William Scott, Orange, Black and White Composition, 1953 (oil on canvas)
Bit of both, really. See I’m no art expert, have no training in the field and know little more than the next man or woman. But I use my eyes and I like to look. So what do my eyes tell me about William Scott’s Orange, Black and White Composition which hangs in the Tate Britain gallery in Pimlico? Well, loads. Firstly there are no squiggles, it’s all straight lines, all geometric but in a haphazard way: the square angles are not perfect 90 degrees and the lines are not drawn with a ruler. As there is nothing curved, nothing circular, the initial impression is one of hardness rather than softness.
And what about the restricted palette, just three colours? What does the lack of bright colours, the lack of pastels, for example, what does that tell us? In fact the colours are all muddy, earthy, iron and coal sort of colours.
Do we have to like a painting in order to appreciate it? I think not. We can find it interesting; we can enter into a dialogue with it, but not necessarily find it beautiful. However, it may tell us more about ourselves than we imagine if we look hard enough, and its beauty may slowly emerge. If we dismiss it out of hand that may be our loss. First of all the painting is a product and represents the cumulative effect of many decisions, many thought processes and yes, many emotions. It’s too easy to say, “Don’t like it,” when it hangs in a gallery crowded with other paintings that on the surface are far more attractive.
Whenever we see a frame we peer into its contents as though it were a window or mirror. Not all mirrors have shiny silvery surfaces. Hamlet, for example, holds a mirror up to his soul when he asks the old chestnut, and we call that a soliloquy, but in the plastic arts, paintings are soliloquies too! It’s all questions, questions, questions, and sometimes, but rarely. . . answers. Art is consciousness directed into an expressive form, shape, contour; it is a process of inclusion and exclusion, of affirmation, and a rejection of denial. Scott’s composition is essentially a frame with a view and with no view, a view of no view; it is opaque, there’s nothing to see, except perhaps what we see within ourselves as we observe it. Nothing really representational. It is abstract but the shapes are real and familiar. Personally, I find the painting endearing, the textures and the planes are an invitation that draws me in, perhaps to an inner landscape: hardness gives way to softness, and the simplicity with which he handles three colours is, to me, a virtuoso performance. So there!
Said enough? On your bike, sonny Jim? Stick to what you supposedly know? Blaggard?
William Scott (1913-1989) one of seven children, was born in the Scottish port of Greenock. In her brief study of Scott’s art, Sarah Whitfield writes: ‘His parents lived in a small flat at the top of the tall granite tenement near the quay. And it was there he spent his early childhood. He never forgot the grim aspect of those impoverished surroundings. Scott himself wrote: “There were lots of bridges and tunnels, stations and steps, stone bridges you went over and iron bridges you went under – bits of ground between streets that had never been built on growing nettles.”’ When he was eleven years old the family moved to Enniskillen in Co. Fermanagh, by the banks of Lough Erne.
In the mid 1950s, Scott (pictured right in his self-portrait) criticized hard-edged abstract art as ‘too smartly done, too beautifully done, too tasteful, too perfect. . . so well done one loses a sense of humanity about it.’ He also spoke of his belief in ‘the beauty of things badly done’. Whitfield again: ‘His disregard for perfection also allowed him to stay nearer to the messy vitality of life, to keep hold of the struggle and tension that had gone into the making of a composition.’