This article is written by Lauren Slater, Gallery Assistant at Gallery Different and was originally published on LinkedIn on April 1st 2020. Gallery Different is our JV partner in VEDO Corporate Art Consultancy.
In 2012 Gallery Different began to work alongside the Denis Bowen estate, with the then-executor and nephew of the late artist, Nick Bowen. However, upon Nick’s untimely death in 2018, Gallery Different took sole responsibility for the estate and has since, on first-hand experience, borne witness to the artistic genius of a revolutionary post-war British artist. This blog draws upon a number of resources from Bowen’s personal archive, obituaries of the artist, and an interview with a close peer and artist, Derek Culley.
Born in Kimberley, South Africa in 1921, and orphaned at a young age, Denis Bowen’s life was turbulent from the onset. After the loss of his parents, Bowen emigrated to the United Kingdom where he was to live with his aunt, in Huddersfield. In 1936, Bowen enrolled at Huddersfield School of Art. After graduating, Bowen was due to undertake a position at the Royal College of Art. However, with the outbreak of World War II where he served as Chief Naval Radar Operator, his admission was postponed until the war ended.
During his lifetime, Bowen was known for his substantial portfolio of works, curating, directing and his contribution to artistic education. Between the 1940s and 1980s, Bowen undertook various teaching roles both nationally and internationally. These included Kingston Institute of Art, Hammersmith School of Arts, Birmingham School of Art, Central School of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It was during his time in Canada that Bowen discovered a number of Canadian artists such as William J.B. Newcombe.
Regarded as a patron, Bowen founded the New Vision Group in 1951, with other students from the Hammersmith School of Art. The group’s principal aim was to draw in young, unknown and international talent that mainly focused on non-figurative art. In 1956, Denis Bowen would open and co-direct, the New Vision Centre Gallery, with Halima Nalecz, and Frank Avray Wilson. In its ten year period (1956 – 1966), the New Vision Centre Gallery exhibited artists such as Gordon House, Ian Stephenson, and Aubrey Williams. All of whom went on to achieve global recognition. The gallery exhibited an expansive array of artists and artworks from 29 different countries and 220 artists (58% of which came from abroad). Of the exhibitions that took place, 90% were solo shows.
Advocacy for international artists, including those from the British Commonwealth, was nearly unheard of with little to no recognition in the British art scene. There still continued to be much hostility to black and Asian artists. Yet the New Vision Centre Gallery promoted and supported them with the same fervour it held towards British artists. The gallery also hosted the first exhibitions for European groups such as the Italian group Forma-1, and German Group Zero.
Bowen’s patronage status extended to Derek Culley, whom Culley said he had ‘the great fortune’ of meeting in the mid 80’s, when Denis would become his mentor. Culley recalls, ‘He introduced me to the London art world and the art of navigating its peculiarities and complexities. When it came to the contemporary and modern art world, Bowen was a Master Painter with an encyclopaedic knowledge of art and the art world. Bowen taught me a new way to look/ question/ approach and appreciate art; from being both a viewer and practitioner.’
Bowen’s consciousness for inclusivity is demonstrated by his approach to fellow artist Culley. Whilst hosting an exhibition of Contemporary Celtic Region artists during a Celtic festival, Bowen proposed enlarging the model and premise to include all 7 Celtic Regions in Europe. From this Celtic Vision was born, headed by Denis, Derek and Scottish artist John Bellany. The primary aim; to exhibit contemporary visual arts from these regions – politics aside.
Bowen’s encounters and established friendships with fellow artists allowed him to become a vehement collector of art. His collection comprised of works by highly regarded artists such as Sir Terry Frost, Alan Davie, Albert Irvin, Victor Pasmore, Alan Reynolds and William Gear. Bowen’s collection stayed true to the international ethos of the New Vision Centre Gallery in which his collection expanded internationally to include works by Aubrey Williams, Arpana Caur, F.N. Souza, and Zao Wou-Ki, to name a few. The array of works, some of which are oils, etchings and prints, will be exhibited in a variety of upcoming exhibitions at Gallery Different, to again pay homage to the work and dedication of national and international post-war abstract artists. These works will also be available to private collectors as the gallery moves forward with the Bowen Archive.
Whilst continuing to play a pivotal part in art education, Bowen was challenging and shaping post-war artistic trends. Bowen’s style was continually evolving throughout his practice. From the 1950s to mid 60s, Bowen was one of the first artists in Britain to experiment with Tachism. During this time, each painting would be started and completed within one sitting to maintain the importance of the physical process behind painting, suggesting that to return to a painting was to destroy its integrity. Post Tachism, Bowen’s painterly style was dominated by psychedelia from 1969-1980, and later ended with a relentless obsession with space discovery and the unattainable.
The most enthralling aspect of Bowen’s work was his capacity to lure the audience with stark contrasts of technique and colour. In many works, Bowen employs simple materials and found objects, including door panels and kitchen cupboards. These created a juxtaposition between the aesthetically enticing and incomprehensible planetary landscapes he would depict, and the preloved furniture of his own home and studio. Bowen’s chosen subjects including erupting lava and planetary landscapes, are something we can only imagine yet their depiction is so expressive we almost feel we are within the painting. This is demonstrated by Bowen’s Magma (2) (1988). Despite being fastened onto a stretcher, the work is without a frame, giving it a sense of limitlessness. The vibrant indigo hue, mixed with splashes of electric blue are immediately enticing. Yet the layering of the metallic, and sporadic gold draw you in further, heightening the sense of something magical and unworldly. In contrast, the deep black at the bottom seems dark and sinister, rendering the subject of the work somewhat incomprehensible. Although Bowen worked the paintbrush and canvas, he ultimately left the paint to fuse into the background and other lines, allowing for a seemingly free and unrestricted result. This spontaneity remained at the forefront of Bowen’s work and life, and is one of the paramount reasons why his work continues to be regarded very highly, with institutions such as The Tate holding his work within their collection.
Like the advent of space technology, Bowen’s paintings of space make it more accessible and conceivable to the human imagination. The beauty of each individual canvas allows the viewer to feel deep and intense emotions, and as Vince Rea stated the ‘paintings give the audience new and emotive experiences of colour and atmospheres indicative of observable changes in space from vast distances of eerie atmospheric stillnesses to lavaic eruptions of energy and matter.’ His complex choice of colours, which often have subtle alterations depending on their lighting, are demonstrable of the ever-changing landscapes of outer space and the continuous fascination one can find with it.
At the heart of everything Denis Bowen stood for, was the influence from which the title of the New Vision Centre Gallery derived. Gyorgy Kepes’ Language of Vision (Chicago, 1944) drew upon the universality and power of visual language and the necessity for new imagery that reflected recent technological and physical developments. Ultimately, this ethos ran through the practice of the gallery where it beckoned artists from across the globe who were producing art that was in tune with the vast societal, economical and political changes that were happening post-war. People were again eager to reflect the severity of World War II and work towards reconstructing society. In this way, the coming together of multi-racial groups in London saw it become the cultural hub for social change, arguably headed by Denis Bowen, and the New Vision Group.
Denis Bowen’s visionary status is one that cannot be forgotten. Even whilst he was faced with the unpopular opinions regarding his works, Bowen continued to produce works that were rebellious, risqué and independent. Derek Culley remembers, ‘Not one for “Art Bollox” Denis knew his art/its history, and his contemporaries.’ His relentless dedication to stay true to his practice ultimately deemed him the ‘unflagging champion on non-figurative art’. As The Guardian drew upon, British art continues to underplay the 50s and 60s abstraction, and the contribution of the New Vision Centre Gallery (most importantly Denis Bowen) in shaping the modern art movement, and enabling significant trends and greater freedoms. Bowen was wholeheartedly devoted to his work and teaching, and his unique role in the history of modern/contemporary art must be remembered with great admiration. Well remembered and regarded, Culley said ‘Denis was a man for all seasons’, being one of many to bear testimony to the great importance and amiability of Denis Bowen.
Gallery Different will be hosting a variety of exhibitions of Denis Bowen’s collection, along with a large-scale retrospective of Denis Bowen’s work in 2021. VEDO will be posting further information about this extraordinary artist and the Gallery’s events for this artist. If you are interested in any of the above information, including buying Bowen paintings and would like further information please contact us.