The Paintings of Olga Davenport

Abstraction away from naturalism but with the feel of the light and heat of a summer in South Africa or in the south of France gives this painting its expressive value. There is a sheer ‘vastness’ about the pictorial content; even if depiction is at its minimum. There are no perspectival clues as to where each band of colour lies relative to any other in pictorial space. It is, of course, a feature of Modernism that it denied the so-called ‘naturalness’ of perspective. In so doing it sought other features of our experience of the world in order to account for its new exploration of (and evocation of) spatial representation. Thus the paintings are more ambiguous, more uncertain than pictures relying upon perspective. In perspective painting objects define the spaces and the spectator recognizes the occlusion of one object by that which stands before it. The new Modernist space permits raw sensation to be the guide of our spatial experience. In the painting above, the thin bands just below the bright orange suggest recession in space; and the orange becomes the illuminating sky responsible for the tone and colour of the receding plains beneath. In ordering the colour Davenport relies on making the slightest adjustments to get the tension between landscape and flat abstract composition just right.

The journey toward this kind of abstraction works its way through the reduction of objects to patches of colour – again the focus on sensation at the expense of delineated depiction of objects is to the fore. This comes via the Fauves, themselves preoccupied with sensation, out of post-impressionism. A vase of flowers becomes a series of coloured marks across a flat surface – hovering in a mist of colour without sharp edges. Here too we find the denial of perspective drawing with its delineation of the object. For the Modernist there are no edges, there are just sensations.

In a letter from Patrick Heron, Davenport is advised to treat the design as a means for flattening the image; and, in so doing, becoming a vehicle for a more personal expression,

Why not paint a picture with nothing but a table-top (or a wide shelf) with a simple jug (with or without flowers) on it, placed toward one side or the other?.. I think you might try to construct a personal still life in this way, which would not rely directly on the visual evidence of any actual subject. I wonder what an Olga jug, an Olga table or Olga bottle would be like!?

The fired earth of the jug becomes a compositional element, the stems of the flowers sacrificed to the overall flatness of the composition. However, the paintings are not merely flat. Although the space is much more shallow than in perspective rendering, there is still a sense of the space being present, if not defined. This is achieved by layering colour so that light seems to come from behind the canvas. The painting seems to glow and the space that we experience is as lacking in definition as is the outline of jug or flower.

Even where there is an outline used, it is exploited to enable three dabs of green paint to stand for windows in a building. Here we might recall the phenomenological descriptions of ‘seeing imaginatively’ that we get from Sartre’s L’Imaginaire:

Or it might happen that some form detaches itself on the background and arouses eye movements by its structure. What we encounter here is almost always the phenomenon Köhler calls faint ambiguous forms, or forms that have an obvious and also a secret figure. The appearance of the latter depends upon a chance eye movement always (as, for instance, in raising the head, a line which we had noticed only as running from top to bottom on the wall paper is at the moment seen from bottom upwards, and the rest follows by itself). Here also the form is only outlined: for hardly have forehead and eye appeared when we already know it is a Negro. We complete the process ourselves by effecting a harmony between the real data of perception (the lines of the arabesques) and the creative spontaneity of our movements: that is, we supply the nose, mouth and chin ourselves.

Sartre is describing the act of imagining by which we come to see ‘quasi-representational’ content in a wallpaper pattern. The same sort of seeing happens when we see faces in clouds or demons in the burning embers of a coal-fire. But this imaginative phenomenon is what artists exploit in preparing surfaces such that we, the spectators, can fasten our experiences upon that surface. The outline shape of the building facilitates our seeing the green dabs as windows in the two buildings to the right of the dome in the picture below.

That combination of free line and wash of colour or shadow is at work in some of the drawings. Here the free line is able to negotiate the gap between the design of the surface at which we look and the insinuated content. She was much influenced by Cezanne and by Matisse and, as mentioned in the introduction, read avidly about these artists.

Indeed, these very European drawings anchor her work to a tradition that seems, to this viewer at least, absent from the work of the abstract expressionists whom we briefly considered in the last chapter.

This phase of Modernism, I feel sure, was right to concentrate on the nature of experience and to explore the nature of our experience of the world through the manipulation of the medium. It is in this exploration that we find an aesthetic dimension to the painting. The nature of the light and the reliance upon it to create space permits Davenport to imbue her work with the memory of the light of the landscapes of her native South Africa, her chosen landscapes in the south of France, in Cornwall and in the Sussex Downs. If we look at some of the more recognizable landscapes we can see how the colour is used to express a sense of place.

And again,

In both these landscapes the recognizable elements, trees, horizon, hill and field are not drawn so much as evoked by the intense colour – the sheer sensation of which brings to mind certain kinds of light at certain times of day. Here we might do well to remember Hans Hoffman’s perspicuous observation, "In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light." It is in the creation of light that the space is given in these beautiful paintings. The trees in the painting above, pushed to the right by driving winds confront the spectator on the plain of the red earth. Beyond this visual barrier the space opens as a deep and wide valley across which distant light from the evening sun catches water. The vastness of space and the light evoking place is captured in a series of distilled pictures in which the simple shapes of landscape combine to make a composition.

Abstraction, light, and the plasticity of the picture surface, were the focuses of Modernist artists in search of the experience of looking that ‘peeled off’ the visual world of cluttered discrete objects delineated in perspectival space.

At this moment I can imagine this same superb sun beating down into Markham Square and flooding your studio: only it would be just a tiny bit paler than it is here! The London dust filter! Darling – have you been to see the de Staëls yet? If so, what do you think? It is colour, in the abstract sense, that is your especial gift: the blues and greens of your London G- picture were superb. Paint colour, now, instead of things!
Patrick Heron

These pictures have a haunted feel about them – at once romantic and determined. They are robust in their Modernism and yet they retain a personal attachment to a lost landscape. The use of Modernist techniques that she gained in her education here in England retains the memory of a place far away. In the pictures you can feel the love of a remembered landscape. And yet there is optimism too. The pictures are joyous, bright and uplifting; youthful, I would want to say; girlish if that word did not now sound so ideologically loaded.

If we look again at images made during her development in this country we will see how these emotional paintings emerge from the work she was doing with the Modernists she would have met at Chelsea, at the Royal College of art and at Lanyon’s St Peter’s Loft. These are good paintings and belong to an artist whose career would have been stifled by the times in which she lived. (It cannot have been easy to work as a woman artist, even in the heady days of Modernism. Forward looking as it may have been, the main protagonists were, almost to a man, men.)

This last painting is a lovely evocation of olive trees growing out of the hard parched earth. I do not know where it was painted but it reminds me of the dry hot summers in the Spanish countryside. Again the hazed appearance of the painting evokes the atmosphere of a place, as if the heat softened the colour of leaf and earth and sky all at once. Again the light seems to bathe the scene and to emanate from the canvas. The simple flat colours at once define and deny the vastness of the terrain in which Davenport sat and distilled the colour and form to make a painting that is a vestige of an experience undertaken; and a delicate object to provide the counterpart of that experience in another.

I imagine this painting to be made in Britain. Some of her pictures were painted in the Downs. The worked land is recruited to the task of making a formal pattern in the landscape. Another version of this landscape uses the colour of the distant horizon to create the tension between pictorial depth and flatness. See how the foreground foliage is made of the same colour as the distant hill. This creates the simultaneous effect of space and its flattening – almost a paradox. It makes the space shallow and provides the occasion to alternate one’s attention between the surface and the scene. This, as we have seen in the case of twofold seeing, is a case of the spectator doing something with her experience, so that it is reconfigured in a continuous experience.

This landscape painting has something of the feel of a William Scott about its arrangement and composition. The colour, the space and the light, however, are all Davenport’s; the painting glowing under the warmth of a summer night’s sky.

This picture seems to me to be more connected to some of the surrealist painters with whom she would have been working. She was close to Prunella Clough and was much encouraged by Clough’s friendship. Indeed it is probably Clough’s ability, as a woman, to single-mindedly pursue a career as a painter that caused anxiety in Davenport, who was unable to devote the same amount of time to her work. Davenport on at least one occasion was decided upon giving up her work as a painter. In a letter from Patrick Heron he writes to her advising against her renunciation,

I’ve thought from time to time about what you were saying about giving up painting. And I’ve been meaning to write and tell you on no account to seriously consider dropping it. You’ve put too much into it and made too much progress altogether, to throw it all away. A temporary holiday from painting is often an absolute necessity, of course. By all means do that: give it a few months rest. Picasso stopped painting completely for over two years in the thirties, after all. And whatever one’s professional friends may say, or pretend, they all have longish periods of complete stagnation and almost total inactivity: William, Bryan, Roger, even Ben.

She did not give up painting, going on to exhibit in solo shows at the Piccadilly gallery in Cork Street in 1969 and 1976; and at the Oxford gallery in 1978. Despite her worry – the kind of worry that dogs most artists – she has amassed a coherent and estimable body of work. They are without doubt worthy of our attention; and rewarding of it.