Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) Study on the theme of Temptation of St Anthony, 1943, Ink, pastel, watercolour and gouache. Image courtesy of The Ingram Collection Copyright: Estate of the artist

Painting is a weapon of the mind by which man may exorcise his fears, a tool by which he may order his experience, a chalice which he may lift to celebrate the glory of his life or a sacrifice he may make in prayer for a glory he does not yet know. Michael Ayrton

by Carla Scarano D’Antonio

The exhibition at the Lightbox in Woking dedicated to the British painter, sculptor, printmaker and designer Michael Ayrton commemorates the centenary of his birth. Soon after the second world war he was an important and successful artist, but his work has rarely been explored since then. During his artistic career, he investigated the English countryside as well as Greek myths, the effect of mirrors and mazes and the mysteries of transformation. He also published novels and collections of essays, and was a teacher and lecturer and a broadcaster for BBC school television. His work was widely exhibited after the 1950s in the UK and the US. The exhibition at the Lightbox is presented in partnership with the Ingram Collection and displays drawings, sculptures and paintings as well as examples of the stage designs Ayrton realised for Gielgud’s Macbeth in 1942.

He described himself as an ‘image maker’, and myths played a crucial part in his work because he considered them to be true. He lived in a period when abstractionism dictated the art world, but the method he used was rooted in drawing and figurative art. Although some of his landscapes have a complex quality and mix different media, such as acrylic and oil paintings with collage, they are never entirely abstract. In the early days of his career, he was considered a neo-romantic, a style of art that he developed in his imaginative portraits, such as the portrait of Hector Berlioz, and in the dramatic series of paintings dedicated to St Anthony in which deep shadows and the use of reds and blues highlight the theatrical quality of the saint’s temptations as well as his Promethean quality.

Ayrton travelled to Italy in the late 1940s and in the 1950s, where he had the opportunity to study works by Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Pisano and Donatello. These artists deeply influenced his artwork with the statuary quality of their figures that was drawn from classical art. In 1953 he moved from painting to sculpture and explored Greek myths, especially those of the Minotaur, the theme of Dedalus and Icarus and Demeter and Kore’s story. He visited Greece several times and took inspiration from places, ancient sculptures and classical themes. All of these aspects created a multifaceted view that is reflected in his vision and in his artwork. For example, in Dedalus and Icarus’s story, the father, Dedalus, is the maze maker, the creator of the labyrinth and the artist to whom Ayrton feels deeply related. On the other hand, Icarus, Dedalus’s son, is considered to be the hero who challenged the gods and wished to fly high but failed. In Ayrton’s novel The Testament of Dedalus, the father comments: ‘[He] was my son and he has no talent […] his flight was mine.’ This shows the artist’s multifaceted view that explores different sides of the myth.

The Minotaur is the figure Ayrton mostly identifies with, as in ‘Point of Departure: self-portrait as the Minotaur’ (1970), a sculpture that reflects the duality of the half-beast, half-man creature. Ayrton describes him as ‘a desperate Everyman’ who is in ‘perpetual conflict’ with his own nature and ‘failed to destroy the foe he was’, creating a constant tension that might eventually trigger transformation.

Ayrton’s figures are often enclosed in mazes, reflected in mirrors and surrounded by walls. Flying away seems to be an illusion, as in the bronze sculpture of Icarus (‘Icarus: rising variant’, 1965), whose thwarted effort is represented in the yearning of the body to rise high while it is weighed down by his huge, heavy wings.

According to Ayrton, “to practise an art is primarily to discover one’s relationship with reality” and to communicate this experience to others. He had a particular curiosity concerning reality and art, and he achieved his ambitious goals through a constant exploration of the world around him which was mediated by his experience of stories and myths. This investigation remained in part mysterious and unresolved in a balance between historical truth and illusion.

Besides being influenced by ancient Greek art, Italian Renaissance sculpture and paintings, and the work of Degas, Ayrton also met and worked with Henry Moore and William Turnbull, two outstanding sculptors of his time. The figure of a pregnant Demeter is central in his thinking and his career too, and ‘Demeter Pregnant’ is one of his most famous works. She emphasises the acceptance  of the cycle of life that is connected to the seasons – that is, to death and rebirth. The variety of themes and products he addressed and his diverse approach received controversial feedback from art critics.

His interpretation of the Mediterranean world is represented well in the exhibition through ‘Roman Window’ (1950) and ‘Catalan Caged Birds’ (1955). The statuesque quality of the figures and their juxtaposition in each composition show the lesson Ayrton learned from the Italian masters and at the same time celebrate the ordinariness of the people living in suburban areas at the time.

This is a fulfilling exhibition that aims to give a comprehensive view of Ayrton’s career through his drawings, still life pieces, portraits and sculptures, highlighting the most important traits of his multifaceted artwork.

Celebrating Michael Ayrton: a centenary exhibition: 29 May–8 August 2021, The Lightbox, Woking

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) Maze Music, 1972, Bronze with a dark brown patina. Image courtesy of The Ingram Collection. Copyright: Estate of the artist