As Hilary Spurling's revelatory biography of Matisse made so particularly evident, for critics and art- historians to ignore the implications, familial and financial, physical and emotional, in the evolution of an artist's life and work, is to leave a gaping hole at the heart of our understanding of their art and what has driven it forward. This is not the same thing as assessing its final significance within a historical context, of course, but, unless we do try to make that kind of enquiry, any speculation about the artist's aims and intentions really amounts to little more than hopeful guesswork. While there has not been the time (nor is there the space!) to embark on any such in depth study in the case of Hugh Mackinnon's life and work, as we see it represented in this, his first (at the age of 80!) retrospective exhibition, there are, nonetheless, enough hints and clues in his remarkable and turbulent biography to allow us to make a start at comprehending how his serene, intensely thoughtful and visually satisfying work has come into being. And, perhaps more importantly, why it is only now that his paintings would seem finally to have reached that point of repose and fulfilment which makes this the first, and also the best, moment at which to come to terms with the true nature of his achievement.
Still Life with Apple 1968 - 1975 Acrylic on board 17.5 x 23.5 (44.25 x 59.5cm)
Still Life with Lemon and Bottle c1975 Acrylic on board size
Born in 1925, Hugh Mackinnon's childhood and upbringing was a curious mix of the precocious and the unpromising. His adored mother worked for some 25 years in a grand and artistically distinguished household in Tite Street, Chelsea, her job, nominally as a servant but, in fact, as companion and friend of the young daughter of the house. An obviously sensitive and unusual person, her marriage to a retired naval man of conservative views and potentially alcoholic tendencies does not seem to have been a happy one, their move to Stevenage after his retirement from the Navy in the late 20s, to run a pub, being followed not so long after by her death in 1936, shortly after Hugh, their third child, had won a scholarship to Alleyne's Grammar School, Stevenage. With his father regarding the signs of his early artistic promise as disappointingly 'sissy' and not worthy of interest, Hugh was effectively orphaned, only to be 'rescued', emotionally and intellectually, by his friendship with a fellow class-mate, Eric Parkin. Already a precociously gifted pianist and later to have an eminent career on the concert platform, Parkin and his family provided the warmth and stability he had lost at home, at the same time encouraging the kind of curiosity into the common roots of musical and artistic creativity that still animate his thinking today.
Portrait of Betty in Red Dress, 1955, Oil on canvas 26 x 37.5 (66 x 95cm)
With his father recalled to the navy at the outbreak of war, Hugh supported himself by working in an ammunition box factory, managing to be accepted by the Slade in 1942. After he arrived there (the Slade had been evacuated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), he paid his way by firewatching for £1 a night on the roof at night and during the holidays. It was doing this that he also met a fellow student, Betty Butler, who became his wife a year or so later. Already engaged in an intense process of artistic self-education - he had discovered van Gogh and Picasso through books before he had gone to art-school - his most significant understandings while at the Slade seem to have come through friends and fellow-students rather than the teaching staff. It was a cultured, older German Jewish refugee and fellow Slade student Leo Schlesinger, for example, who first showed him photographs of an Indian sculpture, its dancing figure 'contained' within a stylised decorative form providing, as he puts it, "an intense moment of revelation about the relationship of a gesture to a frame" that has remained with him ever since. As too did another book Schlesinger showed him on Russian icons, while a brief, intense period, right at the end of his Oxford years, working from clothed models and portrait heads with fellow students Elvet Thomas (still a friend), Marjory Humphreys and Miriam Plantte, taught him "enough to last a life time."
After an interruption to his studies for national service in the RAF (1944-47) he returned for a further two years to the Slade (now back in London again) on a government grant, during this period winning the art-history prize, his art-history professor assuming, wrongly, that he had already studied at the Courtauld Institute! Now, aged 24, he also had twin sons (b1946) and, no longer with a grant on which to depend and no private income, the need to start earning a living became much more urgent. He already had a job teaching drawing at the Central before he had left the Slade, the first in a series of increasingly demanding art-school posts that were, as time went on, to leave less and less time for his own painting. For the time being however, living in a flat in Fane Street, Fulham, rented from another Slade student, the sculptor Raymond Mason, he was able to make a start on the process of getting his work shown in London. At this point his passion was for the work of Mondrian and Klee and the largely abstract work he was producing at this time, for example, Voices, (ill. p6) reflected these interests. It was works in a similar vein which, most significantly, attracted the attention of Victor Pasmore who showed him side by side with his own work at the 1949 London Group exhibition and recommended him to his own gallery, Gimpel Fils, then among the most influential of dealers in contemporary art.
By the time he had his first solo show there in 1952 however his painting had already begun to take on the more outwardly figurative appearance that characterises it to this day. Outwardly, only, however, since the subject matter of his paintings, then as now, has only ever provided the starting point for what have always remained, for him, profoundly abstract explorations of the nature of pictorial space and what finally makes a painting into a satisfying pictorial object. Hugh's letters over the years constantly return to this theme: "The curious thing about a subject is that it is of no importance whatsoever and yet without it nothing can transpire" he writes at one point, at another " the subject is like a 'north star' which holds together the artist's mind while he experiments and improvises with the phrasing of the elements of language" and again simply as "the piece of grit which starts the irritation - the ITCH…" Having learnt very thoroughly the language of abstraction over the previous five years or so, he had now come to the conclusion that this was, on its own, simply not enough to make a painting, a conviction he has held to firmly ever since. "I settled on the idea of a still image within a rectangle describing space, volume and light" he observed recently "since then all my concentration has been on a subject dragged from the imagination by improvisation and intuition."
How these ideas began to work in practice can be seen in his finest early painting "Portrait of the Artist as High Flyer", illustrated on page 14 and at 6' x 8' the largest painting he has ever made. The series of radical changes it went through before final completion indicated in part by the painting (ill. p15) of the subject at an earlier stage in its life. Essentially while the underlying dramatic geometry of the composition, the great arcing curves of the circus ring, seating, lighting, canvas and supporting poles, the pools of light and dark, always remained largely unchanged, the various groups of riders and horses inhabiting it came and went with startling speed until he finally settled on just the floating balloon, the ladder and climbing acrobat and a distant group of figures on horses as the points of visual focus. Yet, at the same time they are never just pictorial devices but become instead crucial elements that, in turn, underline the sense of the great swaying, billowing mass of the tent to poignant and disturbing effect to create a mood that, in turn, echoes something of the character of the film that was very much on his mind when he was painting it, Marcel Carnés's celebrated tribute to the mime theatre of C19th France, Les Enfants du Paradis.
Left Santa Maria della Salute 1990 - 95
Acrylic on paper 20.25 x 13.75 (51.5 x 40cm)
It is essentially the same procedure by which he continues to work today, over half a century on, the starting point now more usually a photograph, one of his own or one he has come across in a book or newspaper, and lighted upon because the oddity or particularity of its composition would seem to accord with his current preoccupations and researches into pictorial dynamics - the interrelationship of space, light and colour in the creation of a pictorial object. In this he readily agrees with Matisse when he observed "an artist only has one idea", the need being, in his own words, "to diversify that limitation by choosing lots of different subjects."
More immediately, returning to the narrative of his life, the need to earn more money through painting became increasingly urgent and though his second show at Gimpels in 1953, sold extraordinarily well and received, like his first there, (which the young David Sylvester had commended highly for "its no mean technical skill") warm critical praise - the painter Harold Cohen in Arts Review observing that "his pictures are honest, trusting, warm, loving, in a word, human" - this was still not enough on which to support a young family. Increasingly Hugh was forced to take on more and more teaching until he was virtually full-time at Central, Kingston and St. Martins, and latterly at Hornsey also, both in painting and textiles, leaving him consequently less and less time for his own painting. Yet, though there were periods when he was forced to stop altogether, this was never final - a masterly work like Interior at Teesdale Road (see below, the family home at the time), for example, dates from the early 60s when he was not only teaching but taking on consultancy work from textile companies to make ends meet. In its calm orderliness of structure, an echo one feels of Dutch C17th. painting, and the quiet but high-pitched colour that has more to do with Bonnard, (whom he has come increasingly to regard as one of the most important painters of C20th) it exudes an entirely contemporary sense of domestic affection and warmth that carries no trace of the stresses he must have been feeling in the rest of his life.
Painting full-time only began again on his retirement from teaching in the late 1980s. Yet what an astonishingly productive 15 years or so that has proved to be, not just because of the time it has given him to paint but because of the time it has also given him to think and articulate - above all in his remarkable letters to friends and family which read, in a sense, like letters to himself. This need to paint, then step back and consider carefully and then to revise radically, which forms such an essential part of his working method - some paintings are worked on over decades before finally satisfying him - eats up enormous quantities of time, but this, for the first time in his painting life, is exactly what he now has plenty of and he is taking full advantage of it in a stream of paintings that just seem to have been getting more and more richly varied. On the one hand there is the luminous, high-pitched colour of the paintings produced at his late son Jake's home at Peyriac in Southern France, the colour held in check by the tight vertical/horizontal structure he imposes on them, and by way of extraordinary contrast in mood and feeling, there are the dynamic, swirling spiral structures with which the dense, dark colours of the Venetian and Russian subjects are energised into intensely romantic life. There are also the quiet but wonderfully witty and touching figure paintings - the young W. H. Auden dressed as a bumblebee(!) - which make such a surprising counterpoint to the atmospheric works based on photographs taken by his daughter-in-law on holiday in Egypt. In all of them the nature of the enquiry (he would describe it as an obsession) is the same: how to resolve the 'eternal contradiction' of describing depth on a 2-dimensional surface and to this end he formulated the idea he has come to term "the anatomy of the membrane." Starting from the observation that a painter like Vermeer "seems to be able to fit together all the marks he places on the membrane like a tapestry of perfectly harmonious structure thus translating all that is required to describe 'depth'", he came to realise that, for him to achieve this, his long-standing love of the 'decorative' - textiles, embroidery, carpets, pattern - could help play a vital role. It provides the basis of what he terms "a reference point outside myself to keep an eye on the pictorial structure - the pattern, the phrasing of the marks", and something which he now also finds in memories of surface in nature in such things as butterfly wings, snake-skin, tiger skin, tree bark, leaves and petals, observing that "when a painting loses this connection it loses truth." Looking at the works of this idiosyncratic and quietly original painter, it would seem, at a moment when the function of painting in our society is in crisis, maintaining this artistic philosophy with such energy and commitment is, in itself, a serious and remarkable achievement.