Objective Abstraction

Objective abstraction was a British art movement. Between 1933 and 1936 several artists later associated with the Euston Road School produced almost or totally abstract paintings executed in a free painterly manner. Along with Tibble and Graham Bell, Moynihan produced the most abstract of these. This example is from Objective Abstraction’s middle phase, when definite marks and longer strokes had given way to denser textures. In his words: ‘the gradual thickening of the paint was … a kind of build-up as a result of correction and suggestion’. He was ‘continually aware of the lung movement of paint, its ability to breathe and move upon the surface of the canvas’.

Objective abstraction was part of the general ferment of exploration of abstraction in Britain in the early 1930s. The paintings produced by the group evolved in an improvisatory way from freely applied brushstrokes.

Objective abstraction was a form of abstract art developed by a group of British artists in 1933. Experimentation was prevalent in British art at the time.

The main figures were Graham Bell, William Coldstream, Edgar Hubert, Rodrigo Moynihan and Geoffrey Tibble.

The movement was short-lived lasting only a few years. Many of the artists involved went on to be part of the realist Euston Road School.

William Townsend told the Tate Gallery that ‘the style originated with Geoffrey Tibble in the latter half of 1933. It was immediately taken up by Rodrigo Moynihan and at the same time or shortly after by Edgar Hubert’. According to Townsend, early paintings by the group were derived from external objects but they became increasingly abstract.

The more abstract paintings, that came to represent the movements style, were created using improvised freely applied brushstrokes. Geoffrey Tibble described them as ‘not abstracted from nature, and which made no reference to and had no associations with anything outside themselves the picture was an object in its own right’ (Bowness, 1960:198).

In 1934, the exhibition Objective Abstractions was held at the Zwemmer Gallery showing the group’s work, except Hubert’s. The exhibition also included work by more representational artists, Ivon Hitchens, Victor Pasmore, and Ceri Richards. On the other hand, works by non objective abstraction artists Ivon Hitchens, Victor Pasmore, and Ceri Richards, were added to the show by the gallery’s director. Moynihan was inspired by the brushwork in the late paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner and Claude Monet.

Moynihan exhibited a number of non-representational works between 1934 and 1937, all with the title ‘Painting’ or ‘Drawing’; His work also shows that the work was partly repainted after that time; there were originally more sharply defined contrasts of tone with dark areas in the centre and, more clearly than at present, in the lower corners.

Mr Townsend distinguishes three phases in the development of Moynihan’s and Tibble’s non-representational work in the 1930s: the first was characterized by broad, loosely painted brush-strokes, as in the examples reproduced in the 1934 Zwemmer Gallery catalogue; after the exhibition this was replaced by a much more deliberate style, only a few paintings being worked on over a long period to produce a lighter and more even tone and a denser texture obscuring the individual brush-strokes; in 1936 there was a return to a more rapid looser technique. The Tate Gallery’s picture belongs to the second phase and was probably begun in 1935, though not ready to exhibit at the London Group of October–November that year (its subsequent reworking has been mentioned above): it is similar in style both to a painting in the collection of W. W. Winkworth, which was purchased at the London Group exhibition of October–November 1935, and to the larger work, signed and dated 1936, still in the possession of the artist.

The catalogue of the 1934 exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery includes the artists’ answers to a number of questions. Moynihan, in reply to the question ‘Do you consider your paintings “impressionist”?’, states that they ‘have more in common with the impressionist technique whereby painting identifies itself with, and derives from, its means, than with a system in which the artist imposes upon the canvas a preconceived idea;… the evolution is intimately bound up with the canvas and medium’. William Townsend, in a letter to The Listener of 18 April 1934 which he wrote independently but which was approved by Geoffrey Tibble, defined the use of the word ‘Objective’: ‘the painting is to be regarded as having from the first touch that right to exist independently of the painter himself on which later it will depend for any significance it may have’.