The Years of Transition. 1958-1962

1956 was a year of triumph and of failure, recognition and disaffection, consolidation and transition. Even as they were acclaimed internationally, at home the weak links that united the Kitchen-Sink painters were being torn apart as youth gave way to maturity. Soon, with the exception of Edward Middleditch who had always been the closest to Lessore, these artists would disperse from the Beaux Arts Gallery and their work would depart in different directions.

The moment is encapsulated by John Bratby's 1956 article, 'A Painter's Credo', whose content and tone succeeded in challenging Berger, offending Lessore and alienating Greaves, Middleditch and Smith. When, later that year, Bratby asked Greaves for permission to reproduce his work for a subsequent article, Greaves declined, explaining in a letter to Bratby that he and Middleditch were unhappy with his previous writing, which he described as 'ludicrous examples of insensitive egocentricity'.

[Woburn studio c.1963]

After just two solo exhibitions at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Greaves moved to Zwemmer Gallery. His first solo show there in 1958 demonstrated how much his work was evolving. The show included 18 paintings (including Russian subjects), half a dozen drawings and a series of 12 monoprints inspired by drawings done while in Armenia. Characterising the new work in Art News and Review, the Left-wing critic Ray Watkinson was full of praise for: 'an exhibition moving in its content, admirable in its accomplishment and exciting most of all for its revelation of a new fluency and ease in a painter whose taut and disciplined draughtsmanship has before often left the riches of paint unexploited '

Watkinson continued:

Greaves has now learned how to involve the spectator in his own reactions and discoveries in more subtle and persuasive ways, to extend his range of expression, to draw out from his material rather than, as often formerly, to impose on it, an emotive force the assurance with which he now moves from one experience to another is that of a painter who has really found himself, and his vigorous maturity gives the whole collection of work a spirit of elation.

A large collaborative mural that Greaves painted with Edward Middleditch also took him in new directions. From 1957-9, the families of Greaves and Middleditch lived together in the 'decaying splendour' of a 'dilapidated mansion' at Great Linford in Buckinghamshire. When Middleditch was asked to do a mural for Nuffield College, Oxford he invited Greaves to work with him. The result was a mural entitled The Four Seasons (1957) that echoed the massive 'mural' at Cecil Sharp House in London (1950-4) by Ivon Hitchens, with whom they had both recently shared the British Pavilion in Venice. The approach taken by the two young painters was 'free-form' and the only planning was the decision to incorporate certain motifs to represent the four seasons.

The work had Middleditch's stamp on it more than that of Greaves. Middleditch painted cow parsley, meadow grasses and blossom, an equivalent to the pastoralism of Ralph Vaughan Williams's music, whilst Greaves tried to capture the heat of summer, a sleeping figure and a large wagon wheel, pressing old drawings into service.

[Derrick Greaves and Edward Middleditch The Four Seasons mural 1957, Nuffield College Oxford]

The mural was planned as an oil sketch on an 8-ft (2.4m) strip of hardboard, rather than through drawings, and was painted on 8 x 4ft (2.4 x 1.2m) boards, totalling almost 60ft (18.3m) in length, in Middleditch's studio. The panels were taken to a halfway stage before being fitted in the library where they were completed 'extempore, like an easel painting on a wall'.
This required more effort than intended. When installed the panels did not work in the room, so the two men locked the door and worked on it in situ, with paints on a dinner trolley. They went in day after day during the summer vacation and the work changed out of all recognition. Their only rule was that if they did not like what their friend had done they could paint it out. This 'improvisation' constituted, for Greaves, a sort of 'wall-jazz', and resulted in a work that was quite different from the oil sketch that Nuffield College had initially approved.

Although its subject was apolitical, the fact that this mural was a public and joint endeavour was a source of praise, especially from Berger, who related the success of the project to it having a definite objective and argued that the work of both artists had benefited by such collaboration. However, even the writing of their great champion was now becoming equivocal in tone, for Berger wrote that 'there seems to be no conflict between style or vision' but in a backhanded compliment argued that the mural was 'better than any easel painting which either of them has recently produced. The job presented them with definite objective problems which they clearly had to solve; whereas left to themselves both Greaves and Middleditch, like many other artists, have sometimes tended to forget about solutions and only choose problems.the same summer that Greaves was shown in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Berger had praised 'Greaves and Middleditch [for] refusing to look back on their success, beginning again'. Now, two years later, he enthusiastically praised their mural:

It succeeds because, unlike the majority of English decorative mural paintings today, which are either vacuously abstract or quaintly humorous, it has something serious to celebrate. Happiness leaves the mind free not empty, and it is with the freedom attained in this way that one's eye can wander over this wall, delighting in shapes and colours whose meanings are not for one moment denied, but can look after themselves The collaboration between Greaves and Middleditch has really worked. There seems to have been no conflict of either style or vision. So much for the artist as incorrigible lone hunter.

In fact, Greaves's work was changing fast and the mural had caught him in the midst of reassessing his priorities. Change was fuelled by dissatisfaction with his Italian paintings for being too descriptive: 'I felt there was a lot of received wisdom of the wrong kind in the painting. It was a hard and stony road out of that.' Rebirth was painful. Re-evaluating his vocabulary, Greaves began to feel that in his search for authenticity his painting had become too descriptive of external realities and imitative of surfaces: he would paint a dusty road with dry paint and portray a wicker chair by threading paint as though remaking the chair. As Berger had appreciated in one of his very first essays on Greaves:

An object is what it is because of the way it has been made. Pieces of leather are sewn together to make a shoe. Wicker is woven to make the seat of a chair. An arm assumes its shape and colour as a result of the sum total of the muscular actions it habitually undertakes and the temperatures it endures Greaves works as an artisan with every brush stroke.

This mimetic quality was something that Greaves himself recognised: 'Each element was painted in its own way, embodying its unique properties I was thinking about it all the time. How an apple and a jug each might be painted differently'. What followed were paintings in which Greaves rejected such naturalism; for example, instead of conveying the wetness of water, he would give it the substance of rope, as in Greece - the Mythic Spring (1981). In this move away from naturalism, a key painting was Lovers (1958), a large work that was exhibited in Greaves's Zwemmer exhibition in 1958 as well as with the A.I.A. in an exhibition of Aspects of Realism, which presented 16 paintings by 16 artists including Greaves, Bratby, Middleditch, Peter de Francia and Joe Tilson. In Lovers, two figures melt into each other in an intimate embrace. But this dissolution challenged Berger's promotion of accessible language, objective concerns and typical subjects, leading him to criticise Greaves's work for its lack of explicitness: 'a search for elusive meanings; a kind of dance round their themes, which remain unstated'. In contrast, in an ecstatic review, Nevile Wallis wrote at length about Lovers, which for him was:

the most ambitious attempt to realise the ecstasy of natural union yet given us by any contemporary The almost swooning mood is heightened by the floating shapes and the deliquescent colour of this image which, in imagination, symbolises the experience that may bring union with the cosmos itself Greaves reconciles a near-tachiste method with his amorphous yet subtle shapes to communicate an emotional experience which could be conveyed in no other way.

[Derrick Greaves in his Studio]

What Greaves now sought was a painting that was less declamatory and more subtle, less overt and more contemplative. As he asserted in 1960:

Rationalizing, explaining or interpreting a painted image in terms of words is a kind of assassination of the very quality that is its life - namely, its silence. For the painter to attempt such a thing is suicide. Realizing and developing, through a precision of instinct, such images which live visually in their own silence, is my concern, and the only true painting for me.

This was an aspiration that he shared with his old friend Jack Smith, who had also moved to more personal concerns and had similarly moved beyond the paintings that had established his reputation. Smith, interviewed by Basil Taylor in 1960, made a strikingly similar observation: 'I believe that the age of public challenges ... is past. Whatever might come out of the next fifty years will be done in a strange kind of silence.following years were filled with exploratory paintings, albeit of a heightened size, which filled Greaves's shows at Zwemmer Gallery in the early 1960s. In marked contrast to what he considered to be Helen Lessore's doctrinaire attitudes and faith in London art schools, Greaves relished Anton Zwemmer's internationalism and openness to the new. Zwemmer had lived in Paris, knew Picasso and presented shows of many of France's leading artists including Picasso and Georges Braque, providing a new context for Greaves's work.

Of these artists, Greaves had a love-hate relationship with Picasso, but his shows at Zwemmer Gallery suggest that he had no such equivocation about Braque. A major exhibition of Braque's work was staged in London at the Tate Gallery in 1956, a fortuitous moment for Greaves as he sought to develop his work. The exhibition made a big impression, challenging Greaves to reconsider his way of painting and his desire for immediacy. Responding to Braque's , his manner, Greaves admired his refinement as beautifully constructed French cuisine and recognised that although the work was often very difficult and immensely subtle, it rewarded contemplation and indeed necessitated time to do the work justice. For a young artist who had always sought direct, immediate connection with his audience, this was a challenge and Greaves's paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s appear to have responded to the questions posed by Braque's late paintings. Greaves's paintings such as Fruit Bowl on White Ground (1959), Still Life with Blue and White Jug (1959) and Still Life (c.1960) would succeed and fail for similar reasons.

As in Braque's work, such paintings suggest that, having freed himself from slavish veneration of the external world, the artist had turned inwards to a more synthetic process in which objects are reconstituted. For both artists still-life was the main focus, whether isolated or within a constructed studio setting, whether derived from observation or from the imagination. Like Braque, Greaves was criticised for producing work that was too hermetic and solipsistic, leaving a baffled audience. Also like Braque, paint is handled differently for each object and different viewpoints, perspectives and scales are combined within a single pictorial space. The assertive wallpapers that give Braque's grounds such an emphatic presence also prefigure Greaves's later incorporation of collage grounds as an active part of the final picture.

Greaves's figure paintings, some of which are visible in studio photographs from this period, also suggest an indebtedness to Braque. Braque's late figures are surely some of the most peculiar in twentieth century painting and those of Greaves from the early 1960s share something of their awkward post-Cubist reformulation of the body.

Greaves's show at Zwemmer Gallery in 1960 was dominated by still-life paintings, particularly flowers, and attracted enthusiastic reviews by many of the leading critics. John Russell praised 'an admirable dignity and integrity' in Greaves's thorough exploration of 'the possibilities of the still-life', but suggested that this had a paradoxical effect. While each work was unmistakably by the artist, 'no two pictures are at all alike: format, subject, handling - all are varied and renewed from one picture to the next'. The very large size of many of these paintings led Russell to observe that 'the objects portrayed lose their everyday identity and become unrecognisable in their majesty, or as the case may be, their vulnerability and awkwardness'. The otherness of these objects led reviewers to reflect on their 'heraldic air', whilst also wrestling with their allusiveness.

A review in The Times again referred to the size of the oils, suggesting that the 'lumbering, closed shapes within them suggest that something majestic is being aimed at without quite being achieved'. Reflecting on a painting with a huge white jug, the critic addressed the fact that 'they convey a sort of empty presence which paradoxically, in view of the way it dominates the gallery, is not so much an object which is there as a space cut out of its blue background'. He concluded, 'This is nevertheless the exhibition of an imaginative, searching artist, one with an unusual character that can be blunt and graceful within the same painting.impact of Braque was discussed in a number of reviews, including those by Nevile Wallis and John Russell. In his review of Greaves's 1960 exhibition at Zwemmer Gallery, Wallis explored the still-lifes on show with reference to just one other artist, Braque. Writing of Greaves's 'revelatory painting', Wallis asserted that 'today he might say, with Braque, that he no longer believes in the immutable reality of anything In these bouquets and arrangements of fruit enclosed in outlined shapes one could think of a similar device of Braque's in his still-life transformations.Seeking to remake his vocabulary, Greaves made up quantities of paint in pots and thinned them down to paint flatly. This allowed him to judge the relationship of an area of paint to a line of paint next to it, to juxtapose forms in a valued and measured way. Encouraged by Braque's example, Greaves now introduced striking variations in paint thickness and methods of application within a single canvas, an experiment he would never again repeat.

The paintings of the later 1950s and early 1960s were some of the most experimental, but least successful, of Greaves's career. Complex and ambitious, they nonetheless lacked the artist's characteristic clarity of form and concept. Studio photographs emphasise their grand scale and complex spatial construction, but few of these paintings survive and most were destroyed by the artist. Paradoxically, the very quality that Greaves responded to in Braque and aspired to in his own painting - an artwork of sophistication and subtlety that gave up its secrets grudgingly over time - was the reason for his dissatisfaction with the inaccessibility of his own paintings.

The mixed critical response to Greaves's 1962 show at Zwemmer Gallery exemplifies this. Despite aspiring to clarity, Greaves's work had become more internalised:

One of the self-disciplines I have imposed on myself is to make as clear and clarified an image as I can I feel a terrible anxiety about the world and the human situation generally. I am trying to make my pictures articulate about that. My art has political implications in the broadest sense. I am not painting pictures primarily about painting ... I used to paint the outside world through my eyes; now I am painting from inside.

Eric Newton used his review to develop the response he had given to Greaves's previous show, characterising the 'devices' that Greaves used including 'a tendency to see everything rather larger than life size' and 'to single out a fragment of the original visual experience and underlie it by turning it into a pattern (Matisse did this and there are echoes, though never quotations, from Matisse in his latest canvases)'. Newton accurately recognised that 'what he is manifestly doing is to escape from the domination of the observed object, to translate it into paint by refusing to describe it and to find a formula for giving us an account of his reactions to it'. Writing of Greaves's 'exceptional intelligence and determination', he praised his willingness 'to tell a whopping visual lie in order to make a closer approach to the poetic truth', although he concluded that 'Greaves's journey is not yet complete. The exhibition is transitional. He is still on his way to something that is still a fragment of essential truth based on a visual lie.the journey was praiseworthy, the difficulties it posed for the viewer fill other reviews of the show. The critic of The Times admired the certainty yet wrote of the 'absence, relatively speaking, of [a] way inand identified 'a gawky, questing, poetic originality about them The strangeness of idiom is paralleled by one's uncertainty about how much of the imagery is a translation of the thing seen, how much is invented shape, and at what point the two coalesce. Meanwhile, in his review Alan Bowness also addressed the awkwardness of these paintings:

In a somewhat heraldic style he paints over-lifesize everyday objects - flowers, plants, fruit, kitchen utensils, sometimes the figure. Their forms and colours have, however, become an entirely individual and expressive pictorial language, so that he can come very close to abstraction without losing any essential qualities. Greaves is an original painter: awkward and graceless to a degree, all the constituents of his art (imagery, composition, texture etc.) lead one towards a feeling of urgent, cosmic unease which no doubt lies at the heart of what he wants to communicate.

The silence, or rather the lack of declamation or polemic, led to charges of hermeticism in reviews of his solo shows at Zwemmer Gallery in 1962 and 1963. This criticism hit home, touching a nerve for an artist who deep down had remained committed to the importance of communicating with an audience. As he later recalled: 'The paintings had seemed all right in the studio but once they were in the gallery I realised that they were too hermetic - they didn't mean much to other people and that's important to me.way that his work had turned inwards, was perhaps an unconscious expression of the disillusionment Greaves felt at the failure of social realist painting, including his own, to attract a popular audience. For Greaves there had always been an implicit political dimension to his desire to communicate and it remained, even as his work changed during the 1960s. Greaves had always been 'of the Left': as a young man in Sheffield he attended political meetings and sold the Daily Worker in Fitzallen Square. As an activist, he was an early supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, going on 'Ban the Bomb' marches and attending a vigil outside Downing Street in 1959.

Even in the 1960s, when still-life provided his focus, he incorporated elements which thrust this most conventional of subjects into a more political arena. In Flower and Collage (1968-9) (plate 56), harmony is disrupted through the inclusion of a torn fragment of newspaper that bares the headline 'Americans bomb in error another friendly village', and in another painting, The Ultimate Absurdity (c.1968), Vietnam is alluded to with the inclusion of a knife penetrating a rose that bleeds. In 1969, he even exhibited a 13ft (4m) painting at the I.C.A. as a commentary on the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and designed a poster in protest, too. More recently, the war in Iraq has led to a massive dark triptych, War (2005-06).

Despite different forms of direct action, Greaves recognised that social realism had failed to attract a popular audience. As early as 1959 he looked back with sadness at his work of the mid 1950s. He wrote of the deliberation behind it and of his intention to communicate with his audience but concluded, despairingly, feeling a desire to lessen the gap that exists between audience and painting, I made attempts to form a pictorial language from nature which would be easily accessible to all who cared to look. To do this in England at the present time ... is, I have realised, aesthetic suicide'.

The foregrounding of still-life motifs during these years would continue, but increasingly Greaves would also turn his attention to the female nude and to couples, developing new and bolder ways of bringing disparate elements together, and increasing the formal and iconographic complexity.

By the mid 1960s Greaves was painting increasingly flatly, so that he could measure more precisely the relationships between forms and create a more harmonious surface. A shift from oil to acrylic paint would facilitate this. Once again, Greaves would destroy many of these paintings, but they illustrate the growing importance of Fernand Léger and Matisse in the role now being given to flat colour and such changes would, by the late 1960s, lead to some of Greaves's greatest paintings.

Increasingly, Greaves would explore the roles of proportion, measurement and even geometry, so that by the end of the 1960s his paintings would be of a scale and ambition that superseded all that had gone before.

Derrick Greaves - Winter Landscape

Winter Landscape

Oil on Canvas

Derrick Greaves - Seasons


Oil on board

Derrick Greaves - Nude


Oil and sand on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Jug


Oil and silver paint on hessian

Derrick Greaves - Fruit Bowl on White Ground

Fruit Bowl on White Ground

Oil on Canvas

Derrick Greaves - Bouquet, Grey and Brown

Bouquet, Grey and Brown

Oil on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Fruit on a table

Fruit on a table

Oil on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Still Life with Big White Jug

Still Life with Big White Jug

Oil on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Still Life with Winter Sunlight

Still Life with Winter Sunlight

Oil on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Still life with pears

Still life with pears

Oil on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Bouquet red-black on white

Bouquet red-black on white

Oil and mixed media on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Still Life - Orange background

Still Life - Orange background

Oil and mixed media on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Mountain Landscape

Mountain Landscape

Oil on Canvas

Derrick Greaves - Fruit Bowl

Fruit Bowl

Oil on canvas

Derrick Greaves - Blue Still Life

Blue Still Life

Oil on sacking

Derrick Greaves - Apples



Derrick Greaves - Bouquet 1

Bouquet 1

Watercolour and goauche on paper

Derrick Greaves - Bloomfield


Oil on canvas

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