Jonathan Black, Edward Wadsworth; Form, Feeling and Calculation, The Complete Paintings
and Drawings, Philip Wilson, London,
2005, cat no.312, illus b/w p188 (illustration mistakenly rotated 90 degrees
Edward Wadsworth was a key figure in many of the most important British art movements of the first half of the 20th century. In 1913 he helped found the London Group as a new forum for showing stylistically challenging art; in 1914 he worked briefly at Roger Fry’s Omega workshop, before becoming a leading member of the Vorticists, his woodcuts appearing in the first edition of Blast. In the 1920s he was influential in the (French) Rappel à l’ordre and (German) Neue Sachlichkeit movements, which advocated a return to a more neo-classical, realist style of painting; and in the 1930s he was a founder member of two radical abstract movements, Unit One and the Paris-based Abstraction-Création. Wadsworth’s paintings (and indeed his early Vorticist woodcuts), contributed significantly to the language and ideas of each of the artistic collectives to which he belonged, while each evolution in his own style and subjects was connected to the last by his consistently sophisticated sense of pictorial design and meticulous technical execution.
By the late 1920s Wadsworth was producing highly finished Surrealist paintings which presented disparate still life objects, often nautical in theme, within imaginary landscapes, see for example the magnificent Bright Intervals/Song of the Sea, 1928, owned by the Swindon Art Gallery. These paintings were executed in egg tempera, a medium which Wadsworth adopted almost exclusively after 1922. In use since ancient times, made from a half-half mixture of pigment and egg yolk, tempera remained in popular use until the 15th century when it became superseded by oils. Tempera painting requires a high degree of technical skill, as, unlike oils, the paint can’t be moved around once it’s been laid down, so needs be applied in quick, light strokes and built up in layers. As such, tempera offers the possibility for a smooth surface of luminous colour, devoid of discernable brushstrokes. In Wadsworth’s oeuvre the absence of the artist’s hand in the finished work and the perfection of his tempera technique adds significantly to the eerie atmosphere of the work, as if the image has somehow arrived fully formed, as in a dream. Jonathan Black notes that Wadsworth was not the only avant-garde painter to use tempera in the 1920s, a number of painters who Wadsworth admired - Eric Kennington, Christopher Nevinson, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Giorgio de Chirico, were also working with the medium in the same period.1
The present work comes from a relatively small group of works, made between 1929 and 1934, in which we find Wadsworth moving into (and, later, back out of) pure abstraction. Composition, Cones and Spirals, 1929 (cat no.261) is the first work in which ‘the objects represented, released from the law of gravitation, whirl about in the void.’2 And so begins a sequence of 33 paintings in which previously anchored still life objects, such as shells and machine parts, are presented floating in space against grounds of flat, vivid colour. In this series, Wadsworth places hard-edged forms - guns, fanning clasp knifes, tape measures and bulldog clips - in complex, interwoven arrangements which recall the rhythms of earlier Vorticist works such as Interior, 1915 (cat no.68). The Scottish National Gallery’s painting Composition–Crank and Chain, 1932 (cat no.293), is the last painting of this kind - a transitional work, in which a pared-down collection of objects has morphed into semi-organic, curvilinear forms.
In the immediately following painting, Study for Three Forms, 1932 (cat no.294), the transition from mechanical to organic forms is complete, and in this painting Wadsworth introduces a new formal idea - the pairing of two closely similar forms. Composition on a Blue Ground II, 1933 (and the sister work Composition on a Blue Ground I, 1933 (cat no.311), which has an identical palette of blue, pink and white) belong to this new sequence of 22 paintings, which begins with Study for Three Forms, 1932, and ends with Composition on a Pink Ground/Abstract Forms, c.1933 (cat no.315). The group includes nine paintings titled ‘Dux et Comes’ and five titled ‘Composition’, of which this is one.
'Dux et Comes' is a musical term which translates from the Latin as 'leader and companion'. It refers to parts in a choir in which a leader enters in one key and a companion replies in another, and this theme of ‘leader and follower’ is played out across the series. Of the Dux et Comes paintings, two are in museum collections Dux et Comes I (Rebuff), 1932 (cat no.300) is in the Tate Gallery and Dux et Comes (Minniciando I), 1933 (cat no.304) is owned by the Victoria & Albert Museum. The paintings subtitles - Rebuff, Meeting, Conversational - suggest that the series is an attempt to present human relationships in an abstract language. The Tate’s picture for example, which is subtitled Rebuff, might be read as two abstracted heads in an aggressive confrontation. This idea is confirmed in statements written by Wadsworth, and published in The Studio, CVI, 1933, pp274–6 and Unit One, 1934.
The imagery of the Dux et Comes paintings is developed in the smaller series which comprises Composition on a Blue Ground I; Composition on a Blue Ground II, two paintings titled Composition on a Pink Ground and finally, Composition on a Pink Ground/Abstract Forms (cat nos.311-315). In these works, Wadsworth has added ‘wings’ to the forms - suggesting they might be birds – and in some animated zig-zagging lines, which draw the eye rapidly around the picture, setting up a more dynamic relationship between the two figure-forms. While in the Dux et Comes series one form typically mirrors the other, here the two forms are tilted towards each other, suggesting a coming together, which in Composition on a Blue Ground I and II, is further emphasised by the suggestion of faces on the forms.
In June 1933, Wadsworth became a founder member of the Modernist collective Unit One, which held its first and only exhibition in April 1934. Internationalist in outlook, the group sought to define what English art might be, or might become, within a culture being rapidly transformed by industrial and technological advances. The exhibition was accompanied by a book Unit One, The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture which consisted of statements from each artist in the group and an introduction by poet and critic Herbert Read. Contributing artists included John Armstrong, John Bigge, Edward Burra, Barbara Hepworth, Tristram Hillier, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth and the architects Welles Coates and Colin Lucas. Its members reflected two concurrent strands in contemporary British art – surrealism and pure abstraction – and many, including Wadsworth, Nash and Moore, were consciously working with both. There were often notable parallels between the artists in the group, Wadsworth’s biomorphic, abstract forms for example are comparable to Hepworth’s carving Mother and Child, 1933 (Unit One, p22) and Armstrong’s painting Into the Deep, 1933 (p45).
Wadsworth’s statement for the book, reproduced in full below, was accompanied by photographs of the artist, his studio and four abstract paintings dating from 1933, including Composition on Pink Ground (cat no.313). As such, Wadsworth’s text can be considered a direct commentary on the present painting, as he himself underlines: ‘Only that period of my own painting which can be referred to in the accompanying illustrations need be considered here’3
His text begins in revolutionary spirit, ‘We change with age, but without change we are dead.’ He continues, ‘A picture is no longer a window out of which one sees an attractive little bit of Nature: nor is it a means of demonstrating the personal sentiments of the artist: it is itself, it is an object: a new unity expanding the idea of the term ‘beauty’ […] Considered technically, a picture is an affirmation – a statement of plastic facts in space – an adventure – a harmony of balanced relationships stated by the purest (i.e. most economical) means at the artist’s disposal which will be dependent on his mental and spiritual state’.
Underlining the modern artist’s requirement to find new subjects, and looking back to his earlier works, he states, ‘The machine is another letter in the painter’s alphabet with a new precision peculiar to itself’. He continues, ‘A picture is primarily the animation of an inert plane surface by a spatial rhythm of forms and colours. It may subsequently contain symbols representing persons and landscapes, but in the first instance the colour will be determined by the character of the shapes [...] I prefer to use the most direct means: the simplest forms and colours (preponderance of black, white, red and blue) and to avoid the equivocal. / Colour, relative to the forms concerned, must be pure - not necessarily bright. It must be functional. One does not want a sauce - not even a good sauce - to conceal the poorness of the meat / The colour must contain the form.’
In November 1933, Wadsworth was given a solo exhibition of his abstract paintings at the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street, London. However, despite the emphatic nature of his Unit One statement, at some point in 1934 Wadsworth made a volte-face and in the painting The World of Happy Days, 1934 (cat no.316), returned to the uncanny, figurative imagery of pre-1929. As such, Composition on a Blue Ground II is one of a very small, but important group of paintings which mark a highpoint in the history of English modernism.
1 Jonathan Black, Edward Wadsworth: Form, Feeling and Calculation. The Complete Paintings and Drawings, Philip Wilson, London, 2005, p45
2 John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, II: Lewis to Moore, St Martin’s Press, New York, first published 1952, revised 1976, p160
3 Herbert Read (ed.), Unit One, The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, Cassell and Company, London, 1933, pp97-99