Signed and dated verso
Oil on canvas
39 5/8 x 29 3/4 in, 100.5 x 75.5 cm
'Self-portrait' is representative of William Turnbull’s paintings and sculptures from 1950 to 1957 when the motif of the head became his major theme. During the 1950s the image of the...
'Self-portrait' is representative of William Turnbull’s paintings and sculptures from 1950 to 1957 when the motif of the head became his major theme. During the 1950s the image of the disjointed and abstracted head appeared in the work of several British artists including his friends Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson. Each of these artists were members of the innovative Independent Group at the ICA, who engaged with art, science, technology and popular culture through exhibitions, events and lectures, exploring man in the context of modernity.
During the 1950s Turnbull was one of a number of artists, including Paolozzi and Armitage, who produced self-consciously ‘primitive’ sculptures and paintings. Turnbull had been fascinated by cave paintings since visiting the Lascaux caves in France before the war. Inspired by these images, as well as African and Greek masks, he began to pursue a similar rawness in his own depiction of the human form and explore the language of signs and symbols. He explained that in his paintings of heads from the 1950s he was interested in “how little will suggest a head, how much load will the shape take and still read head”. Here he has pushed to the limit the motif of the head, flattening it and abstracting it with a series of expressive paint marks, patterns and lines on the canvas.
Like Paolozzi and Henderson, whom he met at the Slade School of Art, Turnbull lived in Paris between 1948 and 1950. Here he became influenced by Surrealism and within paintings such as this he worked directly onto the canvas without making any preparatory sketches in order to incorporate Surrealist chance elements. In Paris he also became interested in the work of Dubuffet and Giacometti. The textural quality to this painting, with marks scratched into the painted surface, highlights the influence of Dubuffet’s expressive Art Brut style. It also shows the influence of Giacometti’s roughly cast sculptures of heads executed during the 1950s. Like Giacometti and Dubuffet, Turnbull used his work to explore the materiality of the art object and express the angst of man in post-war society.