An artist of piercing originality, there are few, if any, British painters working in the 1930s and 40s who produced work of such powerful political force, and yet with such imaginative freedom.
Widely praised by fellow artists and critics, then and since, Merlyn Evans’ work is, perhaps, not as well known amongst the general public due to its scarcity outside of national museum collections. It is thought that many of his works from the late 30s and early 40s were destroyed during WW2.
It was not only his singular vision which was so admired, but also his technical brilliance and virtuosity. The influential curator Bryan Robertson, who Studio International called ‘the best director the Tate never had’, and who was to give major presentations of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, wrote to Evans about his 1953 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries.
‘The opening of your magnificent exhibition this afternoon marked your final and complete emergence as a great artist. This is to say, to be reckoned with only in the company of the great and wonderful men of our century: Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Matisse, Moore and Leger….It is an immense triumph’.
At the age of 21 in 1931, Evans won the Haldane Scholarship which enabled him to visit first Paris and then Berlin; both cities throbbing with new rhythms, ideas and modernist thought. In Berlin he would see works by Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky and was mesmerised by the Chinese paintings from the Song period at the Bode Museum.
By 1934, Evans was back in England, Mel Gooding writes ‘Evans' preoccupation with political and ethical issues in a troubled time, allied as it was with a deep and studied interest in psychology, would have drawn him naturally to Surrealism in the mid thirties….Surrealism brought a kind of liberty to Evans the artist: by sanctioning the introduction of avowedly figurative fantastic elements into its dramatic presentations, it helped him justify the purposes of his painting, and to clarify these purposes in his integration of a psychologically charged political symbolism into its poetic abstraction’.
Painted in 1940, ‘The Looters’ is a masterpiece from the period. Exhibited at ‘The Political Paintings of Merlyn Evans’ at the Tate Gallery in 1985, it was described as being inspired by the Italian occupation of Abyssinia but as with all such works by Evans, it is not meant as a depiction of a specific event but rather as a profound indictment of war and injustice.
From todays viewpoint, the painting is a startlingly modern image, and as a statement, as powerful as when it was painted over 80 years ago.
Cecil Higgins Museum, Bedford, Three Modern Painters, March - April 1955, no.10. Tate Gallery, London, The Political Paintings of Merlyn Evans, March - June 1985, no. 15. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, and Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, Merlyn Evans 1910-1973, 1974, no. 26.
Mel Gooding, Merlyn Evans, p.64 illus. col, p.64-65 and back cover,