‘All space in painting is an illusion, whether it comes forward or goes back. What is real is the flat surface of the picture and the important thing is what has been painted there.’
Keith Vaughan, 1961
Figures and landscapes were Vaughan’s central concerns and he explored these twin themes, one way or another, for four decades. His not inconsiderable achievement was to combine the two elements into a harmonious union whereby landscape never merely supports or contextualizes the figure, and the human form never dominates its setting; each is inextricably related to and dependent on the other. This is certainly the case in The Forest. We could be forgiven for interpreting the figure as a quasi-self-portrait. Always regarding himself as an outsider, divorced from the rest of life going on around him, Vaughan’s sense of personal isolation and dislocation from society has, perhaps, translated itself into this painting.
Reaching out for security to the edge of the canvas, a male figure approaches a dark woodland setting. We are reminded, of course, of Adam after the Fall, setting out into a intimidating world, of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken and even of the dark forests of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Vaughan’s subject here is the human condition and he explores it head on. Naked, alone and vulnerable the young man sets off into a hostile terrain. The bough of a tree temporarily shades and protects him but he remains alone and defenseless as he walks into the shadows of the forest. In this context, The Forest is an essentially Romantic work.
At this time Vaughan was employing a muted and carefully considered palette of blacks and greys, tempered by ochres and burnt umbers to create ominous atmospheres (see also Charred Trees, 1953, Fruit Fearing Trees 1952-3 and Garden, 1953). This is not a visualization of fresh springtime or a re-enactment of the sunlit security of a golden summer, but an autumnal, poetic exploration of man’s innate insecurity.
Gerard Hastings, author of Awkward Artefacts: The Erotic Fantasies of Keith Vaughan published by Pagham Press in association with the Keith Vaughan Society.
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