28 1/2 x 21 in
1947 London, Lefevre Gallery, New Paintings by John Armstrong (10)
2015, London, Piano Nobile, John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958; An Enchanted Distance, cat. no. 9, col. ill. p. 29.
'Perspex's choice for the picture of the Month', Apollo, May 1947
A. Lambirth, A. Armstrong and J. Gibbs, John Armstrong: The Paintings, Catalogue Raisonne (London, 2009), cat. no. 337, colour illustration p. 189.
The feathers that populated Armstrong’s output in 1946 transformed in the following year into anthropomorphic leaves, veined, brittle and frequently disintegrating. Forming a particularly disquieting series that hung in the 1947 Lefevre show alongside the feather works, these so-called ‘Embrace’ paintings are set in the depths of night in otherworldly, barren, cratered landscapes. Dusky pink and brown leaf forms emerge from inky blue night skies, yet shadows eerily fall across the paintings.
Passion of the Inanimate is the most starkly powerful of the ‘Embrace’ series. A lone leaf-feather hybrid stands isolated in rocky terrain. The intimacy of the confrontation is striking. The leaf fills the space, staring us down in an unapologetic encounter. The title contains an impossible paradox - how can an inanimate leaf experience any emotion, let alone one as forceful as passion? The realisation of seemingly incompatible elements into the imagery of a leaf possessing such evidently human characteristics is decidedly uncanny. Freud’s essay on The Uncanny was published in 1919, and was of immense significance to the Surrealists. In Passion of the Inanimate uncanny transgressions are made manifest. The leaf occupies a liminal space between organic and inorganic, living and dead, real and imagined, part object (leaf) and whole (tree) – an image that is hauntingly beautiful.
The influence of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s fashionable 1917 zoological tract, On Growth and Form, which famously inspired Richard Hamilton’s 1951 eponymous Festival of Britain installation, is strongly felt. D’Arcy Thompson opens On Growth and Form arguing that the “search for differences or fundamental contrasts between the phenomena of organic and inorganic, of animate and inanimate things, has occupied many men’s minds…and the contrasts are apt to loom too large”. D’Arcy Thompson’s embrace of an all-encompassing, inter-connected natural environment tapped into a certain zeitgeist, of which Armstrong was an avid proponent.