Frost’s enthusiasm for colour developed rapidly during his time at Camberwell School of Art in the late 1940s, and he continued to explore its limits with increasing audacity throughout his career. In the late 1960s, when he was producing emotive works using a limited number of pure hues, he asked his students to investigate the boundaries of colour by creating their own blacks using a mixture of red, yellow and blue. Frost described the result of juxtaposing all the ‘mid-blacks’ – the blackest blacks – as “the greatest lesson of my life”: “if you do that you find there are as many blacks as there are yellows… When you paint black, it must have colour” (from an interview with Sarah Fox-Pitt and David Lewis, 1981). Frost was inspired to create his own series of paintings, Through Blacks, 1969 [Tate Britain], in which he cut out rough semicircles from red-blacks, blue-blacks, green-blacks and pasted them onto a larger canvas, allowing the varying forms to harmonise both with each other and the space between them. It is notable that in the present work, even in the central canvas ostensibly dedicated to black, other colours – reds and blue – have been introduced to the composition.
Frost’s experiments with colour were not merely empirical exercises, however – his notebooks reveal the significance he attributed to colours, which “have depth and ‘life’ and can take you through a spiritual journey” (Artist’s notebook ). In listing the range of possible connotations which arise from black’s varying permutations, Frost concludes that “all these blacks are around us and they are a complete orchestra of magic” (Artist’s notebook, late 1960s – late 1970s). He even describes an evening organised by his students: “They blacked the room and gave me black spaghetti and black wine. They read poetry about black…” (Interview with David Lewis, April 1979).
Executed almost thirty years after this event, the present work was inspired by one of Frost’s favourite poems – Another Sonnet to Black Itself – by the politician and diplomat Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583 – 1648). Frost was particularly attracted to poems rich in colour-related imagery. In as early as 1949 he used W.H. Auden’s Madrigal, which begins: ‘O lurcher-loving collier, black as night’ as the source for a painting in which colours articulate the emotions expressed in the verses. The first four lines of this sonnet (two of which are inscribed on the central canvas) are particularly pertinent to Frost’s fascination with colour and the iconography that lies at the heart of much of his art:
Thou Black, wherein all colours are compos’d
And unto which they all at last return,
Thou colour of the Sun where it doth burn,
And shadow, where it cools, in thee is clos’d…
As well as summing up his investigations into the multiplicity of black, the poem describes the visual perception of a natural phenomenon that was especially important to Frost. His painting Black Sun, 1982 [Private Collection] borrows a motif from Kandinsky to depict the sensation of looking directly at the sun – so bright, that to the eye it appears black. Having returned to Cornwall in 1974 to a house set on a steep hill above Newlyn, Frost – a self-professed “sun lover and a moon lover” (Interview with David Lewis, April 1979) – declared himself “caught between two gods” in watching the sun come up at dawn and set in the evening to be replaced by the rising moon. It was a spectacle that appealed to the artist’s affinity with the ideas of the Sublime and his own so-called “moments of truth” – confrontations with the enormity of nature and its abstract forces, wherein one glimpses one’s own place in the universe.
Frost’s semicircles here, previously seen in the Through Blacks pictures which are devoid of any external associations, now come to represent these ‘two gods’ of the sun and moon. Running along each vertical edge of the three canvases, they meet at the centre of the composition as forms both light and dark, colourful and colourless. Frost’s frequent trips to the Mediterranean left him with indelible impressions of the brilliant blues, reds, oranges, yellows and stark whites he found there – these are the colours found in the two outer sections of the triptych, the gradation of shades in the vertical lines suggestive of sunrise or sunset. The central ovals are complete in their contrast: the black hemispheres enhance the vibrancy of their opposite numbers, evoking the poem’s mystical definition of black as the beginning and end of the spectrum – a colour which “holds everything and nothing” (Stephens, 2000, p. 64).
The triptych’s composition likewise highlights the dialectic between contradictions so characteristic of Frost’s work. The controlled frame contains an incongruously disordered centre. Yet while the first two lines of the sonnet seem almost like a stream of consciousness, the recurring shape of the capital letter ‘B’ manifestly echoes the surrounding semi-circles. Indeed, the ‘B’ in the very middle of the work is partially mirrored in the shapes of the lower case ‘a’ and ‘c’ beside it, reinforcing the various inverses contained in the picture. The tension between these repetitive forms in such close proximity reflects Frost’s paradoxical respect at once for structure and for chaos – even within the apparent deviation from rigorous compositional control there is a sense of deliberate order.
It is hardly surprising, then, that David Lewis should use this painting as the visual conclusion to his survey of Frost, also produced in 1994. Sonnet to Black is tribute to Frost’s enduring passion for colour and form, his response to natural phenomena and poetry, and above all, a desire to “communicate to other people something about the idea, the feelings and the emotions that you’re after, that you’ve been excited about…” (From ‘Colour Positive’, made for BBC TV’s Omnibus, 1977).
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