2 JUNE 1961, Page 17


Trails of the Unconscious


WHATEVER his ultimate position in the history of painting, Jackson Pollock now enjoys sufficient fame and influence to be treated as a major artistic phenomenon. For this reason the exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art of sixty-two paintings, drawings and water- colours, many of them never exhibited before, is an important occasion.

It is not exactly the exhibition he deserves. Possibly because of the intense demand for his Pictures which has sprung up in the United States since his death in 1956, and the consequent scramble to secure first-rate examples, the Present selection contains nothing so impressive as, for instance, Scent or Blue Poles which we saw some years ago at the Whitechapel Art Gal- lery. It does, however, include a good selection of pictures executed in the formative years between his reaction against his first master, Thomas Hart Benton, around 1933 and the moment when, in 1947, he ceased painting with the brush and evolved his own now-famous technique of dribbling the paint on to the canvas direct. This survey helps us considerably to under- stand how he came to make such a drastic break With all the till-then accepted methods of execution, as well as illuminating the psychology of the artist which is less easily accessible through the tangled meshes of his non-figurative or scarcely-figutative compositions.

The paintings dating from the early Thirties until 1946 contain enough of Pollock's violent, perplexed and poetic personality to count as interesting works of art in their own right. The influences are numerous, but they are trans- formed and blended so that they acquire a charac- ter independent of their models. These are (in approximate chronological order) the nineteenth- century American Romantics, particularly Ryder, Whose Death on a White Horse is akin in style and spirit to The Wagon of circa 1934; El Greco; Masson, Mire, Ernst, Orozco and Picasso; and simultaneously with this last group, the primitive art of the American Indians.

If we had to judge Pollock only by his paint- ings executed after 1947, and possessed no aids to understanding them in the form of recorded interviews, conversations with his friends etc., we might suppose that he was an abstract painter in the strictly formal sense that Nicholson and Pas- more are abstract painters, the only difference being that his forms, because they are loose and variegated, are infinitely more suggestive of hid- den motifs, symbols and even personages than are the sharp, inorganic forms of the Constructivists.

From his pre-1947 pictures, however, it is clear that he was anything but a 'pure' artist concerned with exploring form and colour for their own sake. The subject mattered intensely to him. Not the picturesque, local American subject of Thomas Hart Benton, whose pictures sometimes resemble covers to the Saturday Evening Post, nor the didactic Marxist subject of Orozco, (although Orozco's attempt to create images of universal and timeless. significance undoubtedly aided Pollock in his own search for universals). What fascinated him, as Mr. Lawrence Alloway emphasises in his admirable catalogue, was the totemic and mythological, two pictorial categories which he believed could be brought to life through the exercise of the individual psyche. In Mr. Alloway's words, Pollock's big cast 'of sentinels, lovers, women, heads, animals, and sacrifices flourishes on [the] identification of the personal psyche with mythology as general knowledge.' His belief in absolute spontaneity therefore rests upon a psychological as well as a pictorial basis. The images which welled up in his mind had to be instantly transmitted if they, were to retain their force. Pollock himself knew that they could possess no single precise significance, knew also that all romantic art profits from a degree of ambiguity. But, as an active disciple of Jung, he trusted that his intensely personal visions would have the general validity of every emanation from the collective unconscious.

If Pollock had died before 1947, he would be regarded as an interesting pioneer figure in post- war American painting, but not more original than, say, Kline, Rothko or Guston. His present enormous reputation depends upon the later works in which he apparently repudiates his former masters, and works in the drip technique which Alloway explains as the outcome of 'his personal desire for long, flowing, continuous line' and 'the creation, at speed, of the kind of form which would be impossible with a brush.' These pictures are infinitely more attractive than his early works, which are usually harsh and some- times coarse. But in some ways the new technique militated against his gifts as a visionary. Psycho- logists may insist that every slip of the tongue or pen is charged with significance, but there is a world of difference between the verbal accident and the material one, whether it is caused, as in the case of Chinese potters, by allowing glazes to dribble down the sides of a jar, or, as in the case of Pollock, by swinging trails of paint across an empty canvas. In his search for absolute freedom of expression, he almost deprived himself of the capacity to express anything more than the possibilities of paint itself. I say 'almost' because the best of his later pictures are more mesmeric than any pure decoration could be. Somehow Pol- lock managed to control the element of chance implicit in his technique. And when occasionally he reverted to figuration, the results could be profoundly moving. Witness the large head (No. 61) in this exhibition on which, as Alloway says, `the chance marks contribute to the pathos of survival and endurance, as in a battered Hellenistic sculpture.' Images of this power are rare, but they go a long way to explaining Pol- lock's significance.