Len Wyatt in this studio.
When Len Wyatt passed away earlier this year after a long illness FPS was saddened to lose one of its most brilliantly inventive artists. Len began his training at the Hornsey College of Art when still a teenager, but then war broke out and he spent the next six years of his life in khaki, taking part in the D-Day landings in 1944.
After demob he had no difficulty in deciding his future course and resumed his studies at Hornsey, graduating in the early ‘fifties. He soon linked up with the Free Painters Group in its very early days and remained and active member until poor health forced his retirement at the turn of the century.
Len gave his all to FPS, not only his riveting artwork in countless group and solo exhibitions, but his huge energy and enthusiasm which helped to mould its destinies. And, in a way, his approach to his own work echoed the sacred objects of FPS – to strive for originality with excellence and, above all, to be completely free in style and in the search for themes. Len was truly a free spirit, going wherever his inspiration took him and owing little to hallowed wisdom or blinkered ‘-isms’.
What a joy, then, that Len’s vibrant spirit and art should live on, and public awareness be assured, through the promotional activities and zeal of his son Chris. A teacher and artist like his father, Chris has always been determined that Len’s work will not fade from public scrutiny, but be permanently accessible and available to enrich our lives in countless ways. An energetic character who is involved in many public activities in his home town of Ilford, Chris launched his campaign for his father’s work in typically opportunistic style. He was aware that the long established department store of Harrison Gibson would be vacating their premises in Ilford High Street, so he suggested to the Prudential Insurance Company who took over the building and its site that, pending redevelopment, rather than leave any floor standing empty, he should fill it with artwork, thus enhancing the structure’s attractiveness for those members of the public who still frequented it. The Pru readily agreed, and over two weekends Chris converted the whole of an upper floor into a Len Wyatt retrospective – to quite sumptuous effect, with 150 items decorating the vast wall space as far as the eye can see.
Most of Len Wyatt’s life’s work is on these walls, so every aspect of his art is represented. His restless, questing imagination reached for the stars and beyond, taking us into the realms of mystery and the remote. Undreamed of planets appear, glowing strangely in every kind of colour and decked in surface patterns which cannot exist in our universe – perhaps in a parallel one. To take a very few examples at random ‘Crystal Planet’ shimmers in evanescent blues, darks and lights, like a vast marble hanging in a shifting purple space. ‘Arcturus’ gives us a slice of a distant red giant – except that Len had turned it into a blue giant and covered it with swirling, tortured figures in a space apparently slashed through with criss-crossed sword blades.
This artist is a time traveller as well as a space traveller as the pictures ‘Star Factory’ and ‘Exploding Star’ both bear witness. No doubt he was fascinated as well as influenced by the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the origins of the universe. And in case you think that his sole concern is to wander round the cosmos as a disembodied spirit, ‘Moon Lander’ and ‘Space City’ suggest highly sophisticated man-made conveyances which could carry him (and us) to anywhere, near or far.
Back on earth (although perhaps still with the stars in spirit) there are many examples of the artist’s sensuous handling of the nude female form. Apparently Len never used live models; like Pygmalion he preferred to let his imagination create his own ladies, and his superb draftsmanship enabled him to do this with ease. ‘Water Nymph’ gives us a full-length figure seemingly floating face down on a river of deep, opaque blue. In ‘Moon Bride’ the figure of a naked girl is seen drawn into the embrace of a great blue orb, while ‘Eve’ presents an iconic figure of womanhood, standing proudly upright and facing us, seductive yet mystical as she seems to float through a shifting haze of subtle colours.
Space does not permit more than a passing reference to other ideas developed by this many-sided artist. One of the earliest pieces on show, entitled ‘Despair’, painted soon after the end of WW2, perhaps echoes some of the depression which that conflict and its horrors must have induced in a sensitive young soul. The elements in this study are ones which are constantly repeated throughout Len Wyatt’s oeuvre, but here seen, as it were, through a dark, melancholy veil. A female figure lies face down, as if collapsed under a burden too heavy to bear. Her hair (and the artist is obsessed with women’s hair) flows darkly, like the Styx, all over and around her yielding body, while in the background broken and stunted trees thrust out their tortured limbs in hopeless supplication. Having got that out of his system, however, all of Len’s subsequent work is upbeat and life enhancing.
‘Blue Conflict’ is an abstract in which, (leaving figures behind), he revels in sensuously flowing forms and ravishing colour. And ‘Dragon City’, depicting a monster one would not wish to meet on a dark night, shows the strong influence of fantasy art.
One cannot close this review without a word about Len’s idiosyncratic working methods. He was quite at home with most media and, as one of the first to use acrylic, handled this with great sureness. He also favoured spray paint as a medium, mastering its application and achieving subtle and delicate effects. His speciality, however, was collage, using an astonishing array of bits and bobs, including fabrics, pieces of wood and Perspex, the innards of clapped out radios – you name it. Whatever he could find, natural or man-made, and wherever he found it, was grist to his mill. His family must often have been knee-deep in detritus! But, whatever, he was a wizard in the way he used it. Thus his planets, spacecraft and dragons became vast figures of complex machinery, and even some of his female nudes were mechanistic in this way. But in that case there was serious intent, the aim being to show the human body as a highly sophisticated engine, with all its parts interdependent and interacting. All of this must surely be collage art at its most effective.
But the last word of this review should be accorded to what, at the end of the day, is perhaps Len’s most important contribution to art awareness – his teaching. Unusually by modern standards he worked in the same primary school throughout his career, teaching the full range of subjects, and thus leaving a significant amount of creative energy over for his own artwork. But you can bet his pupils benefited from this, too. He often brought his latest work into class, adding its impact to his infectious enthusiasm. Surely the hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who passed through his hands as pupils over the years have been enriched by their contact with Len Wyatt.
Blue Conflict (detail)
Crystal planet (detail)
Moon Lander Red (detail)
Space City (detail)
More of Len Wyatt's work can be seen on this blog at http://freepands.blogspot.com/2008/04/len-wyatt-exhibition.html
8 years ago