Alexander Goudie was born in 1933 in the town of Paisley, an engineering and textile town to the West of Glasgow. The Goudies were not an overtly artistic family but as a boy Alexander was not discouraged in his persistent habit of drawing with a pencil almost everything that he saw. Goudie’s father was a master- plumber, a tradesman who was happy to work at a skilled craft with his hands and who recognized a similar manual dexterity in his son.
Goudie’s distinctive talent categorised him as a special case when he applied to enter the Glasgow School of Art and he was admitted at an unusually early age. ‘The traditions of an earlier era were still strong while Goudie was a student. An understanding of values of colour and of tone were the hallmarks of teaching in the School. This emphasis on the craft of painting was enthusiastically received by a young man who was already developing a natural ability for handling paint. In 1955 his unrivalled facility as a draughtsman and colourist was acknowledged by the School in the award of the Newbery Medal.
Goudie would be the first to acknowledge the influence of the teaching of David Donaldson, not only in his work but in his early decision to become a portrait painter’(1). Portrait painting has a strong tradition in Scotland but the Glasgow Boys, particularly John Lavery, James Guthrie and George Henry, were to apply to it modern ideas. Their work extended beyond the formal commissioned portrait to encompass Social Realism as inspired by J.-F. Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage. These Glasgow artists who had reacted so strongly to French painting of the 1870s and 1880s, directed Goudie’s attention to Manet, the French impressionist and Post-Impressionists.
Throughout the 1950s, Paris had become the Mecca for almost all of the painters emerging from the four art Schools in Scotland. One of those was Alexander Goudie. In 1953 Goudie spent six weeks in Paris on a scholarship won while he was still a student. The visit had an enormous impact on him. Although he had already produced a number of allegorical compositions Goudie believed that painting should be firmly based on reality. The Glasgow boys had revitalised a Scottish tradition of painting real life subjects initiated by David Wilkie. Their approach to such subject matter was directed by their knowledge of Millet and Bastien-Lepage but Goudie realized that its ultimate source was Courbet. To encounter the Burial at Ornans in all its vastness in the Louvre reinforced his admiration for Courbet’s achievement and confirmed for him the importance of clear design in his own compositions.
At the Glasgow School of Art Benno Schotz, the head of sculpture, had recognized a dual talent in the young man. He encouraged him to look at Rodin and Gaudier-Brzeska, sculptors who shared with Goudie a similar talent and fluency in drawing. Goudie was persuaded by Schotz to experiment with modeling and displayed an immediate rapport with the medium. Visiting Paris the Musee Rodin, therefore, had a particular appeal. Rodin’s vast oeuvre, his enormous personality and his gift for making direct statements with an unaffected vitality impressed Goudie;
Goudie had also discovered that the work of the old masters meant a great deal to him. Three painters made a particular impact – Tintoretto, Rubens and Matisse. Whatever else these painters had in common, they shared a love of colour, gesture, and – very important for a young man just emerging into the austerity of post-war Britain – they all exuded a love of life, a joie de vivre which struck a chord with the young Goudie. He was totally absorbed in what he calls the “exoticism” of these painters, their love of the sensual image of the human figure which has stayed with him ever since…’
In 1958 Goudie joined his friends, John and Michelle Cunningham in Spain, where he spent several months in Toledo. This was Goudie’s first prolonged encounter with El Greco and Velazquez, who were to be of considerable importance to him in his future career. The following year Goudie was back in France, touring through Royan, Biarritz, and the Pyrenees before arriving at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port where he began to paint the landscape around him. One of these paintings was later purchased by Glasgow Art Gallery (Evening Light, Saint Lizier). He had so far painted few landscape pictures but he was immediately aware of its possibilities and the pleasures it gave him. It confirmed his deeply held belief that a painter should be capable of responding to what is put before him and finding art in the least complicated and least favourable aspects of his life.
When back in Glasgow, Michelle Cunningham introduced him to a young French girl she had met. Marie-Renee Dorval was from Brittany, not an area Goudie knew well at all but he was aware of its importance to artists. Gauguin’s ‘Vision after the sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel)’ in the National Gallery of Scotland, was ‘one of the Pont-Aven paintings which was to have a crucial effect on him. Goudie still painted in a very tonal manner and Gauguin’s use of stark contrasts made the young man aware of the importance of tone linked to a sense of pattern and balance in pictorial design.
On his first visit to Brittany, to spend Christmas with Mainee and her family Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon took on a new relevance as he encountered the same black and white costumes and the same religious fervour and intensity which had inspired Gauguin in Pont-Aven. In the summer of 1960 the Dorval family moved from Quimper to the village of Loctudy, a small fishing port set in an inland lagoon. For the next thirty years Goudie was to paint from this house, showing Loctudy in sun and storm, with skies both brilliant blue and slate grey. The vastness of the sky – reflected in and reflecting the water of this inland sea – created a quality of light that immediately impressed him. It was to provide a key to a new phase of his painting which was totally inspired by his annual visits to Brittany after he had married Mainee in 1962.
Recurring visits to Brittany became not just a holiday break from the city life of Glasgow, but a place of experiment for his painting, leading to new developments in an increasingly individual style. The sources of Gauguin’s powerful symbolism; calvaries, the carved wooden figures of the pieta, rosaries and graveyard guardians, had a power which belied their simple imagery and rough execution. This simplicity – a reduction of form to its basic but unmistakeably symbolic shape – gave traditional Breton art its power and Goudie was deeply affected by it.
After The Sermon (c.1989)
81x81 cm, Oil on canvas
The cornerstone of Goudie’s paintings of Brittany is his fervent use of a sketchbook. In a few deft strokes he can capture the essential elements of a busy market place or quayside. More powerful than a camera it allows him to isolate some crucial item which might be rendered in considerable detail, such as a pile of lobster creels or a pair of sabots cast aside by their owner. Back at Villa Ker Jane he would begin to work these up into finished paintings. In Glasgow he would start to develop a series of big canvases, complicated compositions based on life at the markets or the arrival of the fishing boats on the quay at Loctudy. Painted from memory and from sketchbook notes they evoke in a very compelling manner a way of life now almost disappeared.
In the first Brittany paintings colour was not one of Goudie’s prime concerns, but over the last twenty-five years he has moved away from a primarily tonal definition of the world around him to one where colour and pattern take a dominant role. In Cadell and van Dongen, both of whom simplified their approach to figurative painting by the introduction of pure colour, he found guidance. The brilliant light of Loctudy encouraged Goudie to make changes to his palette. The flat landscape, with expanses of water reflecting the powerful skies swept in from the Atlantic, were not suitable subjects for the tonal approach to painting which he brought with him from Scotland;
I was seeing this country through the eyes of a Scot with Romantic visions of hilly country. How would I paint there? It was flat with nothing much to go on. The first painting I did in Brittany was the result of a car journey along the coast to Penhors, where there was an incredible empty beach. As we drove I can remember saying ‘This is jut like Scotland’ as the landscape became more changeable. I think a lot of people when they first go to a foreign country look for things which remind them of home and make them feel secure.
Goudie began to draw directly with colour. A more painterly handling emerged reminiscent of the rapid gestures made in sketchbooks, while retaining the tight draughtsmanship and impeccable compositions of more formal figure subjects. Above all Goudie began to use colour as part of his design. In large expanses of virtually unmodelled paint he would brush in an azure sky, a yellow cornfield of pure pigment creating a pattern of coloured shapes against which a figure or still life would be carefully placed.
While many Scottish artists were content to produce satisfying, douce still life paintings, pleasant landscapes and the occasional portrait of family or friends, Goudie was seeking more monumental and humane subjects. For him the challenges of observing the daily life of rural Brittany and then painting it in a dignified, intelligent and sympathetic manner became paramount.
I work best from an inner discipline, not sitting around waiting to be inspired or looking... This is where my strengths come from. Some artists just look for a subject that they already have a solution for. I don’t do that. My paintings differ sometimes because I may make five or six studies of a subject and I try to let it tell me how to respond. By being in Loctudy, in that garden [at the Villa Ker Jane], on the terrace with these balconies, the windows, it became a great studio for me. The house faces north and provides lots of different kinds of light. In the evening at five o’clock is a fascinating time on a certain kind of day when the clouds are blown away to the east and the fishing boats are coming in. I’ve painted that view hundreds of times now, by making myself come to terms with the pictorial problems it presented. The energy of these boats coming in, speeding past the chequer board of the lighthouse on Ile Tudy; a white house on an island, the metal chimney of an old factory silhouetted against the sky all gave form and pattern, a sense of construction to these pictures.
Then I began to look down from the balcony to the beach and the water’s edge. I painted pictures of people coming in and out of the water, sitting on the beach, sunbathing. It gave me a lot of unusual angles, so high up. Gradually the whole thing came together and Loctudy became a confirmed and favourite subject for me. The house was vital, both its views out to sea and across the beach, and inside with the life of the kitchen. There were always lots of visitors bringing baskets of vegetables from the fields or fish and shellfish from the harbour. I would draw the peasants and also members of the family, especially an old aunt, Tante Germaine, who was a fantastic model for me. Peeling potatoes, shelling prawns, sitting in an old rocking chair knitting, she became a favourite subject.
Still life in this way became another favourite subject and at the Villa Ker Jane the kitchen would be filled with ideal material for his sketchbook. Dr Dorval’s patients would often arrive with a basket of flowers, lobster, pig’s heads, unskinned rabbits, poultry and game . This gave the resulting still lives a vitality very different from the more composed paintings of Chardin, who was a direct inspiration for many of these works.
Even from something as brutal as these severed heads Goudie was concerned to make a thing of beauty and this lies behind his whole approach to life and painting. His fascination with the perfection of nature and his belief in his ability to translate this beauty into a medium, which we can all enjoy and appreciate, drives his creative energies. Few countries can have had so devoted a chronicler, and one so talented and in sympathy with his surroundings. His response to his subject has always been on artistic terms - searching for the exact motif, brushstroke or colour to capture the effects of light and weather; the lives of a simple and idiosyncratic people in this extreme edge of Europe. Goudie’s re-creation of this alternately idyllic and tempestuous region in terms of paint, canvas and paper is a masterly triumph which will bring honour and recognition to both artist and subject for many years to come.
Adapted from ‘Goudie’s Brittany’, an essay by Roger Billcliffe published in the monograph of the same title.
(1) Extracted from ‘Goudie at 50’, catalogue essay by Roger Billcliffe