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John Marchant - Brighton August 2011

The Dark-Bright Flux


"...it appeared to us as unreasoning Creativity, at once blind and subtle, tender and cruel, caring only to spawn and spawn the infinite variety of beings, conceiving here and there among a thousand inanities a fragile loveliness. This it might for a while foster with maternal solicitude, till in a sudden jealousy of the excellence of its own creature, it would destroy what it had made."

Olaf Stapledon ‘ Star Maker’ 1937

In early 2010 I exhibited Hans de Wit’s large, complex and fascinating drawing Ahab (2009) on the ground floor of my London gallery, facing the outside world. A lure, with further delights awaiting below.
As I sat in my space I saw the same behaviour from passing people time and time again....Saunter past. A quick glance in. A falter in the step. Stop. Look again. Press nose to glass. “Come in...”..
What had they seen? A strange and numinous thing that was quite new to the eye... like a new colour...

"The Vision is of the Actual World, Transfigured"
Olaf Stapledon ‘The Opening Of The Eyes’ 1954

I first had contact with Hans over a press release I’d written for a group show, that quoted British oddball novelist and inveterate diarist and letter-writer John Cowper Powys, whose work displays a curious magic – a vast intent with the precision and wonder of a bee’s wing. Of course, on seeing de Wit’s extraordinary drawings for the first time I was similarly and instantly thrilled and intrigued. Like my visitors later, I was at a loss to explain even to myself what it was I was looking at. How? Why? Of course the wonderful thing about art is that you don’t need essays or annotation to enjoy it. It can enhance one’s enjoyment with a little biographical detail perhaps or a fresh insight, but drawing and painting is illiterate and joyfully so.

Of course there is an inherent dialogue set up between the artist and viewer, with the work as a conduit. And if we’re lucky (and gallerists are very lucky in this respect at least) we get to ask some questions back. Some artists cannot bear this because they have no answers, which is fine. But Hans de Wit is different. He is at least open to discussion and a little back and forth. Which is how I came to send him an image made by one of my countrymen, Paul Nash (1889-1946) entitled Wire (1918).

Wire is a haunted, black painting – black in pigment and black in mood and intent. It is a disgusting picture, and a truthful one. As is well known, Nash had enlisted for trench murder in WWI and accidentally saved his blood, mucous, bone and sinew by falling backwards into a hole and damaging a rib. He was sent home, returning as a War Artist, a role he was to reprise in WWII. To us, looking at Wire is to look at something incomprehensible, something hinted at only by memories of film and photographs or photography. We try to make sense of this horror of flooded, sucking, stinking blasted hell by framing it against, principally, film sets we have seen and enjoyed – something ‘cool and realistic’.. Nash was there at Ypres and Passchendaele. He could smell the rot and feel the fear. The best most could hope for was the death enjoyed by poet Edward Thomas, knocked into the next world by the shock wave of a passing shell that stopped his heart but left his clay pipe intact, only leaving ripples across the pages of his notebook...

So Wire is now to us an image of a strange land, something unknowable, and Thank the Gods for that. We look at it and our heart begins to beat a little faster in tribute to the horror the artist experienced firsthand. So what do we see? We see hell. Poisonous, violent, deafening hell. Famously, having returned to the Western Front he wrote (and it’s worth quoting again, in case there are readers unfamiliar with this most important of artist statements of the 20th Century) 'I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.' So that was it - a bitter truth.

So what did De Wit see in Nash that made him crash the car ? Sure, there are visual similarities in Wire with his own work – curious shapeshifting biomorphic forms, objects whose identities we know but do not know, a sense of nature in crisis. A bleakness. Even the materials are in parallel – ink, chalk, watercolour (though no pastel) – and curiously, but for me most obviously, it is the similarilty in sound. Both Nash and De Wit invoke sound like no other artist I know of. There is a rushing of wind, a throbbing pulsation and rumbling turbuence, a distant, repeated thwump of something dreadful and inhuman, pounding the earth and perhaps - to paraphrase the title of Nash’s most famous work – making a New World in it’s own image?
Nash developed a language for many of his later works whereby we see seemingly unrelated geometric objects placed to the fore within a framework of landscape. A hawk, a mirror, a tennis ball... Although he was once happy to position himself as ‘English Surrealist-in-chief’, this was merely a chance encounter of an English seeker and French glamour. Instead, Nash developed a way of engaging with the curious placements that we are constantly encountering and analysing to make sense of who and where we are. And this is where I think the true bridge is made. De Wit’s works are nominally surrealist in that there may be a playful, dreamlike arrangement of objects – a submarine hull, a bushbaby, a clutch of pencils – but this is not ‘pure psychic automatism (ref. Breton), there’s a deeper objective, and that is to create a schism in our mistaken framework of conceptions that we overlay everything we encounter. Nash too felt the underlying connectivity in the seemingly unrelated, and De Wit’s extraordinary drawings work in this arena. He has himself expressed a desire to confound, to work in the space between attraction and repulsion, to question the questions and give no answers because there aren’t any.

For Nash – most particularly in Wire – the destruction belies an idealism. He could not portray such blasted horror without being a desperate romantic, and the world of Wire seems so remote, but as De Wit show us, we’re there too, it’s just that our ‘there’ is somewhere else. It’s here.