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Ten paintings with comments – the art of John A. Walker

— September 2011

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John A. Walker, Nude Painting  (1958)

An inside view of the development of an artist's work

John A. Walker (b. 1938) is an English painter who is perhaps better known as an art critic and art historian. This article features ten of his paintings executed between 1958 and 2011 with some contextual and iconographic information. The aim is to provide a brief introduction to his oeuvre and to indicate its variety.

1.  Nude Painting  (1958), oil on hardboard, 122 x122 cm. Artist’s collection.

This painting was produced while I was at art school in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was based on observations of a female nude. The picture was rotational in that it was turned during production resulting in a virtually abstract composition. (The painting could be displayed on a wall in eight possible ways.)

In this work, the legacy of modern art was being assimilated: the aim was to combine the emphatic brushstrokes of van Gogh and Cézanne with the colour of the early 20th-century French artists, Les Fauves, and to achieve rhythms by repeating colour accents. The use of cold and warm hues created a push-pull effect previously described by painter and teacher Hans Hofmann (1880–1966). The intuitive brushstrokes constituted a multidirectional network that was in tension with a rough grid of curves and squares. Spatial ambiguities resulted from the fact that the brushstrokes stressed the flat surface but also carved into the space behind, Cubist fashion. Pictorial ambiguities and contradictions meant that this painting could be viewed for hours without exhausting its ‘content’. (The work was shown in a Young Contemporaries exhibition in London where it was seen and praised by art critic John Berger, creator of the TV series and book  Ways of Seeing.)

2.  Orange: Line, Tone, Colour  (1969), oil on canvas, 92 x137 cm. Collection Sophie Orman.

At art school we were taught the Basic Course, which involved exploring line, colour, structure and so forth separately. There was, however, no guidance as to how they were to be brought together again. I must have spent more than a decade after college trying to make sense of the art education I received. In one 1969 canvas, I painted an orange – a fruit that served as an emblem of nature – three times in terms of line, tone and colour within one canvas but I left it up to viewers to bring the three images together in their minds. This was one of a large number of orange pictures executed at intervals between the 1965 and 2010.

3.  Nostalgia: Margaret Clark and John A. Walker circa 1959 or 1960  (1973), oil on canvas, 121.5 x91.5 cm. Collection Robert and Sophie Orman.

Margaret Clark was a Geordie design student I met at art school. This double portrait derived from a photograph taken in Grimsby while we were courting. Marriage followed in 1962. By 1973 we were divorced. The painting – a memorial to a romance and failed marriage – was intended to make the photo image larger and more permanent. The sepia tint aimed to give the painting a flavour of past times. In the early 1970s photo-realism was a type of painting much in vogue and in fact many modern artists have made use of photographs.

4.  Not for Sale  (1975), oil and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm. Collection Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

During the 1970s I became interested in the relation between art and politics. One issue that concerned left-wing visual artists was the commodification process associated with the capitalist art market and private gallery system. Many artists and critics wanted to find an alternative and various strategies were tried. It occurred to me that painting itself should address this issue and so, in 1975, I devised a canvas featuring the words ‘Buy Me! as an investment, Genuine Oil Painting’. Its garish colours and bold lettering style paid homage to crude advertising, commercial sign painting and the Pop art of the 1960s.  Although this painting demanded to become a commodity, its title – in tiny lettering placed in one corner – told a different story: ‘Not for Sale’. (The contradiction between the painting’s message and its title was one consequence of reading semioticians on the varying relations that could exist between images and captions.) In addition, written on the back of the canvas was the instruction that it should never be bought and sold but only given away. Gifts of objects that have been made by hand surely escape commodification.

5. Full Stop (2006), 140 x100 cm, oil on linen. Artist’s collection.

This work is one a sequence of landscapes inspired by the town of Esher in Surrey. However affluent and healthy the residents of Esher are, they cannot escape the certainty of death and two graveyards in the town act as reminders of their mortality. The painting depicts, in a naturalistic/impressionistic fashion, a graveyard upon which is superimposed a black disc – the full stop of the title. A graveyard is a common emblem of death and has been depicted by painters many times especially by those associated with Romanticism and pre-Raphaelitism.

 Since I do not believe in an afterlife or a heaven the painting can be regarded as an atheist’s riposte to Stanley Spencer’s famous 1923–7 canvas The Resurrection, Cookham (Tate Gallery), which shows a churchyard with the graves giving up their dead at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead. Clearly, a Christian vision and the presence of Cookham church emphasizes this. Whereas in my picture there is no church, although there is one (disused) in the actual place. The headstones over the graves are so old they have lost their inscriptions and so the people who are buried are now anonymous and forgotten. No one living leaves flowers on their graves. This oblivion is the fate of the vast majority of humankind.

Meanwhile, in the background, nature continues to renew itself. In its mix of the pictorial and the linguistic the painting harks back to a 1965 painting of mine depicting an orange placed in inverted commas. It is also informed by John Latham’s 1961 painting also called Full Stop .The painting is a mix of representation and abstraction. The black disc in the centre of the composition acts as an interruption (a situationist tactic [see Background info box]) – it blocks the vision and ‘spoils’ the spectator’s enjoyment of the naturalistic landscape. (Death is a rude interruption of the continuity of life.) This, of course, is deliberate. Since the disc is flat, it also asserts the reality of the flat surface in contrast to the illusionist depth of the landscape around it.

6.  Hiroshima 1945  (2008), oil on linen, 100x140 cm. Artist’s collection.

This painting is one of a series entitled ‘Mourning work’ after the famous Freud essay of 1917 about the psychic labour involved in mourning. Sorrow and grief are not made visible in the series via expressionist gestures of the brush but by means of a kneeling female figure with bowed head draped in classical-style robes. This figurative personification was borrowed from a funerary statue discovered in a local churchyard in Esher, Surrey.  The statue – repeated from canvas to canvas – enables the emotion of grief to be objectified and externalized while maintaining a certain distance from my own inner feelings.

Absence of both people and buildings characterizes the canvas, which records the effects of the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city on 6 August 1945 by the American air force. Paradoxically, the atom bomb was both a tribute to the scientific and technological achievements of humanity and a testimony to its cruelty and suicidal tendencies. Tens of thousands of people, mainly civilians, died – some immediately and some later from injuries, burns and radiation poisoning – and most of the buildings in the city centre were obliterated. Only a few structures remained standing (in a ruined state) and among them was the Nagarekawa (Methodist) Church visible in the left foreground.

The painting’s high viewpoint and predominantly brown hue recalls van Gogh’s 1888 pen and ink drawings of the plain of La Crau seen from Montmajour in Provence. Nonetheless, while the drawings celebrate the fertility of the plain and the value of agricultural labour, the painting mourns the loss of people and a thriving city. The bomb produced a ghastly wasteland and inaugurated the age of nuclear weaponry that continues to threaten the future of humankind.

7.  After Vincent 1  (2008), oil on linen, 120 x100 cm. Artist’s collection.

Since childhood I have admired the work of Vincent van Gogh. In 2008 I began painting a series of landscapes based on six of van Gogh’s large drawings of and from Montmajour, about which I had written an art historical study. These paintings thus signified a convergence of art making and scholarship. They were not intended as forgeries or copies but as creative interpretations and tributes to van Gogh’s art. (They could also be regarded as the result of a collaboration between a living painter and a dead painter.)

 view Vincent as a realist and symbolist as much as an expressionist. The six Montmajour drawings are not expressionist in character and are so elaborate that if Vincent had decided to turn them into oil paintings then his technique would have been more controlled and detailed than was usually the case. The first of the series is based on a drawing in the collection of the British Museum.

8.  Doodles  (2010), oil on linen, two canvases each 90x120 cm. Artist’s Collection.

This work was prompted by a double-page spread in a student sketchbook of mine entitled THE EYE BETRAYED (1956–61). Imagery is dispersed across surface of the canvas so that there are multiple centres competing for the viewer’s attention. My aim was to prolong the scanning–reading–interpretation processes in order to delay perception and to extend visual pleasure. Paint application was via brushes and rags and there were also areas of stains and splodges. Many of the original sketchbook images were derived intuitively or invented on the basis of what stains and blotches suggested to the imagination [Ed: like a Rorschach test]– for example, heads, eyes and sexual organs.  It is hoped that the painting will induce a dream-like state of reverie.

9.  Nightmare (2011), oil on linen, 90 x 120 cm. Artist’s collection.

This work was also prompted by a sketchbook image dating from the 1950s that reflected the influence of Abstract Expressionism. It was executed in white pigment and permanent sap green applied with a palette knife. The painting hovers between abstraction and figuration. Threatening faces and eyes may be discerned by the viewer but a lack of certainty in the rendering stimulates the projective ability. The work is also ambiguous in meaning in the sense that the nightmare depicted could be that of the depicted character, the artist, the viewer or society in general.

10.  Endgame  (2011), oil on linen, 90 x120 cm. Artist’s collection.

Since I am now elderly the prospect of death is on my mind – I am, however,  aware that art historians tend to look at the late works of artists in order to detect signs of impending death, so I also wanted to oblige them! In the late 1950s, while an art student, I saw Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal in which a monk – a personification of death – plays chess with a knight. (Of course, no one can win the final game against death.) The imagery stayed with me. It seems Bergman was himself inspired by a church mural in Stockholm by Albertus Pictor (1440–1507) in which a man plays chess with a skeleton. The figure on the right of my painting is my younger self during the 1960s when I used to smoke cigarettes and play chess with friends.


John A. Walker
Artist and art historian
John A. Walker is the author of many books, including  Art and Celebrity  (Pluto Press, 2002),  Art in the Age of Mass Media (Pluto Press 2001),  Work: Ford Madox Brown’s Painting and Victorian Life  (Francis Boutle Publishers 2006) and  Firefighters in Art and Media  (Francis Boutle Publishers 2006).

Media credit: Courtesy of the artist

Background info

‘Les Fauves’ (text on painting 1. Nude Painting) – ‘the wild beasts’ as a critic derisively called them – were a group of artists led by Henry Matisse and André Derain who were more interested in bold colouring and design rather than naturalism. The movement itself was short-lived, c. 1904–8.
For more on the Basic Course mentioned in section 2 of this article, see Glyn Thompson’s article on Harry Thubron in July Cassone. John A. Walker mentions the lack of guidance he received as an art student – see artist Judy Chicago’s discussion of this problem in August Cassone.
The Situationist Internationale was a group of activists founded in 1957 by Guy Debord and other Marxists. Artists such as Asger Jorn had a key role in the group. They believed that society was becoming dominated by ‘spectacle’ (Debord published The Society of the Spectacle in 1967), by which people were distracted from political action, and that art should attempt to resist this by disruption – hence John A. Walker’s ‘disruption’ of his graveyard image with a black ‘full stop’ disk (see text here on 5. Full Stop)

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