivation; his is a kind of fieldcraft and makes him more the hunter-farmer than the painter of pleasing projects.' 
Feaver was impressed by Atkins's paintings of Cornwall, which were mainly done inland in an environment of 'scrub and quarry, land worked over and worked out.'  Scrapyard IV (1989) is particularly striking - 'crumpled colours dumped on the landscape'.

Eventually Atkins left Cornwall for the French Pyrennees, where he still lives and paints.  There is a YouTube video of him made in 2018 which shows a soft-focus sun-dappled landscape a world away from the docks of Millwall and scrapyards of Cornwall.  Here, near his home, you see him fixing up one of his boards in a field and beginning to work, before breaking off to enjoy the sunset.  As someone says at the end of the film, artistic fame may have passed him by, but at least he has been able to spend a lifetime painting.

No comments: