Blue is a leitmotif of Derrick Greaves paintings and was explored in an exhibition in 2013. The nature of this engagement and the precedents for it were the subject of an essay on the theme.
In 1925 in one of his most radical surrealist canvases Joan Miro placed besides a patch of sky-blue paint the words: ceci est la couleur de mes rêves (Joan Miro, Photo: This Is the Colour of My Dreams, 1925, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The words are an appropriate epigram for the present exhibition, Derrick Greaves. All Blues. There are no limits to these dreams, no limits to the resonance of the colour blue.
William Gass, from the opening sentence of his extraordinary book On Being Blue (1976), luxuriates in the colour:
Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit - dumps, mopes, Mondays - all that's dismal - lowdown gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasing absentness of Heaven (ins Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that's empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for instance, or, when the sky's turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese . . . the pedantic, indecent and censorious . . . watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it's stood for fidelity. ( William Gass, On Being Blue, 1976, pp. 3-4)
Gass bathes in the colour blue: The common deer in its winter coat is said by hunters to be in the blue. To be in the blue is to be isolated and alone. To be sent to the blue room is to be sent to solitary, a chamber of confinement devoted to the third degree. It's to be beaten by police, or, if you are a metal, heated until the more refrangible rays predominate and the ore is stained like those razor blades the sky is sometimes said to be as blue as, for example, when you're suddenly adrift on a piece of cake or in conversation feel a wind from outer space chill your teeth like a cube of ice. Ah, but what is form but a bum wipe anyhow? Let us move our minds as we must, for form was once only the schoolyard of a life, the simple boundary of a being who, pulsating like an artery, drew a dark line like Matisse drew always around its own pale breath. Blue oak. Blue poplar. Blue palm. There are no blue bugs of note, although there are blue carpenter bees, blue disk longhorn beetles, blue-winged wasteland grasshoppers, one kind of butterfly, bottle-fly, the bird, and not a single wasp or spider. The muff, the fur, the forest, and the grot.
Blue is also one of the colours explored in the collaborative book project, I send you this Cadmium Red, (1999) by two friends of Greaves: John Berger, his greatest early champion, and John Christie with whom he has, more recently, made prints:
From the mundane to the exotic, from the prosaic to the erotic, in all its myriad diversity, blue is the colour of Greaves' dreams as it was for artists and writers from Miro to Gass. From faded denim to the deepest indigo, from lush azure to the sharpest turquoise, from marine to baby-blue, a range of blues has been a leitmotif of Derrick Greaves' paintings from his student days until the present. But not for Greaves the maudlin tones and sentimentality of Picasso's blue period, nor the whimsical ethereality of Miro's blue-ground dreamscapes of the 1920s. Instead Greaves' blues are clear and precise and assertive. Often un-modulated these blues are as emphatic as a Matisse papier collé Odalisque, an object by Yves Klein or a canvas by Elsworth Kelly.
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When I visited Derrick Greaves in May 2013 at his home in a converted school building in deepest Norfolk he was wearing an appropriately blue shirt and finishing his latest, predominantly blue, painting, The Sea, The Sea (May 2013) The painting not only evokes Miro's use of a blue ground, but also reprises the word paintings Greaves produced in the 1980s that combined abstract forms with words. In several of these paintings Greaves incorporated pre-existing words, phrases, sentences and even stories taken from his notebook entries. In Ladder (1976) the eponymous subject is accompanied by the words 'sudden fierce rain silences the birds'. The chance to collaborate with the poet Roy Fischer was also important and led to series of prints entitled Also, which combined words and images, as do two large paintings: Word Painting I (1976) combines an idyllic holiday view of sailing boats with the mundane realities of a shopping list: 'onions, wine, sausage, coffee, cheese?' and Word Painting II (1976) shows crossed arms and inventories household furniture: 'sofa, dining chairs, table, umbrella stand, large cabinet, bed'.
Above breaking waves are the words the sea the sea, words that contain multiple echoes of the past: allusions to classical civilisation, to the poetry of Paul Valery ("La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée") and to the Booker prize-winning novel, The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. (According to Xenophon in his Anabasis "The Sea! The Sea!" (Thalatta! Thalatta!) was the joyful exclamation when the Greeks saw the Black Sea from Mount Theches. The words find an echo across the centuries in Paul Valéry's Le Cimetière marin (1922) and half a century later as the title of Iris Murdoch's The Sea The Sea (1978) about a playwright and director looking back on his life).
They also reference two pieces of music that Greaves has recently been playing in his studio: Sir Edward Elgar's song cycle, Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1897-99) and Ralph Vaughan Williams' choral symphony, A Sea Symphony (1903-09).
Greaves describes his daily life in the studio as a golden thread, a charmed life in which one painting generates the next, effortlessly, or so it seems to the outsider, such is the stealth with which Greaves cloaks the labour in a covering of certainty. But in curating this latest exhibition of Derrick Greaves - our eighth solo show in a decade of representing the artist - what struck me was the blue thread that runs through so many of the paintings that I most admire by the artist.
Wave upon wave of blue unfurls in a career that is now in its seventh decade and one can trace the development of Greaves' paintings through his use of blues in a striking number of his pictures in museum and public collections.
In one of the largest and most successful paintings of Greaves' celebrated kitchen sink years of the mid 1950s: Men and Dogs in a Landscape (1953) (Cambridgeshire County Council Collection, de-accessioned, 2007). Painted from drawings made whilst on a scholarship to the British School in Rome, the painting is a manifesto for the type of realism to which the artist was then committed. At the time the lower half of the picture with its scuffed and worried surface typified the artist's attempts to mimic appearance and to find a painterly equivalent for the dryness of baked earth, the roughness of flesh and the coarseness of tree bark. But seen from the perspective of Greaves' later work, it is the intensity of the lid of deep blue sky and its comparative flatness and relative lack of modulation that are most radical.
Then in the Government Art Collection's Blue Still Life, (1960) Greaves again uses texture as a counterpart to flatness, the colour is even more assertive. This time it is fruit, rather than men and dogs that are the objects of attention, but now the blue of the sky subsumes the whole picture. By the decade's end this had been taken radically further.
In the Arts Council's Chimney and Iris 1968 (Arts Council Collection) Greaves boldly bisects the picture and juxtaposes two apparently dissimilar and unrelated forms, devices that he has continued to make fertile use of to this day. In this case, the references to external appearance are clear and tangible. To the left smoke pours from a factory chimney and to the right an incredibly refined iris peeps from the lip of a vase: man contrasts with nature, the billows of pollution contrast with the serenity of the still life. This setting up of oppositions, of dichotomies, led Greaves to return again and again to the diptych format. In other, related works, what Greaves contrasts is not so much elements from the world around him, but languages of painting.
In Diptych - A Window in Arles (1968) (whereabouts unknown) the subject is inspired directly by Greaves' 1967 visit to Provence in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh. The anguish and emotionalism of van Gogh is far removed from the world of Greaves but what he draws from is the heightened chroma of van Gogh and the light of the south of France:
Along with the celebratory character of van Gogh's Provence work, which was more highly chromatic than before, I saw him as a kind of self-victim van Gogh's work was about high chroma but also hysteria, and my own work was somewhat critical of that. The suffering that he went through was something that I didn't share, that self-martyrdom. I'm more detached and intellectually removed than that. But I did a lot of drawings around that theme so it must have had a significance that was heavy enough for me to go on doing it. (Derrick Greaves, interview with James Hyman, 14 April 2006)
Diptych - A Window in Arles (1968) is a symphony in blues, from the midnight blue of the sky seen through the window to the blues of window and wall, to the blue-green ground for the abstraction to their right. This combination of interior and exterior has been used fruitfully throughout Greaves' oeuvre and unites Diptych - Window Arles with paintings in the present exhibition such as Door (1995), in which the intensity of the distant blue sky contrasts with the lighter tones of the planked door.
Three additional works that are also in public collections - Iris (1964) (Leicestershire County Council), Flower Piece (1969) (Pallant House, Chichester) and Flowers in a Studio (1973) (Open University) also help trace the evolution of Greaves' vision. Each is dominated by blue, each depicts a flower and each uses the diptych format. But in these works Greaves uses the diptych to contrast linear, graphic representation with full blown abstraction. Each is given equal weight, but it is clear that for Greaves a representational element is a necessary impurity in his abstraction of form. In Iris (1964), Greaves gives a master class to his Pop Art successors at the Royal College of Art, from Patrick Caulfield to Richard Smith, opening up new pathways. The juxtaposition of pale and intense colour is dramatic. Scale shifts boldly from left to right. The language lurches from linear, schematic and flat, to modelled and volumetric. One side is all straight lines, the other all curves.
The diptych allows for division, contrast and juxtaposition, for shifts in scale, colour, and imagery.
These features would also profoundly affect the conception of individual canvases in which the structuring of the diptych is loosened but different elements are brought together in pictorial coexistence.
In the Open University's Flowers in a Studio the descriptiveness of the left hand section is emphatically illusionistic. Greaves uses three-dimensional perspective and a conventional architectural rendering of a window sill and provides intensity through the use of a deep blue that suggests the summer sky has dyed the subject. In contrast, to the right, on top of this rendering of depth sits a flat form: nacreous, parched, this abstraction has been drained of colour and life and seems to directly paraphrase the form and colour of a Ben Nicholson abstract.
In other works, however, the use of different languages within a single canvas leads to harmony. La Source (1972) (Private Collection, London) is a sublime image that echoes Greaves' diptychs in its bringing together of two forms, but in this case the jet of water and the iris (once again), both come from nature and the effect is serene. The effect is similar in Nude (grey blanket) (1977) (Private Collection), in which the blanket seems to possess a weight and solidity that matches that of the reclining woman.
Elsewhere the effect is disturbing. In the Tate Gallery's Falling (1984-85) the effect of the collaged elements suggests a stained glass window and it is surely no coincidence that the colour used is again blue - a reference to lapis lazuli, the most precious and expensive colour available to the Medieval artisan. The figure has colour and life and is assaulted by abstraction in the form of a rectangle that is drained of colour and intrudes from the upper right to flatten and decapitate the figure. Freed from crude veneration to external reality and fuelled by dream imagery as well as sensual impressions, the heightened colour was beginning to possess the intensity of stained glass or enamel and fiction was finding a place alongside fact.
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At night as Greaves passes through his studio to the bedroom he is often snagged by the painting of the day. In the morning the same may happen as he passes through the studio to go to the kitchen. The studio is the literal centre of his life and over the years the dream imagery has become as important as the world around him. A pad of yellow 'Post-it' notes is covered with doodles that record the fag ends of dreams and Greaves sticks these aides mémoire on the studio wall besides his easel. The starting point may be personal and even trivial but the result is at once bold and subtle. 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.progeny of post-it note doodles populate Seaside I (2000), Seaside II (2000) and Horizon (2000) use a passive blue ground which could be sea or sky, yet seems to possess the solidity of a black board upon which white lines delineate the figures.
To enter this world is to inhabit a shadow-less place in which colour and line are everything. As Greaves has explained in his responses to Léger:
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. (British Library Sound Archive, Derrick Greaves interview with Cathy Courtney. Tape 10, side 2)
Whatever is there is positive and extreme. A red is a red - black is black. An area is proportionately calculated. A line is a line. Even background is background (realised as positive support). All the ingredients can be plainly seen and each judged as the painter has agonizingly judged them, adjusted them, sometimes eradicated them, then put them back again in a new-found way. (Derrick Greaves, unpublished journal entry, undated)
As the world flattened for Greaves, so colour was liberated from a merely descriptive function. The artist has explained:
At a certain time in my life - and I remember it well - the world as I saw it flattened for me. Things, objects became flat. That is, they had a certain controlled depth. It was not Cézanne's flatness, neither was it Cubism, 'hermetic' or 'synthetic'. It was mine - I hadn't looked for it - how could you? - but it was mine. It did concern the identity of the object but the 'interval' - the intervening space, invaded, and to a certain extent, annexed the objects. Similarly the object pressurised its environment. Edges became crucial. Outline became crucial, ambiguous and then an end in itself. Line emerged as form. (Derrick Greaves, unpublished journal entry, undated.)
Henceforth fields of colour would be set off by shifts in language, and transparency would be used to allow objects to coexist harmoniously through synthesis not just juxtaposition: powerful lessons that underpin the work of successors such as Gary Hume, whose imagery often seems extraordinarily indebted to Greaves.
Diverse aspects begin to be synthesised through the inclusion of bold flat, collage-like areas that intrude on more illusionistic renderings of a subject, a literal reminder to the viewer that painting is really just about a flat surface.
There is matter-of-factness about these paintings. In Studio at Night with Garden (2002) (Private Collection, London) and Coffee (2001) (Private Collection, London), the fields of blue are carefully delineated and the style is heraldic as each form is economically emblematic: an easel, a tree, a coffee jug.
In other works the effect is more active as the field of blue takes on the appearance of depth as its tones shift. In Bunker (2012) (Private Collection, London) the Prussian blue shifts as it meets the ground and sets off the stark forms of the midnight blue tree trunks. In Marine (2005) (Private Collection, France) - a witty transcription of Picasso's drop curtain for the Ballets Russes - the blue of the sky meets the blue of the sea and contrasts with the sprightliness of the figures that run along the beach and are rendered in vectors of white and red. Meanwhile, The Girl on the TV (2005) (Private Collection, London), in which the similar lines that trace the hair and cardigan create a lively rhythm and would appear to be the cousin of Picasso's enormous stringed steel sculpture for the Daley Plaza in Chicago.
The tempo is upped even further in other works dominated by blues in which the introduction of a clashing red or orange serves to intensify the effect of each colour. In Sunset 1997 (Private Collection, France) and Empty Rooms (1999-2000) (Private Collection, New York) the bold blocks of intense colour add to the impact, whilst in more recent pictures such as Bamboo and Fish and Bamboo (Private Collection, London) a blue is set against thin, darting lines of piercing red. South Wind (2003-13) (Private Collection, London) and South Wind II (2003-13) employ a similar device. These are clearly descendants of Greaves' interior-exterior still-life paintings of the 1960s but now the wind enters the room and the still life appears to be inhabiting a more distant space. Foreground and background collapse.
Meanwhile in Pandora (2001), Landscape with Conifers (2000-01) and White Stripe (2007) (Private Collection, London) all is movement. Spots of blue jump and dance in a syncopated rhythm. In Landscape with Conifers, a russet ground sets off the sparky dots of blues and greens of the conifers. In Pandora spots of blues are used to similarly dazzling effect and in White Stripe the subtle composure to the right of the stripe is countered by the jazziness of the blue spots to the left. Such dynamism is also to be found in some of Greaves' most exhilarating paintings of the last decade, his Shangri-La series (2003-13). Made as an escapist response to world events and triggered initially by the war in Iraq in 2003, these paintings present a mythical world of trees, exotic fruit, humming-birds, flowers, a southerly wind and perfume filled room. Blue now sits with other colours, the heightened chroma of each intensified by its proximity to another colour.
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In Greaves' most recent painting, finished this May and entitled Waves (2013) heavy water boldly unfurl against a deep blue sky. As in the companion painting, The Sea the sea, their solidity recalls Valery's image of "proud-lidded water:
Creature supreme, drunk on your own blue flesh
Who in a tumult like the deepest hush
Bite at your sequin-glittering tail
But it is perhaps Virginia Woolf, in The Waves (1931), who perhaps best captures the actual and metaphoric power of the waves:
The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping. (Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931)
For the painter as for the writer, in the studio as in the sea, life is forever restarting.
text copyright, James Hyman, 2015