Review | Berenice Sydney: Dancing with Colour at Saatchi Gallery

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SALON, Saatchi Gallery’s project space at its Duke of York’s HQ, is currently showing Dancing With Colour, a presentation of works by the British artist Berenice Sydney (1944 – 1983).

A peer of British artists such as John Hoyland and Trevor Bell, Berenice Sydney was born in Esher, Surrey, in 1944. A prolific artist, she produced a substantial body of work and participated in over 40 exhibitions both in Britain and abroad, before her sudden death shortly before her 39th birthday in 1983.

Untitled, 1983, Oil on Canvas

Where other artists of her generation have gone on to see their works recognised by both art history and the secondary market at auction, Berenice’s (as she was professionally known) place within the canon of modern British painting, whilst assured, has until now been relatively unremarked upon. Dancing With Colour sets out to address this oversight and bring Berenice’s work – already in the collections of Tate and the V&A – to the attention of a wider public.

Like many artists of the period, Berenice was a larger-than life personality, and her art and creative life are evidence of her vital spirit. The daughter of the documentary filmmaker Joseph Sydney Frieze, from her early years she studied ballet with Marie Rambert and classical guitar with Adele Kramer. As an adult, she trained at the Dance Centre in Covent Garden and attended flamenco dance studios in Hampstead and New York City.

Berenice enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design but, believing herself temperamentally unsuitable for formal art education, left before graduating to set up a studio in Chelsea and was soon exhibiting. One of the most expressive and original artists working in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s, her oeuvre spans paintings, drawings, prints, children’s books, costume design and performance.

Comprised of a dozen or so large-scale paintings in oil, as well as a selection of prints, Dancing with Colour is organised in a loosely chronological fashion and sets out to articulate the notable fluency of form and movement in Berenice’s work, which stemmed from her lifelong passion for music and dance.

Early paintings from the mid-1960s draw on the work of Matisse and Picasso and reflect the influence of the fauvist and cubist vocabularies that were central to Berenice’s practice. An Untitled work from 1966 bears obvious stylistic reference to Matisse’s 1909 masterpiece, The Dance, with its frieze-like arrangement of twisting-shaped figures and bifurcated blue and green background that suggests grass and sky. Rather than wholly graphic, this monumental canvas has been rendered in almost translucent, washed out layers of colour that serves to enhance the composition’s oblique motion and heady sense of freedom.

Another large-scale painting, Lady Enjoying the Sun (On The Beach) (1966) is analytic cubism by way of Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns. In this work, Berenice has deconstructed a seaside tableau into a looping pattern of dark reds, blues and browns. With no obvious figuration, curving swathes of flesh-toned paint make reference to the work’s titular ‘Lady’.

In contrast to sensitive spacing of the life-size paintings, a selection of more diminutive prints have been hung Salon style, to emphasise their immediacy and simplicity of form. Works such as Psyche and Eros and The Three Graces, both from 1968, are part of a series of drawings and linocuts based on mythology that stemmed from visits to Greece and the Aegean islands in the mid-1960s, and were first exhibited at the Drian Galleries in London in 1968, to critical acclaim. Always experimenting, other prints evoke a Calder-esque riot of shapes in primary colours.

Three Graces, Linocut, 1968

As her style developed, Berenice abandoned figurative representation for total abstraction, in which geometric or freely composed forms created rhythmic and harmonious compositions. As is witnessed in an Untitled painting from 1983, the vortex-like linearity of these later works generates a dynamic structural frame that conveys a sense of aesthetic liberation and exhilaration – a painterly expression of life after the swinging sixties and pop revolution.

Drawing parallels with the work of Bridget Riley, Berenice had concentrated on these Op Art-like paintings in the early 1980s shortly before her early death from asthma and a heart attack while in her studio. In her own words, Berenice saw the vibrant use of colour as “the paramount means of expression” and these last paintings are testament to the artist’s inimitable creative joy and spirit.

As art institutions around the world are working to give forgotten women artists the recognition they rightly deserve, Dancing With Colour champions the work of Berenice Sydney, a brilliant colourist whose already successful career was, tragically, cut short. The show serves as a reminder of this exciting and productive period in modern British art history, and, as Berenice was influenced by classical mythology, so also is it a step towards creating her own.

By Susan Livingstone

Berenice Sydney: Dancing with Colour is currently on display at SALON at Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 4RY, until 8 July 2018

Images courtesy of the estate of Berenice Sydney