Victor Willing 1928 - 1988


Saatchi Collection, London


London, Whitechapel Gallery, Victor Willing: A Retrospective Exhibition 1952-1985, 6 June-20 July 1986, illus colour, unpaginated

Cascais, Portugal, Casa das Historias Paula Rego, Victor Willing: Uma Retrospectiva, 9 September-2 January 2011, illus colour p123


Alastair Hicks, New British Art in the Saatchi Collection, Thames and Hudson, London, 1989, p115, cat no.131, illus colour p119
Victor Willing, Selected Writings and Two Conversations with John McEwen, Karsten Schubert Ltd, London, 1993, pp66-67
Fiona Bradley (ed.), Lynne Cooke, John McEwen, John Mills, Paula Rego, Nicholas Serota, Victor Willing, August Media Ltd, London, 2010, pp 12, 39, 43, 44, 100, illus colour pp102-3, and the related study illus colour p100


Extract from a text by artist Paula Rego:

‘This is my favourite picture. A harridan, a harpy, an old carping woman with the hairy legs of a man and huge tits you can blow up like balloons. She’s outside at the beach, with a scarf blowing in the wind around her neck and a huge pink beak of a mouth. She might be about to fly off, to squawk across the beach, hover over the scene of the painting. In fact I wonder if she isn’t just out of sight in many of Vic’s paintings, hovering. She has no pride, and no shame, sitting there with her legs wide apart and so hairy. A monstrous invention, she’s disgusting and also sexy, as she sits there completely at ease with herself. She looks almost as though she’s hatching an egg.

I love the contrast between the old harridan and the delicate little beach hut in the background. Vic had many memories of beaches in his childhood, where he’d go swimming with his father and change in a beach hut. His memories of his childhood in Alexandria came back to him when he was painting. He initially found a way back through the light in Portugal, I think. But this one seems more like a tribute to Picasso. Vic liked very much Picasso’s pictures of beaches, and in particular had a soft spot for his pictures of Marie-Thérèse Walter – I think because they were so sexy. This must be an echo of these paintings, although Vic’s harridan is hardly Marie-Thérèse Walter!

Vic liked looking at the work of other painters, and we’d talk about art together all the time. Matisse was his favourite, particularly his early work, for the colour, but of course he also liked Jacques Callot – hence the series of paintings after his work of which this is one. Vic was very good about talking about art, sometimes very technically, sometimes about the stories of the pictures – what was really going on in them. He’d never tell me what was going on in his pictures. At the most he’d tell me one or two things, then he’d laugh. He thought his pictures should be complete, that they were the whole thing in themselves, raising possibilities that were not to be explained away. If someone asked him about his paintings, he could very easily deflect them into talking about what he called ‘higher things’; forcing them to rise to the occasion and talk about ideas and literature and other people’s paintings.

He was not a conceptual artist, he was a physical picture maker. He thought that emotion could be felt physically and expressed formally. He enjoyed the process of picture making, and it was agony when it wouldn’t come. He couldn’t just throw out drawings and hope for the best – he was a complete perfectionist. He didn’t draw speculatively and didn’t really have a sketchbook. All I have of his is one sketchbook of erotic drawings. He drew when he already had a picture in mind. Every now and again he would take a huge piece of paper and draw squares on it and say ‘this is my next exhibition. One picture of someone doing this, and one picture of someone doing that’ and so on. These things were already in his head.

If there was nothing in his head, he didn’t paint. He would dig potatoes in the garden, sleep and talk. Talk to anybody – to Jehovah’s Witnesses if they came to the door, but mostly to me and to his friends on the telephone for hours. Higher things – Giacometti, Bacon, Existentialism, Greek mythology and theatre, endless conversations that he distilled and filtered and which eventually came out in the paintings.’ 1

This commentary by Victor Willing’s wife, the painter Paula Rego, elucidates both the various influences on this particular oil, and Willing’s working method, albeit filtered through Rego’s vivid imagination. Callot: Harridan is amongst the very best of Willing’s large-scale oils - an extraordinary body of work produced late in his career, which are unparalleled in their intensity and unique painterly language.

Egyptian-born Willing attended the Slade School of Art from 1949-1954, where he was known for both his intellectual conversation and technical ability and this sophistication was rewarded by a solo exhibition at Erica Brausen’s Hanover Gallery in 1955, who at the time represented painters Francis Bacon, William Scott and Graham Sutherland. Although Willing continued to paint, this early success was effectively followed by a huge gap in his professional career, and he did not have another solo exhibition until 1978. The reason for this hiatus was in large part due to the fact that in 1957 Willing moved to Portugal to be with Paula Rego, who he’d met at the Slade, to help run her father’s factory. Between 1962 and 1974, the couple split their time between London and Portugal, bringing up three children, painting and working in the family business. In 1966, Willing was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, aged only 38. Willing and his family returned permanently to England in 1976, and he began to paint again more seriously. In 1982 he was awarded a year-long residency at Corpus Christi College and Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, which proved to be highly productive and paved the way to three important public exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, Kettle’s Yard and Whitechapel Art Gallery (curated by Nicholas Serota).

Initially Willing’s ill health was manageable, but following his return to England, his condition worsened. Willing later reflected on how illness had affected his art, the uncertainty surrounding his future driving the work: ‘I began painting without any career ambitions at all. Simply I was trying to affirm, I suppose, that I - whoever that was - was still there. It was a very private, guarded and possibly paranoid situation. I was having psychoanalysis…[but] there is no anecdotal connection between the content and being ill.’

In 1974, Willing was prescribed the drug ACTH, he recalls, ‘On high doses I only slept 4 hours in 24. I was hyperactive. I would feel very tired but not sleepy, very calm but alert. In this state I would sit down in a comfortable upright chair, relax and stare at the wall. After a time, I could see through the wall - a scene, brightly lit, clearly defined on the other side, like a stage, spot-lit. No figures. No action, therefore, just a scene. The “life-size” objects would appear in three dimensions but as though already drawn in charcoal and pastel.

I guess this would last about 20 minutes. I don't think I closed my eyes. I was certainly not asleep - there was never that metabolic change which accompanies sleep, but I would go well into it - so much so that on coming out I would wonder where I was. I developed a technique for coming out. It had to be gradual and gentle in order to keep the wonderful feeling that I had on these occasions. This was euphoria. I felt simply marvellous. Confident, relaxed and alert. I would remain in my chair and, taking paper and charcoal, simply copy down the scene. No interpolation was necessary, it had all been done for me - image both in the sense of symbol and form down to the mark. I did not have to do anything. Subsequently “meanings” might occur to me but in advance there was nothing’. 2

The drawing process Willing describes above formed the basis for his paintings and, even after he stopped taking ACTH, the centrality of drawing continued. As such, the imagery for Callot: Harridan is based directly on a study in charcoal and pastel Willing made on 15 December 1982. Most elements of the final oil are present in the original drawing, although he has added the beach hut and the forms Rego identifies as pendulous breasts seem less obviously in motion than they are in the original drawing. The immediacy and fluidity of the study is evident in the large painting - Willing sketching out the image rapidly, so that in some places rivulets of paint run down the canvas. He ‘colours-in’ his motifs in a manner very similar to drawing - the forms are modelled in only the most rudimentary way, with an occasional second colour laid over the first to suggest volume. As Rego has intimated, the unfinished state of the bathing hut, suggests that it resides in a different place and time - ‘that little hut in the background reminds me of those changing cubicles that Picasso drew the summer he was nipping off for screws with Marie-Therese Walter, while his wife was sunbathing unaware 100 yards down the beach. I wanted something smaller to give distance’. 3

Much of the intensity of the image is conveyed through Willing’s use of a limited number of high-key colours - here Prussian blue and coral-pink suggesting a hot day at the beach. The image reads simultaneously as a series of objects – boxes, fabric, propped up sticks - and a highly abstracted human figure – ‘the crescent shape is her dress slung between her thighs’ 4. The notion of figures and objects being placed within a defined central space is present in Willing’s earliest paintings, see for example the Tate Gallery’s Standing Nude, c.1952-3, in which the life model is isolated upon a stage-like carpet. There is even an early suggestion here of the easels as ‘onlookers’, which we find echoed here thirty years later in the articulated figure standing on the left.

Willing’s paintings from the late 1970s to early 1980s are filled with a Freudian tension. As in dreams, certain motifs recur repeatedly - draped fabric, stacked, hanging and pierced forms; there are mysterious containers (boxes, tents), screens, curtains and doorways suggesting repressed memories and unknown threats. The haunting atmosphere of these works is underlined by Willing’s use of strong shadow, reinforcing the notion of objects placed under stage lights and recalling the work of De Chirico. Willing’s isolated central figures and dramatic lighting also suggest the paintings of Francis Bacon who Willing knew through Erica Brausen.

Willing painted at least four large oils inspired by Jacques Callot’s series of etchings about the Thirty Years War, of which Callot: Harridan is one. In much the same vein as Francsico Goya’s The Disasters of War, 1810-1820, Callot’s eighteen small-scale etchings are rich in detail and chart the barbarities of war as experienced by soldiers and ordinary people. There are certain elements of Callot’s imagery which would undoubtedly have appealed to Willing. In The Hanging, for example, there is a noticeable sense of a central stage and a pitiful pile of clothes abandoned on the floor. The sense of human life diminished by violence is reinforced by this etching’s caption which reads ‘Finally these infamous and abandoned thieves, hanging from this tree like wretched fruit…’. In the context of Callot’s series, Willing’s ‘bathing hut’ might also be interpreted as a soldier’s sentry box. Callot: Harridan was most recently exhibited alongside Callot: Judge, 1983 (‘a rickety construction of planes and cubes’) and Callot: Fusilier, 1983 (‘the formalised head of a man with a moustache and a smile’), in Willing’s 2010 retrospective at the Casa das Historias Paula Rego. There is also a further oil Callot: Cavalier, 1983 which Willing described as an abstracted ‘horse and rider’.

1 An extract from the book Fiona Bradley (ed.), Victor Willing, August Media Ltd, London, 2010, p101
2 Letter from Willing to the Tate Gallery dated on 7 October 1982, upon the Tate’s acquisition of Place with a Red Thing, 1980
3 Victor Willing, Selected Writings and Two Conversations with John McEwen, Karsten Schubert Ltd, London, 1993, p67, first published in the Whitechapel Art Gallery catalogue in 1986
4 Ibid, p66