Ivon Hitchens: Three

The senses quicken at the kinetic play of the paint stroke that is the vital poetic trace of its own making. In their raw and sometimes perfunctory vitality Hitchens’s paintings are not so much objects asevents that take place in the canvas field: hence the clear visibility of the primed canvas in so many of the paintings – the light white vacancy, the bare field of virtuoso performance. ‘A good painter’ wrote Hitchens in a letter to Alan Bowness, ‘is he who, like a magician, having taken thought, utters the magic words, and conjures up life from within the canvas.’ This is doubtless what Hitchens meant when he spoke of the over riding importance of ‘visual sound’ in his paintings, without which ‘the picture is useless’: ‘ dark-light, warm-cool, up-down, in-out. Circular shapes, square angular shapes. Large sombre areas – short quick notes... thus all the area of the canvas should be consciously planned in movements as well as representing objects. My pictures are painted to be listened to.’ In this account, those untouched areas of empty primed canvas are an equivalent to the silence out of which music emerges.

The dual imperatives of Hitchens’s art are, then, those of truth to the eye and truth to the painting. ‘I am trying to understand’ he once wrote, ‘the “aesthetic truth ” of my subjects. I am merely trying to do what all other painters have done – interpret nature. If the work is untrue it is valueless – but the kind of truth I see may be a bit different. I cannot know that.’ And, crucially, what the painter ‘sees’ itself changes from season to season, day to day , moment to moment. For Cézanne, an artist of great importance to Hitchens, the very model of the artistic probity to which he himself (successfully) aspired, and whose passage he adopted and boldly adapted to serve his own pictorial purposes, this perceptual incertitude was forever central to the creative truth of the work to be done. In one of his last letters to his son, P aul, written a few weeks before he died, the great painter wrote: ‘Here on the edge of the river, the motifs are plentiful, the same subject seen from a different angle gives a subject for study of the highest interest and so varied that I think I could be occupied for months without changing my place, simply bending a little more to the right or left.’ Hitchens was happy to live and paint in virtual seclusion, in the middle of a small wood with its ever-changing light and foliage and its reflective pool, for the last forty years of his life. In such a place, each moment, each movement is unique, each instant definitive, each in itself ‘a subject’ for the meditative contemplation of painterly ‘study’.

An artist, then, of solitary integrity , sturdy in his indifference to fashion, and irremediable in his tendency to do his own thing in quiet isolation, Hitchens was in his own way an artist as abstract as any of his contemporaries, but the typological definition of his artistic modus seems never to have troubled him: A painter’ he wrote ‘ as early as 1933, ‘should not label himself .... A painter should have no rules or formulas.’ Characterised and admired from very early in his career as a painter of interiors, still lifes and landscapes, he was able (as if in a loosefitting representational - disguise) to pursue the abstract painterly implications of a most extreme and thrilling vision of the world in front of his eyes, and to make paintings of an instant of the time and space of a particular place, indoors or (mostly) out, replete with objects and incidents caught in the air and light of a moment of the day in its season of the year true to reality but devoid of descriptive paraphernalia.

This description of the sudden topical exactitudes of Hitchens’s art may seem to suggest a specificity of subject that is in direct contrast to the generalising of pure abstraction. His paintings may in fact, remind us at first much more of the distinctive motifs (trees, water, fields, glades and pathways) and the atmospheric weather, light and shadow of the paintings of the great masters of the English naturalist tradition. I think of the grace, shimmer and brilliance of Gainsborough; of Turner’s classic- romantic pastoral poetics ending at last in solar incandescences of paint; of the subtly visionary structures – static architecture and living flow – of Cotman’s topographies; and of Constable’s obsessive fascination with the fitfulness of English light, its skies and weathers, the constant flicker of nature. Such recollections and characterisations are entirely apt: Hitchens, in the first place, belongs in that company and recapitulates with consummate style many of those phenomenal effects (which are, of course, in their own way abstract). He continues that great landscape tradition, without having regard for its sentimental mid-twentieth century reduction (however stylish and refined) to the graphic ‘English’ farmland pastoral of John Nash or Eric R avilious, or the emotive picturesque of Piper’s churches and Sutherland’s melodramatic roots and ruins. He is an artist of greater formal and philosophical ambition.