Bill Jacklin

by Edward Lucie-Smith

Art International


Quite possibly it requires great courage for an artist today to turn away from abstraction and towards figuration. When the figuration takes on a distinctly hedonistic tinge, the degree of courage needed is probably greater still - paradoxical as such a statement may seem to be at first sight.

Bill Jacklin is a British artist: of the generation which is. now just coming to full maturity. Born in London in 1943, he studied at the Royal College of Art in the middle 60s (during the high tide of Pop Art), and held his first one-man exhibltion in 1970. He showed frequently throughout the first half of the 70s, and in 1973 was one of the artists chosen for the ambitious British Council exhibition 'English Painting Today', held at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la VilIe de Paris. The company in which he found himself was extremely distinguished - it included David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Richard Hamilton and Tom Phillips. In fact, Jacklin rapidly built for himself one of the strongest new
reputations in what was fundamentally rather a dreary period for English art.

It must therefore have been an extremely powerful impulse which made him change direction so radically. In his exhibition this spring at Marlborough Fine Art, Jacklin is showing nothing but figurative work - paintings and watercolours of interiors, gardens and still lifes. Flooded with shimmering light, his works have a lyricism which is wholly unexpected in the present climate, and their impact on the gallery-going public is likely to be profound. What the critics will say about them is another matter. Jacklin's work is deceptively mild; it threatens many established positions.

In his own mind, his development is perfectly logical. In a recent statement Jacklin wrote: "Throughout my career I have had two main preoccupations: studying the changing nature of light and an interest in geometry. From 1968 until 1974 I attempted to channel these concerns into non-representational work, developing systems of painting that paralleled structures I had observed in nature...It was not until 1975 that I became directly involved with describing the effects of light representationally, beginning a series of watercolours of objects on tables using the subject matter as a vehicle to create light and pattern."

"I now find myself continuing this duality of purpose ­ wishing to convey as simply as possible my observation of something as it is, and the need to experiment with paint. The question is how to find a link between an interest in systems of painting and what I am looking at. Lately the paintings have become more complicated, now including people and places relating to specific situations I have experienced, and in this sense I paint what I know."

This statement at least provides a way of approaching what Jacklin is doing now. How can one match it to the paintings themselves?

The most obviously systemic works are also at a first glance the least obviously geometric. There is a series of views, most of them taken from almost precisely the same spot, of the little garden which lay behind Jacklin's house in Pembroke Square in London (a house he has since left in order to go and live in the country). The paint is creamy and thickly scumbled, with almost no hard outlines to interrupt the movement of the brush. What makes each painting different from the next is the variation in the fall of light and therefore the variations both of tone and hue.

Many things about these garden scenes remind one of the work done by Monet towards the end of his career - not the 'Waterlilies' but the now less-popular 'Haystacks' and Cathedrals', the former in particular.

One might almost say that Jacklin and Monet have reached the same point, but approach it from opposite directions: Pursuing his interest in the precise nature of appearances, Monet discovered that in fact they varied from moment to moment -- that a simple motif would offer an infinity of variations in the course of a single day. This in turn led him to what we now recognise as a kind of abstraction. Trying to break away from the abstract, trying to particularise his experience, Jacklin tackles a motif which is equally basic, and which in fact still has a very simple geometrical structure. The more one studies these garden paintngs, the more the massive geometric forms thrust forward, and shoulder through the richness of the paint.

The difference is, perhaps, that Jacklin's intentions are not quasi-scientific. In private conversation, he constantly refers to the use of paint as a 'language', a form of communication with its own structure and grammar. The garden paintings ,are a series of grammatical explorations -- they look not at the way the visible world alters, but at the way paint itself inflects. One can perhaps make a literary comparison -- with the kind of poem (a vilIanelle for example) which is written in a very tight form, with a demanding rhyme scheme. The problem is to make the arbitrary verbal structure look like a completely natural and spontaneous mode of utterance: 'Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? '

Next up this particular scale are Jacklin's still-lifes. These are of particular significance because it was through still life that he returned to figuration. As the tradition that runs through Zurbaran, Chardin and Morandi demonstrates, still life painting is in any case closely allied to abstract modes of pictorial thinking. One interesting aspect of Jacklin's work here is the comparatively small repertoire of objects. A distinctive striped vase, for instance, appears again and again, differently placed in different compositions. But the formats chosen differ quite widely, and the still lifes are in no sense part of a deliberately constructed series. Rather, they give one the sense of Jacklin's ruminative pleasure in what he is doing, in the attempt to match the delicate fall of the light with an equally delicate mark on the canvas. It is these works which most clearly reveal the natural elegance of the artist's sensibility.

The paintings of interiors containing figures are the most complex works in the show -- complex in two senses, both in actual composition (the paintings are sometimes on an ambitious scale), and in psychological implication. The Brothers shows two adolescents in a cushioned drawing room, apparently watching something out of sight, while a wooly dog rolls on the floor beside them. What they are looking at may be the television set, or perhaps it is something much more unexpected and dramatic. In any case the intentness of the two boys excludes the spectator and gives the picture an aristocratic, slightly eerie poetry. Many details contribute to the impression of subtlety -- the fact that he checkered floor glimpsed through a doorway tilts upward like the tabletop in a Cubist still life; the further fact -- perhaps another delicate allusion to Cubism that the canework to the extreme left is seen in much sharper focus than the rest.

The picture deliberately situates itself in a tradition ­ that of the heavily patterned, all-enclosing intimist interiors of Bonnard and Vuillard, but Bonnard and Vuillard have been forced to absorb a whole host of other influences, including the Cubist one mentioned above. You might, for instance, detect in these works not only the influence of the Nabis, but in a more general way that of the Viennese Symbolists, and particularly Klimt. Another painting, entitled Woman with Dog, does many of the things one also finds being done in Klimt's portraits of society beauties. There is the same feeling for feminine elegance, the same concern with 'placing' the figure in her milieu. The picture will surely acquire immense documentary interest as the years go by, in addition to its own intrinsic aesthetic merits.

The paintings which show an artist at work in his studio also -- and quite inevitably -- suggest a whole range of comparisons. Indeed, the range is in this case potentially limitless, as the subject has long been a favourite in western art. One which strikes me is probably not so obvious: the resemblance in certain passages to early paintings by Victor Pasmore. This is particularly true of the way in which the figure of the model is painted, and the likeness has a certain significance because it does help to tie Jacklin's talent to the continuity of the English national tradition.

The major importance of the paintings on the studio theme, however, is the way in which they demonstrate Jacklin's concern with geometric structure. In one picture there is a perfectly managed zig-zag transition from foreground to background. It begins with a canework chairback at the left (here the transparency of the cane is used to reveal a further plane beyond). From the chairback we proceed to a tabletop. Pressed against the far margin of this is the arm of the man who is painting. This leads in turn to his easel, a tall vertical planted not only in the middle of the composition but at the centre of the pictorial space. There is then a small hiatus, a kind of syncopation in the rhythm, before your eye travels up the model's leg, along her thigh, then up her torso. The upright. of the torso is stressed by an upright shape behind it, which finally brings the eye to the back plane and also to the upper margin of the composition.

There is, however, one difficulty which many people may feel about the exhibition taken as a whole. This is the hedonism I spoke of to begin with. One of the ways in which figurative art has ensured its survival is by remaining a vehicle for the kind of content, political as well as social, which abstraction cannot carry. Even when figuration seemed deliberately to eschew content, as with Super Realism, this refusal was programmatic, even moralistic, and seemed designed to convey the fundamental coldness of a modern consumer society. Jacklin does not interest himself in ideas of this sort. He represents a comfortable, indeed fashionable, haut bourgeois milieu simply because it is there, and happens to provide him with the range of pictorial materials he requires. Indeed, because it supplies his needs so tractably he treats it in return with caressing flattery. Each object takes on a heightened identity, thanks to his manipulation of colour and light -- the interiors he paints are ideaI versions of themselves.

What: this is a reminder of -- and it is something which is likely to give Jacklin's new paintings a wide appeal -- is that the eye is after all an instrument of sensual appetite and, like all such instruments, on the whole prefers delicate dishes to coarser ones. It is not that Jacklin simply gives in to pleasure: he makes the pursuit of visual pleasure a positive impulse. His paintings constantly restate the idea that delight in looking is one of the most valuable of all the satisfactions life has to offer.

-Edward Lucie-Smith, 1980