Scottish painter, poet, jazz musician, and jewelry designer Alan Davie rose to international prominence in the 1950s and 1960s for his paintings that explored spiritual and cosmic themes through a combination of symbols gleaned from cultures around the world. Executed with a bold gestural sensibility that was very of its moment, these canvases incorporate elements of visual culture from diverse sources, including Navajo, Aboriginal Australian, Coptic, Inuit, Carib, and Jain traditions, in an effort to reach an underlying universal meaning. Davie said of his work that he was “engaged in a shamanistic conjuring up of visions which will link us metaphorically with mysterious and spiritual forces normally beyond our apprehension.” (1)
Davie travelled in Europe in the late 1940s, where he encountered the work of Paul Klee and later developed a relationship with Peggy Guggenheim. He often enjoyed private visits to her collection while staying in Venice, where he would have seen early, totemic works by Jackson Pollock. This friendship opened doors for Davie when he traveled to New York in 1956, where he met Williem de Kooning, Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and other members of New York’s avant-garde. Consequently, Davie became “the first European painter to see and appreciate the significance of the emerging New York School.” (2) Davie’s appreciation for elemental forces and interest in Jungian psychology made him sympathetic to the zeitgeist of Abstract Expressionism. Like many artists of the New York School, Davie’s process was intensely physical. He often worked with his canvases on the floor, moving in and around them in a dance-like fashion akin to Pollock’s well-recorded methods. However, Davie’s work is imbued with an overall sense of play, creating a feeling of lightness that contrasts with Abstract Expressionism’s psychological heft.
Davie’s work also has an affinity with Surrealism’s goal of revealing elements of the visual world that lie beyond the real. The archaic and obscure symbols found throughout his paintings are the tools by which he reaches into this surreal space, utilizing Jung’s theory that by contemplating symbols one can explore “ideas beyond the grasp of reason.” (3) The elemental qualities of his work may also relate to the wild environment of the Cornish countryside, where Davie maintained a studio from the 1950s on and was an influential member of the artists’ community based in the seaside town of St. Ives.
Alan Davie was born in Grangemouth, Scotland in 1920 and attended the Edinburgh College of Art. His work can be found in numerous international collections, including the Scottish National Galleries, Tate London, Tate St. Ives, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. He has enjoyed solo exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery, London (1958); the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1962), the Bern Kunsthalle (1963), Barbican Gallery, London (1993), and at Tate St. Ives (2003), was awarded the top painting prize at the São Paulo Biennial in 1963, appointed CBE in 1972, and elected a senior Royal Academician in 2012. Davie passed away in 2014 at the age of 93.
1. Alan Davie, quoted in Andrew Patrizio, Alan Davie: Jingling Space. (London: Tate, 2003), 8.
2. Patrizio, 6.
3. Karl Jung, quoted in Patrizio, 9.
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