MICHAEL AYRTON IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Michael Ayrton once said that he would like to be described as an image maker, and always regretted that this was not a description considered permissible on a passport. He was a man who loved ideas, but who loved them best when he was translating them into vividly memorable images, whether in the two dimensions of paint or pencil, or the three dimensions of sculpture. He was also a great lover of myth, and believed absolutely that without it human existence becomes intolerable. Myths are not history, he wrote, if history deals in truth, but they are lies no less true to me than facts, and he saw his job as an artist to make in his work a sort of temporary truth in split time. He achieved this most famously with his powerful, resonant images of the denizens of Greek mythology: Daedalus the archetypal maker and Icarus, his doomed son, who was also, for Ayrton, a Battle of Britain pilot, and an astronaut preparing for humanity’s first forays into space. Above all he achieved it with his Minotaurs – images of a creature plucked from his Cretan labyrinth to bear witness to the insecurities and violent confusions of trying to be human with inadequate equipment. The Minotaur for Ayrton became a desperate Everyman – the quintessential proof of his determination to mine his chosen mythology not just for a resonance borrowed from the distant past, but for emotions and situations equally urgent and relevant to here and now. I’m so progressive I’m reactionary he commented, refusing with what seemed at times deliberate perversity, to abandon his devotion to the figurative image in an age where progress was measured in degrees of progress towards the abstraction and the minimal.
It is more than thirty years since Ayrton’s death in 1975, at the cruelly early age of 54, and times have changed. Mythology is one of the new orthodoxies – figurative is no more radically challenging than abstract – and no less. Art and the world have survived the turn of the millennium – and moved on. Is there still a place for Ayrton’s vision in the 21st century? This exhibition sets out to answer yes, and has little difficulty in succeeding. First there is the sheer range of his themes and his methods – from his early days as a Neo-Romantic along with John Piper and Graham Sutherland in the 1940s to the swirling, almost-but-never-quite-entirely abstract landscapes of the 1960s and on to the imagined portraits of Hector Berlioz – one of his last great obsessions. The sculptures are equally diverse – some bonily menacing, others sensuously modelled, others again using the trickery and illusions of mirrored Perspex to create truths not just in split time but also in multiplying space. He always claimed to make his works in the materials they demanded – in paint, or in sculpture, drawn, etched or lithographed according to the demands of the image in his head. It led him to a diversity which, along with his secondary occupations as novelist, critic, essayist and radio personality, won him the label of Renaissance Man at a time when the title was far from universally admiring. But time has proved Ayrton’s instincts right, if only because there is little if anything in his work which could be called old-fashioned. The power and conviction in both his images and their realisation convey an urgent understanding of the universals of the human condition which is truly mythological in its scope. All that has really changed from his day to this is that in this new century we are at last, perhaps, beginning to face, recognise and come to terms with our need for myth, which is at its best, as Ayrton understood, an absolutely unsentimental and practical acceptance of the sentience of the world which we inhabit. To practice an art is primarily to discover one’s relationship with reality … an attempt to find what in essence is real [and] communicate part of this experience to others and so enlarge their experience. It is not a modest ambition, and Ayrton was not a modest man. But then, looking at this, the first major retrospective exhibition of his work for more than a decade, he didn’t need to be.
Dr. Justine Hopkins
MICHAEL AYRTON [1921-75] - Ayrton in the 21st Century
Exhibition at 27 Cork Street, London, W1S 3NG
29 January - 3 February 2007
Mon-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat 11am-2pm
Keith Chapman - modernsculptors.com
020 7232 1885 - firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos of over 90 of the artworks are on the website