The Family Bible & Other Fables: Works from the Robert Holcombe Collection (1948 – 1978) is a fictional retrospective exhibition, offering a selection of around 70 works from the three decades of collage held by the Robert Holcombe archive. It’s on display at Syson Gallery and Antenna until January 31, 2014 (the gallery reopens on January 8th after the Christmas break).
“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1984]
“The question of identity is fascinating. I evade myself. I use only found materials on which I leave no obvious mark and I reconfigure them under an identity that is not mine. But each work generates a fingerprint, anonymous to the casual glance, yet so revealing to one prepared to enter that very particular labyrinth that no escape from identification seems possible without gloves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1973]
ROOM ONE (Timeline, 1948 – 1978):
Unidentified Artist: French etching showing a murderous priest in a storm, 1825.
The origins of this image, or its path into Holcombe’s family, are not known, but Holcombe’s sister, Elizabeth Booth, notes that it was hung in his childhood bedroom, and he took it with him when he left home to study at the Slade in 1948. Clearly, something in this mysterious and violent scene – a portrait of a priest murdering a woman with an axe in an Gothic landscape racked by lightning – resonated with Holcombe, and its influence, both in specifics (the cut tree in its disjointedly theatrical space) and broader terms (its generally unsettling atmosphere and ambiguous message) can be seen in much of Holcombe’s own work. Booth acquired the picture on Holcombe’s death, and notes that by 2003 he would have had it close for pretty much the entirety of his eighty years.
This small collage is one of only a handful of works to have survived from Holcombe’s early years. This image, derived from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of 1818, was made and framed the summer before he left Leeds to begin his studies at the Slade.
An unrelated pair of early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued. Letters of the time suggest that, by 1951, he had developed a particular interest in the possibilities of colour screen-printing and was concerned with questions of printing as an element in graphic and interior design. It has been suggested that he was already moving away from fine art as a focal point of his interests by his second year at college, which – if true – would be consistent with his decision to pursue a very different career path to his contemporaries after 1955.
Gothic Conversation: A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel (1952)
A small work, explicitly indebted to Max Ernst and the conventions of Surrealist collage (see also: Corset and The Reading Room of 1951: a sly nod to Ernst’s Loplop also appears in The Kiss, made during 1957). A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel is significant in bringing together the biological, religious and pop-cultural (here, specifically cinematic) elements that would define much of the work that followed. The atmosphere here is also notably similar to that seen in the anonymous 1825 print he had brought with him to London.
Gothic Conversation: Telekinesis I & II (c.1952 – 56?)
It is difficult to date this unsigned work in two parts with any certainty, but stylistically it closely resembles the work he was beginning to make in the mid-1950s, just prior to and following his return to Leeds in 1955. Many works like this were produced, initially as part of a series of Gothic Conversations, and this group appears to merge, around 1965, with the often similarly-toned and themed Folklore Series.
“I have no recollection at all of what was on my mind at the moment of creating this, nor any memory of the location of the landscape towards which this strange but real sea creature, whose identity I have also forgotten, directs its gaze. It feels as though I dreamed the whole conjunction and woke one morning, surprised to find it among my papers…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1962]
Marine is one of many images made between 1953 and 1966 based on plates from Stoddard’s Portfolio, a popular collection of photographs showing the sights of the world published by The Werner Company of Chicago and London in 1893. Because the publication ran through many mass market editions over the years, by the 1950s it appears to have been a cheap and versatile source of backgrounds for Holcombe’s early collages. With only a few exceptions, he is drawn to generic and anonymous imagery rather than the more distinctive kinds of photography that were available to him had he wished to use it.
The Kiss (1957)
An unsettling image made from an equally unsettling illustration in John Bull magazine, The Kiss is notable for its anticipation of what would later become the Ghost Pornography series around 1978, in the use of fabrics as a spatially disorientating device, and for its sly nod to Loplop, the bird-like Max Ernst alter-ego who appears in many of Ernst’s collages and paintings from the 1920s onwards. Holcombe signs the work ‘GH’, Gene Harrison, and his own use of a dual pseudonym (the other is ‘MH’, or Michael Harrison) suggests a self referential joke about such avatars may be at least part of the meaning of The Kiss. This may also be reading too much into what is, after all, mostly a genuinely disturbing image of dysfunctional romance.
This untitled image is notable mainly as a very early precursor of a technique that would later be pursued in a more systematic way, in this case the Biological Camouflage series of 1973 – 78. It is also rather unusual in Holcombe’s work for utilising an unsigned watercolour (said by Elizabeth Booth to be a small mountain landscape by a Swiss amateur painter and mountaineer, Mattheus Theobald) rather than a generic tourist brochure photograph, as the base for its visual manipulation. The painting itself was purchased from a street market during a holiday in Swabia during 1956 so is likely to have been bought with the purpose seen here in mind.
The Radiation Chamber (1958)
The House in the Forest (1964)
1964 Programme (1964)
In The House in the Forest, a fractured moon hangs among the dark trees of a wood in which a famous Workers’ Centre built in Moscow during the 1920s plays the part of the traditional folk-tale cottage. Whether Holcombe intends the juxtaposition of folktale and revolutionary architecture to be read as hopeful or satirical is difficult to tell. He is certainly known to have been conscious of the interesting work being made behind the Iron Curtain (he is thought to have met Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow in Paris during 1963, and dedicated the Krakow suite of 26 collages to her in 1964) and, for similar reasons, to have been acutely aware of the problems faced by the residents of these only nominally socialist states.
The Modernists: A Haunting (1965)
The Modernists series is a loosely themed group of works created by Holcombe between 1965 (when the prefix is first used in a title) and around 1976, when the last works appear to have been made. Unlike more consistent series, like the Krakow portfolio, or the later Biological Camouflage and Ghost Pornography cycles, The Modernists images are linked only by their interest in the thematic subject matter and imagery of modernity itself, drawing heavily on design, fashion, architecture, film and other related material. The variousness of The Modernists also allowed many one-off devices and experiments to be included: A Haunting appears to sow the seed and anticipate a technique that would be much more systematically deployed in Ghost Pornography fifteen years after it was first made.
The Modernists: Idyll (1966)
The Modernists: A Lawn (1966)
The Modernists: Jack London’s Study (1966)
Holcombe’s levels of activity appear to have fluctuated over the years, though before 1981, when he abandoned collage altogether, there are no lengthy breaks in his pattern of working. The beginning of The Modernists cycle in 1965 does appear to have had a liberating effect on him, however, and his productivity between 1966 and 1968 is large and sustained, though unlike other sequences, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. A somewhat darker outcome of this visit was the explicitly anti-fascist portfolio of monochrome images known as Images Portugaises: Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional (1961) in which the blandly appealing propaganda scenes circulated internationally by Salazar’s government were overlaid with illustrations from manuals of surgery, skin disease and machinery.
Folklore Series: The Passageway (1966)
Folklore Series: Canada (1966)
Folklore Series: The London Transmission (1966)
Concurrent with The Modernists beginnings in 1965, Holcombe had also begun making work under the general title Folklore Series, a vehicle for dark, fairy-tale like and explicitly surrealist images of enigmatic scenes and presences. Where The Modernists series develops a kind of ambiguously Pop-inflected aesthetic clearly influenced by the burgeoning young consumer culture of the mid to late 1960s, Folklore Series tends to maintain a pre-war set of concerns, notably with the uncanny and ritualistic, and its images feel more like a subtle linear evolution of the concerns seen in Holcombe’s 1950s works than a new direction. In works like The Passageway, the emphasis is very much on disturbance.
The Modernists: Diplodocus (1967)
The Modernists: A Family Luncheon (1967)
The Modernists: Afternoon (1967)
The Modernists: The Lady of Shallot (1969)
The Modernists: Primavera (1970)
The Modernists series continued to dominate Holcombe’s output during the next few years, and some of these are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the archive. Diplodocus (1967) has become something of an emblematic Holcombe image, its constructed space inhabited by a dinosaur skeleton seemingly revealed to us by an archetypal sixties girl whose outfit matches the curtain she draws back. Intended meanings and symbolism are mostly fluid and enigmatic. Holcombe’s decision to construct a series of 78 Tarot images in 1971 was justified with an observation in a letter to Paolozzi of 1972: “The Tarot reader works not by supernatural means but by allusion, as users intuitively read oblique symbols for personally applicable meanings. I believe art operates in exactly the same way, becoming meaningful only by an intuitive process…” Much in Holcombe’s Tarot Series is echoed in The Modernists, where some symbols – often sexual or political – are clear, others left completely open-ended.
Folklore Series: Christ of the Termites (1969)
A more enigmatic response to the religious theme, here a photograph of a church interior is occupied by a termite mound, seemingly built in homage to a hovering mathematical shape. The lunar rise in the foreground of the image, strewn with thorns and roses, is an early, and therefore inaccurate, image of the moon’s surface. It’s noteworthy that several other Holcombe works of 1969 (see also: The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City) have lunar themes, probably inevitable at the high watermark of the Space Race, when after ten years of anticipation and competition with the Soviet programme, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission finally placed humans onto the lunar surface in July 1969, and (Holcombe noted later) “marked the end-point rather than a real beginning for all the promises of Space exploration our generation had been raised on”.
Folklore Series: The Innocents I (1972)
Folklore Series: Black Sun II (1973)
Folklore Series: On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975)
Many of Holcombe’s 1970s works, particularly those in the Folklore Series, develop an apocalyptic tone, often reminiscent of the scenarios found in the dystopian Science Fiction cinema of the same period. In Black Sun II (1973), Home (1975) and On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975), post-war domestic residences seem oblivious to darkening skies and hovering tumours, while The Innocents I (1972) shows a child, isolated in some bleak alien landscape. Elizabeth Booth has suggested that this image may be an oblique reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella The Little Prince, first published in English in 1943, and probably read by Holcombe during his convalescence in Malaya in 1944.
The Modernists: The Wedding at Cana (1974)
A similar technique is used here to that seen in The Family Bible series, but both the source images (here, rather kitsch mid-1950s photographic tableaux of scenes from the life of Jesus instead of the more delicately coloured engravings of The Family Bible) and Holcombe’s treatments are less reverent and, at times, border on the kind of comedy later seen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). The Wedding at Cana presents the disciples as attending a bachelor party where the light of Jesus is the glowing shirt of a 1950s washing powder advert. Holcombe, in adding deliberately provocative and inappropriate items to the scene, seems to be partly venting against the puritanical Methodism of his boyhood, but also asking how, in an age when every festival and ritual in the Christian calendar has become an opportunity for consumerism, anyone could seriously object to a collage that simply shows what these events now look like in the homes of those most likely to be offended.
Ghost Pornography: Gilt (1978)
This is the earliest image in the final (known) cycle of Holcombe’s active period, Ghost Pornography, which (a couple of precedents like 1965’s The Modernists: A Haunting aside) he began in 1978 and finally abandoned, so far as we can tell, around 1981, along with his thirty year collage-making activity in its entirety. The reason for his abandonment of this life-long habit of collage-making isn’t known, though Booth believes a combination of depression after 1979, partly based in the wider political situation, increased workload in his final decade before retirement in Leeds, and also, more hopefully, a simple feeling of completion, may all have been factors. Booth also notes that he did continue to make collages on a more occasional basis, mostly as gifts for friends and correspondents, but no longer followed his routine of working at his desk in the spare bedroom for an hour or two most evenings after work. It seems that between around 1981 and 1987 he also began to sort the material he’d been making, securing and framing pieces that may otherwise have suffered damage, but put everything into storage on his move to Exeter in 1988. It was this only partially ordered archive that Booth inherited in 2003 and from which these works have been selected.
Performing the Curtain Rituals I – IX (1966)
Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors. Holcombe’s purpose, according to a letter written to Eduardo Paolozzi in 1966, was “…to pursue a feeling that once these patronised ‘native’ figures were cut from their original desert and jungle contexts and relocated in modern European interiors, they became both incongruous and rather more like ourselves: the peculiarities of our own customs seem to be exposed. A Pere Ubu-like figure inhabits an ordinary living room; a Zulu warrior poses in front of orange curtains beside an English Nurse, and so on. In the latter, the nurse’s ritual costume does not contrast with but echoes the warrior’s: her clipboard is a shield, her breastplate and utterly impractical head-dress make no more or less sense than his spear, shield and loincloth do. That half the world now aspires to these bizarre interiors only heightens this disjunction between tradition and modernity and the tensions and symbiosis that blur them. I am also in love with the colour balance these combinations of printed materials produce when they are all viewed together…”
ROOM TWO (The Family Bible):
The Family Bible (1967) [shown as projections]
These works exist only as loose portfolio pages, and are made on the actual plates of a Victorian bible. Because of this, they are extremely delicate and being shown here in projected rather than physical form, to aid their conservation. The series itself is one of the most explicit reflections of Holcombe’s Methodist upbringing. Notable scenes from the Old and New Testaments are brought up to date in a variety of dryly ironic ways: Moses raises his arms before a vision of the El-Al airline’s hyper-modernist office signage or descends from the Mount bearing not Ten Commandments but two brightly coloured Cream Sodas. The men wringing Joseph’s Garments in their hands appear to be polishing silver with a branded product. Joseph’s dream, related to his brethren, is the apparition of a beautiful woman stepping from a bathtub, while a dinosaur strolls past The Fall of Man, oblivious to Adam and Eve’s misfortunes. While often satirical in tone, The Family Bible series also contains more mysterious images: in The Entombment an image of Christ’s body being laid to rest is itself entombed under painted concrete, while Jesus in Martha’s House shows the blue gown of a kneeling woman dissolved into a cloud of blue hyacinth petals.
The Modern Interior I (1967)
One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same images, reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making these two pieces. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s photo-silkscreens, insofar as Holcombe painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.
ROOM THREE (Renaissance):
Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance II (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance II (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance III (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance IV (1978)
Most of Holcombe’s various Biological Camouflage series add cellular or other microscope images to landscape photographs, seeking “spatial displacements and disruptions of landscape and architecture, a kind of Land Art on paper. Or maybe it was just about noticing how perfectly cellular patterns blend into and unsettle generic scenes (sourced from tourist guides) using a very simple formula…”, as he wrote to Cy Albertine in 1984. The ‘simple formula’ was that each collage would impose only one modification to its background, presented as a kind of opened hatch within the frame (no diagonals or tilts of the added rectangle or square image are permitted) and somehow ‘matched’, camouflage-style, to the space it modifies. In this smaller group, however, the effect is very different. The grounding images are paintings – four Italian Renaissance frescoes and a French Renaissance tapestry and fresco – while the biological elements are both multiple, shaped and manipulated more elaborately within the frames. Even so, the unsettling effect remains comparable to the many photographic Biological Camouflage series to which this variant is a kind of marginalia.
The Modernists: The Birth of English Modernism (1965)
The earliest known work in The Modernists series, this strange image merges an opium den with molecular forms, spun from the vaguely surprised hands of an English labourer. It presents a kind of imaginary source moment for what now, in hindsight, resembles the most significant cultural shift in Europe since the Renaissance itself.
ANTENNA (Late Works):
The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)
Holcombe had first met Richard Hamilton as a fellow student at the Slade in 1948 and this homage is built around various elements associated with Hamilton’s work, all set on the background of a poster showing the members of Roxy Music, a band famously shaped by Hamilton’s influence during his time in Newcastle. Here almost completely obscured by devices like the male body-builder from Hamilton’s iconic 1956 collage What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, relaxing after his exertions of the 1950s, a beaker of unidentified white liquid from a Science Fiction B-Movie and polished Brancusi-like military projectiles, the members of Roxy Music array themselves around a run-down pool hall while Hamilton’s own implied presence is in the position occupied by the viewer, entering the scene like a guest at some spatially and temporally disjointed party.
Immersion I: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion II: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion III: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion IV: The Surgeons (1971)
Study for Immersion (1970)
“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]
Studies for ‘The Consumer’ (undated, c.1956 – 61)
A row of portraits of a child, each slightly different, are overlaid with consumer products, cut from magazine advertisements of the mid 1950s, and indirectly anticipate the Immersions series of 1970 – 71, though no direct link is made in Holcombe’s correspondence or journals. If the specific work for which these studies were made survives it has not yet been found, and no completed work titled The Consumer is catalogued in the Holcombe archive.
The Modernists: Resetting the Clock to Another Incorrect Time (1969)
The Modernists: Liberty Leading The People (1968)
Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated images in the Holcombe archive.
The Modernists: The Modern Interior II (1967)
One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same photographic images, as reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making two versions of this piece. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s use of photo-silkscreen, insofar as Holcombe here painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.
The Modernists: ‘…And Now I Unleash the Power of Pure Thought…’ (1970)
Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series, and such related images as ‘And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought’, pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.
California: A Study in Yellow (1974)
A fairly simple 1970s update of the device often used by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, by which the subject matter of a figurative painting is de-emphasised in order to highlight more formal and abstract properties. In Holcombe’s version, it is unclear whether he intends the same effect to be experienced, or is more obliquely satirising aspects of formalism in art by producing an image that announces its own superficiality with the word ‘GLOSS’ hovering inside the frame on a somewhat exotic looking paint can. There may be a self-deprecating humour at work in that, by 1974, Holcombe was already making his own formally constrained Biological Camouflage images, which adhere to very strict and near-minimalist compositional rules.
THE READING ROOM (Miscellany):
The Reading Room (1951)
One of a relatively small group of surviving early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued.
Constellation: Coffee Lounge (1955)
Constellation: Shellac I & II (1955)
Constellation: Pump & Shellac III (1955)
Eduardo Paolozzi recalls a number of these small, square images being displayed “scattered across a wall with drawing pins, approximating the pattern of a particular star formation, possibly Orion or The Great Bear, but I can’t exactly remember. Holcombe had an idea that he might photograph and develop the images as negatives and present them in tiny light-boxes inside a darkened room, but nothing ever came of the idea to my knowledge”. The five images framed here are the sole remaining fragments of this unrealised project.
Study for ‘Performing the Curtain Rituals’ (1966)
Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series in Holcombe’s mid-sixties output, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors.
Comics Series I: The Birth of the Hero (1970)
Comics Series II: Confrontation on the Steps (1970)
Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series and such related images as The Modernists: And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought (1970), pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.
The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City (1969)
The Modernists: Our Price to You, Including Postage & Packaging! (1969)
The Modernists: The Last Supper (1974)
The Modernists: Sof-Set by Max Factor (1966)
Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the Holcombe archive.