For an extraordinary number of years - almost 25 - Greaves did not hold a show in London's West End. Between 1980, when he had his last show at Fischer Fine Art, and 2003, when he had his first show at James Hyman Fine Art, Greaves had been shown sporadically by the Royal Academy in its Summer Exhibition, leading Tim Hilton to write: 'Two fine paintings by Derrick Greaves remind us that it is high time that this dedicated artist came out of his Norfolk retirement and gave us a solo show in London.'
Greaves had not stopped actively painting or regularly exhibiting, but he had devoted much time to teaching and his major exhibitions had taken place outside London. Notable among them are Derrick Greaves: Retrospective of Paintings 1953-1980 at the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield in 1980 and the travelling exhibition, Derrick Greaves - Forty from Ten, which in 1986 showcased his large-scale collage-drawings of the previous ten years. Both were highly acclaimed by critics and artists, old and young. The eminent painter and teacher, Robert Medley, for example, wrote of being 'thrilled' by the 'extraordinary work' and 'filled with admiration'. These shows were complemented by smaller group exhibitions including an Arts Council tour, Books and Folios - Screenprints by Derrick Greaves, Robert Medley and Edward Middleditch4 in 1981 and New Norfolk Drawings: Derrick Greaves, Roger Ackling, Anthony Benjamin in 1993. Nevertheless, the long exile from London clearly did not help the artist's profile.
[Derrick Greaves's Studio, Norfolk, 2002]
The marvellous Goldfish (1979) points the way forward, economically conveying the darting forms of the fish. For Greaves, citing Matisse's example, the search is for a bold economy; a use of paint that is plain-speaking, not confected; a composition that is seemingly inevitable, not laboured; a subject that is 'plainly there at one glance', yet also 'has resonances that play back at you the longer you look at the picture'. His search, then, is not for mere 'simplicity', but for the altogether grander ambitions of 'economy' and of 'clarity'. Goldfish is a painting that makes explicit the artist's admiration for Matisse's famous fish bowls, yet in it Greaves finds a language that is all his own. A vocabulary that is at once precise and evocative eloquently conveys the movement of the fish and gives a hint at the distorting effects of water in a bowl. For Greaves, then, what matters is 'putting trust in the language of painting'; trust in the ability of painting to encapsulate the artist's response and to convey it clearly to an audience.
Greaves's imagery received a boost by his move to Norfolk in 1983. Shortly thereafter, he was divorced from his first wife and in 1994 he married Sally Butler. Previously, he had taught part-time in various London schools and at Maidstone College of Art. Now, for the first time, he took up a full-time teaching post, setting up and running the Printmaking Department at Norwich School of Art, where he worked for eight years. The art school also brought in a wide circle of full- and part-time teachers, including many occasional visitors from London. Middleditch was Head of Painting and visitors included John Lessore, John Wonnacott and even, occasionally, Lucian Freud. There were already marvellous technicians with impeccable skills, but they had little status as there was no departmental head. This was a stimulating time, a fresh start, and his painting and printmaking burst with a new vitality.
The job was time-consuming but led to powerful prints, many of which are now in the extensive holdings of Greaves's printmaking at University of Wales, Aberystwyth. During this period Greaves never stopped painting and throughout it produced strong works. Nevertheless, after finishing his teaching at the Norwich School of Art in 1991, his painting assumed a new imaginative freedom; a sense of liberation and boldness. Henceforth Greaves no longer just made drawings from external objects and then translated them into painting: now the unconscious started to play a part. In one recent dream image, Greaves painted a modern Martyr (2002) in which Saint Sebastian has become a mere trace, a bodily stain pierced with arrows. In another, Empty Rooms (1999-2000). Greaves combines the structure of a Japanese print with a dream image, using flatness to suggest the denial of access. Despite the title, these rooms cannot be entered and, despite the scale of the painting, our feeling of freedom is frustrated. We are shut out. The space is impossible to enter.
Such paintings retained their basis in drawing but the stimuli became more studio-bound and investigative. As in Braque's late atelier paintings, an analytical process was becoming synthetic. Despite these formal imperatives, what concerned Greaves was not abstraction, but the way that he might give equal weight to the representational and abstract components of his work. In Two Moroccan Women (1992-5) the singing colour is comparable to Frank Stella's powerful square paintings of the early 1960s, yet the subject matter is indispensable. Similarly, in Hokusai (1994) Greaves's concern is as much with colour as it is the formal properties of a Japanese woodcut. Greaves says:
I would throw a spanner in the works by adding a figurative element to stop it being merely an exercise in colour structure. I wanted my paintings to have a figurative factor as their impurity but to have the firmness of abstract painting. I wanted to be able to feed-in informal elements of my life in a symbolic rather than descriptive way, which I couldn't do if it was purely abstract. These impurities are like life. There are unforeseen circumstances, quirkiness, humour. Paintings have to reflect that.
Good News for Archaeologists (1966), Greece - The Museum of Eggs (1981) and Odalisque Disturbed (1983) exemplify this continual entwining of the thoughtful and the playful, illustrating a witty response to imagery which characterises much of Greaves's work even if it has a darker edge. This good humour is especially evident in Greaves's response to the past and, above all, to classical civilisation. A perfectly preserved jar is indeed good news for archaeologists, a museum of eggs pokes fun at the cult of the preservation and the proliferation of museums, and the disturbed odalisque subverts the classical stability of any number of reclining nudes from classical times, through David and Ingres to Picasso and Matisse, suggesting the naughtier pleasures of a fun-fair side show. Meanwhile, Greaves's appreciation of this classical lineage has also resulted in the striking composure of Sally Butler in a Sarong (1995) and the equally regal Recamier (Still Life with Picture) (2002).
In continuing to push his own language, one of Greaves's most powerful recent achievements is his use of a bar that runs horizontally across several large-scale paintings. This shelf-like structure runs through Border (1997), Laoc(2001) , Two Trees (Spring) (1999) and Sunset (1997) allowing Greaves to situate still-life objects without having to present a table-top or locate subjects without the need for an horizon line. The result objectifies each element, even giving substance to the insubstantial, whether it is a flower, a sculpture, a tree or even the sun:
I like formal structures that can do more than one job in a painting. I like the viewer to be led beyond the painting only to come back to it. So the single bar passing through the picture is like a continuous shelf in the mind. I also like the way the bar acts chromatically. It allows one to pitch the line to a different key from the objects on the line.
These paintings provide a compendium of multifarious sources. In Border Greaves presents a row of African spearheads, which previously he had drawn at the Museum of Mankind, London. In Laoc, the snakes of the famous Hellenistic sculpture dance with delight. In Two Trees (Spring), each tree is distinct yet their equivalent weights give an overall harmony to a composition with two competing centres of attention, and in the climactic Sunset the red ribbons of the sun are set against the deepest blue and are accentuated by the horizontal bar of purple-grey with yellow edges. Within the sun, an arrow points downwards affirming that this is a sunset, not a sunrise.
Greaves's recent paintings bestow an iconographic boldness on everyday objects that translates them into heraldic forms that are both solid and dignified, playful and witty. Greaves does not discourage a semiological approach to his work, although he does distance the 'exotic insights' of a writer such as E.H. Gombrich with the 'rough and tumble of the studio'. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that at the centre of Greaves's work is drawing and at the heart of his drawing is line. In Rope Tricks (2004), all is movement: a line twists and turns, dancing with an inner life, the possibilities apparently limitless. The effect is lyrical, a 'Mozartian lightness', yet to use line so precisely and so sparingly is hard-won, and the artist himself comments that 'I've not aimed for elegance or simplicity. I've aimed for clarity.also often speaks of his practice as 'drawing a line around my thoughts', like in a cartoon. He has explained that line not only delineates forms and carries colour, but also relates dynamically to the picture ground. These grounds are painted as impassively as possible but Greaves builds them up in thin layers to retain their vibrancy:
I realise there is an audience that likes the bravura, the attack, the spirit of the painter: from John Singer Sargent to Vincent van Gogh - they love the brushstroke. People feel after my fifties work, the brushstrokes are missing. I feel however that this showiness gets in the way. I don't want traces of the hand or finicky touches. I don't want to make a great show of me on the canvas. I'm the opposite of an expressionist painter trying to grab the spectator. I want to paint myself out of a picture so that the feeling of a painting is everything. I want people to bring themselves to the picture.
Colour is no less important. Indeed it is the artist's boldness as a colourist that is one of the most dramatic impressions and one that is carried through from his earliest works. Colour is frequently unmodulated and flat and what is depicted is a shadowless world. In fact shadows had been abolished by Greaves since the beginning of the 1960s when objects stopped having a light side and dark side; they were modelled as though a light shone on them from outside the picture. The shadows were found by him to be unnecessary, thus the modelling of the objects and the shadows disappeared simultaneously, giving the chance of a newer, more freshly found rebirth of forms. Later on in his development these forms could be completely restructured, as has been mentioned, and this refiguring of the forms is still continuing, as in Coffee (2001). Instead, one colour is often given even greater resonance by its proximity to another. Sometimes complementary, sometimes clashing, the effect of placing one colour against another at times echoes this central aspect of Bridget Riley's exploration of colour.
The result in Greaves's painting is especially vibrant in paintings in which he introduces closely painted dots of colour which dance across The Meeting (Max Ernst and Brancusi) (2001), Pandora (2001) and Landscape with Conifers (2000-01). More subtly, it also accounts for the shimmering effect that Greaves achieves in paintings such as Rain (2002), where the lines of falling water are depicted using one colour set against another:
I have to fight for the colour, it has to be right. My colour is very personal, I follow my instincts, but it is also very measured. I want clarity in all the parts of the painting. This is why you can count the colours. You can see three different yellows, two reds, a blue. The lines, the ground each is countable, like in a Léger. But the final painting is a total feeling that comes from all these countables.
Coffee (2001) is characteristic, occupying a distinct space between the late paintings of William Scott and Peter Kinley, to which they have superficial affinities. However, whilst Scott sought to convey the substance and volume of his pared down forms and to set his table-top, still-life motifs against a field of colour, Greaves's objects have a 'lightness of being' and there is no such separation of form and ground. Kinley, meanwhile, used his delicate touches of thinned paint to unify the picture and softened his contours to allow forms to melt into the surrounding space. Greaves hides his touch to allow the colour to dominate and uses lines that are firm, but do not necessarily relate to the subject's outline.
The emblematic, even heraldic, quality, recalls his days as a sign writer, illustrating Marmite pots and Raleigh bicycles. Pictures of a coffee jug, for example, began as a depiction of a coffee pot on a shelf and, partly in remembrance of a café in Belsize Park in London, Greaves also included a decorative cross pattern derived from its tiled walls (such as in the watercolour Coffee II, 2001). Eventually, as Greaves deconstructed the coffee pot, he felt able to leave out the situating shelf and the decorative tiles, reconstructing the jug, as though from a model, to create a new schematic form: 'the structure was pushed through the sieve of the mind and remade as a painting, as something which could not be remade in reality'. Such boldness was a breakthrough, leading to recent works that similarly reinvent form.
The spare, unadorned beauty of the resulting work is nowhere more evident than the refined Cascade (2000) which parallels the qualities that Greaves admires in such diverse achievements as Matisse's papier collés, the paintings of Piet Mondrian and Elsworth Kelly, Jean Muir's clothes and Lucie Rie's ceramics. In other works, there is a greater syntactical complexity. Frequently, in these later works Greaves aims for the coexistence of different visual languages. Collage drawings of the 1980s and recent large-scale paintings are linked by their marriage of clear line to a use of transparency that allows forms to interlock and coexist, whilst retaining their distinctiveness.
The approach is elliptical, a way of lateral thinking that Greaves himself admires in Hans Keller's approach to music, Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark's approach to eroticism through the medium of art. Indeed, the analogies Greaves makes are frequently with music. A series of paintings, Bird Song, begun in 1997, even took the layering of bird song in his garden as a metaphor for the way that forms can overlap in a painting and the high notes led him to heighten the chroma of his palette.
Greaves may consider Mozart's G minor Symphony No. 40 to be his favourite piece and may identify with Ravel, admiring the combination of eroticism and humour in Scheherazade, but it is frequently to more avant-garde composers that he is drawn, including Olivier Messiaen and Charles Ives. Just as the musicians in an ensemble may play in different keys simultaneously, so Greaves, in his paintings, seeks to fit together different keynotes like jigsaw pieces. The results may be as bizarre as a brass band in an orchestra piece by Ives, but frequently a cacophony gives way to harmony.
Greaves has consistently sought to translate this sort of bizarre structure into his painting. Certainly in his collage drawings there is a rupture between form and ground, and in recent paintings one often finds that each disparate element is rendered in a different style. At times the effect recalls the way that the late transparencies of Francis Picabia might combine a monster or pinup with a landscape, each painted in a different manner. Admiring these paintings Greaves equates their impact to atonalism in music, in which there is a fruitful coexistence of different, precisely considered forms and the application of a linear construction. This is what Greaves particularly admires in the award-winning animation, Flat World (1998) by his son Daniel Greaves. This half-hour animation presents a world of two-dimensional cut-outs into which intrudes a three-dimensional world: the main character cuts through a road cable and picks up the two ends. Pulses spark from each end and out leap a variety of characters from cartoons to realist films, set against different coloured grounds.
In Acropolis (1999), Greaves combines a small sketchbook drawing of the Acropolis with a separate, totally unrelated drawing of a geometric form, jamming these two pictorial structures together to convey an evening in which a cacophony of voices discussed their thoughts on Athens. The hillside and Acropolis are a single-coloured structure that is left without infilling, while the geometric form is polychrome. Superficially, such a painting may resemble the combining of languages to be found in the paintings of Patrick Caulfield, yet the use of line and conception of space is fundamentally different. In Greaves's work, the line may or may not relate to the form and the visibility of an all-over ground may be used to suggest transparency, whereas in Caulfield's work line often indicates the contour of an object, which is then filled in like a cloisonné or enamel inlay. For Greaves, the repercussions are not merely formal; this is not simply a formal device or a means of complicating the picture space. It also has a psychological dimension and an existential resonance that reflects his admiration for such Modernist classics as T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and James Joyce's Ulysses with their inventive syntax, multiple voices and interpenetrating realities.
Acropolis is multilayered, like the conversations that inspired it. In seeking such an equivalence in painting, Greaves 'began to feel existentialist about the way things look different today than they did for Gustave Courbet'. In contrast to Lucian Freud's alchemical desire for paint to be flesh, for Greaves 'paint is not flesh and cannot be; the painter's job is to invent a new language of painting and to speak with a contemporary voice. One cannot redo Courbet.' The enemy is the prevalent preoccupation with volumes created through chiaroscuro and the conventional rendering of a heavy positive form in a negative space. Greaves deplores the conventional separation of figure and ground, and in discussing his own work talks instead of transparency, interpenetration and all-over equality: 'we have become more transparent than this; our corporeal presence is not as solid as it once was'. This transparency may suggest insubstantiality but is nonetheless concrete and allows Greaves remarkable freedom in his latest paintings to combine images from the external world with those from dreams, rendering them starkly, with ambiguity perhaps, but not with haziness. The challenge, then, has been to portray the subject in a new way that reflects new circumstances and a new worldview. In this sense, the artist has never stopped being a realist.
Other paintings are more elliptical. In contrast to his close friend Edward Middleditch, for whom the landscape was a more purely visual phenomenon, or David Bomberg and his followers, who dramatised the skin of the land, the bulk of the landscape and the drama of a slope or a hillock, for Greaves a rural motif may be specific in form but not place. Green (2001) suggests a mass of tree and trunk or the shelter of a bivouac, whilst At the Farm (2000-01) appears to show a pile of chopped wood and a hatchet or pan.
This impression of a subject sensed but not seen, of a thing encapsulated but not described, of a glimpsed view rather than a sustained gaze, is a leitmotif of Greaves's approach to landscape. But if Greaves is, above all, a rural artist then he is a particularly unusual example. His painting is the antithesis of English landscape painting with its romanticism and love of metamorphic transformation, and it is distanced, too, from the anthropomorphism of a range of artists from Graham Sutherland to Peter Lanyon.18 As in the poems of Seamus Heaney, which he admires, Greaves does not romanticise the farmer on the land. These are modern images rooted in today and the nature of Greaves's response is far removed from the extremes represented, on the one hand, by the gestural imprecision of Ivon Hitchens and, on the other, by the topographic fidelity of Michael Andrews. Nor does he concern himself with genius loci like Paul Nash or a 'spirit in the mass' like David Bomberg.
Landscape of a new kind entered Greaves's work in the run up to the Iraq War. Greaves felt moved to respond again and once more this found focus in still-life motifs as well as nature. But perhaps in acknowledgement of the limitations of painting as direct political invention, what Greaves was painting was an escape. Just as Matisse spent the World Wars painting luxuriant studio interiors and lush landscapes, so Greaves produced an epic series of idylls. A working drawing, Two Trees (2002), reveals both Greaves's precision (the squaring up of the drawing for transfer onto canvas) and his openness to chance (the border of the drawing became a border in the painting, framing the picture like a camera viewfinder and turning the image into a glorified holiday snap). This use of order would characterise many of the paintings from this period. In Studio at Night with Garden (2002), Greaves creates a painting whose calm hides the laborious process that brought it into being. Interior and exterior are perfectly in balance in a harmoniously ordered painting that belies the improvisation that lay behind it.
The desire for clarity is especially apparent in recent drawings made as studies for a series of paintings entitled Shangri-La, among the boldest of which are Shangri-La (Two Trees) (2003-05) and Shangri-La (Tree and Sea) (2005) ; 'The Shangri-La paintings were done as a protective shield against the utterly depressing news of war and the politicians games of negation.' Greaves explains elsewhere, 'I've often said that the artist preserves a thick strata of naiveté in the mind in order to take clues from wherever they come this isn't to be confused with that awful immaturity of attitudes to life which many artists irritatingly express continuously (which is merely static, inert monomania)'.
In two small, elegant paintings, Shangri-La (Exotic Bird) (2003) and Shangri-La (Two Exotic Birds) (2002), there is an enjoyment in the flow of line as well as precision. In Shangri-La (Exotic Bird), an extended line from top to bottom helps create a space in which the artist places a circle; at once representational and abstract, the lines trace the beak, neck and eye of a bird as well as being quite simply two lines and a circle.
Many of the recent pictures start from dream images, although none are as literal as merely illustrating a dream. Greaves passes through the studio to the bedroom and is very often snagged on the way by the painting of the day. Conversely, in the morning he passes through the studio to go to the kitchen, and uses a pad of yellow 'Post-it' notes to draw the fag ends of dreams. He sticks them on the studio wall to inspire a drawing or painting. The starting point may be personal and even trivial but, as with the work of his friend, the late Prunella Clough, the result is at once bold and subtle. Greaves has commented of Clough: 'In her own words, she paints a small thing edgily. She does it freshly and unexpectedly. Her touch is beautiful - the way she uses the surface - and in her later work she takes risks she couldn't early on.' A key to understanding both artists is to appreciate that however grand the resulting painting, its starting point might have been the most casual of doodles, in Greaves's case on the Post-it notes. When Greaves commented on this to Clough, she laughed that he had at last discovered the secret of her own way of working. External and internal worlds combine as the artist has finally, 'after all these years been able to get an easy carpet slipper relationship with my unconscious'.
Greaves likens this shift in sensibility and the combination of impressions that feed each new work to shifts in music: 'it's like atonalism in music: Tchaikovsky fits rural Russia at a particular time, but Ligeti's strung out style, absorption of world music and polyphonic voices is more relevant to our own times. It's part of our environmental and cultural matching set.multifarious sources also include Greaves's own earlier works and several recent paintings possess an overtly self-referential element. Shooting the Crows (2003-04) adds a crueller element to the earlier Shadow of a Bird on a Road , while Diptych - One Step Forward (2004-06) and Ten Thorns (2005-06) echo Greaves's paintings of the late 1960s. Meanwhile, Man into Bird (2003-04) recalls Greaves's many pictures on the theme of Icarus but replaces their pathos with something jauntier. Even more explicit are three recent Wall Drawings (2004-06) , large paintings that reference more recent works, specifically Greaves's Post-it note doodles and also his Shangri-La paintings. In these paintings, Greaves achieves his ambition of allowing forms to interpenetrate. Transparency is a key as images flit in and out of focus. Possessing the soft translucence of a reverie, these paintings retain the intimacy of Post-it notes, whilst combining the escapism of his Shangri-La paintings of exotic birds, which they sample, with the more immediate concerns of creating a synthetic landscape.
Elsewhere, however, the mood is bleaker, with fighting in the Middle East provoking engagement, rather than escapism. Greaves's largest painting of recent years, War Triptych (2005-06) is a powerful return to the mural format of his earliest paintings and a reprise of the triptych format of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Drawing from existing imagery, including an earlier screenprint of a bound figure, Greaves provides a brooding image of a menacing war machine, imprisonment and torture. The bold iconography and emblematic imagery speak for and of our times in a strong and distinct voice, a voice that is both individual and universal, classical and contemporary.
Such paintings are the legacy of Greaves's earlier paintings and deserve to become his iconic images. Indeed, they stand proudly alongside the youthful paintings with which the artist first established his reputation half a century ago. But this is to look backwards. The journey still continues, as Greaves recently explained:
I work everyday in the quiet atmosphere of the studio which, year upon year, has suited me well. I like it, and the hours of prolonged contemplation it brings. Interestingly there's no sense of repetition for, over the months and years, work changes under the hand, becoming porous, absorbing the most unexpected clues, transforming its own form. Paintings become palimpsests and drawings spawn dozens more formal variations. They all seem to do themselves, by themselves, more and more, to determine their own form and future and the way they finally look. And just as importantly, look back at you. For, as Klee says, 'don't think you are just looking at pictures - they are also looking at you'.