The fifties proved to be a hugely fruitful decade for Davie, peaking in his most productive year, 1956, in which he completed over fifty pictures. Following a practice developed in his brush drawings of the early 1950s, Davie began making paintings in series, most notably the Image of the Fish God and Woman Bewitched by the Moon. The present painting is the largest painting of the series consisting of five works; of the remainder (executed on board), the second is in the National Gallery Scotland and the other three remain in private collections. Other works from this productive year were acquired later in the 1950s by the British Council and the Tate, both of which now hold substantial collections of Davies’ work.
As with many of his major works, the title of Woman Bewitched by the Moon highlights the influence of Davie’s interest in magic and primitive spiritualism. In his 1960 essay ‘Towards a New Definition of Art’, Davie wrote, ‘magic is the outcome of art and only later did the artist take up the position of maker of objects for magical rites, the natural outcome of this recognition’ (Alan Davie exhibition catalogue, Galerie Charles Lienhard, Zurich, April – May 1960). Fuelled by visits to the primitive collections held by the major New York museums, Davie’s fascination with prehistoric art stemmed from his belief in man’s common aesthetic sensibility which could be traced back to the work of the artists of the ancient civilisations. Alan Bowness described the twisting, violent figure at the centre of the painting as less recognisably female than ‘more precisely anthropomorphic; to use one of Davie’s own titles – part God, part animal, with some suggestion of human characteristics’ (Alan Davie, London 1967, p.173). Even the moon itself is on the verge of being drawn into the chaotic centre, evoking the traditional belief in the strong influence of lunar forces on the female psyche.
Davie’s appointment as the Gregory Fellow in Painting at Leeds University in the same year as the present work allowed him to paint full time. Although Davie had developed his own practice independently during his travels around Europe, his chance encounter with Peggy Guggenheim in Venice in 1948 led to his engagement with the work of the New York avant-garde. Guggenheim was struck by the originality of Davie’s style, and introduced him to the contemporary American art in her own exhibition at the first Biennale since the war. His interest in the duality between order and chaos and the influence of the random, which increased with his exposure to the atomic physicists in Leeds who were exploring the scientific understanding of the ‘uncertainty principle’, had a clear affinity with Pollock’s work, and he met the artist in person during his visit to New York in 1956. Parallels have also been drawn with Willem de Kooning’s work of the fifties and his Woman series, although revisited in Davie’s own distinctive style. While the execution remains equally bold, this female figure moves even further from the figurative, and the richly textured surface teems with shapes and symbols outlined broadly in black, casting a striking contrast to the indistinct darkness beyond. Rather than simply presenting the subject, Davie’s work, to use the words of Andrew Patrizio, instead ‘evokes a space where living forms and sounds might emerge from the dark; a place ultimately of illumination and potentiality’ (Jingling Space, Leeds 2003, p.13).
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