Hastings Contemporary’s retrospective ‘Victor Willing: Visions’ is the first of its kind since the British artist’s death in 1988. It includes sixty-five paintings, drawings and sculptures spanning the entirety of his career. But to describe Willing’s work in this way, like the work of any other artist – with a beginning, a middle and an end – is to do so incorrectly. Willing’s artistic output has a beginning and it has an end, but it is missing a middle. It is because of Willing’s ‘stasis’, as John McEwan describes the decade-long period during which he stopped painting, that he has remained relatively unknown. But it is also what makes his work so intriguing. The show is spread across the various gallery spaces at Hastings Contemporary, which are separate and disjointed. Given Willing’s life and work, this seems entirely fitting.
The main gallery space downstairs consists of works from the 1970s and 80s. Large, vibrant canvasses, they include figurative elements – objects as diverse as carts, birds, feathers, chairs and pieces of meat – but are clearly concerned with 20th century abstraction as well.
‘Place’ (1976-8), a large triptych and the product of a hallucinogenic episode, particularly stands out. In their introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the curators note that Willing’s wife, the Portuguese-born artist Paula Rego considered it “the best thing Vic ever painted”. It is easy to see why. These three paintings, arranged so that the middle canvas is hung slightly lower than its neighbours, demonstrate Willing’s great ability as a colourist, but also as a master of form – somehow, disparate objects come together on the canvas in a way that creates something whole and completely unified.
As in many retrospective exhibitions, a decision has been made to show the work of other artists. These include a particularly good Michael Andrews, ‘The Deer Park’ (1962), alongside paintings by Paula Rego and Elisabeth Frink, and provide some sort of context as well as a bit of variety. But while they are interesting from an academic point of view, these works draw attention away from the incredible work of Willing, who is supposed to be the star of the show.
Upstairs, across a number of rooms and tucked away in various corners, paintings from both the beginning and the end of Wiling’s career are on display. Many of these paintings are striking and it is easy to see why Willing was considered a star pupil whilst at the Slade. ‘Nude (Triptych)’ (1959-60), is a work of particular energy and demonstrates Willing’s ability to use as much of a canvas as is necessary, but nothing more. His work is rarely, if ever, over painted.
Just a few paintings along is one of Willing’s final works, ‘Self Portrait at Seventy’ (1987), painted almost thirty years later. It is smaller in scale and is successful in showing the extent to which the artist had changed. By this point, he was creating works of a very different kind, but was also incredibly ill. Willing had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a number of years earlier and died in 1988. This final self portrait depicts a man who has become undeniably frail, but who still yearns for more.
Hastings Contemporary should be applauded for this retrospective of Victor Willing’s work. The exhibition that they have devised comprises excellent examples and is thoughtfully curated. It may be true that Willing does not warrant the praise and attention received by some of his contemporaries – it would be hard to argue that he is an artist in the same league as Elisabeth Frink, Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews or Craigie Aitchison – but he is certainly deserving of more attention that he has received in the last few decades. Hopefully this exhibition will bring him that attention and mark the start of greater interest in his work.