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Details & Cataloguing

Modern & Post-War British Art

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London

Alan Davie
1920-2014
OLD MAN'S DREAM
signed, titled and dated 1949 on the reverse
oil on board
122 by 181.5cm.; 48 by 71½in.
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Provenance

The Artist
Gimpel Fils, London, where acquired by the present owner

Catalogue Note

At the conclusion of World War II, Alan Davie was demobilised from service, returning to Edinburgh and his native Scotland in 1946. Two years later, he decided to take advantage of the travel grant originally awarded to him in 1940 and which he could not utilise as war spread throughout Europe. Embracing peace-time, Davie embarked upon a European tour with his wife, Bili, from spring 1948 until spring of the following year, walking and hitch-hiking through France, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. During his time abroad, Davie kept journals from 6th April 1948 until 30th March 1949, which Alan Bowness described as 'a rapt account of what was plainly an overwhelming experience, a strange mixture of innocence and naivety, a journal in which the author sometimes seems like an adolescent boy moving through a world too full of marvels to be anything but a dream.' (Alan Bowness, ‘Notes on the Paintings of Alan Davie’ in Alan Davie, London, Lund Humphries, 1967, p.169). Davie’s grand tour was to prove formational, creatively fruitful and personally immensely beneficial. Painted in 1949, either during or immediately after this trip, Old Man’s Dream is the visual representation of seminal experiences, of Davie at the outset of a distinctive and distinguished career.

A series of precipitous events set Davie’s fortunes: exhibitions were organised for Florence in November 1948 and in Venice the following month during the first Biennale since the end of hostilities. Peggy Guggenheim visited Davie’s exhibition and proceeded to purchase Music of the Autumn Landscape, a transformational encounter that led to exhibitions in New York at Catherine Viviano Gallery and an introduction to Gimpel Fils in London. Where Guggenheim herself was instrumental in the enthusiastic reception of Davie’s work on the international stage, it was her collection that was to prove a catalyst for Davie’s febrile imagination. Exceptional Surrealist works by Paul Klee, Hans Arp, and Max Ernst sat alongside monumental Abstract Expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock, then relatively unknown in Europe. Such exposure, at this stage experienced by Davie alone amongst his British contemporaries, left a profound impression and instigated immediate evolution. The lineage between the Surrealists and the New York School that embraced the unconscious and chance, urges and impulses, spoke to Davie’s personal affinity with the inexplicable and surreal, as did the poeticism of the Surrealists and the performative working methods of Pollock. Synthesising these two related strands of artistic practice, Davie had begun to formulate his own vision by the end of the 1940s.

In Old Man’s Dream, a grid-like internal armature of black paint encloses heavily worked accretions of paint. The impervious surface and compact forms suggest an intensity of working process, a concentration and fervour in Davie’s handling of paint. Although Davie was yet to embrace Zen beliefs, his spiritual approach to work was already closely aligned with Zen practices. Davie wrote in his travel journal that he was '…opposed to conscious and systematic work…free from the props of individualism and mannerism of style, against accepted human laws and values, but bound in its free rhythm and natural force by the true laws of natural forms, the unknown laws which govern in such a mysterious way the elements of sky, sea, stones, jungles, stars and celestial spheres.' (Alan Davie, quoted in Alan Davie, with essays by Douglas Hall and Michael Tucker, Lund Humphries, London, 1992, p.18). A rhythmic dialogue plays out between lattice and accumulations of organic, free-spirited marks in rich tones of red, orange, yellow and white, with a forceful density that is simultaneously philosophical and exuberant. 

Modern & Post-War British Art

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London