BRYAN WYNTER by Michael Bird
Reviewed by Jim Burns
By chance this book arrived for review while I was in Cornwall to see the Peter Lanyon retrospective at Tate St Ives. Lanyon and Bryan Wynter both belonged to that almost-legendary group of artists (Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, John Wells, and Patrick Heron were others) who for a time made St Ives into a world-class centre for abstract painting, Their work, paralleling but not imitating that of the American Abstract Expressionists, attracted the attention of critics and cultural commentators, though sometimes inviting ridicule from the public. The 1961 Tony Hancock film, The Rebel, probably summed up the typical attitude of many people when faced with a large abstract canvas. Let's laugh at it or dismiss it as a gigantic con trick.
I don't want to extend these comments into an investigation of the value of abstract art. Nor do I want to try to evaluate what was produced by the St Ives group as a whole. It's obvious that, as in any period, there was good, bad, and indifferent work done. But my viewing of the Peter Lanyon exhibition convinced me that he was a major artist, and what I've seen of Bryan Wynter's work over many years, together with reading Michael Bird's book, has persuaded me that he was perhaps the most significant of the painters now known as the St Ives School.
Bryan Wynter was born in 1915, the son of a successful businessman who saw him as his natural successor as manager of the family firm. Wynter had different ideas, though, and possibly picked up influences from his grandfather who, even though he'd started the family laundry business, had always been interested in other matters, such as the activities of the Swedenborg Society, science, and travel. Wynter also had an aunt who encouraged him to take an interest in painting and poetry. His father reluctantly agreed to Wynter attending evening classes in art and eventually a full-time course at the Slade. Teaching there in the 1930s was traditional in its approach and students were expected to become skilled in academic drawing and painting. It was often an accusation hurled against abstract artists that they painted that way because they lacked the skills to do otherwise but examples of Wynter's early work in Bird's book indicate that he was a good draughtsman.
While Wynter was studying he had encountered the work of the surrealists. There had been a large surrealist exhibition in London in 1936 which Wynter saw and was impressed by. According to Bird, his interest was aroused by surrealism's "debt to Freudian psychoanalysis and its left-wing assertively anti-bourgeois stance" because he wanted to assert his own individuality against "the claims of upbringing and convention." I think it should be noted that Wynter's interest in politics doesn't appear to have been strong. His "personal philosophy was based, in any case, on a perception that sought-for freedoms had more to do with his own state of mind and way of life than with a desire for political or cultural change."
The onset of the Second World War disrupted Wynter's studies and, as a conscientious objector, he was sent to work as an assistant in laboratories in Oxford which were using animals to test the effects of bomb blasts. It's probably fair to say that his wartime experiences were less onerous that they might have been in different circumstances. He could still draw and paint, even if there were difficulties obtaining materials, and he met a variety of interesting people linked to the theatrical, literary and artistic world of Oxford. He could also visit his family, though relations were not always easy. In a letter to a woman friend in 1945 he said of his father and mother: "to live trivially is bad enough but to do it on such a vast and expensive scale is utterly dismal. Materially they have gained all they ever wanted and all it has brought them is disappointment and a constant round of fatuous occupations." There's a pointer here to Wynter's later attitudes towards domesticity and its routines.
Wynter had visited St Ives briefly in 1942 but was suspicious of its bohemian reputation and the talents of its then-resident artists. Away from the town was a different matter and the area around Zennor appealed to him. In 1945, freed from his wartime obligations, he went again, intending to stay for a short period but settling there for 30 years. And it's at this point that his identification with St Ives began, at least in the eyes of other people. He was never convinced that he was a member of a group. His need to feel free of all ties played a part in this, but he wasn't an unsociable type of person. He had friends and seems to have been well-liked, and he mixed easily with other artists and with local people when he had to. But his artistic influences were somewhat different to those of many of his associates in the artistic world of St Ives. I've already referred to his interest in surrealism and another influence was the English Neo-Romantic movement of the 1940s. Herbert Read had, in the 1930s, declared that "Surrealism in general is the Romantic principle in art," and had cited Blake, Shelley, and Samuel Palmer as proto-surrealists. Wynter's early work had affinities with that of 40s artists like Cecil Collins, John Minton, John Craxton, and Graham Sutherland. With the United Kingdom cut off from foreign influences and artists unable to travel except in uniform there was a turning inwards and a renewal of interest in the local landscape. I'm not sure that Wynter really identified totally with Neo-Romantic ideas, though he spoke enthusiastically about individual members of the movement, but his early work can be seen as sharing certain themes relating to the natural world and its impact on the imagination. In 1983, when the Barbican mounted a large exhibition called A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-1955 it included Wynter's "Landscape with Skull," which can be seen as combining a fascination with landscape with the dark mood of wartime.
Wynter had found an old cottage at Zennor and soon established himself there. It had no electricity, telephone, or running water, but it suited his temperament and he told his mother that the lack of amenities didn't bother him: "The Carn provides me with my own particular brand of amenities, an enormous access to & experience of this wild corner of England which still holds out against the slow insidious invasion of garden suburb and slum." He established contact with writers and artists in the area and Sven Berlin became a friend as did the poet, W.S.Graham. For a time some of his closest neighbours were the Moors Poets, a shifting group which included George Barker, David Wright, John Heath-Stubbs and John Fairfax. Some of them occasionally stayed with Wynter, but as Bird notes: "For all his rejection of social convention and consumer comforts, Wynter liked to maintain a certain order in his living and working arrangements," and he wasn't too happy when visitors left clothes and other things lying around in an untidy way. Money was a problem during these early days at Zennor. Wynter had a small allowance from his father which covered some basic needs, but success and sales didn't come easily or early to him and other St Ives artists of the post-war years.
He had been moving towards a more-abstract style in the early -50s, though the impulse that drove the paintings still came from the world he could see around him. It's easy to identify a house, a hill, and other objects in the 1951 "Blue Landscape," for example. But there's no doubt that a year or two later his work was less concerned with representing what his eye could see. Was he heading in the same direction as the American Abstract Expressionists? It's unlikely that Wynter had seen many, if any of their paintings other than in magazines, though this changed in the mid-1950s when the Tate in London put on a large exhibition of American modern art. And it was around this time that he met Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin who both seem to have had an influence in terms of how paint was applied to the canvas. There was certainly a change in Wynter's conception of what a painting should do, and Bird neatly describes the key 1954 "Dark Landscape" when he says, "the landscape of the title has crossed the border into mindscape."
Various other factors came into play. Wynter experimented with mescalin, something that he did in a deliberate and systematic way. He was familiar with Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and its account of his experiences with mescalin, and Wynter was, according to Bird, "an artist for whom the life of the mind was at once a continual, self-renewing source for his art and a side of his personality that he was forever trying to outwit in the quest for 'true seeing.' In this game of psychological hide-and-seek, art abetted the unconscious in its attempts to avoid being swamped by the rational mind." Mescalin was a way of expanding his mind and his art, and it does appear to have worked in that way for several years, at least. It wasn't that he produced anything of great value when actually under the influence of the drug but rather that the experience of taking it fed into his subconscious and helped shape a new approach to painting. It was in the five or so years following 1956 that he created what many people consider his most significant work.
Wynter was well-read and very intelligent but didn't care to talk too much about art. His brother recalled that he "would talk about inventions, people, jazz, poetry, about underwater, about discoveries on walks," but "he didn't talk much about art at all." This shouldn't be seen as evidence of inarticulacy when it came to his own work. He said, "I think of my paintings as a source of imagery, something that generates imagery rather than contains it. Obviously it is I who have put into them what they contain but I have done so with as little conscious interference as possible, allowing them at every stage in their growth to dictate their own necessities." This is an illuminating statement in relation to the sort of paintings that Wynter was producing in the late-1950s. Bird backs it up in his own way when he says that the earlier works had an abstract tendency but still seemed "to refer to something he could touch," whereas with the later work, "it was the painting that came first, generating the viewer's experience without direct reference to anything else."
By this time Wynter was well-known and his work was exhibited around the world and written about in major art journals. Some serious commentators saw him as the only possible rival to the leading painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement. But, as Bird makes clear, he was never an "action painter," in the sense of someone like Pollock who dripped paint onto a canvas and indulged in spontaneous gestures. Wynter claimed to keep "conscious intention at bay while he worked," but "skilful construction" was always a necessity for him. Canvases were often worked on over a period of weeks or months, and it's mentioned that the dazzling "Wolf Country" was started in 1957 but not finished until 1961. The initial idea for a painting may well have been something that originated in the subconscious, and its first expression may well have been made without "conscious intention," but its final realisation necessitated a more-considered application of paint.
Tastes in art had started to change in the early-1960s, with aspects of figurative art becoming more important. And Pop Art captured the imagination of young artists and audiences and lent itself to being publicised in newspapers and magazines. It seemed in touch with the mood of the 1960s. Interest in the St Ives artists waned. Wynter had a heart attack in 1961(he was a heavy smoker and liked large fry-ups) and this may have slowed him down, but his restless and enquiring mind was also leading him into other areas of artistic activity. He'd always been interested in kinetic art and constructed a number of IMOOS (Images Moving Out Onto Space) which were exhibited but didn't sell too well. His paintings also changed as the Sixties developed. Bird's book reproduces a number of works from the late-1960s and early -1970s and I can't help thinking that they lack the power and subtleties of the late -1950s canvases. I can reach into those and can draw emotionally from what they offer but can only see shapes and colours without real depth in the later work. This may imply some shortcomings in my analysis of the paintings and Michael Bird writes enthusiastically about them. He refers to a "meander motif" in them and stresses how Wynter's fascination with the patterns that water makes was a key influence behind the paintings. Wynter had read Theodore Schwenk's book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air, and already had an interest in the work of Jacques Cousteau and in activities such as canoeing and kayaking. According to Schwenk, "naturally flowing water always follows a meandering course," and he added that the meander "is an archetypal principle of flowing water that wants to realise itself, regardless of the surrounding material." It's obvious why Schwenk's theories appealed to Wynter and translated into his paintings. And it's also possible to see how the meander paintings had affinities with his experiments with kinetic art, the ripple effect being common to both.
It has been suggested that Wynter's later work, with its intensity of colour and lighter impact, was partly shaped by his awareness of the possibility of a second major heart-attack. He suffered from angina and Bird refers to "the kind of serene final phase so often seen in artists' careers," and which comes with an acceptance of the inevitability of death. In February 1975, Wynter did have another heart-attack which killed him.
There is little doubt that, at the time of his death, Wynter's reputation in the art world had declined, along with most of the other members of the St Ives School of the 1950s. Changing fashions had pushed their work into the background. But Wynter never had been the kind of artist who went in for self-promotion and his ideas about artistic integrity and his reluctance to get involved with a consumerist society put him at odds with those who thought of artists as fashion-icons who convinced people of their talents by making lots of money. Someone described him as a "natural outsider," and Bird says that even his involvement with the "artistic factions and rivalries in St Ives was largely tangential." He was represented in the large Tate exhibition, St Ives 1939-1964;Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, in 1985. Is it too much to hope that, following the recent Peter Lanyon retrospective, Tate St Ives will now focus attention on Bryan Wynter?