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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Derek Hill

Derek Hill and his dilapidated "refugee" hut on Tory Island off northwestern Ireland.
In 1971, a very youthful-looking Prince
Charles posed for Derek Hill.
For almost a century now, there has been a battle between representational artists and the non-representational sort. Actually it's more of a bettle between critics and admirers of each. One side sees their art as an "opening up" of creative possibilities--a rebellion against the staid, suffocating restrictions of traditional styles from past thousand years. The other side sees such work as a breaking down (or breaking up, if you please) of art, leading, ultimately to the "end of art" as we know it. There's no need to attach labels or even take sides. In fact, odd as it might seem, both sides were right. The non-representational being the radical new upstart, was the lightening rod for such controversy. Ever since 1915 when, Kazamir Malevich painted Black Suprematic Square then followed up that big hit with a white square on an off-white canvas in Suprematist Composition: White on White, (1918), the war (or debate, if you prefer) has raged on.

Derek Hill as seen in a local, Tory Island art gallery (possibly a self-portrait).
Actor, Sir John Gielgud, 1987, Derek Hill.
If Malevich could be allowed to "cut to the chase" and get away with such a minimalist travesty, what might be the implications for all future art? Suffice to say there were implications and they were as dire (and liberating) as each side foresaw. Although it took another half-century, Malevich's Minimalism eventually played the closing chords of Modern Art (as we knew it) shortly after the Abstract Expressionist fat lady sang (painted by de Kooning, no doubt). The united nations of the art world brokered a peace settlement wherein non-representational art was put on a "reservation" occupying a few "high end" art galleries in the valley of the SoHo (mostly New York and London) while various half-breed, hybrid offspring from the conflict ruled the rest of the art world. If only world peace were that simple!
Morning on the Arno in Spring, 1950, Derek Hill.
After the war, Hill spent a year paintng in Italy.
Mrs. Mary Miley Mangan, 1948, Derek Hill.
But this is not about the war, or even who may have won or lost. It's about the unfortunate refugees of the conflict, one in particular--the British-born, Irish painter, Derek Hill. Baby Derek was born in 1916 in Southhampton, about the time Malevich fired the opening shots of the war. His father was a wealthy sugar trader. Young Mr. Hill got his first taste of of art combat while working in Leningrad during the 1930s as a theater designer (sets, not the theaters themselves). Malevich was Russian, remember, though it's unlikely the two ever met. Fleeing the conflict (both that of art and the upcoming real thing), Hill retreated to the relative safety of County Donegal in northwestern Ireland where he began to paint portraits (left) in a somewhat expressionist style indicative of the trauma he'd endured during his time in the Expressionist hotbed of eastern Europe.

Morning on the Arno in Winter, 1950, Derek Hill.
Same location as above, different angle.
The rocky coast of Tory Island. Hill's hut
is left center near the edge of the grass
After the war, as the non-representational Abstract Expressionist movement hit its stride, first in New York, before migrating eastward to war-torn London (and elsewhere in Europe), Hill, like so many other older artists at the time began to suffer. Even his somewhat expressionist portraits seemed somehow old-fashioned. He turned to landscapes, retreating still further from the art war to Tory Island (right) off the northwestern coast of northwester Ireland (not Northern Ireland). He took up residence during the milder months in an old wartime Coast Guard hut (top) where he painted the barren beauty of his rocky, wind-blown, refugee camp.
Tory Island from Tor Mor, 1958-59, Derek Hill--not non-rpresentational enough.
John De Vere Loder, Governor of
Northern Ireland, Derek Hill
Still, London art critics rejected his work--not non-representational enough. Hill tried to conform. Some of his work (above), while not really non-representational, certainly is a far-cry from Realism, or even Expressionism. It was only after the war ended, after Abstract Expressionism came and went, assassinated by Minimalism, that Derek Hill began to garner the recognition he deserved. He was in demand as a portrait painter, mostly second-tier political figures and movie stars, but nonetheless a respectable elevation from painting naked rocks and churning seas. The BBC did a documentary on him, his lifestyle, and his work. Perhaps most gratifying of all though, Hill had the satisfaction of literally outliving the conflict. He died in 2000 at the age of eighty-four. Though British by birth, the Governor of Northern Ireland (left) lauded Hill as "more Irish than the Irish."

The Iron Bridge, (date unknown), Derek Hill, possibly during the war years.


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