Whitehot Magazine

Art As Regression To Childhood: Malcolm Morley’s War Games at Sperone Westwater by Donald Kuspit

 Crushed Liner with Lighthouses, 2015, oil on linen, 50 x 50 inches (127 x 127 cm). Courtesy Sperone Westwater.

By DONALD KUSPIT, Sept. 2018

The painter Malcolm Morley, born in London on June 7th, 1931, died in New York on June 1st, 2018, at the ripe old age of 86.  The exhibition at Sperone Westwater focuses on the dozen paintings he made between 2015 and 2018, with an additional half dozen earlier paintings, suggesting that the exhibition is a kind of mini-retrospective. What is significant about the late works is that they are the last fruit of the extended psychoanalysis Morley undertook after the breakdown he experienced mid-career, evident in what the exhibition’s catalog writer calls “Morley’s increasingly erratic and unstable psychic state in the 1970s,” more pointedly “the psychotic morass of his middle period.”  It was at once a mid-life crisis and a psychotic collapse, a massive decompensation or disintegration evident in the “chaos and disorder” of such symptomatic works as Little Corner of Plane-Ship Catastrophe and Central Park, 1976. Just as we speak of the psychoanalytic drawings the young, unknown Jackson Pollock made when he was in therapy with the Jungian psychoanalyst Joseph Henderson, so we should speak of the paintings that the older, already recognized Morley—in 1966 he was included in the Guggenheim exhibition of “Photorealism”--made when he was in therapy with an Object Relational psychoanalyst, who helped him realize and accept the fact that he “would never be able to replace…the original loved object.”  It was symbolized by the “perfect ship,” the ocean liner Christoforo Columbo, 1966, and, before it, the balsa wood model of a battleship that Morley made when he was a boy.  He named it the H. M. S. Nelson, after the admiral of the H. M. S. Victory, which he heroically commanded during the battle of Trafalgar, 1799, winning it despite losing an arm, and with it a hand.  Admiral Nelson was truly admirable—a model of manhood, a true leader, a man of substance and character—for he courageously carried on despite being seriously wounded, his body damaged beyond repair, symbolically castrated, but his psyche intact, strong-willed. 

Lord Horatio Nelson was Morley’s aristocratic, ideal, heroic fantasy father in contrast to his real “austere, bullying” all too real—“superreal,” to refer to “Superrealism,” Morley’s preferred name for  Photorealism--stepfather, a commoner who “resented” and rejected his stepson. Morley never knew his real father—where was his nourishing mother?--which is why the surrogate father could never be good enough.  Not even Nelson, his loss of his arm suggesting his personal failings however great his social success, however famous and celebrated he was—poor compensation for his loss, which could never be made good. Nelson’s physical wound symbolized Morley’s psychic wound. The hand with which Morley painted—steered the ship of his art--could never be as steady and strong as the hand Nelson lost, for his hand steered the ship of state, more glorious than any pretentious ship of art, and its loss meant that the ship of state--and with it Morley’s fictitious stately art--could no longer be firmly in hand.

Nelson was a rich man, and the dynamic Britain that he knew was at the height of its imperial power. The passive Britain that Morley knew was in slow decline. The sun never set on the British Empire that Nelson served. The Britain that Morley grew up in was a nightmare. It was under siege, threatened with destruction. Death was literally in the air in 1939, when the Second World War, and with it the Battle of Britain, began in the skies above it. Morley was an impressionable eight year old child from a poor family. The war was entertaining: the conflict between fascist Germany, ruled by a strongman and regarded as invincible, for it had quickly conquered most of Europe, and democratic Britain, whose spineless Prime Minster, Lord Chamberlain, had already surrendered to Germany without a fight when he let it take over Czechoslovakia, was dialectic in thrilling action. “We would go on top of roofs and watch Messerschmidts and Spitfires have dogfights, and bet marbles on who was going to shoot who down.” Morley experienced the impersonal violence of history firsthand; it came to symbolize the violence—probably physical as well as mental--he personally suffered at the hands of his stepfather. “Memories of the elemental violence of the Nazi bombing of 1940-41—the Blitz--remained with him for life.”  There was danger in the sky, danger on the ground: Morley was in constant danger of losing his life—body and soul. 

 Malcolm Morley, Mortal Knight, 1997, oil on linen with attachments, 17 x 14 x 5 3/4 inches (43,2 x 35,6 x 14,6 cm). Courtesy Sperone Westwater.

I suggest memories of the Blitzkrieg remained with him because they served as a screen memory for the merciless violence he suffered at the hands of his stepfather. They represented it even as they defended against it by displacing it—depersonalizing it without denying it. Memories of the elemental violence of the Nazi bombing of 1940-41 and memories of the elemental violence his Nazi-like stepfather inflicted on him during those same years seamlessly and inevitably fused in unconscious phantasy. Private history and public history synthesized, as Synthetic History, 1966 acknowledges. This compounded violence—the inescapable violence that he faced on both fronts--resurfaced in his consciously made art.  Making art became Morley’s way of re-working and working through his devastating experience of war—making the artistic best of the worst experiences of his life, experiences that occurred during his formative years and formed and informed him, shaped his attitude to life and outlook on the world, his character and his consciousness, and, one might add, inspired his creativity. Almost annihilated by the war and always at war--his subjective war with his dominating soul murdering stepfather, who always defeated him; the objective air war between Britain and Germany, which to the eye of a child seemed like an endless game between competing players, each as powerful and great and undefeated as the other—war and annihilation became the inseparable themes of his art. 

Sometimes annihilation—death--was impending, as in O. K., 2015, where a small seaplane (symbol of the child Morley) is about to dive bomb a large ship (symbol of his stepfather).  At other times annihilation—death--was complete, as in Crushed Liner with Lighthouses, 2015:  Morley crushes his father, in symbolic form, as he felt crushed by his father.  Crushed between the Scylla of internal war with his father and the Charybdis of the external air war between attacking Germany and defending Britain he barely escaped with his life.  He had lived with the constant threat of death, and his art showed death in action.  What Freud called the death instinct, evident in aggression, runs rampant in Morley’s art. It is at once an acting out of the death inside him and a demonstration of the triumph of death in the world.  Simply put, total war, the war of all against all, the endlessness of war, war to the death for both opponents—both the French and English Knights Engaged in Mortal Combat, 2017--is Morley’s theme.

In a dogfight, sometimes one side won, sometimes the other side won. Each was in its own way a winner—a winner simply because they were both able to fly high and hold their own in any fight. The opposites were equal, even peculiarly the same, interchangeable, however politically opposed, however different their insignias and uniforms and the countries they represented and served: each side had the same chance of winning the war game—of shooting the other fighter plane down. The dogfight was no longer a matter of politics, but a match between equally smart and determined pilots. The odds were equal--the Messerschmidts and Spitfires were equally matched fighting machines, for each had similar powerful motors with the same indefatigable energy, and the same ability to move swiftly and gain altitude, instantly change direction, and skillfully maneuver in space, with a certain reckless grace--unlike the odds in Morley’s war with his stepfather, who always won the battle, always shot his stepson down, subverted his psyche, for his stepfather had greater power and rank. Being a stepson, he was inherently alien to his stepfather, an outcast from the family, a sort of pariah. The fearless fighter pilots of the Messerschmidts and Spitfires became his brothers, comrades in arms.  He was one of them, a welcome member of their family, as his youthful, handsome self-portrait in the spiffy uniform of the “Red Baron,” a famous German pilot in World War I—he shot down more enemy planes than any German or British pilot—makes clear. Clearly Morley is identifying with the aggressor, validating and reifying his own aggression.  Morley’s painted self-portrait is based on a photograph of the aristocratic Red Baron, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, “the ace-of-aces of the war, being officially credited with 80 air combat victories.” He was shot down in 1918, dying at the age of 25, just short of his 26th birthday, suggesting that Morley thought he would die young, but without von Richthofen’s combat victories. But he lived to become a sort of ace artist, chalking up many combat victories in the endless art wars, finally winning, in 1984, the first Turner Prize, the prize of all art prizes.  

The peculiarly artistic dogfights of the ace pilots that Morley saw perform in the sky—their airplanes impulsively swirled and dived, and made whirring noises, oddly avant-garde dissonant music, like the V-1 and V-2 rockets (“V” for victory, more significantly for Valkyrie)—and the violent, competitive conflicts they engaged in, ending in disaster for one or the other, became both the subject matter and model of his “action” paintings, often fraught with jarringly conflicting forms, many diving and blindly driven, and irritatingly garish colors, giving them an air of lavish absurdity, like the catastrophic dogfights.  Sometimes the battle is impending, as it is in Tilting, 2017, sometimes it is in chaotic process, as in Melee at Agincourt, 2017: catastrophe is always in the air, always anxiously expected, death anxiety being The Ultimate Anxiety, 1978:  the Venetian ship of state is about to be hit and sunk by a V-2 like rocket.  Morley’s last paintings of knights in mortal combat are tragic allegories, personal as well as social in import.

Malcolm Morley, Tally-ho, 2016, oil on linen, 21 x 26 1/2 inches (53,3 x 67,3 cm). Courtesy Sperone Westwater.

I suggest that the young Hercules, with his battered, bruised, mashed face—expressionistically disfigured and mangled, a sort of faceless face--in Reclamation of Young Hercules, 1987 is a self-portrait of the battle weary, soul-tortured Morley himself, as he begins psychoanalysis to repair the damage to his psyche wrought by his stepfather—his disastrous home environment—and the disastrous, war-torn environment London was in his youth.  Psychoanalysis repaired the damage done to Morley in his youth, helping him sublimate it into art, but he remained scarred by it, and the scars remain clearly visible in his paintings, not only in the slashing gestural ones he made throughout his career, but in the disjunctions and disruptions—the incommensurately at odd spaces and conflicting acidic colors, for example, the recurrent yellow and black, sometimes on the spears of the knights, the spear being a kind of geometricized, streamlined grandiose gesture (and surrogate V-2 rocket)—that inform the knight paintings that form the bulk of the works in the exhibition.

The British relational psychoanalyst “Winnicott claimed that psychosis results from early privation or failure of the environment.”  Clearly Morley’s stepfather failed him, depriving him of love by aggressively mistreated him.  The violence of the London environment during the Blitzkrieg compounded the violence of his home environment. As noted, he inevitably internalized the violence—the experience of conflict, a fight to the death at home and in the streets, made a deep, ineradicable impression on him, leading him to act it out, with compulsive and often convulsive regularity in his art, memorializing it in a futile attempt to purge it, or at least once and for all master it, ride and control it the way the knights in his paintings ride and control the horses they are mounted on.  But, as Freud wrote, the horse instinctively goes where it wants to go despite the best efforts of the ego of the rider to direct it. Raw instinct is barely under control by Morley’s egomaniacal style, evident in the flamboyant drapery, with its colorful geometric patterns, that camouflage the knights’ battle-fit horses.  But, after all, each and every one is a Hobby Horse, 2015, like the Trojan horse pictured in that work. The Trojan horse was deceptive—a lie, a fraud, a fake.  It was a hollow toy made of wood; unlike a real horse, there was nothing solid about it. It had no body; it was a piece of stage scenery, a prop in a theater of the absurd. But it contained battle-ready warriors—knights in armor--ready to kill and conquer when they came out of hiding.  However well-armored, Morley’s knight will die in battle, as Mortal Knight, 1997 makes clear, suggesting that every victory in war is hollow.  One can’t help wonder if the knight is Morley’s father, finally killed in battle, or Morley himself, mortally wounded by his father.  Whichever, there are no winners in Morley’s war pictures, with their false aplomb and splendor, their delusionary grandeur.

According to Winnicott, the “failure of environmental provision disturbs maturational processes to such a degree that the child is unable to achieve the crucial maturational processes of integration, personification, and object relating.”  Morley’s failure to mature initially showed itself in the “antisocial or delinquent” behavior of his youth—his “turbulent youth and picaresque early life,” as the catalog writer discreetly puts it, more pointedly "his brushes with the law and incarceration,” as the writer adds.  The “disintegration” evident in Morley’s neo-expressionist paintings, the “depersonalization” implicit in his abstract and photorealist paintings, and the “derealization” conveyed by his use of fake objects--make-believe toys, which is what the cardboard knights in the late pseudo-historical paintings are--suggest a more insidious, ingrained immaturity.  Despite his psychoanalysis, Morley never became a mature human being, although psychoanalysis enabled him to sublimate his anti-social impulses, not to say his nihilistic tendency to violence.  That allowed him to achieve a sort of stalemate in the chess game between his conflicting knights.  In a chess game the knight is the only piece that can jump over other pieces.  But Morley’s knights are unable to move.  For all their swagger, all their pretension to power, they are frozen in place, dead-ended in violence.  They pose for us, suggesting that they are fanciful imposters, actors in a film.  Playing at heroism, they are impotent hollow men. 

Morley was deeply influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s black and white film Alexander Nevsky.  Morley’s knights are lifted from them and embellished with stylish color, as though being cast for a technicolor film.  If ripeness is all, then the Hollywood aesthetic of Morley’s last paintings makes them perversely ripe, even as they suggest his arrested emotional development, all the more so because his glamorized knights are children’s toys, each toy like a marble signaling a fake victory.  Morley’s painted knights are all surface with no depth, indicating their vacuousness.  Knights also are obsolete, their weapons as old-fashioned as they are—suggesting that the lance they use symbolizes the paintbrush, old-fashioned compared to the camera used to make a film, which is more modern and popular than a painting, be it traditional or avant-garde.  The lance is certainly more cutting than a paintbrush, suggesting that Morley’s knights are modern killers in medieval disguise, gangsters with a bit of panache.  Their majesty is illusory, not only because they are toys, but because they are puppets in the little theater of Morley’s absurd psyche—pieces in a game Morley is playing with his immature self, an unfortunate victim of his stepfather and British history.

 Tilting, 2017, oil on linen with additional painting attached by aluminum support, 50 x 100 inches (127 x 254 cm). Courtesy Sperone Westwater.

It has been said that Morley, along with Francis Bacon, who was also influenced by an Eisenstein film, ingeniously integrate “high” and “low” art:  avant-garde art, in which form seems to matter more than content, more particularly, working the medium seems to matter more than communicating a message; and popular art, in which content seems to matter more than form, more particularly, communicating the message instantly whatever the medium (which is why Lenin preferred film, which did so, to literature, which took too much time to do so).  But the aesthetic gain of the dialectic is unclear; the opposites tend to clash rather than converge, the seam of friction between them symptomatic of their basic incompatibility—the seemingly unresolvable difference, not to say inherent incompatibility, of high and low culture, for the latter tends to confirm the status quo of collective understanding and consciousness, while the former tends to undermine and dismiss it as shallow.

The exhibition takes its title from Morley’s painting Tally-ho, 2016.  It says it all—epitomizes Morley’s art.  “Tally-ho is a very old traditional cry by the huntsman to tell others the quarry has been sighted.”  Is his father the invisible quarry?  Or is the knight in the painting Morley, “tally-ho” being his battle cry?  Also, crucially for understanding Morley’s witnessing the battle between the Messerschmidts and Spitfires in 1940-41, “tally-ho was used by RAF fighter pilots in the Second World War to tell the controller that they were about to engage enemy aircraft.”  More directly to the point of the violence depicted in Morley’s paintings, “Tally-ho probably derived from the French taïent, a cry used to excite hounds when hunting deer.  Taïnet may have originated in the second half of the 13th century by the concatenation of the two word war cry:  taille haut.  “Taille” is the cutting edge of a sword and “haut” means high or “raised up.”  So the original meaning may be close to “Swords up!”  The knight in Tally-ho charges into battle holding high a mace, a more crushing weapon than a slicing sword.  Was the face of the Young Hercules crushed by it? 

Malcolm Morley

Wordsworth wrote that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  Powerful feeling seems to spontaneously overflow in Reclamation of Young Hercules, which is a kind of expressionistic poetry, with nothing tranquil about it, but there is neither tranquility nor poetry in Morley’s paintings of knights. They read like outdated prose, stale and static however freshened up and animated by cosmetic color.  For all their glossy brightness and slick execution, they are sad trophies of an unhappy childhood.  “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will,” Baudelaire wrote, leading one to wonder whether a miserable childhood makes for a miserable genius, and with that a miserable art—an art that sells genius short however strongly willed, betrays genius however ingenious it is, a clever shallow art rather than a profound subtle art, as an art that fully recaptures childhood, and rises above it, should be.  Childhood is the profoundest, most uncertain, most difficult, most complex period in life, for it is foundational and demanding.  One is beginning to learn about the world, and to find one’s way and make the best of it, leaving the playpen, with its toys, behind.  The narrow focus on violence in Morley’s knight paintings suggests his failure to understand his troubled childhood, although he has perhaps made the artistic best he could of it.  It also suggests that his psychoanalysis remains unfinished, for his art is not so much a regression in the service of his ego, as the expression of an ego stuck in regression.  His remembrance of things past did not free Morley of it.  I suggest this explains the peculiar shortcomings of his paintings, evident in the unresolved war between the “high” (geometric) abstraction and “low” (postcard) illustration—avant-garde form and banal subject matter—in O.K.  There is not even a hint that the difference between them can be resolved; they remain at odds—in mortal combat, like Morley’s knights. Both have the stilted look of a caricature, as Morley’s knights do. In a caricature an object is aggressively distorted so that it seems misbegotten. It is creatively one-sided, if creativity involves libido as well as aggression—aggression transformed into assertion. If a caricature is a creative failure, or inadequately creative—a sort of shallow, limited, narrow-minded creativity--then Morley’s paintings are creative failures. He’s not a genius because his stepfather was a caricature of a father, his knights are caricatures of knights, his war games caricature actual warfare, and his paintings caricature childhood. WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

view all articles from this author