Work in Focus: Alan Davie

Aug 21 2014

Museums Sheffield’s Curatorial Intern, Anna Testar, on the latest addition to the Graves Gallery displays.

A fresh burst of colour has made its way onto the walls of Graves Gallery this week in the form of Alan Davie’s magnificent Tree into Animal No.1 (1962).

Replacing Bridge and White Rails at Bridgehouses, Sheffield, which is about to be treated to a new lease of life thanks to the resounding success of the conservation appeal, Tree into Animal No. 1 has taken up residence as Graves Gallery’s latest ‘Work in Focus’ in commemoration of the extraordinary life of Alan Davie, who sadly died in April this year.

Davie was a Scottish artist who rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Second World War. He is known for being one of the first European artists to develop an expressive form of abstraction which, up until then, had been confined to the New York school of ‘action painters’ such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. His vibrant paintings embraced a world of colour and imagination which was at odds with the bleak alienation of the time, earning him a reputation as one of the most acclaimed artists to emerge from post-war Britain.

A painter, poet, jazz musician and jewellery maker, Davie was a man of many talents whose eternal curiosity led him on a life-long quest to discover the world in all its beauty. He was captivated by the ‘miracle’ of nature, and relentlessly sought a greater sense of truth, wisdom and enlightenment through interests as wide -ranging as Zen Buddhism, ancient art, jazz music and gliding. He travelled far and wide and spent his life creating a never-ending resource of experiences to feed into the deep reservoir from which his paintings emerged, ultimately abandoning the conventions of Western painting in favour of a truer form of expression which could bring him closer to nature.

Tree into Animal No. 1 is a wonderful example of the energy with which Davie painted. Stripped to the waist, he would lay his canvas on the floor and work with the improvisation of a jazz musician, dancing around the painting in a trance-like state and building up layers of mysterious symbols until the work reached its natural conclusion.

Selecting the next painting to be put in the spotlight at Graves has been one of my tasks as Curatorial Intern, and with the breadth of remarkable works in Sheffield’s Visual Art collection it was far from an easy decision. But with a shortlist that increasingly resembled a longlist, I found myself being continually drawn back to the pulsating energy of Tree into Animal No. 1 and the strange, biomorphic forms which float and sprawl across its surface. The painting seems to come to life before one’s eyes as layer upon layer of spontaneous mark-making is revealed, inviting the viewer to step into Davie’s world and join him in his ongoing search for the miraculous.

Standing in front of Tree into Animal No. 1, it’s easy to get a sense of Davie’s boundless energy and enthusiasm for life. But in spite of his initial rise to fame and his astounding productivity, his name remains little-known. By choosing this painting as the next ‘Work in Focus,’ it is my hope that more people will be able to enjoy the colourful world of Alan Davie.


Image: Museums Sheffield Curatorial Intern, Anna Testar, with Alan Davie's Tree into Animal No. 1 (1962).


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