The Quest - Alastair Boyd

The Quest - Alastair Boyd

Alastair Boyd, Exhibition Catalogue for Miles Richmond y Ronda, Convento de Santo Domingo, Ronda, Andalucia, 2006

I first met Miles (Peter) Richmond in the winter of 1957. He was painting from the terrace of the house he and his wife had taken in the valley of Los Molinos, just beneath the Puerto de la Muela, diagonally facing Ronda. My wife and I set out on foot from the Hotel Victoria in search of him. When we found him, he seemed to be totally immersed in a kind of wrestling match with that complex landscape. I don’t think he was best pleased by the unexpected appearance of an unknown couple (albeit directed to him by a mutual acquaintance), but we soon become close friends and have remained so ever since. More than that, some ten or twelve years later we became colleagues, when I was running The International School in Spain, in Ronda and Seville, of which Richmond became art director.
Why was Richmond living in Los Molinos in 1957? He was there because of David Bomberg. He had been a member of the Borough Group, which had broken up in some acrimony, with advice from the master to each to go his own way. After a period in Aix-en-Provence, he and his wife, also a painter, moved on to Spain, invited by two old members of the Borough Group, Cliff Holden and Dorothy Mead. They spent some time together with other former Bomberg students, working in a disused sugar factory in Torrox. Whilst there, they learned that Bomberg and his wife Lilian were planning to return to Ronda, where they had been in the ’thirties. The other members of the group gradually returned to England. The Richmonds moved to Nerja on the coast, where they were visited by Bomberg and Lilian. Bomberg said this was no place to work in and they should come to Ronda, which they did. Bomberg’s plan had been to relaunch his school in Villa Paz in the old city, but that was not to be, as the landlord had given them notice to quit. Richmond helped Bomberg load his paintings onto a donkey cart for the journey to La Virgen de la Cabeza. Both families (the Richmonds by then with a baby daughter, Georgina) then lived in separate houses but close contact on the Cabeza ridge until Bomberg’s death in 1957.
What was behind all these upheavals? The answer is a quest…in essence a quest for a kind of painting that broke through the renaissance conventions of three-dimensional perspective, in order to reach and release the ‘spirit in the mass’, the vital energy or inner radiance at the core of nature. Others had of course attempted this: the impressionists through their exaltation of light; the cubists through their deconstruction of apparent forms; and expressionists through their emotional pouring of themselves like an exotic sauce over their subject. But impressionism for all its brilliance was superficial; Bomberg, after a successful cubist phase, abandoned it in 1914 as a dead end; while for the egoistical antics of the expressionists he had nothing but contempt. The quest was for nothing less than a new dimension or dimensions, or ‘the non-dimensional beyond the familiar dimensions’, for, says Richmond, ‘it has long been known that there are more dimensions than meet the casual eye. Bomberg in his pioneering work uncovered the possibility of further dimensions becoming visible. The Pop generation of the sixties turned its back on these exciting possibilities; entertainment and politics replaced research.’
In any study of Richmond and his work, it is vital to take account of his philosophical interests. The role of the artist is an honourable, indeed an essential one. But before he can go into action he needs a view of his own place in the universe, and to convince himself of the real existence of others. These ontological concerns are of course closely related to theories of vision and perception, which Bomberg and Richmond explored together. Bomberg himself believed he had found a major clue in the writings of Bishop Berkeley, whose A New Theory of Vision shows that all visual experience must lie within the consciousness, but Richmond was not satisfied with this, and was later to conclude that the artist must go outside the conscious mind to make contact with the ultimate reality. He sets out to engage with this difficult area by way of the imagination, which he sees as the only channel capable of opening up to the artist ‘the access to a vast realm, to which the visible is a frontier’ and of enabling him ‘to bring back as faithfully as he can, any intimations he may receive in his journeys over that frontier’. Furthermore, he seeks to embrace the other and otherness in general as part of himself. He wants to destroy ‘the taboo which keeps subject and object apart’. He quotes Martin Buber: 'Painting is a way of passing from the “I” to the “Thou”. ‘The hallmark of vision’, he says, ‘is a substance with inner radiance which, while strangely unfamiliar, affirms the reality and confirms the significance of the world we experience.’ ‘During the last century,’ he adds, ‘conception substituted for perception, imprisoning vision in mental chains’. It was Spinoza who produced the most exalted version of the process of perception: ‘The mind, in so far as it truly perceives a thing, is part of the infinite intellect of God.’
At a more pragmatic level Bomberg wrote in 1953, ‘I found I could more surely develop on the lines of Cezanne’s rediscovery that the world was round and there was a way out through the sunlight.’ Both men were deeply affected by, and indebted to, Cezanne and Richmond stresses again and again in his writings the importance of Cezanne’s dictum that the artist is neither above nor below nature but equal to it, neither inferior nor superior. ‘Picasso,’ he says, ‘may be the most familiar case of the artist “superior” to nature, and Coldstream (an English high priest of drab realism) of one “inferior” to nature. It divides the twentieth century between dull representation and superior personalities.’ In a manifesto from the Borough Group days Bomberg wrote, ‘We conceive of art as the density of cosmic forces compressed into a small space.’ Did Bomberg find or fashion a key into those cosmic forces? Richmond believes he did… in Toledo in 1929, ‘working in El Greco’s city’. It is interesting to note that both men had a penchant for a grand natural landscape, with or without grand human artefacts (e.g. Toledo, the Dome of the Rock, Ronda from la Cabeza, the peaks above Montejaque). ‘It was as if through confronting the objectivity of a grand subject,’ Richmond says of his teacher, ‘he could transcend his own subjectivity and express his own spirit in the mass.’ Even so, Bomberg in Richmond’s view ‘was still inclined to categorise in a traditional way, e.g. solid and void’. All these things were discussed exhaustively between Richmond and Bomberg during their period of close association in Ronda from 1954-7. It was an intimate and indeed, for Richmond, a crucial friendship, culminating harrowingly in Richmond’s accompanying the dying man by train down to Gibraltar, finessing the problem of his expired passport, and getting him into hospital there; after several weeks he was transferred to England, where he died shortly after arrival. Despite his years of apprenticeship, by the time of Bomberg’s death in 1957 Richmond had still had not found his own ‘key’. There were things Bomberg’s teaching hadn’t resolved. Bomberg had counselled him to go back to England to make his name there before it was too late. Richmond did not follow this advice. He hadn’t yet achieved the confidence to face London galleries. He still hadn’t sorted out what he wanted to say that wasn’t Bomberg, though he knew he wanted to go further than Bomberg and unravel that stubborn distinction between the solid and the void.
When Richmond returned eventually to Britain, he re-engaged actively with the artistic scene he had left behind nearly 20 years before. He taught, exhibited and gave talks at summer schools and elsewhere. One of his friends, then Principal of the Portsmouth College of Art wanted to install him as head of painting, but the teachers in the faculty, mainly Marxists, strenuously opposed the appointment and blocked it. Marx was no model for a painter whose heroes are Milton and William Blake, and who considers Damien Hirst, with his ‘manipulative jokes’, a totally corrupt and corrupting influence. Thus did Richmond become fully involved in the polemics of the art world. But these skirmishes on the frontiers of art teaching did not distract him from his quest. His long ‘interior journey’ to artistic maturity was due, I think, to the magnitude of the task he had set himself. As already noted, his overwhelming concern was and is to dissolve the barriers between subject and object, the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’, the seer and the seen. This involves something akin to a mystical experience, of which rationalists may be suspicious, but Richmond is clear that at some point you have to let go of yourself if you are to get a glimpse of the truth. He called one of his talks ‘The importance of going out of your mind’. But for this type of journey the artist needs a guide and who better than ‘the invisible companion who accompanies him always, variously known as spirit, angel, muse’?
Richmond put his trust in ‘angels’. ‘The spirit in the mass first appears in angelic forms. They inspire awe, having prophetic power. They foretell the birth of a form for the subject. When this appears the angel fades from view but remains within the form which would otherwise be an empty shell…. Since the more a form is studied, the more ambiguous it becomes, the angelic forms are light connectors between aspects of the form which the mind cannot reconcile. The resolution of the form comes through the creation of a volume of light, which reconciles what seemed impossible. The angels’ play an essential part in the creation of this volume of light. Using reflections of light from the surface of the subject the painter can map a complex volume of forms revealing it in the unified tone of colour… The painter’s ability to respond to light and gravity gives him the means to respond to the interactions, creations and recreations between them. Light becoming mass and mass becoming light [my italics]’.
For the experience that was to act as his ‘breakthrough’ and propel him through the barrier that had defied him for so long, Richmond had to wait till 1970. It happened in the new studio he had just added to their house in Camden Town. ‘There had always been a problem for me from early in the ’40s which Bomberg’s teaching hadn’t resolved,’ he writes. ‘If all the evidence for my sense impressions is within the mind, how am I convinced that the world is out there? When the studio was finished I started painting with the resolve I wouldn’t stop until I found an answer.’ He describes the experience in a talk to students at a summer school in Barry (Wales) in 1978 as follows: ‘Bomberg set me on the road of serious drawing and guided me for ten years until his death…. But always something seemed to elude me…Always between my model and myself appeared my idea, which was only a part of the whole, and separated me from it. Finally I set up a still life and said, as I picked up my brushes, “I will not put you down until I have penetrated this veil of my idea that always stands between me and my subject.” I became absorbed in the problems of representing the objects of this still life in this new space. My attention was gradually drawn out of my head, down my arm into the brushes. The brushes followed the subject that grew, as I knew it would, more complex and elusive, and I was drawn gradually right out of my mind. As the subject grew vaster my mind was forced to expand to contain it. I seemed to rise from the ground and ascend or expand towards the sun. Everything grew more and more significant and electrically intense as I approached the sun. I entered the sun, which is an experience for which there are no words, and continued to travel through the sun and out at the further side. [When] I returned to earth, it seemed an inexplicable mystery, but was explained to me as I returned to myself, I heard a voice say, “Now you are connected”.’ He had been painting non-stop for three days without laying down his brushes, scraping the board again and again when he was dissatisfied. The painting born in this traumatic fashion was ‘The Red Studio’, which occupies a central place in this exhibition. His experience in giving birth to it gave him ‘confidence in the key and the possibilities of revelation.’
‘The Red Studio’ is a watershed in Richmond’s work. It is a ‘celebration of a new found freedom’. It marks a break with the old earth colours that many people associated with Bomberg’s school, due it was said to the exigencies of poverty (earth colours are cheaper), and the primacy of drawing which did not require to be tricked out with fancy colours. Some of Richmond’s finest works were done within the restrictions of the ‘poor man’s palette’, but here is something triumphantly new. The viewer’s initial reaction may be to shrug it off as abstract, but it is important to note that Richmond always refers to his works as ‘representations’; they are not abstractions; they are the messages he brings back from a world invisible to the superficial glance. That old tyrant, perspective, has been dissolved in a new language of fresher, lighter colours: red, pink, mauve, orange, ochre, green, blue – all elbowing one another to get into the picture. But there is no chaos, no congestion, because of the all-embracing light which comes from behind them and unifies them all. It is a picture that is full of joy. Mass has become light.
Before ‘The Red Studio’ Richmond was in search of a key. Having found it, he has continued working ever since, on an almost daily basis, in pursuit of a revelation which he knows is within reach of his brushes. But this does not absolve him from a continuing struggle. Sometimes the key clicks, the lock turns, he has found the right combination, out pours the spirit of the mass and the picture is a success; at other times he fumbles, the key meets resistance, does not engage properly with the lock, the imagination falters, and he is defeated. Therefore Richmond cannot rest. In the last decades he has painted often at favourite sites in Yorkshire, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Richmond, Ripon and the ruined abbey of Rievaulx. In the late nineties he painted a major mural (36 ft long) for the London South Bank University in celebration of the millennium. With his son Bob he has made several trips to Rome, drawing from dawn till dusk from the Palatine to Trastevere, and making paintings back home, because of the difficulty of carrying all the paraphernalia of oil paints through the Roman streets. In general, though, he believes that a lot is lost in the studio, particularly the immediacy of the subject and the volume of the light. ‘Working in Spain under Bomberg’s guidance taught me that the light has a volume which must be reconciled with the structure of form. This has its problems, but their successful resolution can achieve a greater grandeur and luminosity than I find in the works of most twentieth-century artists.’
Grandeur and luminosity? We have already seen how both Richmond and Bomberg were stimulated by a grand landscape, but of the two qualities luminosity is the more vital ingredient; without it there is no real grandeur, only bombast. Luminosity is a synonym of radiance, which we have already encountered as a key concept in his approach to painting. ‘Until the mass is experienced as radiant, its expression cannot be realised in colour.’ Both luminosity and radiance imply a quality that shines from within outwards, which is the opposite of the traditional procedure, whereby an external light, the sun’s or a lamp’s, falls on and caresses solid objects and surfaces, creating shadows and highlights, on which the artist seizes with gusto to demonstrate his skill. This is not what Richmond is about. Remember, he is ‘breaking the taboo which keeps subject and object apart’. ‘My work,’ he says, ‘leads one to reject an assumption held for many centuries and reinforced by the pictorial science of the renaissance that I simply look out at the world. My experience suggests that I both look out and look in to the world, that identity is not monadic but bipolar, and that the world is literally within the mind of our complex identity. This fact has always been known, and understood, in a mystical sense.’ ‘Yet,’ he acknowledges, ‘inevitably my representations will hardly look recognisable to eyes conditioned by the Renaissance.’
Well, here on the walls of the restored Convent of Santo Domingo the great encounter between Richmond’s ‘representations’ and the average viewer ‘conditioned by the Renaissance’ now takes place. This exhibition is, in effect, a retrospective of sixty years of his work, and it is fitting that it should be here, where so much of his formative work was done in the late ’50s and throughout the ’60s. At one time, it began to look as if the Spanish thread was severed, but in recent years Richmond has picked it up again and found it to be intact. His visits to his daughter Georgina (who still lives in the house her parents bought after Bomberg’s death) have become more frequent. He has been seen again drawing under the Peñon del Mure and on the Cabeza ridge. Over 50 years have passed since he first grappled with these subjects, which are in a sense the anvil on which much of his later development was hammered out.
The exhibition begins with some large early works, the most impressive of which is ‘Duino’ (1948), which is a homage to the poet Rilke. When he painted it, he had no idea of Rilke’s connection with Ronda (though he would soon discover this from Bomberg). He was simply drawn to a poet who could rehabilitate angels in a modern context. It is a staggering painting on two panels (182 x 244 cm). Its colour range is early cubist; its sharply delineated verticals and diagonals could be made of cloth or paper or bandages or shrouds or flags or the angular folds of Flemish art of the fifteenth century…being stretched or opened or torn apart with the whisper of something about to break through from behind…or the shapes could be shards of splintered crystal or glass…or flames with icy depths…but whatever images suggest themselves, the whole seems to be pregnant with some imminent revelation. This serves as a paradigm of much of Richmond’s later painting, which is imbued with the sense of a veil on the point of being lifted, or through which shafts of divine light are already filtering. At the other end of the spectrum are such late works as ‘Storm on the North Yorkshire Moors’ (2003); and ‘Ronda from the Virgen de la Cabeza’ (2005), in which there is no description at all, the only language being that of colour. Light and mass have become one.
Between these two poles, the main bulk of the exhibition draws its inspiration from the Serrania de Ronda, including Montejaque, Grazalema and Zahara. In Richmond’s career this dramatic landscape was Vulcan’s forge. On entering the gallery, the immediate impression is one of vibrant energy. Each painting has the freshness of a new encounter; he continues to confront each canvas with the aim of unlocking and releasing the inherent ‘radiant energy’ trapped in the subject. He has never ceased from his quest, never surrendered to a mere formula. Note the progression from the mid-fifties when some of his pictures have a strong linear ‘scaffolding’, derived from Bomberg’s teaching (e.g. ‘Ronda with la Calle Real’ (1) and (2) of 1956 and ‘Ronda with the Church of Los Descalzos (2) of 1959), to only slightly later works, where lines are replaced by vital slashes, which do not confine like strings round a parcel but form part of the dynamic action of the painting, e.g.: the superb ‘Grazalema from below in bright sunlight’; ‘Rocks near Montejaque’ , a marvellously controlled explosion in which the rocky crest seems to have caught fire and dissolved its frontier with the sky; ‘Zahara with crimson centre’; ‘Zahara, the yellow one’ and ‘Ronda from the Puerto de la Muela’, a soaring vertical painting in browns and ochres with an orange sky. (This was probably the picture he was working on when I first thrust myself upon him.)
The paintings of this period (late fifties to late sixties) are by no means cast in a common mould; all are dramatic, and dynamic, but not necessarily in the same way. Some like ‘Rocks near Montejaque’ burst and fizz with an ecstatic animation; others like ‘Zahara, the dark hill’ and Sunset over the Mure (1)’ convey a massive but ominous calm, as if the explosion is still to come. One of the jewels of this period is ‘Ronda from below’, in which a great Goyaesque mass in browns and ochres humps up into a mauve sky, as if about to take off, but somehow just held down by gravity. All these paintings are impregnated with actual or potential movement, straining and surging against the inexorable force of gravity. In some cases, e.g. ‘Green and orange cliff with Casa Mondragon’, the cliff rears up defiantly against the churning sky in a masterpiece of harmonic tension between the two elements; in others, like ‘Casa Salvatierra with part of Ronda’, the sky drives down like a blazing fist against the mass, but both are held to together by their gloriously shared colour. In a later work, signed Miles (he signs thus from the mid eighties), called ‘Grazalema, 3’, the sky is squeezed out except for two small whitish wedges by the great heaving ruddy mass with strokes of green to indicate a gully and the mountain town itself thrillingly adumbrated in strokes of red; the potent landscape has usurped almost the whole canvas and put the sky to flight.
Proceeding chronologically, we come to new departures. I have already stressed the pivotal role of ‘The Red Studio’. It is followed shortly by ‘Studio with still life’, a fresh lively painting, using the new ‘prettier’ palette and sharing the exuberance of its prototype. In ‘Olive trees, house and red hill’ of 1973 ( in olive green, turquoise, orange and red) the shapes merge and overlap, as if to suggest their total interdependence, while ‘The Green Hill’ of the same date is a ‘pot-pourri’ of short, active strokes spreading from edge to edge with no defining shapes. It looks as if Richmond, in his work of this period, wanted to signal his new-found independence from Bomberg. Among his more recent works, ‘Storm on the North Yorkshire Moors’ of 2003 is an atmospheric painting, in which land and sky have intermingled in a whirligig of colour, which could equally be an angry sea. However, there are some canvases in which there are no elemental identities, because they are indissolubly merged; such are ‘Rievaulx, the stormy one’ and Rievaulx, the calm one’, both of 2004. In such paintings colour and tone become form and vice versa. Richmond has finally eliminated that old distinction between the solid and the void, subsuming the one into the other.
Perhaps the single most constant thread running though Richmond’s art is his integrity. He has never taken advantage of meretricious tricks or superficial adornments to give a false allure to his work. Although many of his paintings are self-evidently landscapes, there are others that seem more hermetic at first sight, in that the artist provides no easy route into the painting. But one must not make the mistake that these are ‘abstract’ or even ‘abstract expressionist’ paintings; they are no such thing. He himself describes all his works as ‘representations’. They represent the fruit of his contact with the spirit or ‘radiant energy’ of his theme, which lives behind conventional appearances. Above all, he is a great master in the use of colour, and it is through the language of their colour harmonies and sequences that many of his pictures breathe and speak. Paul Trewhela, a long-standing admirer and exegete of Richmond’s work, wrote recently, ‘Especially his later paintings…are works to which the unconscious sense of the viewer may respond immediately, but which yield up their particulars only over time. Often they continue to puzzle and engage attention, and commit the viewer to an ongoing, uncompleted, open-ended relationship with the works; they are paintings that elicit a living relationship from the viewer, a viewer’s work of discovery…’ That is well said. These are works to revisit. One always discovers something new.
[F/N All quotations are, unless otherwise indicated, taken from Richmond’s comprehensive letter to me of 16 May 2006, to which he attached extracts from his unpublished notebooks and some talks; I have treated all this material as a single source.]