‘I’m very much a formalist’, Paul Mount points out firmly. It’s not a fashionable claim; there’s not much formalism to be found on Turner Prize shortlists. And yet, you could argue, form is the basis of more or less everything, and certainly is crucial in all the arts.
‘I like form for its own sake’, Mount goes on, ‘Whether it’s in sculpture, design, music, architecture or painting.’ Indeed, in the course of a long career, he has worked in several of these areas himself. Mount is a painter as well as a sculptor; some of his sculpture is virtually architectural in scale – including one, in concrete, comprising an entire wall of what is now the Swiss Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria. He has also produced designs for furniture and other areas of applied design, such as signs.
‘I find in all the arts there is a basic design structure. If you are a designer you can design in almost any medium. It’s all the same. Of course, in the Renaissance, sculptors and painters designed whole buildings.’ That is another assertion that you don’t hear very often these days. Yet it was true of many periods in the past – the age of the Romanesque and baroque, for example – and also the era of high modernism into which perhaps the early career of Paul Mount belongs. A chair by Gerrit Rietveld belongs in the same formal world as a painting by Mondrian; Mies van der Rohe’s architecture is visibly, though more distantly, related to the paintings and sculpture of Ben Nicholson.
Picasso was famously dubbed a ‘painter/sculptor’; Paul Mount could be described as a painter/sculptor/designer. He remains interested in the integration of sculpture and architecture, which he finds fascinating in the Romanesque, and also in the work of the Spanish-Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (which has an evident affinity with Mount’s own).
In Mount’s career, one art and medium has led to another as chance and circumstances developed. His interest in stainless steel as a medium – also a favourite with early modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Brancusi – came about in an entirely practical manner. ‘I had a contract to design a swimming pool – which never came to anything in fact – but it got me interested in stainless steel, because for this project I knew I’d have to use something that didn’t corrode.’
But once he had started to use stainless steel, he became aware of other properties apart from its immunity to rust. The most obvious of those is that its shiny surface is, in effect, a mirror. Consequently, looking at a work in stainless steel is an entirely different experience from viewing the same forms in, say, concrete or iron.
When looking at a sculpture in this material, you see yourself, and the whole world, as in a looking glass, but wonderfully altered by the curved planes of the piece – and not just the world, but also other parts of the piece itself. ‘By juxtaposing the parts of the sculpture’, Mount points out, ‘you can build another virtual sculpture inside it with reflections.’
Several of the works in this show have a central opening or, like Pentegg, are made up of two separate forms which face each other. In the case of Ewigkeit a single ribbon of metal twines around itself. All of these naturally reflect and reduplicate themselves as well as everything around them. The reflections on the surface of a work such as Entente amicale seem as fluid as those on rippling water, but the piece is sharply defined like a piece of highly engineered machinery. It’s a beguiling and also enigmatic combination.
Modern science suggests there might be something more fundamental in the analogy between the arts. Rhythm, for example, seems to be a human universal, as readers of Oliver Sacks’s new book Musicophilia will learn. Indeed, the capacity of a group of people to hold a beat – dancing, playing instruments, or merely tapping their feet together – is one ability, perhaps the only one, that distinguishes homo sapiens from other creatures. So Mondrian was not just being whimsical when he named an abstract painting after a recording of blues piano, Broadwayboogie-woogie. Pictures and buildings can have rhythm as well as form. Indeed, it might be difficult to have one without the other.
Paul Mount is a musician, and a glance at some of the titles of his sculptures and paintings past and present – String Quartet, Chaconne, Sextet, Il Trittico, Rondo, and one mobile named after Erik Satie’s work for piano, Gymnop é die – indicates to what an extent he has music on his mind.
‘Music is very important to me’, he confirms, ‘I played the organ, and if you play the organ you have to play Bach.’ The compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, with their interplay of themes and parts, provide a good analogy for the contrapuntal complexities of some of Mount’s work. He once named a painting after Bach’s A Musical Offering. One of the beautiful stainless steel pieces in this exhibition of new work is named Spectre de la rose, presumably in homage to the song of that name in Berlioz’s song cycle Nuits d’été .
It was not only Mount’s interest in stainless steel that arouse from practical design. His interest in sculpture originally came about in the same way. In 1955, when he was in his early thirties, Mount left Britain to take up the post of Director of the Art Department at YABA Institute of Technology in Lagos. It was there that he began to sculpt, and it happened – as he tells it – logically enough, but by accident.
‘ I went out to Nigeria as a teacher. The difficulty was that I found it hard to get students, and so to make up numbers some of the wives of colonial people came to the classes; one of them was the wife of an architect. He came to the house and saw some of the furniture I had designed; he liked it and immediately gave me a commission to design for all the airport buildings.’
In those days, one senses, that part of Africa was a land of opportunity – more so, perhaps, than post-war Britain. ‘It was an exciting period in Nigeria, it was the time of independence and there was a lot of new building. They needed interior design and everything that went with it. Then gradually I became more focused on sculpture.’
This scope to design a whole environment – designs, furniture, signs, sculpture – was exactly the role the early modernists of the Bauhaus envisaged for the visual arts. In another way, Mount’s career intersected in Nigeria with the previous history of modern art. African sculpture, especially West African work, had been an important source for early 20 th-century Cubists and Surrealists.
Paul Mount found himself learning the practical techniques of the art from a local artist. ‘When I first went out to Nigeria I wasn’t a carver or a sculptor at all, though I had done a little preliminary work in art school. So I found this chap who wasn’t any good at teaching but was a good craftsman and learnt the craft of carving from him.’
From the vicinity of ancient Benin and Ife, Mount returned to an area with its own distinctive and rather different place in artistic geography: West Penwith, the westernmost tip of Cornwall where he settled in St Just, not far from St Ives. Since the early 1940s this had been the home of a band of British modernists grouped around the painter/sculptor Ben Nicholson and his second wife, Barbara Hepworth.
Again as Mount tells it, this move was partly chance. ‘I’d bought this house in St Just as a pied à terre when I was in Africa, but when I came back I decided to settle here. Ben Nicholson had just gone when I arrived – I very much admire his work, there’s a sureness about his drawing that is incredible – but I knew Hepworth. Some of the earliest carvings I did were influenced by her work.’
There is an obvious affinity between the work of Paul Mount and that of Nicholson, Hepworth and other members of the St Ives circle. The rounded tripartite segments of Partage de midi in this exhibition, for example, have a distinct connection with Nicholson’s characteristic forms. On the other hand, there is a clear difference, too, in the polished, stainless-steel surfaces of Mount’s sculpture and its tendency to sharp, angular edges. Those are the signs of his individual sensibility and sources of inspiration.
Broadly, one might say that St Ives was where modernist abstract art met the British landscape tradition. Nicholson and Hepworth, and other artists associated with the area such as Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon, were much influenced by natural forms such as hills and rocks. Standing on a boulder-strewn Cornish beach you sometimes get the feeling that you are completely surrounded by natural Hepworths.
Mount, too, derived ideas from the landscape around him – ‘to some extent’. ‘I made drawings of rock formations’, he recalls, ‘and I used what I learnt from them in sculptures. I draw a lot of landscape, the forms of trees have always interested me, and I’ve spent a lot of time in France, drawing villages.’
He has also mentioned the movements of dancers – rhythm again – and flying birds as sources of inspiration. A piece such as Lozenge seems poised like a seagull on the wing. On the other hand, Pentegg suggests the splintered rocks and prehistoric standing stones of the West Cornish landscape.
Mount, however, had another source, which relates to a different modernist tradition. This emerges when he describes his sketching in the harbour at Newlyn. This had been a hunting ground for artists in search of ideas and themes since the 19 th century, when the so-called Newlyn School painted the boats and heroic fishermen in their sou’westers. But Mount found something there that had attracted no one’s eye before.
‘I did a lot of drawing in the harbour, not so much of the fishing boats themselves as the gear – I found that fascinating, and introduced a great many forms into my work that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. The shapes I got there I’ve used in both painting and sculpture.
‘I love machines’, he continues, ‘Some of the early iron sculptures I made were influenced by industrial equipment.’ An affinity for mechanisms is something Mount shares with an assortment of modernist and abstract artists – Ferdinand L é ger comes to mind – rather different from the St Ives group.
‘After a while’, says Mount – and he’s been making sculpture for a good while now, around half a century – ‘you get a very distinct feel for different kinds of shape. I suppose that is why you can distinguish one musician from another, for instance, or one composer. My instinctive preference is for more angular shapes.’
Of course, any formalist evolves a vocabulary of forms which are chosen intuitively, by instinct. One combination leads to the next. And, in some cases – the painter/sculptors, for example – one art-form flows into others. That personal sense of form is what gives Paul Mount’s work a delightful character of its own. Every true formalist, like Paul Mount, is also an individualist.
Martin Gayford, 2009