• 8 November 2019
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • All are welcome! However, places are limited, so please do book a free ticket. A light lunch is provided.
  • Paul Mellon Centre

In early 1958, the tiny space of the St George’s Gallery in Cork Street, London, was decked out with ‘redoubtable specimens’ of ‘primitive’ African carving (in the words of Art News). The occasion was the launch of Vertical Suite in Black, six prints that were attributed by their creator, Merlyn Evans, to the inspiration of African and Oceanic sources and that followed Evans’ major retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery two years earlier. By the 1950s, ‘primitivist’ ideas already had a long history within modernist images and texts: appropriations from distant, often colonised, cultures had been deployed by both early twentieth-century cubists and interwar surrealists. In Britain, related concepts had been utilised within vorticism ahead of the First World War and had informed an ethnographic turn within the art institutions of the late 1940s. 

This presentation asks what it meant for Evans to invoke African and Oceanic precedents at the end of the 1950s, half a century after the initial cubist move and when Europe’s colonial presence was entering full-scale retreat. It suggests that a close visual analysis of Vertical Suite, combined with sensitivity to contextual information, shows how the prints offered an informed and critical (if idiosyncratic) consideration of the history of ‘primitivism’ in Britain and on the continent. The suite also, however, diverged from other responses to that same history being pursued by younger contemporaries, including members of the Independent Group and in particular Eduardo Paolozzi. Through a comparison of Evans’ work with these alternatives, the presentation proposes ways in which we might reconsider periodisation and narratives of progress in British post-war art history.

Image info:

Merlyn Oliver Evans, Polynesian Fantasy, 1938, tempera on board, 19.5 x 24.5 cm. Digital image courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Michael Clegg

    Michael Clegg is at present working on a thesis titled "Artists’ Prints in Post-War Britain" as a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham. He has had recent publications in the field of post-war British art and visual culture in Tate Papers, British Art Studies and Print Quarterly (forthcoming). During 2019 he has presented recent research on artists’ prints, modernism and cultural politics at the annual Association for Art History conference (University of Brighton) and Modernism in the Home (University of Birmingham).