Alan Davie, who was born in Grangemouth in 1920 and died last year, was undoubtedly one of Scotland’s foremost painters. This show presents 12 of his best known, most representative works, across six decades. The large vivid oil paintings chart Davie’s development and cover some of his major thematic concerns.
Davie’s letters, notebooks and poetry all refer to the importance of colour, not only to his painting but also to the way he lived his life. Davie and his wife, Bili, had three homes: a main residence and studio in Rush Green, near Hertford, a holiday home in Cornwall and a third in St Lucia, where they would spend the winter. All three were suffused with colour, whether it was the interior of his Hertfordshire home, the underwater landscapes and forests of the tropics, or the flowers and rocks of the Cornish cliff tops. All played a part in feeding the artist’s imagination and generating artistic energy.
Davie, who was also a professional jazz musician, wrote: “At the right moment, the orchestration of colour forms itself into an ordered harmony . . . I am breathing a colour-saturated air: a deep breathing a true inspiration of light. Colour is a veritable stuff of my life.”
The paintings here are, however, about more than colour and arrangement. They do of course share much with musical form, particularly jazz, and to ask what they “mean” or what they are “about” makes as much sense as asking the same thing about a passage of jazz. The paintings are about themselves as much as anything and can be seen as essays in creative intuition, composition and arrangement.
Davie held a long interest in the work of Carl Jung and in particular the psychotherapist’s work on symbolism and archetypes. Davie’s work is full of symbols: figures, snakes, chess boards, spirals, stars and crosses. The earliest piece here, Pagan Dance (1948), shows a clear interest in the bold abstraction and symbolism that characterised his career, even if the colours are more subdued and the composition less animated.
From the 1950s Davie began to incorporate words and sentences into his paintings, along with a more complex esoteric symbology, full of talismans and totems. A phrase from one of these paintings might be seen as a credo, or even a manifesto, for Davie’s approach to art: “Images are not made as art objects but as channels of communication with the Divine.” The words bring Davie’s approach close to that of the shaman, who acts as an intermediary between the temporal and the spiritual worlds. The painting itself is a large work and depicts a mandala against a red and green background; amid symbols of the cosmos there is a large Egyptian cross, which represents the idea of eternal life.
Davie managed to steer a delicate path between various occult symbolisms and New Age mysticism. This frees him from charges of fashion following and also allows the claim to be made that his work operated free of some of the main trends and influences in contemporary art. It’s possible, with some justification, so see his work in some ways as what Jean Dubuffet termed art brut, or outsider art, although Davie was too sophisticated and historically aware to properly qualify as a true outsider.
The parkland setting of Callendar House, a stone’s throw from Davie’s childhood home and his 1977 mosaic in Grangemouth town centre, makes this an appropriate and magical setting for the work of this internationally acclaimed artist.