Ivon Hitchens: The Poet of Exactitudes

Across a pale green field, variegated turquoise to eau de nil, seen through a gap between a dark green hedge mass to its left and a translucent vertical shape to its right, a column of light, in its turn blocked at its right by what appears to be a nearby dark tree trunk, roughly brushed in, at the very corner of the eye, a dark clump of trees rises from beyond a slight rise in the ground. They are some way beyond a nearer tree – an oak – in the mid-field; above them a flecked blue summer sky, with a clouding-over imminent. The eye moves to the left by several degrees and stares into a lemon-yellow space, oddly geometric, most decidedly another part of the moment’s reality – a golden cornfield caught in the last of the bright sunlight? – before it involuntarily returns to traverse the central field. L eaves flicker, shadows darken. As if in its natural state before a natural scene, the eye moves rapidly through ‘optical space’ from one thing to another now focused here, now there, now concentrated, but aware of the vagueness of things in peripheral vision.

Moatlands (c.1936 – 37, cat. 6) is a fascinating transitional painting: it is among a number which announce Hitchens’s move towards a more directly abstract mode of presentation within a decisively horizontal landscape framing of the image. Manner motif and format are thus deliberately conflated in such a way as to emphasise the dynamic contradiction which is to provide Hitchens’s painting from this time on with its characteristic flows and tensions, in which lateral sweeps of brushed colour-tone are met with vertical stops and blocks, interruptions and disruptions to the eye that seeks the distances and horizons that the landscape format seems to propose. My description likewise veers from the painterly effect to the naturalistic illusion, from what is objectively there – a colour, a brushstroke, colour-form and tonal mass – to a perceptual identification of these painterly facts with natural objects – a tree, a field, natural light and shadow. It does not describe the depicted scene so much as attempt to register the act of looking at the canvas itself.

In the later work we find this mode and manner – an abstraction of extreme economy consolidated into a signature style, unmistakeably personal, yet capable of infinite variations determined both by the natural motif in its momentary apparition, and by the formal demand that every stroke makes of the next in the constructive process of the painting itself. It is an economy not merely of selection – the unerring isolation of the visually salient elements in the scene before him – but also of execution and expression. The speed of the visual apprehension is matched by the sure rapidity of its abstract representation. I mean that the picture catches the scene and its objects at the very moment that the eye naturally and automatically composes them. Hitchens’s is a reflexive art: his painting captures not only what is seen but the very act of seeing.