Ivon Hitchens

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Ivon Hitchens’ Coronation of 1937 is one of the Tate’s hidden treasures, the apotheosis of the Modern Movement in Britain in the Thirties, with its synthesis of the avant-garde ideas coming out of Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin that were so influential on his contemporaries. However , the freedom with which Hitchens handles the division of the pictorial space through loose, irregular blocks of expressively brushed colour has almost as much in common with abstract painting of some twenty years later. It is as if he saw in the work of those European masters who passed through London in the Thirties exactly the same possibilities as a younger generation of American painters would, after their arrival in New York, at the onset of the War. This painting, however, just as it represents a high-water mark of early modernism in this country, also signals an end – or a departure point – for Hitchens himself . By the following year, he was fully immersed in the project that was to occupy him for the rest of his career: translating the world around him (or , more precisely, his experience of the world around him) into a coherent painterly language, that both described a sense of place, of movement, of the ‘in and out spaces between things, but which was also inseparable from its own formal logic, of harmony between colour and tone, weight of paint and energy of the brush-mark, in counterpoint to the physical parameters of the canvas itself.

The house and studios that Hitchens built over the years deep in the Sussex countryside have, in time, become a metaphor for his isolation from the London art world. Yet his decision to paint the physical world was itself a radical, almost subversive choice for someone in his artistic milieu and it gave him an unparalleled freedom to pursue his vision. F or Hitchens, the woods that surrounded him, the shallow ponds he dug to reflect the pattern of trees and sky , the conservatory of flowers with its ever-changing mosaics of colour – all had the same function as the pristine environment that Mondrian insisted upon wherever he lived: they were the essential, basic conditions within which art could be made.

Twentieth-century British art is often damned with faint praise when compared to its European and American counterparts, with our response to key ideas and ideologies seen as symptomatic of a post -colonial cultural inferiority complex. This attitude is very much in evidence in the critical reaction to this year ’s ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ exhibition at Tate Britain, yet it is ironic that all that the critics of this show lament as lacking in Hitchens’ more fêted contemporaries – certainty , lack of compromise – is very much present in the work of an artist rarely mentioned in the same sentence as ‘modernism’. Patrick Heron, in his essay for the Penguin Modern Masters volume on Hitchens in 1955, certainly had no hesitation in viewing his work through the same formalist prism that Clement Greenberg was using at the time to define the primacy of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, his text reads as a rehearsal for his own his break-through into pure abstraction, with his horizontal and vertical ‘stroke paintings’ of 1957. These works have since become symbolic of British art’s engagement with America, but, as Mel Gooding recently suggested to me, when discussing his essay for this catalogue, they owe more to Heron ’s encounter with Hitchens than to anything happening across the Atlantic.

It doesn’t seem at all far -fetched, either, to speculate on how influential Hitchens’ work from the Forties onwards must have been on Howard Hodgkin ’s paintings of the Eighties and Nineties. If Coronation can be seen to have been twenty years ahead of its time, then the works in this exhibition can be said to be to stretch even further, to the paintings that won the second Turner Prize.

Simon Hucker