Undeniably Alan Davie is one of Scotland’s most internationally recognised artists, and 5 years after his death we take a look at the life and work of the great modern artist.

Throughout his life, Davie obsessively drew and painted, producing paintings of startling originality, and vitality. Combining imagery derived from different world cultures with a love of music and language, Davie’s paintings are a complex yet joyous celebration of creativity that combine the expressive freedom of abstraction with a wealth of signs, symbols and words.

Born in Grangemouth, Scotland in 1920, Davie went on to study at Edinburgh College of Art from 1938-40. As a young man he developed a love of the arts, wrote poetry and played the saxophone in a jazz band, which allowed him to travel widely around Europe. While on his travels Davie became deeply influenced by other painters of the Modern Art period, such as Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso, as well as by a wide range of cultural symbols. Davie then went on to develop his own unique form of expression combining mythic imagery, enigmatic symbols, later taking inspiration from African and Oceanic Art as well as Zen Buddhism.

Interestingly, many of Davie’s works have been executed by standing above the painting, which is laid on the ground. He added layers of paint until sometimes the original painting has been covered over many times. Despite the speed at which he worked, Davie often had several paintings on the go at once, sometimes taking years to return to complete one. However, he was adamant that his images were not pure abstraction, but instead all have significance as symbols.

Alan Davie
Self-portrait in the Form of an Excited Flock of Birds, No 9, By Alan Davie

Recently Acquired, Self-portrait in the form of an Excited Flock of Birds, is a fantastic work by Davie, painted in 1959 with the artist’s characteristically bright colours. During this period Davie was inspired by fast cars, gliding and scuba diving and as a result calligraphic forms and archaic motifs began to appear in his work.

In 1956, Davie moved to New York, where he met and saw the work of the Abstract Expressionists, and had a sell-out show—MoMA bought one of his paintings. In this year he took up a Gregory fellowship at Leeds University. A show at the Wakefield City Art Gallery transferred to the Whitechapel in 1958, launching his career alongside that of his fellow Scotsman, William Gear, and influencing a young David Hockney.

Alan Davie
Study for Figure Mask No.23, By Alan Davie

At the turn of the 1970’s, Davie embraced a bold new approach to his painting, signified by block colouring, definition by line and increased use of symbolist forms, which was prompted by spending part of each year in St Lucia. The move brought about a new dialogue with the art of non-Western ancient cultures and changed the way he worked; in cycles of 12 months with six months at his studio in St Lucia producing prolific series of drawings and gouaches.

This striking work by Davie, was painted in 1977, in Jamaica where his artistic style changed from loose brushwork to a more formal and structured composition and tighter handling of paint.

Alan Davie
Study for Figure Mask No.14, By Alan Davie

Another piece in the series produced two years prior in 1975 is study for a figure mask no.14.  It is highly reminiscent of another work of his, Study for a Figure Mask no. 24, (held in the National Galleries of Scotland) with its mesmerising tribal figures and its complex colour palette. Davie had a large collection of African, North-American Indian and Oceanic Art; a passion he developed in his twenties when he started to collect Indian art from junk shops in Edinburgh.

“It’s an urge, an intensity, a kind of sexual need. I don’t practice painting or drawing as an art, in the sense of artifice, of making an imitation of something. It’s something I do from an inner compulsion, that has to come out.” – Alan Davie



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