Alan Davie at 90 - A colourful history

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Alan Davie's Colourful History

In September this year, Scottish painter and musician Alan Davie will be 90 years old. Davie is (arguably) Scotland’s greatest living artist. He’s the daddy of that most self-effacing and denialist of movements, the Scottish beats. From Davie, a freeform (of course) line of nationalist abstraction and dissent can be traced through his influence on the work of Alisdair Gray, John Bellany, Craigie Aitchison, Christopher Wood and Lorraine G Huber. Not that Davie would ever recognise such art history heresy: ‘I’ve always seen myself as being a complete outsider. I’ve never been part of a group or movement.’ He told me recently, when he took some rare time out his studio to answer a few questions for The List.

From late June through to mid October, Falkirk council will be celebrating Davie’s escalation to four score years and ten with a series of exhibitions, workshops, talks and gigs around the area. Pre-World War Two Edinburgh College of Art graduate Davie was born in Grangemouth. Is it important to him to be celebrated in this way in and around his birthplace in the land of the bairns? ‘Well, naturally Falkirk is very important to me and it is very nice to show in my hometown. I expect it has changed quite dramatically. As a boy I used to enjoy roller-skating and cycling around the town. Only two people owned cars in my street and passing cars very rarely disturbed doing or me when I was out practicing cycling backwards tricks. I was surprised and delighted to learn that Falkirk Council owns paintings by my father, who was the art teacher at the local high school.’

Davie has been based in a converted stable block near Hertford Heath, a small, quaint Hertfordshire village, since 1954. Until recently he lived there with his wife, Bili, but she died a couple of years ago. Hairy (his long mane and formidable beard are very impressive), alone and still incredibly prolific, like some suburban Gandalf, it feels like it would take a great magical force to come between the man and his work. ‘It just comes naturally to me; it is something I have to do, like a compulsion; it never stops. My ideas and forms come intuitively; even when I am watching the television I am making sketches and small drawings. I seem to be driven by an intense inner urge to create. I usually work on several canvases at the same time. Inevitably this results in a series of variations on a theme, although each work evolves at its own pace. Over the years, the imagery in my work has become clearer, more defined, but the conclusion remains the same -- born out of intuition.’ He explains.

Some years ago, Davie decided to broaden his creative horizons by working more in textiles, a move later echoed by Tracy Emin among others with more political intent. Davie is still dismissive of the relevance of such a move: ‘Working with textiles and making the carpets is just something that happened. I was commissioned to design some rugs and then I got interested in the process. In fact, my wife and daughter got very involved in the process and we made carpets together. They wove the carpets to my designs, so it something that we became interested in together and that we shared.’ Like his heroes Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró, Davie has always drawn inspiration from music, jazz in particular, and is himself an accomplished piano, cello and bass clarinet player, he gets positively rheumy eyed recalling the roots of his passion. ‘My interest in jazz started when I was at art college in Edinburgh in the late 1930s. I saw the American saxophonist Coleman Hawkins give a recital with a group of Scottish musicians and he just bowled me over. Hawkins was just incredible, and he later played with Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. I had already taught myself the cello, but after I saw Hawkins play, that’s when I decided I had to learn the saxophone. I borrowed £600 from my father so that I could buy an instrument and it just went from there.’

Clearly itching to get back to his studio, I quickly fire two simple questions at him. Firstly, which of his own works would he pull out of a burning gallery? He thinks for a second: ‘Possibly the triptych, Marriage Feast or Creation of Man, painted in May 1957. I showed it in my exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1958. Secondly, what’s he working on at the moment, he relaxes and expounds: ‘The creativity never stops, I’m always working. At the moment I’m quite interested in making small things; I’m working in oil paint on board, about 10 or 12 inches square… although I’m making big things too. I work in a great variety of styles and I don’t make a distinction in the way I paint. All my images are made in order to uncover the hidden unknown.’ And then he excuses himself with a simple: ‘I’ve really got to get back to the studio.’ That Scottish Calvinist work ethic still intact and unstoppable. Happy birthday Alan Davie.

Alan Davie at 90, various venues, Falkirk. www.falkirk.gov.uk/alandavieat90

Alan Davie at 90: An Exhibition of Recent Work

Repeatedly named as one of Scotland's most prolific living artists, Davie is, for many, one of the most important British painters of the postwar decade.

The Grangemouth Mural

Artist Dugald MacInnes recounts the background to Alan Davie's mural, his early life in Grangemouth and his continuing influence.

Alan Davie-Printmaker

In this illustrated talk, Kip Gresham (The Print Studio, Cambridge) gives a personal account of working with Davie and of the artist's approach to his practice.

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