ProvenanceSaatchi Collection, London
London, Whitechapel Gallery, Victor Willing: A Retrospective Exhibition 1952-1985, 6 June-20 July 1986, illus colour, unpaginated
Portugal, Casa das Historias Paula Rego, Victor Willing: Uma Retrospectiva, 9
September-2 January 2011, illus colour p133
LiteratureAlastair Hicks, New British Art in the Saatchi Collection, Thames and Hudson, London, 1989, cat no.130, illus colour p118
Victor Willing, Selected Writings and Two Conversations with John McEwen, Karsten Schubert Ltd, London, 1993, pp67
Fiona Bradley (ed.), Lynne Cooke, John McEwen, John Mills, Paula Rego, Nicholas Serota, Victor Willing, August Media Ltd, London, 2010, pp43, illus colour p98, and the related study illus colour p100
DescriptionKnot resides among the very best of Willing’s large-scale paintings - 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 permanent return to England, his condition worsened. He 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 possible 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’. 1
The drawing process Willing describes above formed the basis for his paintings and even after he stopped taking ACTH, the centrality of drawing continued. Willing's broad and liquid application of paint in Knot, retains the immediacy of his pastel drawings. The scale of the central motif neccessitates that the marks are large and loose. Willing ‘colours-in’ his image in a manner very similar to drawing – the forms modelled in only the most rudimentary way, as if establishing the image is more urgent than any notion of technique. Willing’s crude application of paint is comparable to his American contemporary, Philip Guston, who abandoned Abstract Expressionism in favour of a more narrative and personal painterly language.
Much of the intensity of this image is conveyed through Willing’s use of a limited number of high-key colours. This particular tone of orange is highly reminiscent of Francis Bacon who repeatedly used this colour in some of his most visceral works, see for example Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c.1944.
In an interview with John McEwen for the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, Willing describes the image in this painting as ‘A snakelike form grips a bunch of sticks’. McEwen asks Willing - ‘Is there a Freudian interpretation of the story of George and the Dragon or the Golden Fleece or any of those myths in which a serpent or serpentine creature guards a treasure?’, to which he replies, ‘I don’t know of one. Serpents appear quite a lot in my paintings. The knot is powerful and alive, not a rope. It is not an hallucination, but I believe it is a beneficial effect of that experience, because the advantage of having visions is that I was able to accept the images that just dropped into my imagination without censoring them, without asking myself ‘What does it mean?’. Which is a dreadful question to ask yourself, because inevitably you decide that it doesn’t mean anything and you cut it out’. 2
Knot is one of Willing’s most direct images, and as he makes clear, it was not his intention to overthink its meaning. In fact, Willing’s paintings from the late 1970s to early 1980s are filled with these kind of Freudian motifs. In Rien, 1980 Knot’s coiling snake takes the form of a leather belt with a similar threat of a tightening grip – this painting Willing explained was about the unwelcome intrusion of business affairs into a day on spent on the beach, the belt is therefore a stand in for Willing himself, or at least for Willing in his role as a ‘business man’. Ropes, belts and swathes of fabric recur in numerous paintings, weaving menacingly around other objects, ready to move in, as it eventually does here.
As Willing had himself undergone psychoanalysis, the title of this painting may be a reference to radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s popular book Knots, 1970, which explored, in a series of poem-statements the psychological binds in which we place ourselves. The image might be a metaphor for a controlling, romantic relationship, or the grip of illness, there is a tension here between organic flesh and something more dry and brittle. The snake/belt is a masculine, threatening presence - perhaps Willing is the snake, or he might be the sticks, perhaps he is both at different times.
Willing’s placement of objects and figures upon a coloured 'island' or 'stage' is a compositional device which recurs throughout his oeuvre, from his early paintings of still lifes and nudes in the studio, see Standing Nude, c.1952-3, through to oils such as Place with a Red Thing, 1980, both of which are in the Tate Gallery collection. The islands in question are sometimes a sheet of paper or carpet placed on the floor, at other times a table top or puddle of deep shadow. Just as Francis Bacon placed his subjects within coloured arenas, Willing uses this device to isolate his subjects and thus intensify the psychological atmosphere.
None of the paintings from this period include a human figure but Willing sometimes uses more conventional stand-ins such as chairs and clothing to convey a human presence. In effect, almost all of the objects he places together, have such strongly anthropomorphic qualities, and are acting upon each other in such a way, that they can only really be understood as representing human (or animal) figures or actions. Like the visions which inspired them, the paintings tell of perilous dramas to which neither the artist himself, nor the viewer, are fully aware.
1 Letter from Willing to the Tate Gallery dated on 7 October 1982, upon the Tate’s acquisition of Place with a Red Thing, 1980
2 Victor Willing, Selected Writings and Two Conversations with John McEwen, Karsten Schubert Ltd, London, 1993, p67