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Victor Willing, Callot- Judge, 1983, oil on canvas © The Artist's Estate

Victor Willing: Callot-Judge (1983, oil on canvas, The Artist’s Estate).

Victor Willing retrospective at Hastings Contemporary

Victor Willing: Visions is the first major British retrospective of work by Victor Willing since his death in 1988. It is also the first gallery-wide exhibition at the new Hastings Contemporary. The 65 paintings, drawings and sculptures selected for display tell the story of a brilliant young talent at the Slade in the early 1950s, regarded by his contemporaries as the one to watch, writes Christopher Cormack


Victor Willing: Standing Nude (1955, The.Artist’s.Estate, Arts Council).

The handsome ‘star pupil’ had an easy way with portraits and nudes that made him a shoo-in for the prestigious first exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in 1955, but he searched for meaning and a more untrammelled approach free from the accepted techniques inculcated by the Slade.

Already by 1956 the artist presaged a future move towards more abstract reflections of his ‘visions’ with such paintings as Precarious Drag. Unfortunately, early critics did not receive the more abstract paintings well, recommending he stick to nudes, an unaccustomed rebuff that set back Willing in his quest.

By this time he was married to renowned artist Paula Rego, also a student at the Slade, who had returned to her father with Willing’s baby daughter; Willing followed her to Portugal soon after and spent what looked like happy years under the wing of a hospitable father-in-law in Ericeira on the Atlantic coast near Lisbon. Having time to paint and draw did not make this a prolific period of his life – he was concerned, perhaps over-concerned, with meaning in his art and destroyed many works when he did not identify that meaning.

Eventually he became more comfortable with drawing, then painting from the visions he saw on the walls. He rationalised this to his friend, the art critic John McEwen: “Lay people always tend to stress the importance of training; no, the difficulty is to do something exclusive to ourselves,” he said. The visions reflected his personality: “Nobody else has our dreams.”

Victor Willing Swing.1978 The.Artist's Estate Pallant House Gallery Chichester on loan

Victor Willing: Swing (1978, The Artist’s Estate, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, on loan).

Childhood angst

When meaning was to be found, an appropriate title usually arose. Some visions clearly arose from childhood angst, as was made explicit in an abstract painting entitled Mother (1980). Willing indicated angst-inducing punishment from his mother; he was hung up by his clothes on hooks on the inside of a cupboard door and locked into the darkness.

His precocious facility for drawing and painting must have proved a considerable solace in his childhood near Alexandria in Egypt, where his father was in the army.

“All my life, I’ve tried to recapture the intense pleasure in painting and drawing that I had as a child, when I did battles with people going ‘Aaaarrgh’!” Willing told John McEwen.

‘Precarious’ is a way to describe the feeling and personality behind many of his future paintings, but it was significant hardship caused by watershed life events in 1966  that brought nuanced conclusions as to what it means to be an artist. In the year that was to change everything, his own father and his father-in-law died, while he identified the nascent incurable multiple sclerosis in him that would bring his premature demise.

He took over the management of his father-in-law’s electronics business, for which he was ill-equipped, at a time when Portugal was heading for revolutionary chaos. By 1974 he had to leave Portugal for England with Paula Rego and family bringing what little they could salvage from their remaining belongings.

Victor Willing Self Portrait 1957.The.Artist's Estate

Victor Willing: Self Portrait (1957, The Artist’s Estate).

Recurring theme

Precarious piles of geometric three-dimensional shapes is a recurring theme in Willing’s later works, as in Callot – Judge (1983 (see main picture) which was inspired by Jacques Callot engravings of the miseries of war. Another recurring theme, marooned looking boats, might reflect the precarious life of an artist with no easy income or guarantee of a square meal.

Precarious his life might have been, but it was at this time that he produced some of his best work and gained recognition from, among others, Nicholas Serota, according to whom: “Here was an artist who seemed to spring fully formed, from nowhere. In one exhibition at AIR Gallery in 1978, I had been struck by the psychological complexity of his haunting images.”

In the 1980s Willing’s MS progressively worsened, such that he finally needed assistance from an untrained carer, but it did not prevent him from producing a series of  amusing ‘heads’ to be found in the corridor leading from reception at the Hastings Contemporary. These culminated in Une Autre Femme after Matisse’s Une Femme a la Chaise.

“Since I knew it would be my last painting,” Willing said, “I didn’t want it to be gloomy, and a pretty girl would be a nice thing to paint. Matisse’s painting is absolutely delicious.” But his haunting swansong was his Self-portrait at seventy, an imagined decline, as he died at 60 and must have known he would not reach 70.

It is important that we examine the legacy of this great artist before it is too late. Victor earned the respect and friendship of a coterie of England’s great and good, including Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, Michael Andrews and Dame Elisabeth Frink. As described by his son, Nicholas, he was able to explain in concise words and images complex artistic concepts, reflecting his deep understanding of art and its historic development. Nicholas, as a professional filmmaker, has produced an interesting short film on his father which can be seen at the exhibition. It is a fitting accompaniment to his Paula Rego, Secrets & Stories (2017).


Victor Willing: Visions To 5 January 2020 at Hastings Contemporary,  Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings Old Town, TN34 3DW.

View more Victor Willing images in this video.



Posted 11:13 Thursday, Oct 24, 2019 In: Arts News

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