Andrew Lambirth

The painter who channelled the forces of gravity

Plus: When Joan Miró met Eduardo Chillida

The painter who channelled the forces of gravity
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The Last Waltz: New Work by an Old Man

Hastings Arts Forum, 36 Marina, St Leonards-on-Sea, 21 June to 2 July

Chillida on Miró

Ordovas, 25 Savile Row, W1, until 26 July

Tragically, Ian Welsh (1944–2014) did not live to see this exhibition of his latest work. Diagnosed with terminal cancer on the eve of his 70th birthday, he struggled to finish the two large paintings in his last series of works, entitled ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’. He found it increasingly difficult to stand to paint, but he worked, sitting down instead, on a group of six small canvases that have a mysterious linear assurance worthy of the best of late de Kooning. Welsh desperately wanted to see his new work up on the refurbished walls of his local gallery, Hasting Arts Forum, of which he was a passionate supporter, acting as chairman until very recently. But despite his fortitude and remarkable good spirits, he died just three weeks before the exhibition opened. During that last period, his friends witnessed a man at peace with himself who was able to look back on a life of varied achievement, and who was determined to distil every last ounce of joy out of the business of daily existence.

Ian Welsh began painting early in life, though there was more music than visual art in his background, and his determination to go to art school came as something of a surprise to his parents. His early training at Regent Street Polytechnic, under such teachers as Dennis Creffield, Norman Blamey and Leon Kossoff, stood him in good stead for Chelsea School of Art, where he was taught by Patrick Caulfield and John Hoyland among others. Welsh moved from painting into sculpture, under the inspired tuition of George Fullard, left college and began to make his way as an artist and teacher. He was always prepared to take on other work to make ends meet, whether customised car spraying or pig farming, house renovation or estate agency, but he had a special vocation for teaching. He taught painting at Harlow Technical College and Norwich School of Art, and ran his own independent art school in Suffolk, latterly taking up the job as head of painting at the Vestlandets Kunstakademi in Bergen, Norway (1989–91). He had a supremely holistic attitude to life and saw all his varied activities as part of the same broad artistic path, with art defined as the creative solving of problems.

From sculpture he moved back to painting and printmaking, inventing his own methods of using new materials such as synthetic acrylic lacquer. His lacquer paintings of transparency and reflection, specifically of ice and water, led to another development of technique in which he drew with air, using the compressor of his spray gun to move the paint around on the board. Paintings of Cornish and Mediterranean subjects (light on shallow water at sunset) led to a reinvestigation of Norwegian themes, and particularly of the meltwater from the Hardanger glacier, at the head of the Hardanger fjord. A series of dramatic vertical black-and-white panels of meltwater were the direct predecessors of the ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ series, in which Welsh harnessed the forces of gravity to make richly seamed abstract paintings of great and poignant beauty.

Welsh described the genesis of the Meltwater series: ‘If one is lucky enough to stand at the foot of the ice cliff which is the permutation of the Hardanger glacier, the world suddenly changes from iridescent blues and greens to mysterious blacks, flickering with pure white light, indicating the liquid thrust which has been the water trapped for thousands of years.’ Light is the key to these late works, the affirmation and optimism of light, which glows from the potent and unusual colour combinations of the ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ paintings. These apparently abstract paintings are all about direct experience of the real world, and trying to find a painterly equivalent for the personal nature of those discoveries. Welsh had embarked on what might be called Old Age Style in these last paintings, in which anything goes and even self-imposed rules can be disregarded. Although it’s sad that he didn’t have the chance to take his new investigations further, at least he left us these paintings — and very remarkable they are too. They represent the summation of 50 years of looking at the world with huge enjoyment and pondering how best to encapsulate those feelings in paint.

Meanwhile in London, Pilar Ordovas has opened another museum-quality display in her Savile Row gallery. As a friend of mine remarked, it’s more like a salon than an ordinary commercial gallery — the kind of place you find real enlightenment and intellectual stimulation rather than a price list. The exhibition celebrates the little-known friendship between Joan Miró and Eduardo Chillida through a carefully selected group of works by each artist and a series of documents. (The hardback catalogue, £40, includes beautifully produced facsimiles of their letters to each other.) They first met in the 1940s and developed a mutual affection and understanding, deepened through summer working holidays spent at Saint-Paul-de-Vence at the Fondation Maeght, in the south of France. Both artists enjoyed the facilities offered by the shrewd dealer Aimé Maeght, particularly the ceramics and engraving workshops, and enjoyed discussing their work together. Although there is little discernible influence of either one on the other, their special rapport made them close friends and colleagues.

The first thing you see on entering the gallery is Miró’s canvas ‘Femme dans la nuit’, a splendid example of the inspired and springing draughtsmanship that was such a central part of his painting style. (Chillida, discussing Miró’s ‘luminous inner universe’, commented that ‘he drew his inner world with extraordinary tension, freedom and rigour’.) This painting, with its seven brown handprints, its signs and symbols, its zigzags, whipping lines and colour shapes, confronts weight with weightlessness, presence with suggestion. To the left are a couple of Chillida ink drawings between two Miró bronzes, but the body of the room is dominated by the flexed arms of Chillida’s steel sculpture, ‘Consejo al Espacio IX’ (2000). This triple-aspect funnel vent opens like a flower into a chute or slide, a chimney revealed to the winds. Its forms recall the bifurcation of the branches of a tree, or the cleft between breasts.

Two smaller sculptures by Chillida hold the attention masterfully: ‘Besarkada III’ (1991), like a person hugging himself, and ‘Elogio del Hierro II’ (1990), a more open and vertical piece. There are also a couple of terracotta sculptures, compact as home-baked loaves, and an alabaster carving, all by Chillida, and a playful late painted bronze by Miró. A refreshing and heartwarming show.