Progression of Art
Beach Scene with Bathers, Pier and Ships
This is one of the largest paintings Wood ever painted, and one of the most ambitious in that he was testing out all of the inspiration gathered and techniques learnt whilst living surrounded by an artistic community in Paris. Once complete, the work sold almost immediately to an interior designer and was reproduced at the time in the art journal Colour and in Vogue magazine.
Wood described the painting to his mother in a letter, "On the left there are two women lying down in bathing costumes, one combing her hair and the second standing up against the bathing cabin in a bath gown. The sea is bright green. Three fishermen with brown bodies are pulling up a fishing net on to the shore where, at their feet is a still life of lobster (cooked!) and gaily colored fish". Already key in this painting is Wood's attraction to activity on the coastline (on the edge) as well as the notable comparison with Cezanne's iconic picture, The Bathers (1898), which Wood would likely have seen in the flesh whilst in Paris.
The joy and hive of activity shown in this painting reflects the decadent mood of Paris at the time, a well welcome antidote to the gloom and depression experienced in the city immediately following the First World War. Formed of five panels, the scenes were partially inspired by two of Diaghilev's ballet productions both first shown in 1924. One was Le Train Bleu, themed around leisure activity and produced by Jean Cocteau with bathing costumes designed by Coco Chanel. The second ballet to influence Wood was called Les Matelots (The Sailors). This likely provided the direct source for the muscular male bodies at the centre of the picture all exuding "homoerotic male beauty". We also see the influence of Picasso in the classical, almost sculptural form of the female figures.
It was this culmination of different influences, as well as creating a visual homage to the theatrical mastery of Diaghilev, which helped Wood to secure a commission to design the stage sets for a modern version of Romeo and Juliet due to be performed the following year. Wood was personally delighted by the positive response to his painting, writing to his mother, "all who have seen and whose opinion I value are surprised with its beauty and the strength of its technique."
Oil on Panel - Private Collection
China Dogs in a St. Ives Window
Having by this point met and become friends with Ben and Winifred Nicolson, China Dogs in a St. Ives Window reveals Wood's burgeoning love for Cornwall as well an allowance for his own intuitive style to develop. Although often compared as an artist to Ben Nicholson, this canvas clearly shows that his work is stylistically more in keeping with that of Winifred's. Whilst Ben's work, even early in his career, hinted at a strong tendency towards abstraction, Wood and Winifred held tight to the depiction of objects and figures.
Winifred typically framed her pictures using a window setting as in Wood's canvas here. Both artists apply paint lightly and with a childlike immediacy and exuberance. The image of a mother dog with her pups perhaps reflects Wood's current happy state of mind, feeling at home within a new vortex of creativity. As an artist particularly good at treating both the sky and the sea (be these at times calm, and at times unruly) Winifred Nicholson wrote of Wood that "Blue was his colour, and the evolution of the use of blue in his work is the evolution of the driving power of his life".
Pallant House, Chichester
This self-portrait was painted upon Wood's return to Paris. It shows him wearing a harlequin patterned jumper, blue trousers and holding a brush in his hand tipped with red paint reflecting the red color in his jumper. On his right is a table with a paint box. He is seen standing on the balcony of an apartment in Passy, a district in the suburbs of Paris, overlooking a skyline of Paris. The overall color palette of blue and red is similar to that of China Dogs in a St. Ives Window, and the viewer cannot help wondering if the conflict of colors reflects the conflict within the man. The blue exudes calm and hopefulness, whilst the piercing red agitates and suggests that Wood sends out a warning signal to his viewers that all is not as well as it appears.
Despite struggle within, the portrait is a good example of a young artist determined and driven to succeed. By placing the color on his brush of the matching hue in his jumper, the artist also shows that he has good understanding that he is painting a picture; this is not life as it is, it is an image made by an artist. Although now relocated in spirit to Cornwall, Wood decides on the backdrop of Paris for his iconic statement self-portrait, and as such thinks of posterity and aligns himself with the great master painters already recognized and celebrated by art history. He stares out at the viewer with the confidence, determinism, and belief that he is right where he should be, at the literal heart of the art world at that time.
Indeed, the harlequin pattern on Wood's jumper is a reference to Picasso, a friend and influential figure for Wood, who painted many harlequins and personally associated with the character. For Wood though, the harlequin pattern of his clothes also helps him to merge seamlessly with the patchwork of buildings behind him, poignantly revealing his character as an individual artist, but also as little more than a fragmentary part of the altogether much vaster terrain of life.
Oil on Canvas - Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Harbour in the Hills
This painting shows St Ives, with its lighthouse in the middle ground and fishing boats bouncing on a choppy sea. Blue has muddied to grey as two sailors look upon the stormy scene from the quay in the bottom right of the picture. The swirling sea is reminiscent of Van Gogh's expressive style, as is the background. Wood painted this picture during his stay at St Ives on a trip he made with Ben Nicholson in the Summer of 1928. The lighthouse is a motif to which Wood returned again and again, perhaps as a beacon of hope, but equally, the tower built to signal oncoming danger and distress.
By this point Wood had encountered the work of Alfred Wallis, and as such the painting in some respects follows Wallis' naïve sophistication in the depiction of what he remembered of his time as a seaman, which to Wood signaled an outpouring of authentic creativity "unspoilt by academic training or civilized culture." He saw how Wallis mixed his pigments, often on the same cardboard and pieces of driftwood that he used to paint his actual pictures. Overall, the style of this painting is incredibly loose and exuberant, which feels like the gift of letting go, given by Wallis to other artists.
Combining the two influences at work whilst making this canvas, and also giving Wallis the great credit that he deserved, Wood wrote to his friend, Jim Ede, "I am not surprised that no one likes Wallis, no one liked Van Gogh for a long time did they?"
Oil on Canvas - University of Essex, Essex, England
The Fisherman's Farewell
This painting shows a touching scene of a fisherman saying good-bye to his family.
In the background to the left we see fishermen ready to set sail on a fishing trip, whilst the lighthouse to the right reminds us that the scene is taking place in St Ives. Fishing trips were dangerous, but one of only a few means to provide for a family living in Cornwall. The only other industry, just as perilous, was tin mining. The ragged landscape allowed little prospect for farming, and even the prevalent industries of fishing and mining were both on the decline at this time. As such, the painting is not only a tender portrait but also a social record of economic change and financial hardship.
In fact, the family shown in the painting is said to be a portrait of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, and their little son Jake, born the previous year. Wood had arrived with the Nicholson family to St Ives in August 1928. Wood stayed in the small town that he had fallen in love with, whilst Ben and Winifred soon moved to a cottage overlooking Porthmeor Beach so that they could be close to Alfred Wallis and visit him everyday.
The period was immensely productive for Wood who was fervently inspired. He wrote to Winifred just before leaving for another trip to Paris, "I seem to live on the edge of the world. But what a world it is, I love this place and could stay here for ever if I had those around me for whom I care." In many ways, it seemed as though Wood himself felt part of the Nicholson family at this time.
Oil on Canvas - Tate Gallery, London
Building the boat Tréboul
This painting shows boat builders in Place de l'Enfer near the village of Tréboul, a small fishing village on the north west coast of France, which like St Ives, looks out to the Atlantic. Painted in the last few months of his life, Wood was driven to rural themes and to isolation where he attempted to summon the energy to excise his demons. There is also the sense in this picture that Wood wants to get to the bare bones of things, to unflinchingly explore all of life's great depths.
Indirectly, the painting bears much in common with the work of both Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Both of these Post-Impressionist innovators spent much time in the rural areas of France, aggrandizing the peasant and presenting themselves as spiritual and religious explorers in such scenes. Gauguin, for example, painted his own self-portrait as The Yellow Christ (1889), and although not explicit, compounded by the old age and melancholy presence of the central female figure, it is hard not to identify the wooden planks in this picture with looming crucifixion and death.
The painting shows boat builders building a boat and the canvas appears to have been completed en plein air, particularly as the same boat also appears in another canvas The New Boat, Tréboul, (1930). It shows a woman in the foreground, dressed in black carrying pieces of wood, and on the right of the painting, a group of women watching the men. Wood is able to capture the harshness of lives lived in these villages. There is the sense that the women may be in mourning and that they could have lost men at sea, and yet, interestingly, they do not merely assume domestic roles. Instead, the women in the picture take an active role in providing for their families, very unlike the middle classes and aristocracy at this time.
Jim Ede, a close friend and collector of Wood's work wrote of the painting in his book A Way of Life (1984), "skeletons of ships in process of being built, which foreshadow the skeletons of the fishermen who would take them out to sea and not return. Wives and mothers help a younger generation to build new ships of death. He has visualized it; without a shade of sentimentality." Indeed, it was Ede who acquired the work in 1930 after failing to persuade the Tate Gallery Trustees to buy it. It was also Ede who went on to organize a memorial exhibition for Wood at the Lefevre Gallery in 1932.
Oil on Canvas - Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England
The Sleeping Fisherman
Continuing with religious overtones, painted whilst in Brittany, The Sleeping Fisherman gives heavy hint towards the artist's encroaching death. The fisherman appears to be trapped in his own net. He lies alone on the shoreline close to a church and in this respect seems to accept a fate of passing away. The blue loincloth - the color that Winifred so poignantly attributed to the work of Wood - is also the color associated with the Virgin Mary, and in turn recalls the story of Jesus Christ.
The basket of fishes further asserts the parallel between the burdens of Jesus to feed the five thousand with the emotional strains felt by Wood. In style, the painting is less reminiscent with that of the St Ives School, or with the heroic Post Impressionists. Instead, the work strongly brings to mind the Symbolist canvases of Odilon Redon. The same sense found in Redon, that the depths of reflection are at once magical and haunting is certainly present here.
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
Zebra and Parachute
This painting shows a zebra standing bemused next to a flower-bed. In the background stands a now highly famous modernist building. There are lots of straight diagonal lines formed by the ramps and chimneys of the structure which align neatly with the harsh light and shade of the piece, and then in turn with the stripes of the zebra. All of these changes in perspective, as well as the dark shadow remind the viewer of Giorgio de Chirico's work. Additionally, in the sky we see a parachute from which a man hangs ominously lifeless.
The building in the background has since been identified as the Villa Savoye designed by Le Corbusier. This building was started in 1928 and although by the time Wood painted it, much of the construction was completed, it was not actually finished until 1931. In the same style of placing an exotic creature before a famous monument, the painting has a partner piece called Tiger and Arc de Triomphe (1930). The latter work was painted during Wood's final visit to Paris just one month before he died. It is also reminiscent of an earlier painting, in which the artist also combines the exotic natural world with man-made structures, bearing strong hints to the primitive style of Henri Rousseau.
Zebra and Parachute is also one of Wood's last paintings, and unusually shows a number of Surrealist elements. Very different from his other works, the canvas suggests the direction that Wood's art may have taken had he have lived. The career progression in the sense of moving from figurative observation to Surrealism mirrors that of his fellow Englishman, Paul Nash.
Oil on Canvas - Tate Gallery, London