A Tree Within
Bristol: Sansom & Company, 2016
Hardcover. 119p. ISBN 978-1908326898. £25
Reviewed by Catherine Bernard
Université Paris Diderot, Paris-7
With this book, curator and art historian Alan Wilkinson offers the first retrospective monograph solely devoted to Fiona McIntyre. Working across a vast range of media—from printmaking to charcoal, from light painting to acrylic and oil, McIntyre has proved a versatile artist eager to reinvent her visual idiom and to engage with motifs, material and forms in subtle and sophisticated ways. Taking us through the main periods of her career, the book provides a fascinating insight into the dynamics of an artist’s vision, its inflections and structuring paradigms.
Although McIntyre has only been the object of three solo exhibitions, she has featured in numerous group shows in Britain, but also in Sweden and Spain (Barcelona), where she lived at the beginning of her career. Graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1985, she then went on to garner a rich experience as a printmaker in Malmö and Barcelona, before returning to England to train at the Winchester School of Art, and settling in Bath—she joined what is now known as Bath Artists’ Studios— and then the Costwolds. Each of these life shifts were the occasion of aesthetic encounters that progressively enriched her visual language, from the Cobra group to Antoni Tàpies, from Icelandic art to the Canadian Group of Seven, also known as the Algonquin School. Her move to the Cotswolds in 2004 opened a decisive chapter in her production and choice of topics. Building on visual emotions already fuelled by a sketching trip to the Scotish Ardnamurchan peninsula, she became enthralled to plein air drawing and to the rich and subtle presence of nature. Wilkinson’s informative interview with the artist takes the reader through her biography and the layered influences that have accreted over time to produce her unique vision of English nature; and one can only be struck by the complexity of the artistic journey that has taken her, so to speak, back to the heart of the English landscape.
Continental artists may have played a major role in her opening up to the language of colour, but the “Bodyscape series” of 2003 is above all evocative of the textured layers of Howard Hodgkin, just as the very recent series “Bishop’s Palace and Gardens” of 2016 looks back both to the Cobra group and Francis Bacon, whom she also mentions as one of her main influences, alongside that of Northern European Expressionists. Above all, one is struck by the organic bond that exists between her landscape-painting and the Camden Town Group (1911-1913). The link is indeed organic in more than one way. McIntyre’s great-grandfather was no other than Malcolm Drummond, one of the founding members of the Camden Town Group and the book’s attentive iconography sparks very productive dialogues between McIntyre’s and Drummond’s works that seem to converse across the page (see p. 10-11, the uncanny mirror effect produced by the pairing of McIntyre’s New Fallen  and Drummond’s Wooded Pond ).
In his preface, Tim Craven, Curator of Art at Southampton City Art Gallery, establishes a vibrant genealogy linking McIntyre to the long tradition of English colourists, from Turner to Hitchens and the Camden Town Group. Even more important to the artist’s artistic identity is her deep and close kinship with the long and bountiful tradition of nature-painting in Britain, and more specifically the rich vein of woodland painting. One need only remember that Lucian Freud’s foray into curating, with the 2002-2003 Constable exhibition held at the Grand Palais, opened with Constable’s Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree (c. 1821), now in the V&A collections. Craven and McIntyre’s collaboration dates back to the 2014 “Under the Greenwood Tree – Part II” exhibition, curated by Craven in London, in which her New Fallen (2014) featured as one of the centrepieces. In 2015 she was one of the founding members of the Arborealist Group, initiated by Craven. The simple and yet powerful vindication of this cultural bloodline coursing through English painting and once again materialising in McIntyre’s work is one of the most enlightening arguments of the book. Craven’s inspired preface opens up thought-provoking perspectives on the alternative history of English painting. With a view to placing McIntyre’s work in the long history of English nature painting, he also succeeds in capturing in a few paragraphs the dynamics of an alternative aesthetic modernity running from the Romantics to the Brotherhood of Ruralists in the 1970s. 2016 also saw the publication of a critically acclaimed collective volume, Arboreal : A Collection of New Woodland Writing, edited by Adrian Cooper, and Craven’s enlightening genealogy chimes with that call for a renewed contract with the collective treasure of the world’s woodlands.
The “tree within” of the monograph’s title is also that of a poem by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger and which McIntyre’s acknowledges as one of the lasting inspirations underlying her work. The monograph concludes on the poem which calls for greater attentiveness to the budding of passion, that “tree within” whose “tangled foliage” becomes the texture of thoughts. Like Paz’s poem, Wilkinson’s book is a work of attentiveness to the understated and yet intense work of an artist whose roots reach deep down into the layered strata of English art. Anyone interested in English art and its sense of a collective organicity, anyone intrigued by the resurgence of nature-writing in England will find in Fiona McIntyre’s : A Tree Within ample and original material for a stimulating exploration of England’s ever vibrant nature imaginary. Not only does this monograph allow the public to be better acquainted with the work of a creative colourist; it adds fresh and welcome material to our understanding of England’s complex fascination with a nature that is both the projection of the mind’s eye and a collectively embodied experience.
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