The Creative World of Alan Davie

This article is from 2009

Alan Davie

Alan Davie is a legendary figure of Scottish art and a true renaissance man. Rosalie Doubal hears all about his adventures with experimental jazz and prototype gliders

Consistently named as one of Scotland’s most prolific living artists, Alan Davie has led a creative life of incredible reach and depth. Following an education in the late 1930s at the Edinburgh College of Art, Davie’s widespread travel, which enabled him to appreciate the work of the European Surrealists and the zeitgeist of the 1950s New York School, led to his own international prominence as a painter and musician.
Unlike most post-war modernist painters, Davie rejected a critical self-examination of his medium. Never truly constrained by notions of style or technique, Davie’s art is one of positive assertion. Whilst his practice has morphed, his fundamental principles have remained consistent, and for over seven decades he has focused his attentions on the mythic regions of culture and the human consciousness. Intrigued by the limits of our understanding and our perceptions, Davie recognises the symbolic as a human response to uncertainty, and protean forms of archetypal symbols appear in his paintings, tapestries and jewellery. Whilst it is Davie’s work in paint that is most widely recognised, this major Festival exhibition at Dovecot will alternately examine the artist’s oeuvre with regard to his influences, and his extensive work in other media.

‘I’ve been a real jack of all trades,’ proclaims the 89-year-old artist from his Hertfordshire studio, his home since 1954. ‘I made a living as a silversmith for some time, and I used to hawk a box of my jewellery around London. I would sell to Liberties, and the famous celebrity hairdressers French of London would display my work. I was also a professional jazz musician after the war, playing with contemporaries Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth. I was a classical musician also.’ Phases of total artistic absorption pervade Davie’s life. It would seem that everything he has turned his hand to has become a rich source of poetic potential. Trained as a pianist at a very young age, Davie still plays everyday. ‘I passed all my grades with honours at the age of nine. And at the moment, I’m working on a Bach study.’

Interestingly, Davie’s turn from jazz to classical music was paralleled by a change in his painting style. From the explicitly energetic works of the 1960s – examples of which will be on display at Dovecot alongside samples of Davie’s experimental jazz – the artist turned to more precise symbolic depictions in the 70s. Although he has always avoided total abstraction, these later works, along with his new energy for classical music, marked an awareness of the need for control. For Davie, free association remains synonymous with discipline. ‘Tapestry is a different medium, so there must be certain variations as one goes along’, an emphatic Davie remarks. ‘The design is naturally related and controlled by the medium.’

Davie’s devout enthusiasms extend beyond the arts to gliding and diving. Both activities provided situations in which he could feel completely absorbed into his immediate surroundings. Each lent Davie a distinguished sense of separate identity. For the artist, these sports made manifest the harmonious union between natural forces, artistry and control, which he has elsewhere explored in his creative practice. ‘I was one of the first to buy the new generation of gliders that were built from fibre glass, and I went to Switzerland to fly the prototype. I was towed up northwards to the snow-covered peaks, so I pulled off and released, and spent two hours soaring among the mountains.’

What similarities did these airborne encounters hold with his experiences of painting? ‘Well, it was reaching a sort of mysterious realm away from everyday reality, one very close to natural forces. And in a way, when painting, one has to lose one’s sense of reality and enter into a new mysterious world of imagery. It is an extraordinary adventure into the unknown, much in the same way as painting is.’

The Dovecot’s rich and unusual approach to this exhibition of Davie’s work rightly attends to the dizzying breadth of this artist’s poetic imagination. When asked if he continues to be driven by similar forces some seven decades into his multi-faceted career, Davie’s perfectly timed response is characteristically enigmatic. ‘It’s a very mysterious thing, the creative urge.’

The Creative World of Alan Davie, Dovecot Studios, Infirmary Street, 0131 550 3660, 5 Aug–26 Sep, £3 (£2).

Edinburgh Art Festival: 'The Creative World of Alan Davie'

The Creative World of Alan Davie

  • 5 stars

The Creative World of Alan Davie celebrates the remarkable breadth of work from one of Scotland’s most respected and influential artists. As Davie approaches 90, this major exhibition will include specially selected examples of his work in sculpture, painting, tapestry and rug making, jewellery design, printmaking…