Mia L considers a new exhibition of Victor Willing paintings and sculptures at the Hastings Contemporary

Visions is the first major U.K retrospective of artist Victor Willing since his death in 1988. Born in 1928, Willing spent his formative years in Alexandria, Egypt, before settling in South England. A keen artist from an early age, Willing studied at The Guildford School of Art, as well as the highly esteemed Slade School of Fine Art in London. However, the traditional painting styles he mastered at The Slade, and the sentiments of his teachers, critics and some of his peers there, gave him a feeling of creative restriction that  he would not dispel for many years. 

Whilst at The Slade, Willing met fellow student Paula Rego, who was to  become his muse and later, his wife. He relocated to Paula’s native Portugal in 1956 and spent the years that followed raising their young family. He continued to paint, though often with a sense of frustration – constantly reusing canvasses, and rarely keeping works for any kind of exhibition, public or private. 

The family suffered a series of tragedies in 1966: Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, lost both his father and his very supportive father in law, and fell into considerable financial hardship. Penniless and with declining health, Willing returned to the U.K with his family in 1974. It was during this period of intense personal anguish that he began to explore a  more experimental style of working.

Estranged from his wife and family, Willing rented a studio in East London and spoke of seeing ‘visions’ of artworks on the studio walls. Inspired by these images, Willing began to paint what he saw, his work taking on a more open and yet more definitive tone, seemingly free from the creative constraints that he had been struggling with for much of his life. 

Visions dramatically charts Willing’s journey from traditionalist art student to progressive innovator. His work is grandiose in style but also conveys a wild fragility, with colourful echoes of surrealism evident throughout. Some of the works on display are being shown for the first time and thus provide an intimate insight into Willing’s role not just as an artist, but as a husband, father and son. 

Perhaps the most moving painting in Visions is the poignantly titled ‘Self Portrait at Seventy’. This haunting image is one of Willing’s last, and features a wizened portrait of a man, set against a blue wash background. It’s interesting to note that Willing saw his terminal diagnosis as integral to his evolution as an artist. He believed it gave him the ability to look inward and develop his art, devoid of ego and pretense.

The sheer variety and scale of Willing’s later paintings affirm this stoic ethos, their bold tenor defying the artist’s severely debilitated physical state.
A series of his sculptures (also on show as part of Visions) explore notions of sacred space and refuge, evoking a sense of quasi-religious speculation, perhaps indicative of one’s quest for some sort of  undetermined salvation. 

The Hastings Contemporary’s groundbreaking exhibition concludes with a short film by the artist’s son, Nick Willing, which provides a thoughtful and considered  overview of his father’s remarkable life.

Visions is characterised by a myriad of themes, but it’s also celebratory in tone, providing a much-needed platform for an artist once described by critic David Sylvester, as a ‘Spokesman for his generation’.

Victor Willing: Visions is running from the 19th October 2019-5th January 2020 at The Hastings Contemporary. You can find out more about the exhibition via the gallery website.

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