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Like many a schoolchild in England, Sean Scully used to contemplate that solemn staple of classroom art, a print of Picasso’s “Child with a Dove”. In pinched, grey 1950s London, the figure of this cradling girl was Scully’s first exposure to art and, as he once said, “the consolation in my sad experience of life”.

This uplifting retrospective recently opened at Barcelona’s Fundació Joan Miró is simply entitled Sean Scully, though in an echo of that early childhood experience it might also be called “the consolation of painting”. From the severe geometry of his 1970s pictures to the soft-edged bars and squares of his “transcendental abstraction”, Scully has, all along, been sustained by the painting tradition – Velázquez, Matisse, Morandi, Miró, Rothko and, of course, Picasso. The tactile joy of paint in his mature work is overwhelming: the delicate colouring; the strange, reddish, twilight colours that seem to seep up through deep fissures in the canvas. If some once saw Scully’s concerns as being arcane as alchemy, this show can only consolidate a reputation that has been hard won over three decades.

As an honorary Barcelonan, Scully must feel a frisson to stand in the opening room of his retrospective. Last year, some of Joan Miró’s late, Zen-inspired pictures from the 1960s hung in this very space; now, Scully’s own minimalist works mark the moment when, as a young painter, he took up the baton of abstraction.

While meditative instincts lie behind these huge canvases, the meticulous grids of the “Overlay” series of 1974 are more Mondrian than Miró, and, like Mondrian, the works in the flesh are vastly more exciting than any reproduction. The lines tremble with concentration, a shade too diminished here, the hint of a stray bristle there, perfection of structure brought to life by minuscule imperfections of hand and eye. Like Mondrian, too, is the sense of some secret dimension that exists for itself, as if one had stumbled on the busy life of the sub-atomic world.

The early 1980s brought an abrupt departure from these monkish, mathematical works. “Backs and Fronts” of 1981, a series of joined, brightly striped canvases of varying heights like a skyscraper roofline is a clashing, syncopated rhythm to break, in an act of rebellion, the measured music of geometry.

Superficially, it looks like vintage Scully, with its play of horizontal and vertical bars. But the divisions here are still somewhat clean and sharp. The deeper shift in Scully’s work, technically and emotionally, makes itself felt in subsequent pictures, in which the dividing lines between forms start to blur and bleed, and the colours earthier, built up layer on layer so that one shines dimly out behind another. A confident, brash jazz is gradually replaced by something haunted, tentative, old. In paintings such as “Africa” (1989), the stripes are both aerial views of vast territories and the intimate markings of a tiger; there is burnished gold and the weathered white of the walls of ancient civilisations.

While paint on canvas is preferred for its textural possibilities, a huge range of works on paper are on display here too, Scully exploiting the subtle possibilities opened up by pastels. Named for the date of its creation, “3.29.03” is (apparently) a marine study of sea-green and slate- grey blocks. The whites are terracotta or marbled, the greys like lichen. One of the dark green panels is like looking into the thudding intensity of the deep: a grandiloquent echo of Mark Rothko, unquestionably Scully’s mentor, although where Rothko made large, ritual gestures, Scully emerges as the tender master of forgotten corners, the variegated, blistered surfaces of city, field and beach.

This mature style has absorbed Scully for two decades, although the exhibition reveals striking affinities with earlier phases. A picture from his geometric period, “Diptych” (1976), is a painstakingly executed series of fine, light-grey horizontal lines ruled over a block of dark grey on the left and beige on the right. The result is like two finely slatted Venetian blinds hung side by side, the concept decidedly binary: dark and light, perhaps, or night and day. But this dualism is playful and complex, ambiguous even, since the light grey, horizontal lines that brighten the dark “night” panel are the same light grey lines that shadow the beige “day” panel. Years later, in 1990 and at the height of a very different style, Scully’s “Day Night” is formed by blocks arranged like a parquet floor, ranging in exquisitely subtle colours from the light-filled to the dark. Yet all are made nearly entirely out of shades of the same colour: grey.

This play on dualism, which at the same time rejects stark, black-and- white conclusions, is perhaps summed up in Scully’s own professed aesthetic: that artists feel the necessity to create “because they feel divided in two and need to attain some type of unity”.

The “Passengers” series of paintings on display here is a wonderful illustration of this yearning. Each picture has a chequered ground, like the floor of an old railway station, across whose surface goes an inlaid panel of bars – the passenger himself, presumably. In “White Passenger” (1998), the chequers on the floor are of a light brown – the cold, brittle tones of Scully’s favourite colourist, Giorgio Morandi – while the white bars forming the passenger are streaked browny-red. Is the passenger “coloured” by the background, or the background by the passenger? From its broken geometry, its troubled dialogue between the moving and static, humans and their environment, emerges a complex idea of unity: one striven for but never quite achieved.

Which is in some ways a description of the way Scully sees his place in the history of art. “Bather” (1983) recalls the young Picasso’s “Bathers in a Stream”, painted during his pivotal stay in the village of Gósol, not far from Barcelona. Scully’s homage distils the green foliage and blue water into a series of alternating vertical bars, into which the bather is introduced as a panel of horizontal oranges and yellows, splitting and tearing the background – yet at the same time immersed in it. Perhaps, in painting this, Scully the middle-aged artist looked back to Scully the schoolchild: two different visions of Picasso in one life, never quite adding up, because life, like the artistic tradition itself, is always moving on.

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