The Spiritual in the Abstract: Gillian Ayres’ Papua (1988)

By Ella Nixon, PhD student at Northumbria University, in collaboration with the Laing Art Gallery. Her thesis explores the representation of female artists within regional art galleries.

Throughout history, figurative images — meaning those that depict real life through realistic forms — have been used to convey spiritual messages to the viewer. The Madonna of the Magnificat [Fig. 1], created by a follower of Sandro Botticelli in the nineteenth century, is a lesser-known example of this within the Laing’s collection. The small tondo, a term used to denote a circular artwork, measures 111.8 x 111.8 cm. It represents a beautiful image of the virgin Mary with Jesus. Sitting upon a throne with the infant upon her lap, the image is instantly recognisable for its use of religious imagery.

The tondo format was popularised among painters in fifteenth-century Florence.¹ Tondos were historically used to convey spiritual messages: their round form creates a sense of completeness or containment, registering with an idea of moral security especially when coupled with religious imagery. Circularity conveys contentment by having no end.

The spiritual nature of such a form was recognised by the British abstract artist Gillian Ayres (1930–2018) [Fig. 5] who features in the Laing collection. The tondo format is characteristic of her late style.² The circular oil painting, Merlin (1983) [Fig. 2], utilises the same tondo form yet elevates its potential through abstraction. Its message is no longer limited by figurative forms or specific denominational icons, but it is a spirituality to be experienced by any viewer.

Oil painting showing lots of different colours and patterns
Figure 3: Gillian Ayres, Papua (1988). Oil on canvas, 274.3 x 274.4 cm. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The painting’s title, Papua, offers little assistance in this interpretative mission, but rather speaks to a larger body of works which refused to offer a specific reading. This reflected her involvement in the wider circle of mid-twentieth century British abstract artists, and particularly those associated with the Artists International Association (AIA) in London, of whom many later contributed to the Situation exhibition at the RBA Galleries, London, in 1960.³

The underlying cryptic nature of Ayres’ work emphasises how its purpose does not lie in a narrative reading, and it invites no such interpretation. Without the mediation of words, the viewer absorbs the mood of the painting. In this way, Ayres’ spiritual affect resembles the affective power of stained-glass windows. The white lines suggest the demarcation of panes, or at least convey such an impression, and the bold and brazen colours emanate light.

The size of the painting also reinforces this piece of work as a spiritual vessel: the viewer is engulfed by the lustre of the painting and the light and shadows that encapsulate its existence. This is a technique that Ayres shares with earlier more classically trained artists, such as John Martin (1789–1854), another prominent artist in the collection. Martin’s The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852) uses bold juxtapositions of light and darkness. The curation of this painting within the Laing, as nestled in its own dark room occasionally illuminated by dramatic flashes of lightening and accompanied by sounds of thunder, recognises this heightened drama. The viewer is encapsulated by sensory experience.

Painting depicting the destruction of a city with fire
Painting depicting the destruction of a city with fire
Figure 4: John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852). Oil on canvas, 136.3 x 212.3 cm. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

In the case of Papua, the colours consist of sunset pink and red hues, ochre, and electric blues. The palette is less sombre but nevertheless explodes with emotion. During a period of life where people are seeking clarity — whether that be the ability to plan ahead, understand current developments, or make order out of the chaos that has erupted from the pandemic — Ayres’ Papua reminds us to take a step back and discover our own perspective in life. Marina Vaizey described in 1991 how whereas ‘Van Gogh in his ecstatic frenzy painted starry nights. Ayres’ celebrations point out the star and the moon in the daylight’.⁴ It reminds us that although things may not appear outwardly clear, beauty can be found in moments of contemplation: she expertly fuses the modern with the spiritual. Abstraction is a method of connecting to the spiritual in all of us, without the appeal to specific deities.

Photograph of woman with brown hair, jumper and jeans sitting in front of art
Photograph of woman with brown hair, jumper and jeans sitting in front of art
Figure 5: Gillian Ayres by Roger Mayne modern bromide print from original negative, 1960, © Roger Mayne / National Portrait Gallery, London

¹Ian Chilvers, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (5 ed.) (Online edition: Oxford University Press, 2015).

²Mel Gooding, Gillian Ayres (Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001), 170.

³The title Papua is described in the Arnolfini catalogue to provide evidence that Matisse was the greatest influence on her. Barker explains how ‘There is even a painting in her show called Papua’. See Barry Barker, ‘Of nothing but a dream’ in Gillian Ayres (27 May — 9 Arnolfini, Bristol 1989: Arnolfini/Knoedler Kasmin Ltd, London), 7.

⁴Marina Vaizey in British Council (ed.), Gillian Ayres: Seventh Triennale — India (London: British Council, 1991). 15–16.

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