You only have a few weeks left to come and admire the wonderful works in our exhibition The Expressive Mark, before it closes at the beginning of April. Our Gallery Assistant Cat picks out some of their highlights and gives an insight into their creation.

The Expressive Mark explores British Abstraction and gestural mark making following the Second World War, inspired by American abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock. The exhibition showcases the diversity of approaches taken by British artists in their experimentation with abstract mark making, and includes items from the University of Leeds Art Collection as well as a number of spectacular works on loan.

William Turnbull, ‘Mask’, 1955. Oil on canvas.
William Turnbull, ‘Mask’, 1955. Oil on canvas. Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Image credit University of Leeds.

One such mode of mark making is demonstrated by William Turnbull, who uses thick, bold applications of brightly coloured paint in his painting, ‘Mask’, on loan from Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.

Although Turnbull was forced to leave school at 15 to be a labourer, he maintained his love of art by attending evening art classes. Turnbull joined the RAF in 1941 and was stationed in Canada and India. Rather than accepting an offer to become a commercial pilot after the war, he pursued his passion for art by enrolling at the Slade School of Art in 1946.  Initially Turnbull practiced painting, but he soon transitioned his focus to sculpture.

Whilst teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London he became involved with the Independent Group, a forerunner to British pop art and much other new British art in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Turnbull is famous for his sculptures, but he regularly painted throughout his career. Many of his paintings and sculptures until 1956 abstractly portrayed the human head. His painting ‘Mask’ presents a vague silhouette of a head and shoulders through the angles and directions of the brush strokes. He seems to harness his expertise of sculptural techniques within this painting, as the thick application of paint applied liberally throughout the canvas creates dramatic texture and sense of physical space. The vibrant colour palette of the painting leaves a striking and joyful impression.

Bernard Cohen, ‘Interior with objects’, undated. Oil on board.
Bernard Cohen, ‘Interior with objects’, undated. Oil on board. Image credit University of Leeds.

Bernard Cohen exhibits a contrasting approach to gestural mark making in ‘Interior with Objects’, which has a significantly reduced colour palette and a comparatively sparing use of brush strokes.

London-born Cohen is regarded as a leading British abstract artist of his time. After graduating from the Slade Cohen travelled around Europe, especially Paris and Rome. He abandoned figurative art, where aspects of the real world are retained in the subject matter, instead developing a style that emphasised bold, vigorous marks. His first solo exhibition at Gimpel Fils in 1958 exhibited artworks in this new abstract style.

During the 1960s Cohen’s work achieved notability and has been exhibited extensively since. He taught at the Chelsea School of Art, later becoming a Professor and Director at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1988.

Cohen was greatly influenced by abstract expressionism and believed the process of painting was just as important as the visual image. Many of his paintings include busy, overlapping shapes and patterns that produce multiple images within each composition.  In this way, Cohen has said that his works can be seen as diagrams about painting.

‘Interior with Objects’ is calmer and more gestural than some of Cohen’s other works, with expressive, rough, brushstrokes rather than straight lines and perfect shapes. The warm yellow glow creates a happy atmosphere, which adds to the energy and life of the abstract lines and dramatic composition.

Peter Lanyon, ‘Low Tide’, 1959. Oil on canvas.
Peter Lanyon, ‘Low Tide’, 1959. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the British Council Collection. Image credit University of Leeds.

Peter Lanyon takes a much calmer, fluid approach in his painting ‘Low Tide’ on loan from the British Council Collection.

Lanyon’s work in gestural abstraction was extremely influential amongst the post-war generation of British painters. Similarly to Cohen, the subject matter and painting process were equally important to Lanyon.

Lanyon’s work in the late 1950s and early 1960s was characterised by an increased openness in the physical process of his painting. This coincided with a shift towards a subjective, existential conception of landscape. Through his paintings, he aimed to express his sense of existing in the world, by recreating his own sensory experience of being in a place and time.

Lanyon often used the colour, texture, density, and application of paint to represent the look and sensation of the weather at a certain moment. In a British Council Lecture in 1963, Lanyon expressed his enjoyment of painting boundaries and thresholds; as ‘places where solid and fluids come together, such as the meeting of sea and cliff, of wind and rock, of human body and water.’

He was particularly fascinated by the dramatic cliffs of West Cornwall, whose sturdiness greatly contrasted the wild fluidity of the ocean. He thought of the meeting symbolically as the coming together of contrasting bodies. This can be seen in ‘Low Tide’, which Lanyon described as depicting ‘a gale-washed coast and a still figure at the calm edge of a silent day’.

Lanyon harnessed emotions of dread and self-doubt in his studio as he aimed to express being alive through an image that represented the threatened body. Gestural abstraction was at the heart of Lanyon’s art and the essence of him as a painter.

The Expressive Mark on display in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery. Image credit University of Leeds.
The Expressive Mark on display in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery. Image credit University of Leeds.

These three paintings offer a glimpse at the diversity in approach to gestural abstraction displayed in The Expressive Mark exhibition. Learn more about the movement and artworks in the new richly illustrated catalogue, available to purchase both in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery and via our online shop.

A new series of short videos about The Expressive Mark has been created, featuring Guest Curator Anne Goodchild, for our visitors to delve into from home. Watch the videos on our YouTube channel.

The Expressive Mark is on display in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery until 2 April 2022. Plan your visit now.