On the 100th anniversary of his birth, a new exhibition explores the artist's inventive approach to place and landscape
Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Oscar Wilde thought so, and the protean quality of Colin Middleton’s oeuvre suggests that he must have agreed.
Born in Belfast in 1910, Middleton was perhaps the only Irish artist experimenting with a surrealist vocabulary in the 1930s, and throughout his life he swung from Dali-like trippiness and symbolism to outright abstraction, post-impressionism with a twist, and landscapes in the cornflower blues and vivid yellows favoured by Van Gogh.
So he has paintings of women with their hair tangled in parachutes or posing on desert plains with all kinds of symbolic objects – parrots, ladders, horizon-lines with odd furniture, the light and mood full of the metaphysical murmurings of a de Chirico. But then, he painted outhouses in Ballyhalbert or corn stooks, the road to Belmullet or twilight at Bangor Pier with seriousness and reverence for the contours and textures of the land.
It is impossible to categorise Middleton and this is what makes him fascinating. He sits like a true maverick within the conservative annals of Ulster art during the interwar period, trying on and casting off the styles of different artistic movements with zany energy, changing his approach as soon as he verges on predictability.
Critics accused him, accordingly, of immaturity and pastiche. This is because Middleton was, to use a terrible and yet apt cliché, ahead of his time; he was trying to give the Ulster art scene a desperately needed kick up the backside before it was ready.
This exhibition at the Crescent Arts Centre primarily engages with Middleton’s approach to landscape and that most Northern Irish of themes, the sense of place. As such, poems by Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon are set alongside many of the paintings as they worry over the intricacies of the land. A few paintings nod to Middleton’s surrealist tendencies, but for the most part this is a view of the artist during his later period of semi-abstract or post-impressionist landscape painting.
Works like 'Cloud over Sligo' (1970) pare the landscape back, showing the soil, distant mountains, cumulus and sky in rough rectangular shapes of colour. In a similar vein, 'The Road to Belmullet' (1967) reduces the scene to a textured intersection of brown, wheat and grey shades, the road made a lonely ribbon of mustard against bog or rough ground.
Middleton turns from this kind of muted colour and abstraction to render lush greenery, tangles of branches, the sweep of hills and rolling drumlins in a more Van Gogh or even Cezanne-worthy way, the thick use of paint and vivid, frequently Mediterranean palette giving proceedings a sprightly edge.
Land and seascape are then captured in passionate brushstrokes similar to those of Jack Yeats, as in 'Landscape for Kitty' (1954). Restlessness seems embodied in the flamboyance of outline; emotion seeps from the impatient crests of waves or the clotted, mottled stretches of grass and sky in one of the artist’s last paintings, 'Farmhouse, County Down' (1983).
These works seem as much about the expression of subjective experience as they are about rendering the lie of the land: inner and outer weather coalesce on the canvas.
'Babylonian Dream, Meenbanad' (1972) adds an oneiric dimension to depiction of the external and shows strange, ancient shapes in the foreground, a stone fish and the bust of a bearded man. The fish has obvious biblical significance, while the reference to Babylonia invokes ancient pagan tradition. The painting’s symbols perplex and intrigue.
'Thisbe' (1950) is a beautiful, poignant and whimsical piece, the female figure solitary in the blue, moony light, frail and inchoate like the figment of a dream, suggestions of a circus in the background.
This exhibition showcases Middleton in some of his finest landscape moments, but a major retrospective of his work giving full recognition of his stylistic plasticity and surrealism would be infinitely more exciting.
Middleton’s exploration of place seems, for me personally, a much less compelling feature of his work than his Picasso-capacity for reinvention, his magpie appropriation of diverse styles and his penchant for painting women with lamplights, astral symbols, peculiar washing lines or yellow umbrellas that pull skyward.
Colin Middleton: Poetry and Landscape runs at Dickon Hall Ltd, Crescent Arts Centre until November 13, as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.