Published  02/11/2000

Victor Willing (1928-1988)

Victor Willing

Edited by Fiona Bradley
with contributions from Lynne Cooke, John McEwan, John Mills, Paula Rego and Nicholas Serota
August Media Ltd, London, 2000.

The exhibition of Victor Willing’s paintings at Marlborough Fine Art supports the publication of the book, VICTOR WILLING by August, which sets out to, "re-present Victor Willing to a new generation of artists and viewers, to document his work and explore it in the light of what is happening now.

His enigmatic large-scale paintings set the scene for narratives already played out or still to come: they remain relevant to the work of contemporary artists who explore fractured narratives in both painting and photography, often through objects fraught with complex suggestion, like those found in Willing’s work". (1) I count myself as one of that new generation of artists for whom seeing the vast, confident, fresh canvases at Marlborough this month was an enlightening and inspiring experience.

The book is a necessary source for anybody who falls under the spell of these paintings but who knows little of Willing or his interesting but tragically short career. With curators, critics and commentators — including Paula Rego, his widow and his own writings, for Willing was an articulate commentator on art and on his own work, the book fills a gap in the literature on Willing and on the period: John McEwan’s essay is particularly fine; he was a close friend of the artist and conducted many interviews and conversations with him.

A year after graduating from the Slade School of Art in 1954, Willing’s talent and potential were recognised when he exhibited at the Hanover Gallery. Nicholas Serota (in 1986) described him as the brightest of a bright generation, "a fiery comet which would eventually guide us all". (2) However, Willing married Paula Rego and moved to Portugal where he worked in her father’s business. His career as a painter was effectively postponed, yet when he returned to London and to painting in 1974 he did so with a maturity and confidence which his 1978 exhibition at Moira Kelly’s AIR gallery displayed. A retrospective at the Whitechapel in 1986 confirmed his reputation yet his death in 1988 from multiple sclerosis cut short his important career.

Of all the paintings in the Marlborough show , Cythere - painted in 1982 when Willing was confined to a wheelchair and during the year of his artistic residency at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge — reveals the skill and vision of a brilliant mind and a passionate and courageous individual facing his own mortality. The clarity and strength in visual terms allude to the cruelty of chance, the blackness of death portrayed in terms of the unknown in psychological terms, and the flourishing organic forms that signify life and the personal battle against terminal illness.

In his essay Images of the Self, he quotes from on of Willing’s favorite books, Friederich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, given to Willing by Francis Bacon: "With sublime gestures he reveals to us how the whole world of torment is necessary so that the individual can create the redeeming vision, and then, immersed in contemplation of it, sit peacefully in his tossing boat amid the waves".(3) As McEwan observes the quote from Nietzsche "is uncannily apposite to his own experience…….The necessary ‘torment’ created, for him and many others, what was indeed a ‘redeeming vision’. Thus, to an extraordinary degree he fulfilled what seems like his destiny".(4)

Willing and Rego, like many of their generation were interested in Surrealism and the role of the subconscious in art. Both underwent Jungian analysis:

"For Jung, dreams suggested a striving towards individuation. According to his analytical psychology, man is always seeking creative development, wholeness and completion. It was only when Willing hit rock bottom and started painting as a form of renewal in London in the 1970s, that he expressed as art what he had sensed in Portugal, and found his own form of fulfilment.

As he explained: ‘All my life I’ve tried to recapture the intense pleasure in painting and drawing I had as a child, when I did battles with people going -Aaaaaarrgh!" (5)

There is a candour and a clarity inherent in the works on show in the Marlborough exhibition that one associates with the contentment of infancy, but the works do not stop there. The series Heads, (1986) was Willing’s last, indeed he painted them from his bed. As Paula Rego recalls, "Imagine doing that when you are incapacitated. Such assurance, and a humour that was devastating". (6)

Willing’s struggle to paint again after virtually twenty years and his struggle to come to terms with his illness and inevitable premature death, provide an insight into the creative process. His illness made him restless, at times hyperactive. His dreams informed his art greatly.

"I’m not painting pictures to assert my position in the world or in response to thinking what I’m doing as a career. I don’t paint pictures to improve the world. I don’t do it out of a didactic or pedagogic spirit at all. `I’m really painting very much for myself, to discover myself in a way. You see, the world around you looks at you and thinks of you as a person who has certain occupations and achievements. And so this is the person you present to the world. And you work on that person. To some extent you think as yourself as that person and you’d like to be better at it. You’d like to present an image of yourself to the world that might be more distinguished or more glamorous; but this leaves untouched the person only you know…….Now I think my painting is almost exclusively to do with that self which is normally neglected. It’s very difficult to know how to go about painting that." (7)

John McEwan’s excellent essay in Victor draws on the interviews and conversations with him over many years.

"There could not be a more precise description of the genesis and effect of Willing’s late paintings than Bachelard’s description from the chapter ‘Reveries towards Childhood’: Between the light melancholy from which all reverie is born and the distant melancholy of a child who has dreamed a lot, there is a profound harmony".

This fusion of past and present, of dream and daylight, found hallucinatory reality as Willing sat in his Stepney studio. Just as reverie hovers between waking and dreaming, so his pictures exist in a state of many — layered consciousness: between mass and void, inside and out, wall and sky, floor and sand, Egypt and Portugal, past and present. Place, marks this meeting of experience and desire, its title ambiguous and yet assertive, even proud: ‘This is it", it seems to say, ‘this is where I make my stand.

The past ends, the future starts, here’.(8)


(1) Fiona Bradley, "Introduction", Victor Willing, August, London, 2000, p.10.

(2) Ibid, p.10.

(3) John McEwan, "Images of the Self", ibid, p.23.

(4) Ibid, p.23.

(5) Ibid, p.23.

(6) Paula Rego interviewed by Valerie Grove.

(7) Victor willing quoted by McEwan, op.cit., p.32

(8) J. McEwan, ibid, pp. 38-39

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA