Tuesday, 24 August 2010
Flying Free - Interview with Alan Davie
A few months ago, I interviewed Alan Davie for Homes & Interiors Scotland magazine in advance of the exhibition Alan Davie @ 90, which is now running at The Park Gallery, Callendar House, Falkirk.
Meeting AD was a career highlight. Why he has not had a full retrospective at the Tate is a mystery as he really is a modern master. I won't go on...
As his 90th birthday approaches, Alan Davie is working as hard as ever, with neither ill health nor the loss of his wife diminishing the creativity of one of Scotland’s greatest living painters
On the drive to Alan Davie’s house in rural Hertfordshire, it is as green and pleasant as England gets. Outside, the air is fresh, the swifts are darting dementedly and the sap has well and truly risen. All around are signs of rebirth, regrowth and the eternal cycle of the seasons shifting gear. All that’s missing is a group of pagan priests heading for a maypole. Distil all these aspects of spring and you have the essence of an Alan Davie painting, bursting at the seams with primordial energy.
Narrowly avoiding kamikaze bunnies and negotiating bendy B-roads en route to the converted stable block where one of Scotland’s greatest living artists has been based since 1954, you can’t help but think it’s all a far cry from Grangemouth.
This is roses-round-the-door country and the scent of camellia in full bloom is pungent as I ring his doorbell. Davie, a slight, stooped figure with a full white beard, in an old paint-spattered purple woolly jumper, dark cords and well-worn Jesus sandals (no socks) opens the door and greets me with a bear-hug like a latter-day Moses.
The artist has lived here alone since the death of his wife Bili two years ago. It is clearly a house stuffed with memories, not to mention colourful original murals and paintings. There’s also a vast a collection of African art and artefacts, the symbolic drumbeat of which has found its way into Davie’s work over the course of the last 50 years.
The artist, who turns 90 in September, was born and raised in the industrial town of Grangemouth and still retains a softly lilting central Scottish accent. In his quietly reflective Zen-type way, he describes the town, famous for its large oil refinery, as “a dismal sort of place”. “Haven’t been back for years,” he adds. Once his parents had moved south to be near him and his family in the 1960s, Davie only returned to the town on the odd occasion – one of which was for the installation of a mural in the town centre.
The older of two children born to James Davie, a talented artist who earned a living as an art teacher at the local school, and Elizabeth, a classically trained pianist, Alan Davie went on to become one of the foremost artists of his generation.
Described by the Tate as “a vital post-war link between British and international art”, he nevertheless remains something of an outsider in the art world. On the day I visit, he is clearly mulling the fact that the Tate has yet to offer him a full retrospective. “I’d like for that to happen before I die,” he says. “But because I’m not a Pop Artist, it seems I don’t fit the bill.”
It may not be the Tate, but the Park Gallery at Callendar House, Falkirk, delighted to celebrate the milestone birthday of one of its most famous sons, is hosting Alan Davie @ 90, an exhibition of new work which runs until mid-October.
The show will include work by Davie’s father – a major figure in the artistic development of his son. Davie recalls an early memory of his father drawing in red pastel ‘like Holbein’. There will also be copies of letters in the exhibition, sent to his parents while he served with the Royal Artillery in Warwickshire. He joined the army after graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 1940. The letters give an intense, touching insight into a vital stage of his development as an artist.
“My father was always an enormous encouragement and I wrote home every day,” Davie recalls. “He kept all the letters, then typed them out and bound them. I talked about what I was doing and about my surroundings. Around that time, I got very keen on the writing of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. James Joyce also made a big impression on me.
“These writings were a revelation to me and, as it was impossible to paint in any disciplined way at that time, they filled my thoughts.”
As a 20-year-old soldier, Alan Davie was clearly a tornado of creativity. As well as writing poetically charged missives home, he was drawing portraits of his fellow soldiers (“they all thought I was crazy”), painting murals with household paint on the NAAFI canteen walls, decorating ammunition
placements and decorating stage sets.
An accomplished musician who played saxophone
professionally in big bands following the war, Davie still plays the piano for several hours each day. He was trained classically as a youngster, but his real interest lies in improvisation, and the crossover between his art and music is clear.
One of the first artists to engage with European Modernism in the post-war period, Davie was mentored by the legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim, whom he met in Venice in 1948. She subsequently introduced him to some of the key figures of American Abstract Expressionism, such as Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, all of whom he ended up hanging out with in New York in the mid-1950s.
By 1956, the Museum of Modern Art in New York had bought one of his paintings, opening the door for other major world collections to buy his instantly identifiable work.
There have been shifts in his approach over the decades, influenced by a mix of the art and philosophies of ancient cultures, particularly Zen Buddhism, but at heart, Davie remains true to his crystal-clear vision that his work is intuitive and entirely open to interpretation.
His most recent paintings are more vibrant than ever. Like giant doodles in searing colour which suck you into their swirling heart, they bring together all the key elements and symbols that have fascinated him for decades, including birds, snakes, wheels, crosses and seemingly random text.
Although often associated with Abstract Expressionism, even in the winter of his years, Davie refuses to be pigeonholed, refuting the description of his work as abstract and even describing it as “outsider” art.
“There is no meaning,” he says, with the air of a man who is used to being asked to explain his work. “It is not intellectual at all.”
Despite recent stays in hospital, Davie still draws and paints every day. “As long as I’m awake,” he states, “I’m working. I was in hospital recently and I’d sit in front of the television and draw, trying to switch off the conscious part of my brain. Every one of those drawings could become a painting.”
As I prepare to leave, Davie announces he’d like to play the piano for me. Sitting at his Bechstein Baby Grand, he sinks into a reverie as his fingers dance over the keys, improvising as he goes. Suddenly he stops. “It’s so clean, the piano,” he exclaims. “Not messy, like painting. But where does the music go?”
He plays a chord and his feet hover over the pedals as we listen to the sound travel over in the direction of his canary-yellow Butterfly chair for what seems like an eternity.
Watching him play the piano, one of the phrases in his
wartime letters which I’d read in his studio earlier in the day comes back to me. “You ask if my life has changed,” he wrote to his parents in a letter dated 5 July 1942. “There is little or no change… all is as was with much more freedom… I am free as the four winds.”
After a lifetime spent in pursuit of that freedom, Alan Davie is still in full flight.
Alan Davie @ 90: An Exhibition of Recent Works, runs until October 16 at Callendar House, Callendar Park, Falkirk,