Finsbury Square, c. 1948 Oil on canvas © The Artist’s Estate courtesy of Piano Nobile


‘The sun, my dear, is God’ : JMW Turner

Painting into the sun was Cyril Mann’s main consideration in order to achieve an effective study of light, which is present in all his paintings. The exhibition at the Lightbox, loaned by the London-based art gallery Piano Nobile, spans from Mann’s first paintings, when he was only 14, to the 1960s. It shows the different phases of the painter’s career, highlighting the contrast between light and shadow in his work, which is almost monochromatic in some of the pictures.

Mann was a gifted painter who studied at Nottingham School of Art then moved to British Columbia in Canada when he was only 16. He was part of the Group of Seven, based in Toronto, – landscape painters who expressed their feelings for nature in bright colours rather than using a realistic approach. Mann applied this emphasis on expression to all his work, conveying his emotional experience of the subject rather than its reality.

When he returned to England in 1933, he attended the Royal Academy but he was not in line with their teaching. He was an outcast in the art world as he was not interested in trends and fashion – he rather despised them – and his art was figurative while most painters turned abstract at the time. He was in part self-taught and fiercely independent in his pictorial choices, living a hand-to-mouth existence to remain faithful to his principles.

Renske, 1963, oil on canvas, © The Artist’s Estate courtesy of Piano Nobile


His first marriage failed and a period of depression followed. He remarried in 1968. His second wife, Renske van Slooten, a Dutch-Indonesian young woman, was his model, muse and breadwinner until his death in 1980.

He lived in times of liberation which were also characterised by big changes, such as  universal suffrage, better housing conditions, decolonisation and immigration. It was also the epoch of the two world wars (Mann served in the Royal Artillery in the second world war), a period of hardship and suffering. Modernity and Modernism emphasised the life in the city which had already been the subject of the Impressionists, as Manet claimed: ‘Il faut être de son temps’ (we need to move with the times), meaning that  a work of art needed to be modern to be considered art.

Modernism is a multi-faceted concept. Certainly Mann adhered to some of its principles in his interest in modern life and city scenes, in his study of forms and colours using an emotional representational approach and in his innovative way of painting influenced by artists such as Cézanne, Frans Hals, Van Gogh and especially Turner.

In his early paintings on display at the exhibition, such as ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ (1925), he is inspired by the thought of Blake and DH Lawrence. His profound study of light is already present in ‘Pont Neuf’ (1938) and ‘Panning for Gold’ (1929), a painting that goes back to his Canadian years. Light becomes paramount in ‘Study for Light and Shadow’ (1950) and in the street scenes, such as ‘Finsbury Square’ (1948) and ‘Wilson Street, EC2’ (1948). Between Impressionism, which accentuated the movement of light, and Expressionism, which expressed the personal emotional experience, Mann painted into the light, glorifying the sun. He communicated what he felt in a dynamic tension with the effects of sunlight. In this phase his work might seem sombre, focusing on the city during and after the second world war, but his palette is definitely original in its monochrome quality, with a rich texture of thick impasto, reminiscent of Turner’s last period.

After his divorce from his first wife Mary in 1950, he moved into a council flat which had scarce daylight. He kept painting in electric light in forms of ‘solid shadow’. The pictures at the exhibition, such as ‘The White Rose’ (1955), ‘Still Life with Pot Plants and oranges’ (1951), or ‘Still life with Cabbage’ (1953), testify to his secluded life, the strong marks of the contours and flat pictorial surfaces recalling Pop Art. It is a private interior world where the objects seem frozen in their artificiality.

Sunlit Roses in a Brass Jug, 1963 © The Artist’s Estate courtesy of Piano Nobile


After his second marriage, Mann’s art seems to explode in a brighter vision that integrates all the lessons he had learned in his career. The study of the movement of light is still important, but the passion he puts in the expressionist interpretation becomes paramount. Nudes, interiors, landscapes and self-portraits become his subjects, conveying an encompassing sense of liberation. The brushstrokes give form and volume in an almost abstract approach, as in ‘Self-portrait (with double nude)’ (1965), ‘Brushes and palette knives’ (1966), or ‘Studio corner’ (1961). He studies form and colour, how they shape the object in the light using thick impasto and dramatic brushstrokes. The contrast between light and shadow has a kinetic quality reminiscent of Cézanne’s and Turner’s lessons.

His nudes are emotional and geometrical at the same time in a rigorous interpretation of forms through colour, which is intense and dynamic. He does not explore the body in the way Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon did, destabilising traditional rules and against academic tradition. Mann treats the body as a form flooded with light and vitality.

There are also two interesting stone sculptures at the exhibition, ‘Budgerigar’ (1955) and ‘Venus’ (1957). He ended his life in a pyschiatric hospital, frustrated and embittered by the lack of recognition he endured throughout his career. His fierce individuality, which rejected all the ‘isms’, is probably best shown by his last self-portrait, ‘Ecce Homo’, which is not on display. He painted his figure naked, holding a cigarette, elderly and exposed between two of his previous self-portraits. His vulnerability and the triple self-portrait reveal his isolation and, simultaneously, his originality.

The exhibition of Cyril Mann’s oeuvre at the Lightbox explains and displays effectively the painter’s work and career in different, engaging paintings that reveal his unique approach and engrossing research in the study of light and shadow.

[Carla Scarano D’Antonio, February 2019]

Cyril Mann: Painter of Light and Shadow, The Lightbox, Woking, 12 January – 31 March 2019

Dark Satanic Mills, 1925 © The Artist’s Estate courtesy of Piano Nobile