Under the influence

The artist John Wells was a member of the so-called “St. Ives” group, a loose collective of artists active from the late 1930s to the 1970s. None of the artists in question necessarily thought of themselves as part of a group, and their often fractious relationships makes for great reading. The most illustrious members were Barbara Hepworth – arguably Britain’s greatest female artist – and her husband Ben Nicholson, who moved to the west of Cornwall when war made London an unsuitable place to raise a family. The only “native” Cornishman in the group was Peter Lanyon, whose artistic development after he was demobbed from the RAF was astonishing, and who went on to produce some of the most striking abstract landscape paintings of the 1950s before his tragic early death in 1964.

But – though Lanyon is the artist whose work I love the most – back to Wells, a good friend of his. I have the catalogue from the Tate St. Ives 1998 Wells exhibition (John Wells: The Fragile Cell by Matthew Rose). Wells is a classic case of someone wearing his influences on his sleeve. Works which would be interesting on their own suffer when compared to those by artists Wells evidently (from his letters) admired and was inspired by. So it is possible, looking through the catalogue, to see in Wells’ work a Naum Gabo construction here, a Nicholson or Hepworth geometric drawing there. Only in the early 1950s does he emerge from the shadow of his influences with a series of spiralling, swooping oil-on-board works such as “Sea Bird Forms” and “Aspiring Forms” unlike anything produced by his peers (while still immediately recognisable as post-War abstract art).

I have previously written about riffing: taking a cue from a prior work and running with it, transforming it into an integral part of a whole in which the original motif no longer creates automatic associations with the source – or, if it does, in such a way as to open dialogue with that work. We all have our influences and inspirations. The two are not necessarily the same, and I’ll return to the difference between them in a subsequent post. For some it proves easy to shake off or outgrow those whose work has inspired us. Some never do (I’m looking at you, Noel Gallagher).

Me? Hell, yes. My parents’ attic used to be full of my juvenilia: Kerouac-inspired novels that were so much self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness; a poem that wanted to be Ginsberg’s Howl when it grew up, but never did; stories of domestic appliances turned evil (à la Stephen King’s Christine), or James Herbert-inspired gore; Joycean wordplay; Marquez magical realism; Kelman grittiness. From this list I excuse Star Battle, by me and my friend Will, which so outgrew the Star Wars influence that it was confident enough to name two of its characters “Luke” and “Vader”. We were 9 years old. Cut us some slack.

Paul McCartney said that the “Soul” in Rubber Soul was an acknowledgement of the influence of black American soul music on that album, but which the Fab Four internalised and re-processed to such an extent that only George Martin’s spacious production seems to link it to the dynamics of Philly or Motown.

Moving beyond your influences is a necessary part of maturing as an artist, but I still find myself guilty of adopting the voice of a work that has particularly grabbed me. Sometimes I will want to read fiction of a certain genre to help me get into the mood of what I am trying to write: at other times, fearing the creep of influence, I’ll deliberately read something totally different: non-fiction is a good way of cleansing the literary palate.

In his book How Proust can change your life, Alain de Botton hits the nail on the head. Although he’s talking about literary pilgrimages – going to Illiers to see Proust’s environment, or Dublin to see Joyce’s, or even Cornwall to see that of the St. Ives group – the key is not to look at the artist’s world through your eyes, but to look at your world through their eyes. Learning to see or to think like an artist will let your own voice emerge. This means internalising the lessons of the work; adopting & adapting the mindset, instead of copying the outward form.


Seabird forms © the estate of john wells

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