Keith Vaughan: Romanticism to Abstraction, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

After taking a fatal overdose in November 1977, Keith Vaughan confessed to his journal: “I cannot drag on another few years in this state” and concluded that “65 was long enough for me.” A timely exhibition at Pallant House Gallery reveals that Vaughan’s suicide deprived British art of an intense and haunting painter. While struggling with depression throughout his career, he succeeded in defining a singular vision which conveys, at best, the full melancholy of his troubled imagination.

Traumatised at the age of eight when his father walked out and never returned, Vaughan remained possessed by a fundamental sense of loss. Homoerotic yearnings, which never found fulfilment in a lasting relationship, sharpened his anxiety. It can be felt even in Vaughan’s early images of 1930s seaside holidays where, on the English south coast at Pagham, Sussex, he played with friends and his younger brother Dick. Looking back later on how they all relished roaming the beaches naked, Vaughan commented wryly on “the complete innocence of those days (and the complete sexual suppression)”. In a powerful gouache called “Beach with Bathers”, made around 1938, he shows young men emerging from the sea. They look pale and vulnerable. Some of their bodies, reduced to outlines, are transparent against the water and sky beyond. Although they are in groups, each figure seems curiously isolated.

This emphasis on loneliness mirrors Vaughan’s own predicament, as a largely self-taught artist who worked in an advertising agency before becoming a conscientious objector in the second world war. Working for the St John Ambulance first-aid charity and the Pioneer Corps did not stifle his urge to make art, and Kenneth Clark was impressed enough to acquire a dozen of Vaughan’s works for the War Artists Advisory Committee. Influenced by Graham Sutherland, whom he met through the influential publisher Peter Watson, his drawings mourn the devastation of blitzed London. But one outstanding image, “Night in the Streets of the City” (1943), relegates the bombed houses to a shadowy distance. The foreground is dominated by a strange, boulder-like form, where the faces of two young lovers seem to have been carved in stone. They kiss each other and cry, as if lamenting their inability to celebrate love in this benighted, bomb-shattered world.

By the end of the war, Vaughan found himself classified as a Neo-Romantic artist, belonging to a circle that included John Piper, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. He shared a house with the equally troubled John Minton in 1946, and won a considerable reputation for his illustrations in Arthur Rimbaud’s immensely influential book of poems A Season in Hell. The book’s anguished title appealed to Vaughan, who had became preoccupied with drawing a foetal figure, hunched and naked as he seeks shelter within a rocky cave.

But in the aftermath of war, he had no desire to remain trapped in the Neo-Romantic orbit. Obsessed by “the sense of my failure as an artist”, he wrote in his 1948 journal: “I become aware of this growing sense of doom . . . Almost as though I was under a sentence of death.” Part of Vaughan’s problem lay in setting impossibly high standards for himself. Growing admiration for his work led to an extraordinary commission in 1951, when he painted the vast central mural in the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain. Here, at the age of 39, he had every reason to feel satisfied with his progress. He chose the Greek hero Theseus as his subject for the mural, depicted with a skull referring to the Minotaur whom Theseus killed in the Labyrinth of Knossos. But the Dome of Discovery was soon demolished, and Vaughan’s restless travels in Greece and Morocco did not heal his psychological wounds.

Allying himself now with Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Nicolas de Staël, Vaughan tried to extricate himself from an exclusively English tradition. He also attempted to develop a more innovative painterly style that pushed figuration to the borders of abstraction. In “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian”, a large and ambitious painting of 1958, he addressed himself to a theme found in so many Renaissance and Baroque altarpieces. Yet instead of celebrating Sebastian’s tragic beauty as a 20th-century “gay icon”, Vaughan views him sadly from the back as an anonymous martyr whose face cannot be seen. His plight is painfully evident, and five ruthless men are busy preparing their bows and arrows to finish him off.

Vaughan doubtless identified with the hapless martyr, even though his career reached a high point in the 1960s. During a 1965 trip to Morocco he described the “snake charmers, boy dancers dressed as girls, and colourful water carriers selling a poisonous liquid”. But the large painting “Musicians at Marrakesh” (1966-70) is strangely impersonal and devoid of excitement. The simplified figures look motionless and depressed, echoing the introspection of the painter who decided, in the end, to terminate his own troubled existence.

‘Keith Vaughan: Romanticism to Abstraction’, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex, until June 10

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