Birth Of A New Aesthetic
1956 - 1960
By 1956 a major shift had occurred in Martich-Severi’s visual language. The last remaining remnants of figuration present in The Immaculate Conception are by now absorbed into spacial rhythms of line and shade. These ‘spacial rhythms’ were created mostly in biro, a humble medium which became the artist’s primary expressive means over the next forty years.
Alongside the biro works are several stunning large scale compositions in oil and sand, as well as a number of smaller pastels. The works in oil and sand, and pastel reveal the vivid abstract colourist in Martich-Severi for the first time.
An obvious question which arises is why biro? We find the answer to this question in Introduction to Icilio’s Works 1965 by George Berger:
"These delicate drawings in a technique which was entirely new in 1956 when IMS first began to develop it, filled an actual, practical need in the artist’s life. He was laid up in bed, his physical health ravaged by powerful sicknesses.."
Martich-Severi was not the first modernist to make a major aesthetic leap through ill health; the equally bed-ridden birth of Matisse’s cut-out form provides an eerie resonance, and perhaps the basis for a study on the psychology of illness and creativity.
There was also possibly another factor which might be considered. It is significant to note the almost complete lack of known creative material between 1954 and 1956. I have a suspicion that this time may have been a period of serious creative crisis. Martich-Severi sensed the end of figurative reference within his imaginative vision To follow the drifting line drawings of 1953, leaving all else behind was quite possibly an extremely frightening proposition. It is difficult for a non - artist to understand how this might have been so; imagine being told one evening that you must leave your home and all your possessions and follow a path to a tiny hut in order to receive further instruction. Psychologically an artist lives within the emotional fabric and formal structure of his language. When the law of growth, or ‘muse’ says ‘follow me’, what else can be done? The artist may resist, but this will only bring suffering. Ultimately he must leave his beloved structures -all he knows, and embark.
What does this have to do with the biro as a principle medium? It is my guess that Martich-Severi worked his way out of a point of un -knowing, through an unassuming, almost accidental approach to his drawing. Physical limitations, due to ill health certainly helped precipitate the move. Perhaps they surprised him, these early biros, and the medium was so simple and accessible, why not continue using it?
An artist’s progress is fraught with doubt, uncertainty, surprise, accident, assembling, dissembling, arrival, and departure: these are the staples of his creative existence. It is easy to forget this when presented with the panorama of a life’s work.
During this time, in the United States, similar non-figurative developments were in motion. The artists Hans Hofmann, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman were all immersed in radical, non-linear fields of colour. We could add to this list Sam Francis, Clifford Still, and Robert Motherwell. Phillip Guston was also actively dissembling, however a senseof figurative movement never entirely left his brush. In Australia Peter Booth would not enter his transformative colour-field phase until the 1970s.
Godfrey Miller, Ian Fairweather, and Roger Kemp were perhaps Martich-Severi’s closest Australian counterparts; however they were also all extremely different. Miller was seeking an ever more complex linear and chromatic vibration, Fairweather an almost numerically loose dance, and Kemp never lost his symbolist character; rather than let this element go, he integrated it into his gathering storm of pictorial integrity. Formally, I would say Martich-Severi lay somewhere between Miller and Fairweather. His biro works approached the vibrational intensity of Miller’s paintings, whilst maintaining the sense of rhythmic, curvilinear dance alive in the compositions of Fairweather. There was no known artist in the United States developing such a graphically based abstract language; only Henri Matisse in France was heading in that direction, his dance of cut-outs swimming towards pure abstraction. Matisse , however, by the early 1950s, had reached the end of his life, whilst Martich-Severi was at the beginning of his mature development.
The path of fractilization which Miller took to such intense levels never entirely seduced Martich-Severi. His aesthetic development was, in retrospect, very balanced: from complexity of composition he sought counter balance in works of Formal reduction and simplicity. There is certainly a danger in being seduced wholly by any one path. The great Russian painter Pavel Filinov was consumed, like Miller, by a sense of infinite fracture. We might say ‘but what a great example of linguistic commitment’. The problem is, such a ‘commitment’ entails a psychological, if not spiritual state which begins to lose sight of its compliment nature: the seamless whole. Picasso, undoubtedly felt this warning, as he left his most complex cubist language for the monumental forms of his neo-classical phase.
ike Picasso, Martich-Severi instinctively sought balance in his art and life, even as he took both to their extreme poles of expression. The oil and sand composition featured on the previous page, is the work of a cool mind, a spacious mind. It is an aesthetic counterpoint to Secundo, a blue biro work from 1958, which gyrates with an almost psychedelic energy.
The pastel composition from 1958, featured left, reveals the formal legacy of the Sorcerer group of works from the early 1950s. Its sharp and sudden lines recall the drifting line drawings of 1953. For the first time planes of colour and tone begin to amplify and empower the graphic element; a seed for the major works in felt pen which would follow in the decades to come.
Text: copyright James Waller 2007. Image: Composition, Martich-Severi 1950s copyright Serge Martich Osterman.