Dwoskin’s Sitting Figure (1967)
Fourth in a series of monthly posts by Henry K. Miller from the Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project based at the University of Reading
Fifty years ago this month, Stephen Dwoskin made what amounted to his public debut in his adoptive home, London. He had won prizes for his design work, and at the Knokke Experimental Film Festival at the turn of 1967–8, but his exhibition at the Redmark Gallery, in Wigmore Street, in January–February 1969, brought him significant exposure for the first time. As the location suggests, the exhibition was primarily of paintings and drawings, but the Redmark show also included the premieres of two of his films – notably, the first of the films he had made in Britain to be shown in Britain. On the day of the private view, the Guardian called Dwoskin ‘a promising bet for Mr Transmedia, 1969’.
The private view was on Dwoskin’s thirtieth birthday, 15 January, as the invitation made plain. Indeed, the invitation, which Dwoskin designed, is practically a CV, listing among other items his authorship of the forthcoming book Film Is, due out from Peter Owen later in 1969 (it would not appear for another six years). The paintings had a mixed press. Marina Vaizey, in Arts Review, was full of praise, calling them ‘rich and sensuous works’, achieved in ‘a vivid, almost lurid, spectrum of colours – brilliant oranges, acid yellows, pinks, greens, blues, scarlets’. Dwoskin’s friend Ray Durgnat, meanwhile, writing in IT , saw ‘brick and beetroot reds, belisha beacon orange, satiny blacks, electric blues’, which the publications that covered the exhibition were equally unable to reproduce. Oswell Blakeston, a stalwart of Close Up forty years earlier, wrote that it was ‘all as gay as a cockerel charging around with his hands in his pockets’.
Simon Field – a recent Essex graduate, recently made assistant editor of Art and Artists magazine, part of the eccentric publishing empire of Philip Dosse – attended to the big picture, seeing the show as pointing towards a revival of figuration after years of pop and abstract expressionism: ‘it seems inevitable that we will again require a symbol of the human image to counteract processes of depersonalisation’. Dwoskin’s work across two media, Field went on, ‘warrants examination as it brings us nearer to the dilemma of the figurative artist’, but Field came down decisively on the side of the films. ‘The demand or need for the human image will not die, but are we not likely to turn to the film as the source, leaving painting to more abstract theoreticians?’ Nigel Gosling’s review in the Observer treated the exhibition as part of a general ‘overlapping between film and art’, not just in the aesthetic sense discussed by Field, but exemplified by the incorporation of film prints into the fine art market.
Dwoskin knew Durgnat through the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, in which they had both been leading figures since its inception in 1966, and Durgnat had previously reviewed Dwoskin’s films in the LFMC’s magazine Cinim; both had in fact been interviewed in a publication Field had edited with Peter Sainsbury while at Essex, Platinum, and Field and Dwoskin would cross paths numerous times in the future.
Kevin Gough-Yates, writing in Studio International in advance of the exhibition, described the films Dwoskin planned to show, one of them titled Awaken. ‘Because the sound quality of most so-called Underground films is so poor, he sees Awaken as an interplay of sound and images – an attempt to utilize sound in a more related way.’ It’s an intriguing glimpse of a film that only exists in part, and which is not known to have been shown again. What survives in the BFI archive appears to be roughly half of what was shown, a 16mm black-and-white reel that was presumably the A- or B-roll of the finished version. In order to avoid visible splices, cutting 16mm film involved creating two reels with odd-numbered shots on one, even-numbered shots on the other, with black leader making up the corresponding gaps on each, which would then both be printed on to a third reel to create a viewing print. What survives of Awaken is one such reel – half leader. Of the sound, nothing more is as yet known; nor is the identity of the film’s star..
The other film, Take Me, was retained in the catalogue. Field described it as ‘an attempt to bring closer the media of celluloid and paint. […] A girl is attempting to seduce the beholder – the camera. She leans forward into the camera, out of focus, and returns from the first kiss with her mouth smeared with paint.’ The girl was Clodagh Brown, a student friend of Dwoskin’s girlfriend Liz Bennett. It would be this and other films that led to Dwoskin being written about by Laura Mulvey, who saw in his ‘overtly’ voyeuristic work an exploration of ‘the male as “bearer of the look” and the female as its exhibitionist object’ – but that was a few years away.
The Redmark show cannot be said to have launched Dwoskin into the art world – it was his last foray into the gallery circuit for some time – but it did help him establish his presence as an independent filmmaker. Until then his films had been shown in London almost always in association with the LFMC, but this was in disarray in early 1969, and while Dwoskin would not abandon it entirely – as Durgnat and others did – he would keep his distance. Many of the reviews of the Redmark show noted that it would be swiftly followed by a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, recently established in its present home in the Mall, on 17 February. This first ‘Evening of Steve Dwoskin’, as its successors would be styled, would set the pattern for the exhibition of his work for some time to come.
This is the fourth in a series of monthly posts from The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project, based at the University of Reading and supported by the AHRC. Follow its progress on Twitter: @DwoskinProject
Henry K. Miller is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Reading, and editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat.