Among all the rich and varied themes that make up Joash Woodrow’s extraordinary artistic achievement – landscapes, portraits and still-lifes among them – it is the large body of his figurative works that provide perhaps the most elusive, mysterious and yet, potentially some of the most revealing aspects of his entire output. Elusive, because his subjects, mostly groups of figures in landscape or interior settings, often seem to provide a curious mix of references not only to an artistic reality such as Cezanne’s Bather and Card Player or Picasso’s Artist and Model but also an everyday reality suggestive of visits to street fairs, bars and social gatherings that would seem to run counter to all we know (or thought we knew) about his intensely reclusive way of life and obsessively shy personality. Revealing, because it may well begin to offer some new insights into the way Joash Woodrow went about constructing his paintings while allowing us to reconsider whether his life was quite as lonely, un-social and withdrawn as previously thought. Most lives are lived largely in private and unknown – and maybe the intense privacy with which he surrounded himself sprang from the same urgent need to paint, think and live in private, without feeling obliged to explain or seek approval and understanding from family, friends or the wider world.
In 1955 he returned to Leeds from London where he continued to paint small scale landscapes and portraits. By the mid 1960’s figurative themes emerged once more, and the whole character of his work deepened and widened profoundly. Already well aware of the broad strands of 20th century European Modernism it was the experience of the huge Picasso show at the Tate in 1960 which provided the major catalyst for the extraordinary explosion in scale and ambition that overtook his work over the next fifteen years. Most significant was the sudden change in his artistic language and a quite new understanding of materials and how he wanted to use them. Up to this point the surface quality of the paintings had been a by-product of his need to release images and thus had not been of any great concern to him. Now suddenly everything seemed different; energised by his upbringing in a community created through a mix of English, Jewish and Eastern European culture and the realisation that his expressive roots lay outside the British Isles. It was, in many ways, through the development of these figurative subjects that he also began to find his particular voice and, of course, in the great landscape paintings from the mid-70s on, such as Allotment Scene with Derelict Buildings and Overgrown Wooden Structure. However, it was not just Picasso but a whole range of contemporary European movements that now seemed to become relevant to his needs. In the blistering, raw surfaces of paintings like Gladiators the influence of Dubuffet and Art Brut, Appel, Asger Jorn, the COBRA group, De Stael and the Tachistes is not only absorbed but understood and turned into a highly-charged and increasingly personal voice that is immensely rich and flexible in its range of expression.
During the 1960’s his paintings take the form of several distinctive themes – a series of strange, carnival costumed groups such as Figures in the Sun, the neo-classical theme of figures fighting and athletes from the Warriors and Acrobats series, crowd scenes depicting figures At The Theatre, and the numerous paintings of small groups of friends in a parkland setting usually comprising two or three young men and a woman. In the first group a curious top-hatted figure, sometimes seen as a dark silhouette, haunts a composition that would seem to call for its inspiration on drawings he made at the many fairs, carnivals and circuses that still regularly appear throughout the year in the suburbs of North Leeds. The top-hatted figure is often painted in a rather different manner to the rest of the group, tempting one to suggest that, again, there might be an autobiographical element to it. The second set of subjects, has a distinctly strange and surreal character, with echoes of De Chirico, that is quite unlike anything else he had attempted before, the ideas for them coming perhaps from something seen at first hand in the theatre or circus, literary sources or drawn from the radio or newspapers. In the third group of ‘parkland’ paintings the artist often depicts the same group of figures standing or resting, many reminiscent of Manet’s, Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, and it is thought that the figures may be his artist friend Peter Hibson together with Paul Woodrow, and his wife to be Judith. The final series from this period make up a large part of the figurative works and include many drawings and pastels depicting busy pub, theatre and musical gatherings. From a close study of the hundreds of pastels, drawings and sketchbooks that provide the starting points for all these paintings, there is a commonality and realisation that Joash was visiting a wide range of social venues and events, a process that would seem to belie the shy and reclusive character that he became late in his life.
By the mid 1970’s he seems largely to have moved away from such themes, to focus entirely on his urban landscapes though this is not quite such an abrupt development as it might, at first, seem. The landscape that appears so frequently as a backdrop increasingly becomes the subject itself but still filled with a sense of vibrant human and animal presence. Many such pictures were inspired by images found in the Magazines of Art; (the collection of Victorian Magazines of Art which initially led to the re-discovery of the Woodrow collection in 2001) providing the perfect ready made sketchbooks in which he could draw and paint over the monochrome illustrations and accompanying text. These ten books produced during the early – mid 1970’s contain over 250 works, the drawings frequently providing the basis of ideas for larger paintings.
No theme in Joash’s work – portrait or still-life, landscape or figurative theme is, in truth, separate from the other – but, rather, infuses the other with its insights, filled with visual information drawn both from a profound understanding of the nature of art and close, intuitive observation of the world around him.
Nicholas Usherwood – art critic and writer. Editor of Galleries Magazine