Sargy Mann – Let it be felt that the painter was there - Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester
Saturday 9 November 2019 – Sunday23 February 2020
‘Let it be felt that the painter was there, consciously seeing things in their own particular light.’
This exhibition, which has been developed by working closely with the artist’s family, is the largest public showing of Mann’s work to date. It includes work from different periods of his career, bringing together an extensive collection of paintings and drawings, alongside never before seen archival material, photographs and audio recordings, which reveal fascinating insights into Mann’s working methods.
Mann had a lifelong interest in how we see and experience the world around us. He sought to make paintings that expressed his experience of looking at the world. Affected by failing vision from the age of 36, Mann was required to find new ways of seeing and working. He viewed this as a creative liberation, and it led to new phases in his practice.
Mann’s creative vision was deeply influenced by the work of the post-impressionist painters Paul Cézanne and Pierre Bonnard. He devoted considerable time to the study of other painters, especially Bonnard, whose quote ‘Let it be felt that the painter was there; consciously looking at the objects in their own particular light…’ is the inspiration for the title of this exhibition.
Across three galleries, the exhibition features work from six decades.
Gallery 1 (upstairs)
1960 – 1981
‘When I first went to art school in 1960 I met remarkable painter teachers, notably Dick Lee, Euan Uglow and Frank Auerbach who said to me, ‘we will not teach you how to paint, but we can teach you through the practice of painting and drawing to see more, to see better; if you look at the real world in front of you as intensely and as freely from visual preconceptions as you can and try to record as truthfully as you can what that experience is, you will in time see more, see better.’
In this room there is a selection of Sargy Mann’s early works. There is work dating from his time at art school, as a student and as a teacher, and there are drawings and paintings from various subjects in or near his different homes in London – indoor still lives, bonfire smoke seen from his house in North London, trees in One Tree Hill in South London, and the park, Warwick Gardens, behind his house on Lyndhurst Grove in Camberwell.
‘During the whole of this first period, I was aware of a tension in my subject matter, to some extent unwelcome, between space and light, and therefore drawing and colour in the paintings I was trying to make as a response.’
Even as a student Mann was interested in the science of vision and how this affected his drawing and painting. He studied the subject widely and was particularly struck by the work of the perceptual scientists J.J. Gibson and Edwin Land. His copies of their influential works are on display here.
And there is also a large collection from Mann’s work on the artist Pierre Bonnard and two drawings by Pierre Bonnard himself.
1989 – 2015
‘By means of art, and perhaps only by means of art, we can to some extent become someone else, can for a while, perhaps only a fraction of a second, lose ourselves and become someone else. This experience, unattainable other than through the medium of the painting, becomes a new piece of us and we are enlarged.’
In this room there are four distinct groups of work. There are paintings from subjects close to or inside Mann’s home in Lyndhurst Grove, London; paintings from the house in Bungay, Suffolk where he moved with his family in 1990; a painting of a family holiday scene, ‘The Family Breakfast Borgo Pace’, and some of the supporting work which aided its composition; and some late, ‘Little Sitting Room’ paintings with topographical subjects which are a combination of imaginary places and of the interior of Mann’s house in Bungay.
By 1989 Mann was regularly making tape recordings on a small dictaphone to assist with his painting process, a tool that one of his colleagues at Camberwell referred to as an ‘audio sketchbook’. Extracts from these recordings are available to listen to here alongside the paintings and offer a fascinating insight into the process by which Mann composed his pictures.
2005 – 2006
The film in this room was made by the artist’s son, filmmaker Peter Mann. It documents Sargy Mann’s trip to Cadaqués in 2005 to gather material for a new series of paintings, and also captures the unique moment shortly after this trip when Mann became totally blind. This event is notable in itself and the film gives revealing insights into Mann’s working processes and how he was able to continue painting after losing his sight completely. The paintings in this gallery are among the first Mann made after returning from Cadaqués.
‘From now on there would be no more new seen subjects.’
Over the next 18 months Mann worked through the subjects he had gathered in Cadaqués. After this, he was faced with the problem of what to paint next, finding that dreams did not remain vivid for long enough and memories of the distant past were too imprecise.
‘…What I actually did was paint Frances [his wife] again. I sat her in the armchair in my studio and knelt on the floor just in front so that I could touch most of her, then I started to learn the pose from feel.’
‘…What I found was that straightaway my brain started turning my understanding of how she was sitting into a drawing as it would be, seen from where my eyes were. My visual cortex has been involved in this process of moving between three dimensions and two dimensions for so long that it still does it even though there is no visual input.’