Sylvia Levine, 1911-1998

Sylvia Levine began to paint in 1956, when she was 43. She attended some life painting classes at what is now called the Royal West of England Academy – which housed the city’s first Art Gallery, in Queen’s Road, in the mid-19th century – and, when Levine attended, was known as the West of England College of Art.

Just after the War, this was a busy and dynamic College. By 1950, it was, as before, accommodated in its handsome, mid-19th century, Classical home, which had been occupied, during the War, by various official bodies, including the Inland Revenue. Amongst the teachers at the College was Paul Feiler, who had left Germany in 1933 and studied at the Slade in 1936-39. He was then interned in the early years of the War, but went on to teach at the West of England College, from 1946-75, becoming Head of Painting in 1960. In Levine’s time, it was his oversight of the life classes – where the Slade’s insistence on combining technical mastery with individual expression remained important – that proved very influential for many aspiring artists.

Feiler was not only a dedicated teacher of drawing. His paintings, too, seem to have been of great interest to his students. He was an admirer of the St. Ives School, notably the work of Ben Nicholson; in 1953, Feiler bought a studio near Penzance and lived and worked there for much of the rest of his life. Hence, his own painting reflected the impact of Nicholson’s Modernism, with its abstractions and subtle tonal harmonies - though the objective formality of Feiler’s pictures, in the early 1950s, was lent a somewhat Romantic personality, by the much-used, much-scrubbed, much-embellished, surface of his paint and the evocation of shifting light and space.

There is an echo of all this in Levine’s work. Nevertheless, the account of her time at the College almost always focuses on her rejection of instruction.

'Although untrained, she did go to classes at Queens Road… Apparently the tutors there from time to time would give her advice and she would accept it sweetly, tell them how wonderful they were and take not a blind bit of notice.'[1]

We also learn that, when she started painting, Levine went to an art supply shop, to buy her materials. There, she was given a palette knife, which she discovered she preferred to brushes. Furthermore, she apparently forgot to purchase canvas, and so she improvised by using cardboard from a cereal box, thus establishing her practice of painting in oil on card - which, of course, ensures that the paint, once dry, appears to have a receding, evanescent quality.

Without questioning the reality of Levine’s sense of being apart from the ‘official’ art world – of her ‘innocent eye’ – it is important to recognise the extent to which such a stance was, surely, a deliberate one. We should not overlook either the impact of her teachers in the 1950s – she was, after all, awarded prizes for her painting in these early years – or the fact that Ben Nicholson, whom Feiler admired so much, was the person who ‘discovered’ Alfred Wallis, in St. Ives, in 1928. The naïve directness of Wallis’s eye made a very considerable impact on the progressive art world from this time on. The paintings of Sylvia Levine thus had a ready and waiting audience.

Although never wholly abstract, Levine’s work – like Wallis’s – exists, as it were, in a snatched, and sometimes incoherent, moment, several moves from a more considered reality. The surfaces of her pictures reveal a preoccupation with manipulating the paint, creating a surface that is sometimes luxurious and gestural, often scraped, scrubbed, dry, rough and resistant. Her images include uncompromising portraits, where the figure or face is thrust close to the viewer, with a disconcerting lack of space and grace; or images of the natural world, where the scene is captured in a glance, as if by chance, side-ways, awkward, discomposed. Her colour has something of the child’s set of poster paints about it - often melded, even muddy, illuminated by a brilliant splash of green or ochre. In addition, this very personal art is lent texture, quite often, by a thread of humour – even the ridiculous – which confirms the child-like, ‘innocent’, quality of Levine’s work.

These paintings attracted positive attention quite quickly. This is not surprising, when we consider the emergent interest in ‘Outsider’ art after the War - an interest which suggests a reaction against the horrors endured by so many ‘grown up’, responsible, people, in the real world. Alfred Wallis may have been the first, but was, by the 1950s, by no means the only ‘outsider’. As early as 1959, the Tate received two paintings by Scottie Wilson[2], another ‘outsider’. The latter term was, in fact, coined in 1972, by the art critic, Roger Cardinal, who wrote, 'I believe that a paramount factor in the critical definition of the creative Outsider is that he or she should be possessed of an expressive impulse and should then externalize that impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization…'. And it was Cardinal who co-curated the first major exhibition of ‘Outsider Art’ in Britain, at the Hayward Gallery, in 1979.

During her life, Levine’s art attracted local attention and she, too, was curious about the paintings of other people. Even more significantly – and perhaps telling us as much about the RA's desire to be more inclusive in recent years as about the painter – her work was selected for the RA Summer Exhibition no fewer than seven times between 1977 and 1992.

In 1996, Levine shared a significant exhibition with Alfred Cohen at the School House Gallery, Wighton, Norfolk[3]. This suggests that Cohen (an American artist, resident in Britain) specifically selected Sylvia as an artist with whose vision he was profoundly sympathetic. This is interesting, as it demonstrates the extent to which her peers appreciated Levine’s art. Cohen was another ‘outsider’, who adopted the rich colour and assertive mark-making of early 20th century European art, but used this language to explore ‘the borders of abstract and representational art’, in compositions which display, ‘a deliberate naiveté that is charming but never cloying’[4]. His work remains, today, very influential, especially in America. And it is in the USA that Levine’s paintings can now be seen, in number, together with that of other British artists – including Alfred Wallis, Andrew Litten, Scottie Wilson and Albert Louden – in the celebrated Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art, Milwaukee (in 2010, the Petullo Collection was donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum and a selection is on display).

Levine’s work is both secretive and confrontational. It demands much from the viewer. It tells us a lot about ways in which the individual – the ‘outsider’ – can relish the world in a peculiarly private way. But - pick away at these curious paintings, and the naked vulnerability of all of us, the quiet delight or despair that each individual endures or celebrates so many times in a lifetime, will find an echo. It can be a revelation.

“Her paintings are always among the favorites of visitors to my collection … Her work has attracted a remarkably wide audience, including well-known American contemporary artists, curators, and art critics as well as first-time visitors to art exhibitions, an unlikely group to agree on art….”[5].

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Anthony Petullo, Art Without Category. British & Irish Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection, 2009, p.23, quoting Effie Romain, of The Art Garden Gallery.

[2] Wilson was an artist who, though a generation older than Levine, also embarked on his artistic career in his mid-40s.

[3] This was Cohen’s home for many years until his death in 2001.

[4] Marina Vaizey, art critic, 1972.

[5] Anthony Petullo, Op.cit., p.25.