Self-portrait in the form of an excited flock of birds- No.9a, Opus 66C, 1959

by Alan Davie


DIMENSIONS: (unframed) 16.0 x 21.0 in./40.6 x 53.3 cm
SIGNATURE: Signed and dated ’59’ lower right
MEDIUM: Oil on paper and laid down on canvas


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    Catalogue No: 5198 Categories: ,

    The 1950s is considered Alan Davie’s most successful and innovative decade and this energetic self-portrait, painted in 1959, encapsulates the best of that era with its beautifully bright colouration and free brushwork. Vibrant greens, pinks and yellows as well as bold black lines encircle each other to recreate the frantic movement of the birds.

    Davie had a passion for mystery, ritual and aboriginal art and he, himself, possessed a large collection of African, North-American Indian and Oceanic Art; a desire he developed in his twenties when he started to collect Indian art from junk shops in Edinburgh. Here Davie has represented himself as a flock of birds, a key motif in much Aboriginal art. Davie played with the concept of metamorphosis a year earlier with Anthropomorphic Figures No. 1, which was exhibited at the Whitechapel gallery and which effectively launched his career.

    Davie was the enfant terrible of post-war art, the first British artist – probably the first European artist – to embrace ’action painting’, to put himself physically in his pictures. Davie’s life completely embodies his work and the artist was not only a painter but also a talented musician. This devotion to jazz is seen in the title and the word ‘opus’ referring to this passion for music. In fact Davie referred to his act of painting as ‘like a dance’ and the vigorous gestural brushstrokes reminds the viewer of this. Davie’s urge and intensity to paint is evident in this striking work.


    Private Collection, United Kingdom

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    Born in Scotland in 1920, Alan Davie studied at Edinburgh College of Art between 1937 and 1940. In 1945 he saw the Tate’s exhibition of Picasso and Paul Klee, which changed the direction and reformed his work from that point onwards. The themes of shape generation and the juxtaposition of turbulent and geometric shapes is central to work of this time.


    After 1949 he adopted Jackson Pollock’s technique of rapid painting on canvas. Like Pollock, many of Davie’s works have been executed by standing above the painting, which is laid on the ground. He adds layers of paint until sometimes the original painting has been covered over many times. However, despite the speed at which he worked, he was adamant that his images are not pure abstraction, but all have significance as symbols.


    Davie found a public for his work on the continent and in America some time before the British art public could reconcile itself to his mixture of ancient and newly invented symbols and his explosive brushwork. His paintings appear at once apocalyptic and triumphant. In his lectures Davie stressed the importance of improvisation as his chosen method. His stance was that of an inspired soothsayer resisting the inroads of rational civilization.


    In particular, his painting style owes much to his affinity with Zen. Having read Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen in the Art of Archery (1953) he had assimilated the spontaneity which Zen emphasises. Declaring that the spiritual path is incompatible with planning ahead, he attempted to paint as automatically as possible, which intended to bring forth elements of his unconscious.


    Davie’s paintings can be seen in galleries and museums worldwide including the Tate and the Scottish National Museum of Modern Art.


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