3 April 2019
John Armstrong (British 1893-1973) The Living and The Dead
John Armstrong (British 1893-1973)
The Living and The Dead
Tempera on board
Signed with initials and dated 41 lower right
52 x 74.5cm (20 1/2 x 29 1/4in.)
Collection of Lionel Fielden
Sale, Sotheby's London, 17 March 1976, lot 82
Acquired from the above by the present owner
London, The Leicester Galleries, The New Year exhibition, January 1942, no. 68 (where purchased by Lionel Fielden)
Andrew Lambirth, John Armstrong: The Complete Paintings, London, 2009, p. 177, no. 232
Painted in 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, The Living and the Dead is a blend of the Surrealism that Armstrong had been exploring in the 1930s and the symbolism that would come to categorise his later work.
Armstrong began his artistic career as a theatre designer in 1920s London whilst also pursuing his own painting. He had his first solo show at the renowned Leicester Galleries in 1928 and in 1933, he joined Unit One, a group formed by Paul Nash in 1931 to promote modern art, architecture and design. With this group, he exhibited alongside the likes of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Edward Burra, Henry Moore and Edward Wadsworth as well as Nash himself.
At the outbreak of World War II, Armstrong was appointed an official war artist and his earliest works from this period typically depict ruined landscapes and buildings, a theme which he had already explored to great effect in the 30s and to which his Surrealist approach naturally leant itself. As the war progressed, Armstrongs work switched between an underlying optimism with renewal rising out of the wartime wreckage to more melancholic depictions lamenting the destruction of modern civilisation. The inclusion of robed figures in a desolate landscape, such as in the present composition, is a recurring image in his wartime works. On the one hand, they appear dreamlike as if taken from one of Armstrongs set designs and yet their seemingly futile pulling and clawing alludes to the futility and powerlessness of ones actions in the face of the all-enveloping progress of war.
Armstrong was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1966. He died at his home in London in 1973 and a memorial exhibition was held at the RA in 1975. His work is held in numerous international public collections including the Tate, the Imperial War Museum, the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Gallery of Australia, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Pompidou.