The Redfern Gallery, 20 Cork Street, Mayfair, W1S 3HL is presently a great place to get lost. Until 9th December, it is the venue for a fabulous exhibition of collages by the late Francis Davison, a master of the art of papier collé or torn paper ‘paintings’. This is a rare chance to see such a spectacular display of his work all gathered together in one special place.
To step inside is to enter a garden of dancing shapes and colours, to be drawn in like a bee
buzzing intoxicatedly from flower to flower, it’s easy to lose yourself amidst all this beauty.
Francis Davison was a reclusive artist who never actively sought the limelight. His work was not often exhibited during his lifetime. His one major exhibition was in 1983 at the Hayward Gallery, when he preferred his work to appear anonymously without titles. His untitled collages are now referred to by reference numbers; this one is D-277, 1972.
No Number 2 (H-23), 1982-84
Francis Davison is, in my estimation to date, the pre-eminent British abstract artist of the second half of the 20th century.
He worked in isolation, within the passionate confines of his marriage to the artist Margaret Mellis. They kept poultry on their smallholding to make a living. Gradually, over many years, he developed his extraordinary language of large collage.
He never added pigments, but only used the given colours of the paper. What look like brushmarks are actually the remains of previously glued, torn-off sheets. He increasingly recycled old collages, for he worked incessantly, in the small front room of their house which he used for a studio, hardly selling anything, making his work richer and richer and bigger and bigger.
Davison was a modern-day equivalent of the illuminator of the Lindisfarne Gospels. I know of no-one else who could make hues, tones and shapes dance together in the mind’s eye in such a life-enhancing way, in a purely abstract equivalent of song. The collages may look thrown together, but they’re not. The colour-space relationships are absolutely exact. Every nick and tear tells in the raw-ragged, furious, utterly unsentimental but glorious beauty he gave to the world.
Davison’s collages are remarkably painterly in their use and application of colour. It sometimes takes an effort to recall that all these marks, shapes and groupings are made from nothing other than torn paper. The lines and blocks of colour so resemble brushstrokes and painted dispositions that the eye can be briefly tricked – particularly where Davison has torn away bits of paper previously stuck down, leaving only a trace or echo, like a smear of pigment.
Davison was a master of the edge: not simply in the ragged outside edges of his collages which, while remaining roughly square or rectangular, frequently take on a new and radical dynamic through an unexpected rhythm of projections and protrusions matched by gaps and absences; but also within the collage, as different edges of paper are lapped and abutted in lyrical and often quite complex patterns and layers.
I think Francis’ method of work was a trance-like dance. It was in essence anything – completely free from restriction, certainly free from thinking. The form that this took is what we see as his collages. A very singular attribute to paper is that it’s thin, it’s possible to work in layers without it looking like that. Francis’ method was working over and over, always keeping an eye on what was revealed underneath by what he was cancelling out and adding to, on top. Contrary to expectation, overlaying simplifies, both cluttering and at the same time dispersing elements. In the final stage each bit of paper had to be that size, that shape, that colour and in that place, because every bit was dependent on every other bit, otherwise what had led up to it would not make sense.
Besides the European, English and American artists with whose work Davison’s can be fruitfully compared, reference should also be made to African textiles. In particular, the marvellously free improvisations on African bark cloth, a potent mixture (like Davison’s) of the organic and geometric, and the distinctive patterns of Kuba cloth from the Congo, made from raffia palm leaves.
I’d been round and around the exhibition tying myself in knots, making a beeline for my favourite only to find another round the next corner. And then I saw it. Standing at the counter to purchase a catalogue I decided that if I could give a new home to any of these pieces it would have to be this one.
This was the one I carried away in my head. And then all the rest. I saw their echoes as I walked home; fallen leaves laid out on the pavement, eroded traces of painted road markings, a billboard palimpsest of torn posters. And I remembered a long ago visit to a seaside studio in Southwold.
…his work, sometimes with breathtaking precariousness, managed to encompass and equate the microcosm of the inner life of the individual human being, in all its shifting states, and the macrocosm of the workings of the universe we inhabit, from our experience of the immediate landscape to our grappling with the vast entirety of existence.
If you enjoyed this blogpost you might also like to see Postcard From Southwold.