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Visual arts >

Somewhere for contemplation

Richard Davey sees 50 years’ work


WHAT is the taste of colour? It might seem absurd to describe a work of art through the sense of taste rather than sight, but, as a response to the work of Albert Herbert, it is somehow appropriate.

Usually colour is used as a tool to depict the world; at times it even takes on a symbolic or expressive quality; but just occasionally it becomes a visceral experience, a celebration of itself as a raw and sensuous pleasure.

With bold brushstrokes Herbert weaves a luscious tapestry across his picture surfaces as he deposits a bright pink next to a vivid blue, or a stab of purple across a khaki green. The viewer’s response is then one of consumption, tasting and devouring the surface with the tongue of the eye.

A retrospective of Herbert’s paintings in London gives us a chance to feast our eyes. Here are the familiar paintings from his recent shows, whose dream-like world began to emerge into the open from the 1980s.

But here are also some of the paintings from the early 1950s, whose depiction of London scenes and family life still show the influence of his time at the Royal College of Art and his friendship with members of the "Kitchen Sink" school of painting.

There may be more than 50 years separating the oldest from the most recent paintings in the exhibition, but his fascination with colour, and the brushstrokes that apply it, serve as a bridge across the decades.

The staccato strokes of blue that pick out the sky in Landscape Box Hill, c.1950, are the same as those that touch the top of the canvas in Family in Garden, 2001/04. The early paintings may have their roots more clearly in the real and observable world, but colours still turn up in unexpected places, as green becomes the shadow for pink, or the colour of the sky.

A number of themes also span the gap. His landscapes might no longer submit themselves to the limiting scale of human proportions or be observed from life, but the family playing on Wanstead Flats in 1951 can still be seen playing in gardens in 2004. The idea of interior spaces is also a recurrent idea, although the viewers’ perspective has changed.

In 1951, He looks in from the Garden placed the spectator inside the room, looking out at the man in the garden. But now, in paintings such as Burning Bush, 2001, we are the ones outside, looking in at those staring out at us from inside.

But there is also a distinct division between the early and late works. The sophisticated observation of the external world that can be seen in the 1950s has been replaced by the exuberance and innocence of a child in the later works.

But this is only appropriate, for his paintings have become the archaeological records of an internal, subjective state rather than an external, objective reality. With fleeting brushmarks and rapidly sketched symbols, they seek to capture a transient sensation, or dream, before it passes into oblivion.

But, as with any journey into the subjective unconscious, there are many layers and partially glimpsed insights that leave only an insubstantial record of their passing. A thought pops into our heads, but before we can grasp it it has gone, leaving only the sensation that something had been there.

This is echoed in the many layers of Herbert’s paintings. Like an archaeologist, the viewer latches on to specks of colour that are glimpsed below the surface, the record of other beginnings and alternative thoughts that have long since been obscured, but whose presence makes up part of the work’s particular identity.

Within these sensuous fields full of colourful archaeology, Herbert places archetypal symbols that capture an idea: a house or temple, a mother or child, Jonah and the whale, a footprint, a burning bush. He creates an emotional space that allows us to contemplate ideas and emotions such as love, family, hope, redemption, and communication with the Divine.

But the symbols are not just pictorial. Words inhabit these landscapes as well. They have squeezed themselves out of the earth to become a graffiti that proclaims the world as a place resplendent with God. They point the way to him, are a visualisation of the world’s own hidden poetry.

The most recent works in the show retain the vibrancy of the earlier paintings, but they have also become more elegiac. Now we see Herbert himself as an old man looking back at his younger self. We see him in his war service.

And we find a recurrent figure climbing a ladder into the clear blue of the sky, while the hands of a nearby clock point to 11.50. It is a figure poised in mid-air, still attached to the earth, but suspended on the threshold of heaven, waiting and looking.

This is what Herbert paintings do. They seem to transport us to a space of contemplation, in which we are able to remember those dreams and thoughts that inspire our own faith and hope.

"Albert Herbert: Fifty Years of Painting" is at England & Co., 216 Westbourne Grove, London W11, until 12 June. Phone 020 7221 0417.

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