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Frost and Lorca: A Match Made in Colour

A Match Made in Colour


Frost and Lorca

Tuesday 11 December 2018

When you paint black, it must have colour
Terry Frost

Colour is the eye's music
Federico Garcia Lorca

Terry Frost (1915-2003) was born in Leamington Spa, a working class lad who became one of Britain's leading post-war abstract artists. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1992 and knighted in 1998. Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) was born in Fuente Vaqueros, Andalucia, into a wealthy, landed family. A poet and dramatist, he achieved international recognition with the Generation of '27. He died, aged just 38, in controversial circumstances at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Two disparate lives sharing a fraternal spirit.

Frost had always been pulled by the lure of poetry, the keenness by which it is able to distil the purity of a moment or intensity of an emotion with a single word or succinct stanza. It was the same thing he strove to achieve in his own work with colour and form.

Poetry comes to me when I am alone, maybe in a foreign country sitting at a dining table alone or riding on a train. I think I have been more influenced by poetry than I realise.

His first encounter with poetry was Milton and Keats, "More plentiful than bread", he remembered, as a prisoner of war in Bavaria 1941-45. He also composed many poems of his own and found a close friend in the Scottish poet W.S. Graham (1918-1986), who used to refer to Frost, fondly, as "Tall man mad on colour". Federico Garcia Lorca's words came to Frost later, in 1974, around the same time he experienced the Duende at a fish market in Spain.

I've been in love with Lorca's poetry for fifteen years. For ten years I've been making paintings, collages, prints, all given to me by Lorca. It has given me some of the best years of my life. Lorca awakened something in me. I love black and Lorca and the Duende and black envelop me. Images wrestle with me when I read Lorca, he probes the distance between each emotion.

The Duende is that visceral boil of passion, an entity of its own that climbs from your soul, a demon the artist has to do battle with to create spontaneous, spine-tingling art. Lorca described the Duende in his Play and Theory of the Duende, 1933, as "A power, not a work; a struggle, not a thought; an alternative to a muse, or style, God-given grace, or mere virtuosity". It is a searing spirit of the earth that seizes both artist and audience, creating conditions where art can be instantly understood with little, if any, conscious effort. Irrational, earthy, with a dash of the diabolical and a heightened sense of death, it is the same Duende that 'Scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the Duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio's SiguiriyaÂ… Every sound that has black in it has duende'.

It is an onerous concept to grasp, let alone to put into practice, but nonetheless Frost and Lorca shared an energetic determination to do just that.

Oh, white wall of Spain!
Oh, black bull of sorrow!
Oh, hard blood of Ignacio!

Lines from Llanto por la Muerte de Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias) by Federico Garcia Lorca

Red, black and white: Frost's own prime colours, the imagery conjured in Lorca's poetry immediately and deeply affected him. He had always been consumed by the desire to communicate emotion through colour and form; Lorca offered him a fresh understanding and an exciting new way to achieve this.

From the late 1970s Frost began incorporating Lorca's words and ideas into his own work. From the beginning he had it in his mind to produce a book or a substantial series of work based on Lorca's poems. The result came in 1989 with the publication of what is perhaps his most important suite of prints: the Lorca Portfolio; eleven poems by Lorca, each accompanied by an original etching by Frost.

The first poem in the portfolio is Llanto por la Muerte de Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, one of Spain's most adored bullfighters, gored to death at five o'clock in the afternoon (a phrase tolled, time after time, by Lorca and echoed by Frost) in the Plaza del Manzanares in 1934. Frost's interpretation is to bring his own, well-established vocabulary of shapes to the poems. In the case of the first etching, the familiar Frost 'boat-shape' becomes the horn of the bull - black, and spattered by the red blood of Ignacio. Other favourite Frost imagery makes the transition too: his chevron wedges used to 'tighten up' his compositions are transformed into the piercing arrows of incestuous love in Thamar Y Amnon (Thamar and Amnon), and his black suns into black moons and black olives in the Cancion De Jinete (Rider's Song).

With Lorca I travel on a ride to no-man's-land. There I am; my emotions take on a new distance and the extent between life and death becomes forever. Black and Red become a symbol for death and life, lust, passion, tenderness, fear, love.

New motifs appear too, as a direct response to Lorca's words. Es Verdad (It Is True) sees Frost's first use of the heart shape, which was to re-materialise in work ten years later. And a rare, figurative depiction of a fish breaks the surface in San Rafael (Cadoba) (San Rafael (Cordoba)).

Such is the symbiosis between Lorca's poetry and Frost's own vision of the world that it is difficult to believe sometimes that one came before the other. In El Lagarto Viejo (The Old Lizard), the last in the Lorca Suite (and, together with the first, the artist's own favourite), the sunset Lorca describes is the same, awesome, display of a huge, Mediterranean sun and deep, blue moon sharing the sky that Frost had experienced himself, in the South of France and later Cyprus, which had such a profound impact on him and became such a staple in his work. So there was no need to re-tune an image for The Old Lizard, it was already there, in his own canon: a plush, red disc, descending, in the same way it did in the 1960s, with the moon beyond, in a sea-blue sky.

You watch the setting sun
And your eyes shine,
Oh, dragon of the frogs,
With a human radiance.

Lines from El Lagarto Viejo (The Old Lizard)

It is important not to view Frost's work with regards to Lorca as a translation, or an homage; his images are much more than mere illustrations alongside the words; he loves the words. One of Lorca's strictures was that "You must not read poetry, you must love it". Frost read and reread Lorca, over and over again until the words themselves evaporated and this love affair was distilled. That was the power he transferred into his work.

Like so many artists (Lorca himself couldn't bear 'logical poetry': "Mystery is what makes us live", he wrote), Frost had to reconcile the simultaneous attraction for form with that of chaos; the need to be spontaneous coupled with the labour of creation. As soon as you put pen to paper or brush to canvas you "Clip the wings of imagination". So it was essential for him that the "Capital concept" (again, his own expression) was already there and in continuity before any mark on the paper was ever made. This is what Lorca gave Frost and what drove him to produce the images he did.

Many paintings, prints, works on paper, poems and writings have been the result of Frost's all-consuming passion for Lorca. Perhaps the first example, a sketch, entitled Far Away and Alone (a line from Rider's Song) appears in 1974. The last, entitled simply, Forgetting Lorca, a lowly little screen print, was in 1992. The affair was over, the passion spent and Frost moved on, richer than before.

Dominic Kemp