Domain of the Serpent 1951
Oil on board
104 x 128 cm
Opus no. 075
Gimpel Fils, London;
Private Collection, Scotland;
Private Family Trust, London
D. Hall & M. Tucker, Alan Davie, London 1992, p. 169, no.75
A. Rose, Alan Davie, Brussels, exh. cat.1992, no.1
London 1952, 6 Paintings, Gimpel Fils (?)
Brussels 1992, Alan Davie, BP Europe, 15 Oct - 14 Nov 1992
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Alan Davie was the first British painter - and perhaps the first of all European artists - to realise the vitality and significance of American Abstract Expressionism. When a retrospective of Davie’s work was held in 1958 at the former Wakefield Art Gallery, it was seen by a young David Hockney. The influence of Davie's mark making, surface texture and empty space resound throughout Hockney’s early paintings at the Royal College of Art the following year. This influence was explored very successfully recently in an exhibition 'Alan Davie & David Hockney: Early Works' held at the Hepworth Wakefield in 2020.
Alan Davie in his studio in the late 1940s
Having seen the Jackson Pollock & Paul Klee's paintings from Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in Venice in 1948, Davie was inspired to begin painting on a much larger scale, in an improvisatory way, with a vigorous, aggressive handling of paint. Peggy Guggenheim purchased her first work by Davie at an exhibition he held at Galleria Sandri, in Venice in December 1948 - “Music for an Autumn Landscape” (opus 36), now in the Tel Aviv Art Gallery. Guggenheim recalls in her 1960 memoir “Confessions of an Art Addict” strolling through Campo Man in seeing Davie’s work and mistaking it for a Pollock.
In 1950 he abandoned the human body as a measuring stick - from now on, the latter, when it appeared, was in such a divided state that it was hardly identifiable - assuming an intrinsic dimension, a step away from reality. His compositions, based on the authority of the features, similar to those of Klee enabled the painting to truly occupy the entirety of the plane. Alan Davie added to a concentration of colour - already a remarkable feature in Pollock’s work before 1945 - the possibility of recognizing shapes, suggestions of movement and primitive, magical rituals.
A key work from this period was realised in 'Interior Exterior 1950' now in the Hepworth Wakefield Museum. 'Domain of a Serpent 1951' echos many of the motifs Davie introduces in the 1950 work, but here Davie develops more his attention to impasto'd surface and 'magic boxes' filled with the tension of his expressionist brushwork.
Hockney paid particular attention to the surface and impasto Davie created in this early Fifties works of which 'Domain of the Serpent 1951' is a prime example. Not seen in a generation, the work comes to market from a Family Trust and represents a rare opportunity to acquire a major work of British Abstraction from its chief protagonist during its genesis in the early 1950s.
In that formative year 1948, Davie travelled on his deferred scholarship, due to his war service, and with his wife Bili hitch-hiked across Europe, first to Paris, where they met up with the CoBrA painter and fellow Scots, William Gear & Stephen Gilbert, and then on towards Italy. As Davie explained in his essay ‘I Confess’: ‘Father being a painter, gave me one day some paints and a canvas, and I was able to approach the temple doors of this unknown dream world. Then I didn’t know the way, or was shy, or no one thought of showing me; so I contented myself sitting there outside, and fell in love’ (July-October 1963)
Alan Davie `Interior Exterior 1950' Hepworth Wakefield Museum
David Hockney "Study for Doll Boy 1960' Tate
On a visit to America in the last year of Pollock’s life, Davie would form a close relationship with the artist. That year, in 1956, Davie had his first one-man show at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York which sold out to great critical acclaim. Paintings were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo.
In a poem, written by Daive for an exhibition later in 1963 he attempted to understand this early period work, where he was constantly travelling and absorbing new art:
I married me a wife, and we went away together, and we found
the mountains and the snows together, and the Italian
sunshine, and the marvelous mosaics and the gold and the
white and the pink and the bottlegreen sea. Then I really began
to paint in the way I had learned to write and to play jazz and
in the way I had learned to make love: and I learned that All is
in me and I in All; and I discovered that I really am a child for
evermore, and an animal still, thank God; just like them: my
parrot my canary my poodles my dachshund my cats my
budgerigars; they really know: and my little blond baby
daughter knows too.
(I Confess by Alan Davie, cited in exhibition catalogue, Visione Colore, Venice, Palazzo Grassi, July - October 1963).