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As retrospective exhibitions celebrate the talent of Alan Davie in four galleries in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Andrew Gibbon Williams pays tribute to a Scottish artist who is also a true European.
Like all the best art. the paintings of Alan Davie are entertaining: they captivate because of their bright colours and intrigue with their endlessly various vocabulary ofshapes. If that were all Davie had to offer. he might reasonably be classed along with that army of trite daubers who — borrowing a motif from the modern master— serve up forgettable cocktails for those too lazy to drink.
Davie does much. much more. At an early stage of his career. during the 50s. he cottoned-on to one of the central tenets of modernism: if the artist is willing to set aside his own ego. then a sub-conscious language of universal meaning can emerge. So-called primitive art had taught this lesson to Surrealist artists earlier this century. l’icasso. whose arrogant mask disguised the most sensitive spirit ofour age. knew it; many ofthe post-war generation of British artists acknowledged it. but lacked the courage to embrace it. At 7(lyears old. the result of Davie‘s unwavering dedication is a body of work which can bear comparison with the achievements of Miro and Dubuffet. By chance. Davie was born in Scotland; by definition. he is a true European.
No artist springs fully-fledged from the egg. however. Davie's incubation period included a spell at Edinburgh College of Art where. significantly. he was impressed by the painting of that most poetic painter on the Scottish scene. John Maxwell. There followed travels on the continent. where he fell under the spell of Paul Klee (that pcrspicacious old battle-axe Peggy Guggenheim purchased some early works) and then. during the 50s. several important years when he — like most of his peer group — was bowled over by the grandiose essays of Pollok. Rothko. Kline. Barnett Newman et al.
lt was the Americans who gave Davie the licence to let rip with the gesturalism which came so naturally to him. He plunged in with great guts. spluttering pigment with gusto. noisily
é orchestrating massive dissonances of pure colour
: and. generally having a whale ofa time. It must be said that many of the pictures— especially the large ' canvasses - produced at this time now look
contrived and self-conscious. Even so. the bravura still impresses. No other British artist was
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confident enough to play the Americans at their own game.
Soon. however. Davie's impulse to compose. organise and encrust with symbolic meaning asserted itself. Bands of colour become meandering stripes. l’hallic totems drift across the picture plane; the rectangle of the canvas is subdivided into interlocking segments. All is ambiguous. These are confusing. though highly enjoyable pictures: their excitement stems from the almost tangible sense ofan artist sorting out his aims and priorities.
It was not until the 7(ls that Davie devoted himselro a wholehearted improvisational symbolism. lifting potent shapes from ligyptian hieroglyphs and American petroglyplis. organising them very much in the manner of de Chirico. This has become the hallmark of his maturity. For Davie it is an intuitive process:
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Alan Davie: Magic Picture No 6.1977 pictures are adventures with no pre-ordained denouement. Mystery is ubiquitous. Something bacchic and celebratory infects everything he does and. fortunately. the artist has never yielded to the temptation of parodying his playful. pagan style.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who allows himself to be seduced by Davies vision. that the artist has a secondary career as a skilled jazz saxophonist or that he enjoys an intensely physical lifestyle in sunny St Lucia. The man is a passionate intellect with a seriously playful side to his nature.
III (ilasgoii'. Solo: The Alan l)tlt'le Rell'ospeclli‘e Is all/1e McLe/lan (iallery. (ma/23 .llar. will: some selected works on .S'lIUH' a! (be ( :\'I'll (ierber (iallery. In l;dlnburg/t. DavIe's ll'orks on Paper. [959-0] are a! (he Talbot Rice (ialleriv aria/.32 l'eb. it'll/l
selected works all/1e Edinburgh l’rmlma/x‘ers
“The List 17—3OJanuary 1992