Raymond Mason: Artist celebrated for his sculptures in relief depicting vibrant humanity
Friday 12 March 2010
One of the most distinctive artists of the past 60 years, Raymond Mason is best known for his sculptures in relief.
He chose this mode for its potential to concentrate experience, for its capacity to articulate space (and the relationships within it) and for its power of engaging the viewer in an unfolding narrative. His reliefs range from shallow to exceptionally deep, and from small-scale tableaux of great intricacy to works so large in scale that the viewer has the sense of being part of the scene created. In all types, Mason showed almost uncanny mastery of depicted distance. Each relief is powerfully evocative of both time and place. Concerned at once with humanity en masse and with the particularity of the individual, Mason's sculpture, though itself static, conveys a strong sense of movement, both through the space of the chosen scene and (for its figures) through the vicissitudes of life. He was also an exceptional, swift and accurate draughtsman.
The son of a motor mechanic and a barmaid, Mason had a lasting attachment to the townscape of the Birmingham of his childhood, making lovingly detailed watercolours of its red brick terraces and factories. Proud of the city's achievements and believing in its promise, in 1991 he created Forward, a 9m-long free-standing panorama of Birmingham's history, embracing industry, politics, science and the arts. It stood in Centenary Square from its inauguration by the Queen till its destruction by fire in 2003.
Invalided from war service in the Navy, Mason resumed study at art school in Birmingham before moving to the Royal College of Art, and next to the Slade (in Oxford and London). Then, during a short-lived abstract period, he visited Paris in July 1946 and remained there for the rest of his life. His interest in humanity was too great to sustain an abstract practice and in Paris he was permanently affected, successively, by the work of two great, somewhat older artists, both of whom became close friends. He met his moral hero, Giacometti, in 1948. In 1955 he met Balthus, later writing that he "recognised the [contrasting] second pillar on which a new art of the figure and of the figurative world could be built." Balthus's large pictures were "dense with subject matter and sumptuously painted. Here was the contemporary but complete art I had been seeking for so long". Their power depended upon "the artifice of composition, that sublime intellectual activity which I consider to be the ne plus ultra of art". Mason's work shows both these influences, while being unmistakably his and taking quite different directions.
He fell in love with Paris, becoming for nearly 60 years an exceptional interpreter of its street life (whether at moments of drama or in the pattern of daily life that he delighted to observe) and of its venerable and beautiful façades and urban vistas. He loved the concept of an architectural setting animated by human life, almost as if on a stage. He was preoccupied by the ways in which indentations articulate architecture and light reveals form.
His work is suffused by a sense of history. Walks with him through the ancient streets of his beloved Latin Quarter were a revelation, building by building. In his Twin Sculptures (1988), paired reliefs in a courtyard in Georgetown, a close-packed group of contemporary citizens look and point to the top of an opposite building where a vision appears in a cloud of L'Enfant and Washington planning the future city. Mason's watercolours of the interiors and exteriors of historic Paris buildings complement his panoramic reliefs of Paris, London, Edinburgh, Rome, New York and Hong Kong. In 2001 he drew memorably the massive figures at Abu Simbel.
Mason's studio of nearly 60 years was at the end of a narrow courtyard near the Luxembourg Gardens. Top-lit and white with plaster dust, it was a survival from another age. When he moved in he was just beginning the remarkable sequence of reliefs of his first maturity. Though his best-known early work is Barcelona Tram (1953), the motifs were chiefly figures in contemporary Paris settings, rich in detail. The works had an existential flavour, while the beautiful austerity of their patinated bronze gave them an almost archaic character.
Such qualities were consonant with the vision of Helen Lessore, at whose Beaux Arts Gallery, London, Mason showed. Her A Partial Testament (1986) includes a perceptive chapter on his work. This phase culminated in The Crowd (1969), the large bronze representing humanity flowing like a river, one cast of which overlooks the Tuileries Gardens. With his wife, whose name it bore, Mason directed from 1960-66 the Galerie Janine Hao, next to his studio. Galleries by which Mason would be represented in later years included Claude Bernard (Paris), Pierre Matisse (New York) and Marlborough Fine Art (London).
Though Paris and Mason made each other their own, he remained one of the most intensely English of artists, driven alike by the narrative impulse, by feeling for place and by a love of intricate detail. Known from his Birmingham childhood, Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England, with its human "story" and minutely observed vegetables, was a talisman, but he also loved deeply the work of Hogarth, Wright of Derby, Thomas Jones, Samuel Palmer and Stanley Spencer.
Among his friends were two contrasting masters of figures seen in settings, Francis Bacon and Paula Rego. Equally, he was highly regarded in a circle that included the Paris artists Jean Hélion, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Anne Harvey, Avigdor Arikha and Sam Szafran. An outstanding monograph on his life and work (1994) is by Michael Edwards, an authority on Racine, whose Phèdre Mason designed for the Théâtre du Gymnase in 1959.
In the 1960s he began to paint some of his sculptures in colour, among them the first of several reliefs representing the landscape around his second home, in the Luberon, with its furrowed hills, vistas of vines and magnificent cloudscapes. With the completion in 1971 of one of his most celebrated works, The Departure of Fruit and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris, the move into colour was confirmed decisively. The change disconcerted many of his admirers, even as it heightened the human expressiveness of his work and, as intended, enabled it to engage an audience extending far beyond the upper reaches of the art community.
He later recounted: "I only sculpt in plaster and had long been distressed to see the marvellous light of that medium vanish the moment it was cast in bronze; all the more so since my sculptures at that time depicted outdoor scenes". In place of bronze, he had the 17-piece plaster of the Departure moulded by Haligon in epoxy resin, which he had identified as a perfect support for acrylic paint. Thereafter, his arresting work was regarded with a certain reserve by many in the art world who believed modernist credentials to be imperative, while app-ealing both to the "man in the street" (one of his works' titles) and to a trans-national range of artists, writers, collectors and curators. His retrospective exhibitions at, for example, the Serpentine (1982), the Centre Pompidou (1985) and the Musée Maillol (2000) were enormously successful.
Mason described The Departure... as "an elegy for the demise of the central fruit and vegetable market of Les Halles". Before a backdrop of the doomed market buildings there moves an intricate, compressed yet clearly articulated procession of market traders, bearing their produce, which Mason displays with loving fidelity. An anthology of centuries-old French types, their faces were created by a sculptor who admired Daumier's coloured clay heads of French parliamentarians, made in the 1830s in coloured unfired clay. Rising behind the ensemble is the church of Saint-Eustache, in which an example of this sculpture has long been installed (and where his funeral took place).
Equally renowned is Mason's painted deep relief A Tragedy in the North (1977), in which the grim impact of a mining disaster in Liévin is reflected in the faces of the local community gathering outside the pit. On seeing it, Jean Dubuffet observed to Mason: "You've managed to put into your work a popular, public dimension that I've never been able to do". Subjects of other reliefs on this scale included grape-pickers at work beneath a southern sun and student demonstrators marching up the Boulevard St Michel.
Often taking years to complete a sculpture, Mason painted every stroke of its surface with meticulous care. One of his grandest works, however, An Illuminated Crowd (1986), on a Montreal plaza, is in monochrome light ochre. It presents a flowing transition from four-square confidence to tumbling chaos and is perhaps his most metaphysical conception.
In any gathering, Mason was a forthright participant, unafraid to voice his opinions yet often telling disarming stories of amusing discomfitures he had suffered. Among his many writings, his At Work in Paris (2003) is both an autobiography and a response to the work of great artists over the centuries, including Giotto, J.-L. David, Manet and Rodin. The style is direct, even robust, but conveys Mason's love of human idiosyncracy and the subtlety and delicacy of his perception of motives and feelings. It also abounds in humour and captures much of the magic of his presence as an inspired raconteur (so often merged with his delight as a connoisseur of wine).
While he felt scorn for much contemporary art, the obverse of such reaction was always affirmative, as in this response to minimalism and developments from it: "What... can a work of art contain? At this hour of simplification the reply seems to be – the least possible ... I work diligently on each sculpture... intending it to satisfy ... every person ... who looks at it."
He did so to the end. Though he told Anthony Rudolf that he ate sardines for lunch daily and would live to 100, it was not to be. The asthma that plagued him from childhood led to his death, in the room next to his studio, beside his Birmingham In Memoriam (1958), a panoramic view past terraced housing to a magnificent sunset over the old heart of the city that modern development was destroying. His art was made, however, for this and future generations. At his death the much younger sculptor Ron Mueck wrote: "I cannot remember there not being a Raymond Mason book on my shelf... The strong pulse of Life in his work always impressed me greatly. When I look at Mason's work it feels like seeing clearly through someone else's eyes. That can be an unsettling experience, but rewarding when it is a vibrant, unique vision of the world."
Raymond Greig Mason, sculptor and painter: born Birmingham 2 March 1922; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres 1978; OBE 2002; married Janine Hao (three stepdaughters); died Paris 13 February 2010.
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