Sister Wendy Beckett on Prunella Clough

Following her death in December, ArtReview revisits the critic’s writing from 1993

By Sister Wendy Beckett

Prunella Clough, Floral Episode, 1991. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Little-known by the general public, Prunella Clough has been admired by her fellow painters ever since the 1950s.

Many people find abstract art difficult; they cannot work out what it is meant to be. (“A picture of nothing, and very like!”). Equally, many people find figurative art difficult when it is deeply personal and idiosyncratic, as with Francis Bacon’s figures, say. The accusation here is that it is clear what it is ‘meant to be’, but the images are inept. Prunella Clough exposes herself, calmly and quietly, to both these responses. But between abstract art and figurative art there is often little to choose, as artists like Maggi Hambling have been arguing for years: real art transcends all categories and makes its effect through the sheer truth of its being. All we, as viewers, have to do is to silence our minds and cease asking the wrong questions. Floral Episode (1991) is neither abstract or figurative – or, alternatively, it is both. Prunella Clough paints from within her own personal certainties, intent only upon the integrity of the work. Patrick Heron has described her paintings as “machines for seeing with”. They alert us to the intricate fascinations of actuality, making a sort of visual poetry out of the commonplace. Clough takes the image and plays with it, not for the sake of ego-satisfaction but for the inherent potential that she has visualised.

Floral Episode is obviously inspired by the reality of the flower, and it is this reality that it lovingly questions. In a great expanse of faintly glowing light, three images are presented. The dominant image stands like the cross-section of a trench on the picture’s base – or does it? Closer inspection shows that this irregular wedge of darkness (black soil?) floats almost imperceptibly just above the base line. A dense and nuanced slice of coal-dark opacity, it is perhaps not what it seems. Maybe it is only presented as so irrefutable dark so as to emphasise its radiant centre, the multi-hued lozenge of living growth that seems to throb within it. Out of the sombre, the static, comes this glory of vitality. But it does not break the surface. Clough presents this brightness as essentially hidden. What is visible, springing not from the interior richness but seemingly unexplained and unmotivated from the impenetrability of the black surface, is a flower. Yet it is only a symbol for a flower, a faint emblem resembling nothing as much as a modern telephone. (Clough makes lovely jokes). Thick-stemmed, dull-coloured, the flower we see is wretchedly inadequate as a growth from the brilliance existing underground, unseen but believed in.

There is a third image floating alongside, pale pink with turquoise streaks: Bowl for the flower? Stylised leaf? The smile on the face of nature? We’re not meant to ‘work it out’, still less to draw conclusions as to what the seen/unseen, radiant/pale, readable/unreadable integration is intended to convey.

The three forms and their subtle background delight the eye and tease the mind. They are a whole, offering and experience to be moved through and then returned to. Clough’s work rewards our looking, our returning to look again, our silent investigation. The longer we consider Floral Episode the more it coheres and satisfies, the unmistakeable stamp of genuine quality.

First published in the October 1993 issue of Art Review