Alan Cotton in Provence

by Graham Hughes Arts Review - 23 September 1988

It is good news when a dealer as distinguished and energetic as David Messum not only opens a sumptuous new London gallery, but begins with two living artists. The first show there was by John Miller (see our front cover, July 15). Now follows another first London one-man show. Messum's reputation has been founded on the British Impressionist painters of the early part of the century; both Miller and Cotton paint today somewhat in that tradition, usually finding spectacular landscapes in bright weather.

Here, we find an obsession of the most powerful type. Cotton loves certain parts of Provence so much, that for years he didn't dare to paint there at all, simply travelling there and limiting his brush to his native Colaton Raleigh in Devon. Now, the Southern sun has at last melted him, and he presents us with the intoxicating result. There is a 36 page colour catalogue giving not only the territory, but many of the artist's vivid diary extracts, too.

One of his favourite places is Roussillon, whose naturally occurring pigments give to the town its name, and to many paints their raw material. Cotton went down a quarry where “most of the world's yellow ochre pigment" comes from. He rejoiced in “such beautiful earth colours from cadmium yellow to Indian red, and in such quantities!". The buildings there are colour- washed with pigments from the quarry “so you have this lovely harmony of the relationship between the natural things and the town itself... The evening light strikes such a chord of brilliance that it's hard in an English context to believe the colours they do make".

Another of the four or five places we visit so enjoyably, is Gordes, a hill village with a dramatic silhouette including a big church and a famous early Renaissance castle. The latter, incidentally, is the only museum I know, where you can stay still, quite a relief after the steep, hot climb, and the exhibits march past your admiring gaze: they are pictures by Vasarely, and they move under the huge beams on a prolonged system of so-to-speak bicycle chains, just right to please a keen cyclist like me. Cotton's views of Gordes make much play with the strong geometry of the buildings both in silhouette and in plan; often, he paints below the skyline, so that there is no sky visible, just the burning colours of the land; but at Gordes, he makes a feature of the warmth of the sky, to contrast with the jagged shapes below.

He goes to Bonnieux: “I am using a tremendous lot of colours and canvases but hope it isn't a waste of money" wrote Van Gogh in the same place 100 years ago in 1888. Cotton, too, worked a lot here, but neither artist will ever be accused of waste in such a compelling context. He covers the Vaucluse, reminiscent of Petrarch's paradise home six centuries ago, and he scents the Luberon hills, whence comes, in my view, the most fragrant wine of the region. Indeed, it is difficult to suggest the essence of the show, without indulging in the rich vocabulary of the vintner. Savour the bouquet, roll the flavour...
Technically, nearly all the five dozen paintings are made not with brush, but with palette knife. This gives them a very strong construction, layer upon layer, segment beside sharply defined segment, so the geometry and perspective become of paramount importance, rather than any delicate shading. I see echoes here of Seurat in the careful chromatic balance, and at times the reverberations from Van Gogh are exciting without, of course, being in the least imitative.

Colour is the overall impact, and a splendid one too: so much so, that one is at times tempted to call Cotton an abstract painter, for all his preoccupation with the most seductive aspects of the world around him. He has been connected with television (TVS, to be precise), and I sense his skill as a communicator. He might one day, as sometimes happens on TV, become too facile, and allow his dissecting knife to run away with the intellect which has to guide and restrain it, just as on TV skilled performers can forget the underlying content of their programme, concentrating instead on the presentation of their own personalities. But this is a distinguished, memorable show. What I will treasure specially, is the aroma of lavender from a field I painted. It could easily be my favourite lavender field, just before you reach the great Romanesque abbey of Senanques. Wherever it is, I am grateful to this radiant exhibition for bringing it to London.