Variations on a Theme - Jan 27 No.3/Untitled



Initialled and dated 'KV/Jan 27' (lower left)
Numbered 'no.3' verso
Oil pastel on paper
Executed in 1960

Leicestershire Education Authority within the County Council collection.
Acquired in 1963 it formed part of the County Council's Schools Art Loan Scheme and has been displayed in a school until it was returned to storage in July 2000.

RELATED WORKS : This oil pastel is one of a series which Vaughan created in early 1960, two other examples of which are in the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation's Centro de Arte Moderna in Lisbon.

Sheet height 43 cm., 16 ¾ in., Length 32 cm., 13 in., In an ebonised moulded frame.
Frame Height 67 cm., 26 ½ in. Length 54 cm., 21 ½ in.

In 1960 Vaughan was living in London, having returned from a long working trip to the USA the previous year. It was during his time as Resident Painter at the Iowa State University that he discovered oil pastels and was excited by the spontaneity of expression they enabled, and by their richness of colour. They were novel in England, and he described them to Prunella Clough: 'waterproof, impervious to everything, can be rolled, stamped on, eaten' (see M. Yorke, Keith Vaughan his Life and Work, London, 1990, p. 189). He included a suite of his oil pastels in the major retrospective of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1962, and would continue to use pastels for the rest of his life.

Vaughan was living in the Hampstead flat where he had been since 1942, and where he would remain until his death in 1977. He returned from America to a position at the Slade, and in February 1960 he had an important show of early and current with the Matthieson Gallery. This was well received, with the art critic Benedict Nicolson writing in the Observer:

His latest canvases (they are his best) show how suddenly he has gained in confidence, how all those conscientious years of worrying like Cezanne over patches of paint have stood him in marvellous stead.

' He has learnt his trade the hard way, and now he can brush nudes on to large canvases, leaving them "unfinished" flat areas, almost, of uniform colour - yet so rigorous has been his self-imposed training, that none of their strength, none of their monumentality is lost in the broadness of their handling; no structure is lost in the free rhythm' (Observer, February 28 1960, p22)

Vaughan was 48 years old, and was already an established figure, with work in the Tate, the Art Institute of Chicago, the City Galleries of Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Nottingham and Wakefield, and the National Gallery of New South Wales, among others. He was also elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1960, though he resigned within a month.

In the late 50s and early 60s Vaughan's work was entering a period of greater variety of surface texture, and it was also becoming more abstract. His work often consisted of figures in a landscape, until this point traditionally composed with the bodies drawn with greater realism than their more abstracted background. Around this time however he was working on resolving the space between the foreground figures and their surroundings, and moving towards consolidating the whole image into a single plane, which necessarily involved a greater abstraction. He also heightened the abstraction in his landscape paintings. These efforts included, for example, Standing Figure 1960 (Fitzwilliam Museum), and culminated in paintings such as Bather, August 4th 1961 (Tate Collection) about which Vaughan wrote a year later that he felt it was one of his best works.

The background was a state of chronic dissatisfaction with the "image" in my work which dates from about 1956. At that time I had drawings and plans for dozens of figure paintings which I suddenly found myself unable to believe in sufficiently to carry out. Probably the impact of the American show about that time [Modern Art in the United States at the Tate Gallery in 1956] had something to do with it. I wanted to go beyond the specific, identifiable image - yet I did not want to do an "abstract" painting. I wanted something which had the controlled ambiguity and vitality of a de Kooning but not the "gestural" expressionistic quality (Journal entry for 22 June 1962)

The series of 1960 oil pastels, of which the present work is an example, were thus made at a crucial and exciting moment in this process of renewal and experimentation. Filled with the fresh ideas of his American trip and excited by the new medium he had discovered there, Vaughan used these pastels to push the boundaries of his work and create some of the most important paintings of his career, in the process leaving us with many exciting images in their own right. The present work utilises the immediacy and intensity of the pastels to their full extent, creating a deceptively simple composition with just a few blocks of rich colour. The composition is full of force, and there is the suggestion of a working figure in the marks of the black pastel, which extends very slightly forwards of the main space. The palette of blues, brown and black is typical of this period for Vaughan, across media.

'A representative of the quiet avant-garde' (Alan Bowness, Observer, March 25 1962, p23)

Keith Vaughan's journal entry for January 1960: 'Do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you it is irrevocable, do not believe them. The past, the present and the future are but one moment in the sight of God, in whose spirit we should try to live. Time and space, Succession and extension are mere accidental conditions of thought. The imagination can transcend them and move in a free sphere of ideal conditions. Things also are in their essence what we choose to make them. A thing is according to the mode in which one looks at it. "Where others," says Blake, "see but the dawn coming over the hill, I see the Sons of God shouting for joy."' (Oscar Wilde to the stinker, Bosey [Lord Alfred Douglas]).

The heady confidence of the Romantic, so beguiling, but spinning to his doom. Like a pilot trying to land without elevators whose absence, provided he looks straight ahead, he is unaware of.

The past is irrevocable in the sense that it cannot be altered or erased, though it may be susceptible to different interpretations. But one reaps what one has sown, or had sown in one. But there is a difference between other people's past and one's own. The past of other people is the compost in which one grows one's own present. It can be broken down into nourishment, or it can strangle, depending on the success of one's root formation. One's own past one carries with one, some of it fruit, some of it dead wood. But it cannot be broken down and it cannot be discarded. Those who attempt this end on the analyst's couch or elsewhere.

Supreme example of the ironical mind: Evelyn Waugh's remark - 'The total destruction of the human world does not appall me provided it is done, as seems likely, inadvertently.'

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Height 44 cm / 17 12"
Width 32.5 cm / 13"

charcoal and oil pastel




De-accessioned from Leicester County Council