Michael Finn

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Michael Finn, painter and teacher: born Addlestone, Surrey 7 July 1921; Principal, Falmouth College of Art 1958-72; Principal, Bath Academy 1973-82; married 1941 Cicely Bailey (died 2002; one son, two daughters); died St Ives, Cornwall 24 March 2002.

The abstract painter Michael Finn, whose outstanding teaching career saw him serve as Principal at Falmouth College of Art and Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, was a modest man who only developed his considerable artistic talents after retirement in 1982. During the last 20 years of his life his minimal canvases and wall-bound wood reliefs conveyed a strong religious conviction which contributed to an ongoing transcendentalism found at the core of much modern painting.

Born in Surrey in 1921, the son of an architect, Finn was educated at Westminster School before studying art at Kingston in the early 1940s. After wartime service in the RAF he entered the Royal College of Art. By 1945 he had started a family, a situation that necessitated a career in art education. He taught for nearly a decade at Somerset College of Art, Taunton, before becoming Principal at Falmouth in 1958.

During the next 14 years a limited output of still-life and landscape painting was sent in to group exhibitions at the Newlyn Art Gallery and the Penwith Society in St Ives. His natural empathy with young artists made him a sympathetic teacher but after his spell as head at Corsham between 1973 and 1982 he returned to Cornwall where at last he devoted his time exclusively to painting.

Despite his strong Roman Catholicism, Finn's painting seemed almost puritanical in its austere reduction of form and colour. The slim vertical, square or rectangular canvases, however, conveyed a sublime sense of landscape space in which a single, dominant and saturated hue assumed a crucial expressive role. The formal influence of American "colour field", "post-painterly" and "minimalist" abstraction was complemented by the spiritual content he shared with the revered Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

This content was relayed not only through contrasting passages of sombre, luminous or atmospheric colour but also through visible directional brush strokes and modulated paint handling, vehicles with which Finn countered the impersonal symmetry of the overall canvas object. The single lines or bars that traversed Finn's near-monochromatic canvases certainly owed a debt to Newman's famous "zips", pictorial devices that in alternative horizontal or vertical orientations evoked landscape or architectural feelings.

After he settled near St Just in 1982, Finn's simple and streamlined canvases witnessed a "micro-climate" of minute, yet significant, shifts involving format, colour and spatial division of surface. Employing a range of reds, browns, greens and blues, his palette also exploited temperature contrast. By the early 1990s the colour brightened and he produced a series of rectangular "gateway" compositions and a series of white paintings, each of which invested the implied interiorised space of the work with the metaphor of a spiritual dimension. The ascending or lateral divisions were created in literal form by the white wall between aligned canvases that made up several diptych or triptych compositions.

Finn's allegiance to the given flatness of pictorial art and to its status as a wall-bound object inevitably led him to venture into semi- sculptural relief; the constructed wood crosses and crucifixes that resulted (some of which were cast in bronze by Michael Werbicki) had the ironic effect of transforming the most architectonic extreme of his oeuvre into the most iconic representation of a tangible religious ideal.

These developments were seen during the 1980s and 1990s at Finn's increasingly regular solo or group exhibitions. Solo exhibitions at Bob Devereux's Salthouse Gallery, St Ives, and at John Halkes's Newlyn Art Gallery in 1987 and 1989 respectively were followed by a simultaneous display of sculpture and painting at Falmouth and Newlyn art galleries in 2001, the latter eliciting a substantial catalogue essay by the curator Liz Knowles. A degree of commercial success beyond Cornwall saw his work displayed at David Messum Fine Art, London.

The formal discipline of Finn's art hid neither a sensuous streak nor a spiritual intention. He was a keen collector of Persian carpets, and his interest in the decorative and ornate merely reinforced the sense that painting should, using pared-down means, express essential truths. He used the simplest of means to conjure the sublime emptiness of open space. The mature paintings of his retirement years testified to the fulfilment of a personal yet universal vision informed by, and spawned in, the revolution in art and design that he encountered at first hand during his long and distinguished teaching career.

Peter Davies