Alan Davie: Sunbirds and Skybands

This exhibition presents a case study of how Alan Davie, immersed himself in dry source material and emerged having taken it, through a process of complete transformation, into a series of dazzlingly powerful paintings reminiscent of icons, saints and totems.

Davie, forever searching for quirky objects and ethnographic artefacts in junk shops, picked up a secondhand book. This book was published by Dover Publications and it reprinted two scholarly articles on Hopi Indian pot decoration. Davie began to use this beginning with a series of drawings. There are 29 gouaches in the series and 17 oils, beginning with Hopi Studies No. 30 and ending with Hopi Studies No. 46 from 1991. This is typical of Davie’s productivity completing the series while working in parallel on other paintings.

The articles focused on excavations at Sikyatki in Arizona. The main finds were ceramics which were part of the Hopi’s settled life based around growing corn. These were made of earthenware and decorated in a highly geometric style with birds, feathers and clouds. Horizontal skybands were a feature, usually going around the top of the pot. Birds were revered as gods, interchangeable with the most powerful god, the sky god. Feathers were often shown, related to the importance of these in rituals, dances, artefacts and ceremonies encouraging rain to fall to produce a good crop of corn.

Davie immersed himself in the material, beginning with careful black paint drawings on sheets of white paper. This process enabled him to understand the different types of symbols and to sift through the material for what might be of interest. Davie selects only a small number of decorations from hundreds of images. A series of medium-sized studies in gouache were then developed with some of these worked up afterwards into larger oils. He selected sections of the original text which are deliberately chosen to be of only partial relevance to the visuals.

In this process of development, he absorbed the Hopi images back into his own repertoire of signs and symbols. In Davie’s hands this dusty academic text, with its repetitive and often inconclusive descriptions, explodes into life. Tiny drawings become massive paintings, text becomes part of the landscape and small figures become pink, red and blue totems and gods. The geometry of the original bird figures becomes concentrated, the power of the gods released from the page.

[1] ‘Designs on Prehistoric Hopi Pottery’ from the 33 rd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and ‘Archaeological Expedition to Arizona in 1895’ part of the 17 th Annual Report 1 written by J W Fewkes.
[2] Elliott, Patrick 2000 Alan Davie Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh
[3] Exhibition curated by Judy Glasman and Sarah Mayson, all text and labels written by Judy Glasman
AD Hopi wall text short 14.11.2019

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.41 OPUS 1992
Oil on Canvas

This painting creates a sense of strange energetic spinning shapes. The figures are re-imaginings of the Hopi bird, sun, star and feather symbols, put together to increase the drama. Davie has animated the figures, spinning them around in space and surrounding them with energetic brushstrokes, breaking up the more static quality of the original illustrations and studies. Bird and sun designs have been combined in the left hand figure, with the tail feathers (possibly eagle) sun and rain emblems (black and white ring). The word ‘dorsal’ in the text refers to the top view of the back of the flying bird. The words are carefully painted around the forms, in this case referencing the academic footnote appearing within the original article. The academic text is perhaps as mysterious as the unidentified objects, fragmented and spilling off the edge of the painting.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.31 1992
Oil on Canvas

Davie frames the painting with designs taken from skybands which were geometrical strip designs used as a continuous line around the top of the pots – thought to derived from the passage of the sky through the night or to reference the milky way.These frame either side of the painting, derived from thumbnail drawings of curved skybands on the Hopi pots. The format suggests the moment of creation described in myths as half-formed creatures emerged. Davie has moved a long way from the specifics of the original illustrations which used shapes probably derived wings and feathers from different views of birds. The use of hatching, gestural marks and dots is part of Davie’s own repertoire merging multiple cultural references.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.37 1990
Oil on Canvas

Hopi Studies No.37 is a joyous expression of Davie’s delight in design and colour. Geometrical forms are set out against a strong yellow backdrop and within a shallow space, typical of his work. This painting most explicitly uses the Hopi ceramic designs, but these are greatly transformed through the use of bold colour and placement. Davie brings together various Hopi symbols – 3 rain clouds (top right) with lightening emerging, sun with feathers attached (lower right), L-shaped sun band (centre), moth (centre left) and some composite figures relating to birds. The corn maid appears in the green circle.  Cloud and corn designs appear in the top section. The righthand section has marks seemingly related to the propeller-like image of the sun and noise of lightening. With the bold colours and clarity of design, these works relate more to the Pop Art of the 1960s and 70s.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.2 1990
Gouache on Paper

The second painting in the gouache series shows a large animated form filling the space with colour and shapes merged together. The figures sit between the night time ritualistic spiritual world and the academic world of the illustrated book. Forms derived from the Hopi bird, feather and wing symbols are outlined strongly in black. The decorative lines replicate the curves of the original pots. Davie respectfully quotes from his source material, however as in this case, he does not use the information relevant to the images which he references. Doing this does not help with interpretation, but rather furthers the sense of mystery.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.21 1990
Gouache on Paper

The figures are set out symmetrically. At the top is a dorsal view of bird. The main figure hangs from a sunband and lower two figures relate to sun, feathers and possibly masks illustrated in the article. The painting is reminiscent of Surrealist images of the 1920s and 1930s which also made use of illustrated books as source material. Davie has added eyes to the bird head and bird wing to create something halfway between a bird and a hand. The separate head was part of an image in the article showing a rare more realistic bird figure, with sections rubbed out. Davie has enjoyed playing with the elements of the scientific illustration, using the labelling letters a, b and c, but allowing these including the full-stops to become design elements.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.1 1990
Gouache on Paper

This is the first gouache painting, after the black drawings. This is in effect, a study for the larger oil painting now in the collection of the University of Hertfordshire. The main elements are the reptile (in this exhibition no. 17) and the bird-sun symbol which are massively altered from the original simple small drawings. In the lower section, four symbols appear which include a stepped rain cloud and a circular corn maid face symbol. Comparing this gouache with the larger oil painting gives an opportunity to see changes that Davie made between the smaller and larger paintings. He added more decorative elements, removes the text from the top left corner and changes the bird figure for a turtle in the later larger oil painting. Here the symbols have become spirits, breaking free of the landscape or text. The reptile hovers in the air. All of this is amped up by the powerful use of the deep red background.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.9 1990
Gouache on Paper

A dream-like image of a figure floating in the blue sky at night. The body has geometrical sections relating to serpent, cloud and moth designs apparently related to Fewkes illustration Plate CLf. The moon is out. The majority of these paintings have a crescent moon in them. This was not derived from the Hopi article, but rather from Davie’s love of the moon as a sign of good luck, which he used so many times in his career that it almost constitutes a signature.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.16 1990
Gouache on Paper

This is a painting that takes great delight in colour, shape and pattern. Davie has brought all these together onto the picture plane, playing up the decorative aspects and crowding the surface. He has not used any text or created a sense of landscape for once. This is one of the paintings most removed from close reference to the Hopi source material.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.20 1990
Gouache on Paper

Strong bands of maroon, red and yellow with text in the lower sections form the background for this painting. We see similar references as before – the sun with feathers and the stepped rain clouds on the skyband. This painting has one of very few components that did not appear in the original articles. There are two new elements not found in the Fewkes article. One is the ‘headdress’ of the lefthand figure which indicates that Davie had seen, perhaps in a museum on his travels, a Hopi kachina figure - small figures representing gods. The other is the conversion of the birdwing into a bird-hand through adding finger joints and nails, possibly bringing together images seen in Asian art.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Studies No.12 1990
Gouache on Paper

Davie has divided the painting into clear horizontal bands, ochre yellow, red and orange, using the images to connect across the divisions. The main figures are derived from birds seen from above, now appearing full frontal like totems standing upright (referencing Fewkes article from 1895-96 on Sikyatki pottery, plate CXLVII illustrations a and c). The righthand figure combines the bird and sun emblems, while the lefthand figure is a bird viewed from above. Bird forms were symbolised in highly geometrical forms – this one has a square head at the top, hooked wings, tail feathers and wings/feathers appearing in curled forms at the sides.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Study No.19/21
Gouache on Paper

At this stage in Davie’s series, he creates a figure pushed towards us by the framing devices of the text and the skyband on the right. The skybands appeared regularly on Hopi pottery prior to 1540 and were based on highly geometricized forms of birds and clouds. The main figure is a composite of different bird symbols related to views of the bird from the side and above, with stylised wings, heads and feathers. Davie has emphasized what appear to be eyes at the top and side, giving a quirky and humorous appearance.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Study 19/21
Gouache on Paper

One of the freest and most dreamlike of the Hopi Studies. The signs float in space, with forms connected to one another to make new imaginary animals from the elements of bird, hand, eyes and head. A feather is attached to the corner of a rain cloud on a stick. A rain cloud has become a house with a stepped roof. This mystical and surrealistic atmosphere is supported by the words and symbols in the air which appear unconstrained by needing to quote from specific texts, and rather create a sense of freely associated thoughts or a spell.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hopi Study Feathered Serpent 1987
Brush Drawing

Here we see Davie in 1987 starting to understand, select from and digest his chosen material. This drawing shows the starting point for the Hopi Studies series, one of the first made from the Jesse Walter Fewkes article ‘Designs on Prehistoric Hopi Pottery’ 1911-12. Most of the illustrations in the article are black drawings and some photographs made as part of Fewkes research. Two of the elements in Davie’s drawing are based on Figure 24 Reptile and Figure 27 Tadpoles. The third relates to the symbol for a shrine with lightening emerging, suggesting the positive power of the gods. Davie’s drawings are at least five times the original size, with some elements simplified to emphasize the power of the silhouette. He has kept the ears and the single limb with claws from the original drawing. The main reptile figure inspired the flying figure in Hopi Studies No. 32 (not in exhibition) and is used in the gouache Hopi Studies No. 1.

Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website.