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During the latter half of his working life, Ceri Richards developed the idea that music could be employed as a ‘philosophy for painting’; to map the thoughts and intentions of his work. He was an artist who was innately influenced by the whole spectrum of the arts throughout his life, and for whom a chord of music had as broad artistic possibilities, and provided him with as many visual motifs and signals, as a line of poetry. His exploration of themes and suggestions always opened up a subject further as he sought for an image beyond the initial stimulus and sometimes well after the completion of a painting. It is for this reason that he so often worked in series.
The Cathédrale Engloutie paintings are the finest and most varied works in Richards’ career. From 1957 to 1965 his imagination became absorbed by Claude Debussy’s 1910 solo piano prelude of that name, which is full of impressionist harmonies and resonant chords. A keen and gifted musician, Richards had great insight into the artistic parallels between painting and music, not unlike Debussy himself, whose career was almost entirely concerned with the crystallisation of dreams and visions into sound. This work from that series show Richards investigating the potential of a particular motif on this mammoth theme.
Richards’ Cathédrale Engloutie series presents an original imagery which relates to the atmosphere of the music itself. He was not concerned in simply trying to illustrate the tale behind the prelude. That old Breton legend concerns the ancient cathedral of Ys, sunk beneath the waves as a punishment for an impious populace, rises briefly to the surface on certain mornings, its bells pealing, its organ resonating and its priests intoning their prayers. ‘My painting must create a sensation inseparable from the feeling I have about the subject from which it stems’, he remarked in 1963, thus demonstrating his artistic purpose as sensuous rather than illustrative. Linking the misty atmosphere of the music, the drama of the legend and his feeling for the natural world, in particular the Gower coast (scene of many childhood holidays), Richards’ semi-abstract compositions combine recognisable motifs and sensory allusions. This does not mean to say that all the pictures in the series are purely symbolic. Richards was as much affected by the visual appearance of a piano or a page of sheet music as the music itself, as demonstrated by this example of his collages and reliefs, where real bells and cut-outs of extracts from the score of the prelude act not as superficial decoration but as a metaphor for an imaginative world that he was exploring and feeling.
Richards paintings are a symbolic realisation of the themes of the prelude. In other words they offer visual equivalents of sonority and impressionist harmony. Debussy’s knowledge of acoustics allowed him to catch the sound of far-off bells and their overtones; most of their harmonics having faded en route to the listener. Similarly, Richards’ dizzying perspectives in these works suggest the sense of a distant fundament. There is a suggestion of profundity; reminiscences of masonry which the sea transforms into soft oceanic shapes; and the distorted feeling of height and depths through the perspective of the artwork - as the vibrant blue of the sea pulls the bells and the arches back downward. All these features are present in Debussy’s gentle ostinati and sustained chords. Richards created dramatic tension between light and dark in the way that Debussy used silences to punctuate his halo of sound. Above all, the skill of Richards’ draughtsmanship, in constructing unmistakable towering three-dimensional forms and geological strata in paint, matches Debussy’s weighty bass and percussive instructions.