Peer Reviewed

Realism, Alienation, and Affective Distance in the Work of Prunella Clough

There is no gentle way into the later twentieth-century work of the painter Prunella Clough. It is, as this paper will argue, a difficult kind of realism, embedded in an obdurate poetry of form. But for the viewer of Clough’s visual work or the reader of her extensive notes and diaries, it is also a brutal appraisal of the world at mid-century through an uncompromising reassessment of the process of paintings. “Considerations. Pickaxe etc. Multiple object forms repetitive, why? Cf human forms in assembly” wrote Clough in 1958 at the beginning of a typed page of claims and questions that interrogate her evolving process and subject matter.[1] Written in a characteristic manner, at once telegraphic and peculiarly poetic, Clough is preoccupied here with the machinic and the depiction of mechanical form. She intertwines questions of paint: “warm red (madder) browns & clear Indians [yellows]. With green?” with concerns about composition and scale that also indicate anxieties about dealing with the logic of the machine and the processes under scrutiny. It is “almost meaningless without man or man-scale e.g. bicycle,” she speculates:

unless rendered if possible without ascertainable scale as equivalent of traditional landscape (evocative horizon etc) or aesthetic detail (factory objects of mere scrap-abs), or mere lime waste water eg where pipes which had made connection had to be killed (?this). What basic landscape forms remain to be used? What others . . . can be made significant? For “interior” [landscapes] e.g. yards question of man/object grouping & space organising. (Clough, note)

What we hear in this is Clough’s realization that the familiar, established structures of landscape painting are inadequate to this conglomeration of machines and their settings—“[railways] pylons etc (garages)”—and the complicated question of the “nature of man’s existing in this, gestures, invisibility (or dominance) etc.” In particular, the question of these conglomerations as “assemblies” recurs without resolution. Of her own “assemblies,” she writes: “Mine primarily Enclosed; also over-scaled by, extended by? Cf Rousseau jungle but organic advantages. Necessary to trust enlargement of ir-regular drawing of regular forms” and later adds: “Difference between man-standing, and man-doing; latter easier but less the intention? Also, re enclosed etc, not so” (Clough, note). The enigmatic mention of Rousseau might be read as a reference to what Robert Delaunay had called the “plastic unity” and “architecture” of Rousseau’s compositions in his 1952 study of the artist.[2]

The last few years of the 1950s were a pivotal moment for Clough’s painting. Her work had already made significant shifts, from a neo-romantic mode to what John Berger called “Machine Life painting” in 1953—a heavier, more linear and constructed manner in which Clough first took on factory subjects; usually men or women at particular machines, as in Printer Cleaning Press (1953) (fig.1).[3] But from 1958–1960 onwards, her work took on a more closely articulated abstraction, focusing on specific structures or objects in isolation and generating any remaining “landscape” from those structures themselves. Industrial Interior V (1960) demonstrates this, and also indicates where the tussles evident in her 1958 writing had led (fig. 2). Most obviously, it is over-scaled and enclosed: ascertainable scale is gone and abstracted detail dictates the organization of space. If anything is retained from traditional landscape, it is the raised horizontal plane on which sits the most detailed and densely painted area of subject, drawn attention to by small red highlights. But this textural interest is all but overcome by the heavy verticals that dominate the canvas. If the spaces between invite the viewer to look through, this becomes a looking in-between and around rather than an opening to a wider or spatially-deeper vision. Most importantly, the human form is gone. Which is not to say that Clough has wholly abandoned the question of how the human might exist in or with or even dominate this world or landscape or assembly; but that question is no longer addressed through the presence of a human figure.

Abstract of man working
Fig 1. Prunella Clough, Printer Cleaning Press (1953), oil on canvas, 91.6 x 56.3 cm, National Galleries of Scotland. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © National Galleries of Scotland
Abstract painting
Fig 2. Prunella Clough, Industrial Interior V (1960), Oil on board, 83 x 122 cm, Arts Council Collection. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

In her 1958 writing, although the question of the human form in these assemblies remains a concern, there is also an emphasis on perception. Machines, she writes that are “almost locally undifferentiated,” actually present quite differently according to the integration and familiarity of the viewer with the environment: “outwardly, : ventilators dust extractors hoists lamps; to the outsider hostile: spikes glass wire; to the insider accepted? Unseen though instantly assimilated” (Clough, note). The lack of specificity in the title of Industrial Interior V, combined with the ambiguities of scale and function, render this machinic landscape if not hostile exactly then certainly strange. And not strange for itself; that is to say that the composition has a coherence within the hermetic confines of Clough’s arrangement—but it is a disorienting and strange experience for the viewer.

It is under, or through, this strangeness that objects increasingly assert priority in Clough’s work. On the one hand, these objects or assemblages of objects engage with the alienation associated with the increasing independence of objects as commodities under capitalist value systems in the twentieth century. Tracing the evolution of the alienated object in Clough’s painting, and placing in conversation with the objects of Nouveau Réalisme, this paper argues that Clough’s work has an intricate and not always critical relationship to the commodity, to labor, to the inventory, and to the aesthetic reification of the object.

On the other hand, this same priority and strangeness surrounding the object, which is exacerbated as Clough’s work becomes more abstracted and increasingly focused on found objects or extracted object-details in the 1970s and 1980s, speaks to recent debates around “stuff,” things, objects, and affects. Such “stuff” is understood, as Maurizia Boscagli writes, to be “protean, volatile, always on the verge of becoming valueless while never ceasing to be commodified, awash with meaning but always ready to become junk or to mutate into something else.”[4] The inherent instability of this “stuff,” around which Clough’s aesthetic is oriented and on which it also thrives, is intimately linked to the shattered certainty of the atomic age. Clough may have abandoned the human figure in turning to these objects, but they assert an object-subject relationship that is closely bound up with the human subject and that, as Boscagli argues (and as we hear in Clough’s notes), radically recasts questions of human and material agency. That this takes place within the painted world of the canvas in which these objects have already undergone mutation and transformation works, in Clough’s oeuvre, to “hold” the objects, their spaces and relationships, at a curious affective distance. There is no neat rapport for the viewer with the worlds of Clough’s later paintings, which, in creating a distance or estranged-space, turns the works toward alienation and indeterminacy.

This article argues that the renegotiation of the object in Clough’s work across her career charts a changing relationship with “things” in post-war Britain. Through an intensely-worked process—which also reflects her awareness of the multiple aesthetic experiments revolving around objects and things in British, European and American art—Clough’s painting evidences and engages closely with commodification while also moving towards a narrative of alienation that, in placing the viewer at a critical distance, turns her subject matter out of the ordinary and towards a stranger, at times even bleak, re-envisioning of reality. It is necessary to think beyond the commodity as understood by Marx and towards what we might term a post-commodity relationship with the “things” of capitalist existence. It is in all these ways, I want to suggest, and in the tensions that arise between them, that Clough’s work can be usefully thought of as engaged with a “social realism,” a label that has been applied to her oeuvre but which often sits awkwardly with the aesthetic detachment of her painting.

Post-war objects and loss

In Clough’s wartime and immediately post-war work, the object has a symbolic and often distinctly melancholic weight. When war broke out in 1939, Clough had barely embarked upon a career as an artist and indeed remained ambivalent about turning to painting full time even after the war. Her indecision—between the isolation of the painter and commercial art offices (positions in which she had been offered following her war work as a draftsman for the military railways section of ETOUSA), as well as between the freedom of time to paint and the structures of salaried work—reflects a more widespread anxiety about a demobbed existence and an unknown “new world.” Clough’s work in this period negotiates a position between an established neo-romantic rhetoric and something more distinctly unsettling. This can also be heard in Clough’s poetry (which in many ways follows that of her father, Eric Taylor-Clough). Frances Spalding has noted that Nocturnal Landscape, a watercolor from 1946, can be read as a visualization of Clough’s poetic verse, which is fascinated with the haunting images of debris, fossilized or dead objects (fig. 3).[5] In particular, Nocturnal Landscape echoes her poem Fragment, in which she writes: “Now mortal nightfall seals /  a translation effected;/ the chilled vein of the wave / is cold perfected,/ and bone unfleshed reveals / death’s architrave.”[6] And yet the watercolor, with the spiky, almost spirographic motif in the sky which appears too explosive for this poetic vision, also resonates with an entry in her notebook in 1944: “Enormous V2 as I shut this book. . . . Long sinister reverberations of explosion competing with rumble sound of its down-journey, slow to arrive.”[7] Nocturnal Landscape encapsulates both the violence of explosion and the strange slow inevitability of approaching death that was characteristic of the V2.[8] In reference to artistic expression in this period in Britain, Clough would later write of how isolated from European influences British art was. Hence, she adds, “the over-influence of people like Jankel Adler . . . I admired and liked [Robert] Colquhoun; the mutual influence was probably Wyndham Lewis in a diluted way.”[9] Something of this diluted Lewis, and the angular planes and Vorticist sense of spatial-confrontation, can be read in the explosive motif in Nocturnal Landscape. As with the overtones of her father’s poetry, Lewis was also a reference to the older generation in Clough’s life—he had been a contemporary of Clough’s aunt, the designer Eileen Gray, at the Slade in 1902. 

Landscape in black and white with star
Fig 3. Prunella Clough, Nocturnal Landscape (1946), Victoria & Albert Museum, London. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Images

At the same time, the ways in which Clough describes the V2 in her diary and the transmuted properties of the object in Nocturnal Landscape and the wave in the poem approach the kind of metaphoric aesthetic practice Paul Nash described in 1940:

[w]e are not studying two fallen trees that look like animals, but two monster objects outside the plan of natural phenomena. What reference they have to life should not be considered in relation to their past—therein they are dead—they now excite our interest on another plane; they have “passed on” as people say. These now inanimate natural objects are alive in another world.[10]

Something of this is true of Clough’s 1946 painting The White Root and of Dead Bird (1945–6) (figs. 4–5). The titular objects are central to each composition, and are arrayed—in both cases on altar-like wooden structures—to imply this new significance within the painterly space. Nash’s reference to the monstrous is relevant; these dislocated and ravaged objects taking on an unnatural form. Despite this, however, these objects are not revivified as they are in Nash’s more overtly surrealist transformations—in, for example, Monster Field (1938) or the photomontage Swanage (c. 1936) (fig. 6). Instead, the inanimate deadness of the white root is foregrounded, with its blasted-whiteness that suggests bleached and bone-like driftwood. Although there are indications of a wider space to the left of The White Root in the horizon and bow of a boat, the construction around the white root operates as an intense interior, painted in closely-connected shapes and planes that recall Clough’s mention of Jankel Adler. Adler, a Polish artist who had fled to Britain after the Nazis declared his work degenerate and moved to London in 1943, painted in a style reminiscent of cubism with a strong linearity and an emphasis on flattened objects and shapes. Adler’s still-lifes, such as Interior, painted in London in 1944, have an anxious tension and dark ambiguous forms interject in the domestic space.

Painting of driftwood
Fig 4. Prunella Clough, The White Root (1946), Tate Galleries, London. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Tate
Abstract of dead bird
Fig 5. Prunella Clough, The Dead Bird (1945-6), oil on canvas, 48.3 x 34.2 cm, Manchester Art Gallery. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Manchester Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images
Photo montage of different bones and rocks
Fig 6. Paul Nash, Swanage (c.1936), photomontage, Tate Galleries, London. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Tate

Adler also used an abstracted image of a bird, which he once defined as a “Totenvogel” or bird of ill-omen, or literally “bird of the dead.”[11] Adler’s fragmented abstract forms, which had been a way of representing the destruction he witnessed in Europe, became increasingly replaced by the bird as a witness and mourner of that destruction and in particular of the devastation of the Holocaust. Clough’s flayed bird, a ghastly jumble of bones and feathers, stands similarly for her own experience of war—of the Blitz and of the loss of numerous friends (Clough would later write of her desire to be free of ghosts). She first considered the subject in May 1945, writing of a “second seascape—cf the simple concept, crucifixion or dead pigeon, but not yet disturbing. I suspect the whole idea but can only settle it by doing the canvas—a bad alternative perhaps.”[12] Clough’s awareness of Adler’s oeuvre through several exhibitions in London, as well as her admiration for Graham Sutherland’s romantic symbolism and her recent experience of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c. 1944) in April 1945, all resonate with Dead Bird.

Birds, and the bird carcass, appear again in Untitled, an undated pen and wash study from the 1940s (fig. 7). The white bones of the carcass are picked out in chalk against a dense cross-hatching, and here set within a mausoleum-like building incongruously placed on a beach or estuary scape covered with structures that resemble Clough’s studies of beach defenses during the war. Under these structures fly two birds. The way in which the composition moves across the page in this image is Nash-like and very different from the static objects of Dead Bird and The White Root. Here, Clough uses different effects in a manner that prefigures her later dislocation of painterly or graphic effects or motifs within the same canvas. But in Untitled, they remain linked by a processual sense generated in the shifting ground that merges paving, water and mud or sand, and in the way the cloud wash, birds, and standing structures almost march towards the foreground. The structures echo the bones of the carcass, and have an emptiness that is close to Isabel Rawsthorne’s existentialist work from this period, in which the skeletons of birds intersect with linear frames inspired by Giacometti’s walking figures.

Landscape with lines
Fig 7. Prunella Clough, Untitled, 1940s, pen and wash and crayon on paper, 25.3 x 35.4 cm. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022.

What these comparisons show is Clough’s exploration of various modes of representation in the aftermath of war. Interestingly, although melancholy pervades her diaries and paintings during this period, her interest in her own work and in that of others remains largely formal. Her writings lack any engagement with the politics or threads of ideas from which the work of Rawsthorne, Sutherland, Adler, and Lewis arose. The exception is her reception of symbolism. Clough was also reading Paul Valéry’s poetry at this time, and it is the idea of transformation of meaning within an object that defines this period. It also anchors her work to a particularly British neo-romanticism, or as she put it “an essential romanticism [in English art] . . . with added elements of theatre” (Spalding, Prunella Clough, 28). This romanticism consists of a core sense of longing for something other or something lost. And for Clough it is objects—even the live bird rendered as an inanimate object—that can stand for this intersection between the immediate and the desired or, in the case of the bird, the lingering dread of the past. In the winter of 1946, Clough wrote that she felt her subjects were to be found “in the detailed, the dilapidated, the exceptional and the laws of their transformation.”[13] At this stage, then, the object remains as a transitional tool in meaning; something that can mediate, and turn both outward towards the world and inward. And, as such, it negotiates loss and the intrinsic uncertainty of the post-war world.

However, if Valéry’s belief in the intrinsic meaningfulness of the symbol itself and the necessity of using language (or imagery) in a suggestive and evocative manner in order to generate a profound aesthetic experience had influenced Clough in this early post-war period, then there is an almost immediate reactive hardening of the object in her work and a move away from this symbolist aesthetic by 1950. From the mutability of Untitled emerges an immutable object, already hinted at by the white root and dead bird, which begins to establish the underlying exploration of the industrial and the commodity that would shape Clough’s formal experimentation hereon. As Catherine Spencer observes, Clough’s oeuvre from the 1950s onwards can be read as a sustained meditation on the gradual movement from an industrial to a post-industrial economy in Britain.[14] The melancholy and loss of the post-war years is, to a degree, translated into an alternative narrative of decline amidst prosperity—and yet, at the same time, Clough’s work began to resist such narrative trajectories and insist instead upon the immediate existential presence of the object-world.

This immutability can be seen in an early 1950s work, also called Untitled, which depicts the edge of a cranelike structure and a ventilator (fig. 8). In stark contrast to the fluidity of Untitled (1940), or even the thinner painterly planes of Dead Bird, in Untitled (1950) large unwieldy objects are heavily outlined on an impastoed surface. These objects loom immovably, and their static presence is echoed in the treatment of the surface and especially in the space between the objects (almost a sky-space, but not quite), which has been painted in layers and scraped back, and painted again so that oil has accrued in patchy build-ups of facture. It is also an immutability that reinstates the object itself as the “problem.” In this problematic sense, Clough’s turning away from the symbolic object can be read as concurring with György Lukács’s 1936 argument that symbolism is an acknowledgement that things no longer have immanent meaning. In the face of this loss, Lukács writes:

objects can then acquire significance only through direct association with some abstract concept which the author considers essential to his view of the world. But an object does not thereby achieve poetic significance; significance is assigned to it. The object is made a symbol.[15]

But where, for Lukács, this shift to symbolism is the result of the “loss of the narrative interrelationship between objects and their function in concrete human experience” (the alienation of the commodity) and therefore generates a loss of artistic significance, Clough is moving in the opposite direction (Lukács, Writer and Critic, 131). She moves from symbolism towards the concrete existence of the object, turning away from the symbol to concentrate on the object itself, challenging it to have artistic significance. This is not to say that Clough’s aim is to reforge the relationship between the object and human experience in a Marxist fashion, nor necessarily to alert the viewer to this loss—although given that her subject matter shifts to factories and factory workers, it might reasonably be thought that this was a part of her project. Instead, as the next section will argue, these hardened, mutable objects engage the object world as it is. To an extent, then, Clough’s work retreats from symbolism towards, perhaps ironically, an aesthetic reification of the object. But it was also, for her, a way of closing the door on extended and melancholic associations, and of making work that forcefully occupied the present.

Abstract with chair
Fig 8. Prunella Clough, Untitled, early 1950s, oil on board, 53 x 30.5 cm. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022.

Machine Life painting—realism and Berger/David Carr

Reviewing Clough’s exhibition of thirty-seven new paintings at the Leicester Galleries in 1953, John Berger wrote that:

it is quite possible that her new pictures—mostly of lorries, lorry-drivers, machines and cranes—will not be popular. Those who expect colour to be an essentially exotic visual element will say that her work is drab, and prefer her earlier, “dreamier” canvases. Those who have not come to terms with the machine will say that it is inhuman. Those who believe that originality is the prime virtue, will say that she relies on a formula.[16]

Although Berger quickly follows this with the assertion that in each instance the opposite is true, in actual fact these three approaches to Clough’s canvases of the early 1950s are helpful. What Berger is describing can be seen, for instance, in Telephone Engineer (1950) and Printer Cleaning Press (1953) (fig. 9, fig. 1). In both works, the figure of the titular worker is cocooned within the machine (there is a hint of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill in Clough’s compositions), as if an inseparable part of the mechanical environment. This is achieved both by the forms and colors of the paintings. There is, as Berger notes, a debt to Fernand Léger’s cubist/tubist style in the abstracted but nevertheless clearly demarcated parts of the machinic structures and in the way the forms of the human figure are treated in the same machinic manner, but where Léger’s use of vibrant color signaled an embrace of the dynamism of technology, Clough’s tight and muted palette is ambivalent about the reality of the machine.[17] Like Léger (see for example The Builders, 1920), Clough treats the figure and machine equally: despite Berger’s attempt to read a deeply human interest in the machine in Clough’s work, it is rather his comment that “her best paintings . . . have the tension and the integrity of purpose of working models” that speaks to this equitable treatment of human and industrial materialities, and to the detachment with which Clough treats these subjects (Berger, “Machine-Life Painting,” 454–55).

Abstract of working man
Fig 9. Prunella Clough, Telephone Engineer (1950), oil on canvas, 79.2 x 51 cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery.  © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: ©Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections

Berger’s title, “Machine-Life,” which reflects his reading of Clough as “fundamentally a still-life painter,” also chimes with the work of the painter David Carr, whom Clough met around 1947 and with whom she formed one of the closest relationships of her life until his death in 1968. In works such as Man and Machine XV (1955), Carr was exploring a similar aesthetic, but where Clough’s machines remain solid and immovable, Carr creates a new dynamic form in the conglomeration of figure and function—an often spiky, piercing form that again recalls the angular momentum of Wyndham Lewis’s vorticist work (fig. 10). Writing to Clough around 1950, Carr claimed that “persistent thinking on mechanisation has given me a personal philosophy and understanding that I never used to have. It has taken me to curious mechanical places, exhibitions and factories that I should never have thought of visiting as a painter of still lives.”[18] The idea that technological emphasis of the post-war world was reshaping artistic genres was important to both Carr and Clough. This was not wholly novel of course: it had been a recurring theme in British and French modernism, as can be heard in Léger’s comment in 1933 that “the contemporary environment is clearly the manufactured and ‘mechanical’ object; this is slowly subjugating the breasts and curves of women, fruit, the soft landscape.”[19]

Abstract including face
Fig 10. David Carr, Man and Machine XV (1955), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 50.8 cm, The Ingram Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, London. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Ingram Collection of Modern & Contemporary British art / Bridgeman Images

Thinking of Clough’s machinic paintings in this period as still life illuminates the object in various ways, and in particular in relation to the idea of “realism.” It is the “stilled” nature of life in works such as Industrial Plant II (1954) that engages the viewer with the forms themselves, and also with their interaction within the canvas (fig. 11). In this, Clough’s machines resist the kind of snowballing of causation that Samuel Beckett argued created a false consistency in nineteenth-century French realism—specifically the novels of Honoré de Balzac. For Beckett, a focus on the surface details of causal relations between things is merely a way of ignoring, or sidestepping, the incomprehensibility of the “real.”[20] At the same time, in Industrial Plant II Clough also avoids the kind of irrelevant or insignificant details that Roland Barthes proposed underpinned realism by mimicking the apparent arbitrariness or contingency of material reality.[21] But if the reality effects of detail or causation are gone, what kind of realism can Clough’s work claim? The intersection between abstraction and still life is key here; in Industrial Plant II, the rounded housing of the industrial vent is not described by the curvilinear forms that occupy the center of the canvas—it becomes these forms. It is transposed into a vocabulary of painted shapes that are, to an extent, inherited from cubist and surrealist uses of still life, but it is also a transposition that somewhat oxymoronically returns the painting to the reality of the object. These objects, in taking the place aesthetically of the usual stuff of still life, are claimed—by painting itself—as the “things” underlying the representation of contemporary life. Realism has been described as resting upon an ideology of things, and what Clough’s work states uncompromisingly in these paintings is the dominance of the machine-object in the post-war world.[22]

Exhaust pipe and sky
Fig 11. Prunella Clough, Industrial Plant II (1954), oil on canvas, 70 x 87.2 cm Arts Council Collection. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

The ideology that these machine-objects supports is that of alienation, and the depiction of “work” within these images is important to this. In Printer Cleaning Press the figure is subsumed into object forms that again assert themselves over detail or the depiction of causative processes. Even differentiating surface texture is annihilated in Clough’s patches of scraped grays and a merged off white that are used on both what seems to be a concrete building and on the stiff shirt folds of the worker. The effect of this integrated design and facture creates a very different image of “work” and the “worker” from that of the slightly earlier paintings Clough made of fishermen in Lowestoft. In Fisherman with Sprats (1948), for example, the two figures of the fishermen loom over their nets, shifting the emphasis onto the active relationship between the objects of their work and the subjects themselves (fig. 12). In this, there is a sense of connectivity that works against narratives of alienation both despite and because of Clough’s close palette and painted planes and shapes (not yet the demarcated outlines of her factory paintings), which tie the whole scene tightly together. Instead, in Printer Cleaning Press, despite the entities of the title, subject and object are bound so closely as to fuse the idea of work into one subject/object entirety. Ironically, then this closeness signals alienation—the subsuming of the individual into the industrial complex. Her note in the 1958 text discussed above, “Difference between man-standing, and man-doing; latter easier but less the intention?” also speaks to this move away from activity—from “doing” to a passive presence in what she phrased an “assembly.”

Abstract of two men
Fig 12. Prunella Clough, Fisherman with Sprats (1948), oil on canvas, 92.5 x 71.5 cm, Pembroke College, Oxford. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: ©Pembroke College Oxford JCR Art Collection

The objectification of the figure, combined with this passive human presence among Clough’s assemblies, speaks to an idea of alienation that begins with Marx but which in Clough exceeds the familiar narrative of the estranged commodification of society. For Marx, writing in The German Ideology in 1845, human identity was bound up with productive activity—and yet not wholly absorbed by it.[23] Under capitalism this relationship to productive action is distorted to the extent that instead of being a mode of life that defines an individual subject, it estranges the subject from herself and ultimately from society. Activity now falls under the system of commodity production and is no longer willful or conscious, but a necessary means of existence.[24] Clough’s integration of the figure into a machinic abstraction takes this estrangement to a new mode in which, as we have noted in relation to work, the industrial is the all-dominating form and structure. The critic Michael Middleton also stated this in 1960 when he described her dehumanized workers as

cast into anonymity by an identification with his labour or surroundings so great that it is not always easy at first to disentangle him: his feelings, skills, memories have been subordinated to his existence as a statistic, a producer of man-hours, a figure in a cloud of steam, the instrument and product of a pattern of society too complex for the old humanities.[25]

Despite various efforts in the literature around Clough, and although her muted tones might evoke a kind of a neo-Romantic longing, in fact her paintings do not dispel or work against this alienation. Instead her close palette and subsumed workers in repeated, hard to distinguish factory environments implies the kind of homogeneity and standardization that Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques have argued came to characterize post-war capitalist societies.[26] At the same time, although as already suggested her muted palette certainly avoids any technological celebration, it appears that her palette is more closely related to material reality of the factories and environments she was visiting, and to her intense aesthetic interest in those environments—her endless walks through London and photographs of urban details such as concrete pavements and brick walls testify to this. This aesthetic interest, and her tendency to “see” the landscape in terms of the painted canvas to come, can be heard in Clough’s notes. In a notebook entry titled “Cranes and Lorries” from 1957 she described cranes on a wharf as “jagged toothed form, grey on grey, sky metal = only latter with black lines etc. : light linear look. Taller crane swinging crates, pale warm. . . . All upper part cut by black vertical fence against wh. red truck crates . . . is cool greys squarish top with light warm crate tunnel more brilliant below warm echo.”[27] Both in recording her observations and in relation to works in progress, the form of Clough’s extensive notes—as well as the index cards with which Clough methodically catalogued her output—becomes increasingly inventory-like, a form that Anne Tsing has noted is, in its itemization and categorization, inherently bound-up with capitalist processing of the world and its contents.[28]

Both Clough and Carr knew and admired the painter L. S. Lowry, whose paintings offer a particular, and often romanticized, vision of the industrial north. But, as Spencer notes, when describing various works by Lowry that she had seen to Carr, it was the least human or most formally engaged that Clough lingered on, writing of “the lighter, more open of the two big ones—which has that good strip of shed tops at the moment and a railway arch. How inexhaustive, his invention is in such detail!”[29] That her interest was in the aesthetic, and not in the socio-political, was confirmed by Clough herself: in an interview with Bryan Robertson in the early 1980s, Clough denied that her interest in the industrial landscape had any moral or sociological dimension, adding, “It helps, perhaps, that so much of industrial material is already abstract. . . . It is because it is there, it is as neutral as that.”[30]

This already-abstracted world is placed at a distance by Clough, a distance that denies the viewer any kind of empathetic relation with the integrated figures or any kind of affective interface with the industrial world she depicts. It is a world that dismisses belonging of any kind, and that anticipates the kind of late capitalist erosion of affective materiality under which, as Boscagli argues, “both the subject and the object have become faceless and perfunctory prostheses of capitalist logistics and its demands for a smooth and rapid circulation of flows.”[31] Although Clough’s later abstraction of particular commodities will, at times, “shake up and contradict the monumental stillness that characterizes the commodity as well as the object valorized,” this period of industrial painting epitomizes that monumentality and immobility (Boscagli, “Objects to Stuff”). In terms of their affectual qualities, these paintings also strangely picture what Lauren Berlant has called a “habituated indifference.”[32] Instead of the modernist concept of “making strange” as a way of startling the viewer out of their customary ways of seeing, here we have the familiarity of estrangement written into the process of abstraction.[33] The figure is now taken as an embedded part of the industrial environment, and abstraction itself moves these works beyond Marx’s vision of alienation towards a new separation—that between the environment and its representation. To some extent, Clough’s work fetishizes, if not valorizes, industrial totems such as the monolithic forms of cooling towers as society moves towards the post-industrial—that is to say, as those objects become increasingly dislocated from production. This separation might also be read in relation to Clough’s own positionality here: as a painter with a private income she was able to occupy this liminal space of observation. By contrast, her companion on various visits to factories to draw, the artist Ghisha Koenig, turned deliberately away from abstraction towards the depiction of living, working beings—she strongly believed in the interrelation between life and art, and that the artist was very much a part of society and not outside it (Spalding, Regions Unmapped, 105).

The habituated indifference of Clough’s abstraction becomes a new vision of a post-industrial society. For Berlant, as for Marx’s understanding of alienated activity, this mode of detachment, this absence of “attachment” constitutes “the ongoing relations of sociality” (Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” 94–95). This brings us back to Berger, and his attempt to mitigate (influenced by his own Marxist-inflected interest in promoting social realism) readings of Clough’s machine-life painting as inhuman or formulaic. But this is the point: the detached objectification of Clough’s work is inhuman and operates not as a formula but in the manner of working drawings as if it is grounded by the logic of a formula. These, as ways of laying hold of society moving towards the new territories of the post-industrial, are the claims for a form of “realism” in these paintings. In one of her notebooks from the 1950s, under the title “Investigations into (mental) process,” Clough quoted from the poet Boris Pasternak’s autobiography Safe Conduct (1931): “Focused on a reality which feeling has displaced, art is a record of this reality.”[34]

Awkward facts and abstract objects

Displacement and reality take on a new concentrated form in the 1960s, as Clough’s work increasingly focused upon the micro-landscapes of the object itself, or to what she sometimes called “urban scraps” or, elsewhere, “awkward facts” (Spalding, Regions Unmapped, 158). In Urban Detail (1963) it is unclear what is pictured; the arrangement of two framelike structures, possibly hinged, that exceed the canvas suggests a fragment of an object, but the orientation between the two parts offers little illumination on what it is (fig. 13). The content of the lower frame has a densely-worked effect, scumbled even as layers of paint culminate in a textured surface of white striations and patches into which lines have been scraped to reveal a lower layer of dark gray. These lines are mainly horizontal, depicting leaflike or wood-effect shapes within which the horizontal trace of a figure stands. The top frame is dominated by a yellow stain over an equally worked surface of scratches and marks over and under white and beige patches—almost washes—of paint. There are minute echoes between the scratches and the scored lines, and two crosses; one a hand-drawn mark and the other a solid blue-gray cross set in a gray-white-blue circle that might be a button or a metal screw set upon the framed object or a part of it. The white that surrounds the “object,” and which, immediately, appears as mere ground is also a worked area including a partially visible motif on the right, which further unsettles the figure-ground relationship of the composition.

Abstract with yellow, blue, and large screwhead
Fig 13. Prunella Clough, Urban Detail (1963), oil on canvas, 64 x 76 cm, Government Art Collection. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Crown Copyright

Although the screw head, and the titular “detail,” gives some indication that this is a small object magnified, scale is disorienting here—as Clough predicted in her 1958 writings. Here, then, environmental experience gives way to the abstracted form, but “real” experience is not wholly evacuated as there is a new emphasis on the materiality of the object in the worked surface. Claire Shepherd has described how the materials of Clough’s subjects, as well as the disintegrative processes to which some have been subjected, are replicated in her process: from the building up of layers, not only of oil paint but sand, textiles, and found objects, to the partial removal of paint using sandpaper, paint stripper, or wire wool.[35] To some extent, though, Clough avoided these representative associations when she told Robertson in 1982 that “Nor can I avoid fighting with my own materials. The canvases get beaten up. . . . Every now and then I will pick up another kind of material to work from as a relief from canvas. I used formica for a few of the subway paintings because it was interesting to play around with a neutral, machine-made surface as opposed to the built-in connotations of the stretched canvas.”[36] What is interesting here is that Clough understands her materials to be always-already embedded in associations, but that these are to do with the histories of artistic process itself rather than referential indicators.

The detail, both in the sense of the subject and the materiality, of Urban Detail is phenomenologically compelling, but this does nothing to stabilize the image. In its lack of clarity, function or desire is denied. The “object” is nameless: one among many urban details that both constitute and are discarded from contemporary life. It has been retrieved in this abstract aesthetic, but to what end is also unclear. This is the kind of instability—or, I would add, oscillation between objecthood and aesthetic object—that Boscagli argues makes the conventional split between subject and object impossible (Boscagli, Stuff Theory, 3). It is an intimate encounter but simultaneously an estranged one: for the viewer it is not born of a knowledge of the subject/object, and neither does it yield knowledge. It is a somatic but not a semiotic encounter, and the heavily-worked nature of her surfaces speak to this material interaction.

Clough’s abstraction, then, yokes together an outward vision of a newly fragmented world with the inward intensities of a painterly process seemingly indebted to the formalist abstraction of the 1940s and 1950s and, at points, to elements of Art Brut and matter painting, especially to Antoni Tàpies. Works such as Urban Detail, or Mesh with Glove (1980, completed 1982–89) figure what Clough described as a “more disintegrated and therefore fragmented scene than the beginning of the century”—as opposed to Léger’s “profound optimism about life in cities,” she added, “I can only see a discarded glove in a factory yard” (fig. 14; Tufnell, Displacements, 43).

Abstract with paw print in concrete
Fig 14. Prunella Clough, Mesh with Glove (1980, completed 1982–89), charcoal and oil on canvas, 72.5 x 76.5 cm, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Clough’s move towards isolated objects—despite remaining wedded to painting—has affinities with wider interests in American and French art in turning towards everyday stuff as the site of a “new realism.” By the 1960s, as Natilee Harren writes,

the very term “object,” applied to a variety of neo-avant-garde practices, had come to stand for a new postmodern aesthetic. . . . The various turns to the readymade, literal, or decidedly unmonumental three-dimensional forms—by Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the Nouveau Réalistes, and artists associated with Fluxus, Pop, and Minimalism—established “the object” as a new aesthetic category, perhaps even a new medium for art.[37]

Clough’s work has not been compared to that of Nouveau Réalisme, but the claims I am making here warrant such an examination. It is also highly likely that Clough was aware of the work of this group through her multiple visits to see Eileen Gray in France during the late 1950s and 1960s.[38]

Marcel Duchamp and the readymade hover behind all these movements, and the revival of the readymade through Nouveau Réalisme contributed to Duchamp’s re-emergence in the contemporary art scene in the 1960s. However, for Nouveau Réalistes such as Daniel Spoerri and Arman (Armand Fernandez) the anti-art gesture of the readymade was inverted into a strategy that instead of maintaining a distinction between art and the everyday, brought them together.[39] As Ágnes Berecz points out, the importance of the found object to the Nouveau Réalistes meant that they rarely displayed mass-produced items on their own in the untouched and barely-used fashion Duchamp had done. Their assemblages orchestrated and fabricated what they had to hand—the non-selective everyday—and where in the readymade the object appeared as “ready to be used,” the object-based works of the Nouveau Réalistes “were presented as already used, and as such, already charged with aesthetic interest.”[40] This already-activated aesthetic interest, Berecz argues, also works against the indifference of the readymade—an indifference which, I would argue, preserves the commodity form in the readymades. In a work such as Arman’s Petits déchets bourgeois (1959) the material histories of the objects including their production and consumption are brought into play and into relational narratives (fig. 15). In this, there is a kind of revivification of the objects—in the case of Petits déchets bourgeois, right at the moment at which they are discarded from social use. Indeed, their discard becomes perhaps their most powerful narrative in the sense of what is traced by its abject remains.

Collection of garbage
Fig 15. Arman, Petits déchets bourgeois (1959), from the series "Poubelles," garbage in a glass box, 60 x 40 x 10 cm, © Fondation A.R.M.A.N. Image: © Arman Studio

However, this revivification does not necessarily work against the commodity-form; indeed, in one sense these objects and the way in which they have been recomposed or reconvened within the work of art to open spaces for implied histories and associative memories to interact between them speaks to Lukács’ understanding of “reification” as the next stage of Marx’s fetishized commodity.[41] For Lukács, the form which the commodity has acquired has become, beyond Marx’s analysis, the form of capitalist society as a whole, even the dominant form of objectivity itself. This is an increased level of alienation and fragmentation of existence that both Nouveau Réalisme and Clough’s abstracted objects figure in their isolation from any form of manufacture or process, and particularly in the absence of the human figure. Lukács described this reification as “stamp[ing] its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man; his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can ‘own’ or ‘dispose of’ like the various objects of the external world” (Lukács, History, 100). We can read Petits déchets bourgeois (whose title also points us in this direction) and Mesh with Glove as enacting this form of reification.

At the same time, situated within the work of art, these objects are arguably enclaved or singularized—hedged even, to use Arjun Appadurai’s analysis of the ways in which objects are diverted from their commodity pathway to protect another.[42] That is to say that they are extracted as commodities but made to “speak” in ways and in a setting that undermines the alienated “thingness” of the reified commodity. Arman’s found objects have to be understood both as commodities and as a narrative of contemporary society—which is a narrative of a reified existence told through the assembly of objects. The art work becomes a site in which these objects circulate between conditions, never settling on a particular form and both evading and embodying the reified commodity. According to Igor Kopytoff and Appadurai, this kind of fluctuation in the status of an object, which it could be said is at the heart of the realism of Nouveau Réalisme, ascribes a “life” or history to objects (Appadurai, “Commodities”).[43] But what it also makes clear is that these works of art are not revelations of some underlying, stable “reality.” Rather, they are interested in the ways in which the immediate—the found object, the commodity, the observed urban detail—constitutes the reality of the contemporary world.

The objects of Petits déchets bourgeois are both the subject itself and circumscribe or trace the trajectory of a now absent subject. Although branded items—such as Gitanes cigarettes, Le Petit Cleville Camembert, Hornimans Pure Tea—are visible, they do not occupy the razor’s edge between spectacular embrace and criticism that can be seen in Pop Art’s treatment of objects (which are often offered up either in their advertised form or, like the readymade, as “ready to be used,” or, more often, purchased). Instead, despite their origins in an actual trash can, there is a sense that these objects are the survivors. They are discarded but not gone, not reused or refashioned, but enduring in this mess of tissue, paper, plastics, and wrappers whose accrual in Arman’s work is both a parody of consumerism and a powerful intimation of the occlusion of the subject by the commodities that define it. 

In Clough’s Mesh with Glove, a discarded glove and a piece of wire lie on an uneven grid that sits upon and below Clough’s characteristically thin layers of paint, scraped back and added to, but never accumulating in the kind of thick painterly materiality that describes its own making. As Shepherd’s analysis of this painting shows, the work changed significantly between 1982 and 1989. In a photograph of an earlier for Clough’s 1982 exhibition at the Warwick Arts Trust, the glove seems to have started out as a handprint, with an outline suggestive of the glove. There is also a box around the glove, which Shepherd reveals was later removed by solvent leaving a swirling trace of residue behind. She also notes that the distinction between the glove and hand have been reduced in part by erasing most of the outline and by wearing down, scratching into and adding to the hand print by way of marks and blotches applied with fingers and brushes (Shepherd, “Clough’s Altered Paintings,” 294). The effect is to create a stronger impression of the glove itself as object, previously worn and now discarded. Here, then, Clough’s very process is a reifying performance, replacing the human with the object.

Positioned between a piece of twisted wire and a horseshoe-shaped tack, the glove is also discarded from the progress of social existence. But it is not enclaved in quite the same way as Arman’s objects, because Clough’s objects are inevitably also framed by abstraction and the material processes by which the idea of the found object is reached. However, Like Arman’s objects it is stymied; promising some kind of narrative as an object of memory but in the end revolving around the object itself and the objects around it. It enacts a kind of amnesia, the reworking of the objects and the surface adding to a materiality that generates a presentism that closes down former roles and stories.[44] To return to Beckett briefly, the glove and the wire resemble the kind of useless object that Beckett used not to advance the plot but to emphasize its absence.[45] This silencing of objects, linked to the resistance of the material world to legibility or productivity, could on the one hand be read as resistant to the hegemony of the commodity, but on the other, in this late capitalist moment, speaks more closely to the occlusion of the subject. This is no Benjaminian moment of auratic retrieval via the work of art, nor is it a recuperative one: the muted, close palette of grays is bleak and evocative of something lost, but this loss remains an ambivalent shadow behind the presence of the objects themselves.

Both the glove and mesh are recurring subjects in Clough’s work in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. This includes Glove (1979), a relief in which an actual working glove is attached with nails to a piece of hessian on plaster. Glove has an immediacy that Clough’s worked painterly surfaces inevitably lack, but even so the isolation of glove and the way in which it is framed against the hessian on a rectangular ground renders it an aesthetic object (fig. 16). Its aesthetic transposition within this space draws closer to the use of found objects in collage than to the arrangement of such objects by the Nouveau Réalistes. Seen in conjunction with Clough’s wider mesh and glove works the hessian, with its criss-cross structure, also takes up the question of the grid. As Margaret Garlake notes, the grid as a formal motif had been a much-discussed feature of Western art in the 1970s, and it would permeate Clough’s work for over two decades.[46] The grid, described by Rosalind Krauss as the armature of the organization of the depicted world, has been yoked to the idea of modernist autonomy and, according to Krauss, to “modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.”[47] Much of this can be seen in Clough’s work—from her photographs taken through fences in which the grid becomes both subject and an imposed perceptual device, to the roughly hewn lines of the mesh in Mesh with Glove. In Glove, the grid is “found” in the material world, and then re-erected in the vertical picture plane. Even as the hessian and the rougher version in Mesh with Glove mock the purity of the modernist grid (perhaps also a final way of leaving the logic of Léger aside), they are also devices that help to isolate the subject as aesthetic objects. 

Set against the mesh-grid, the relationship between the objects in Mesh with Glove is at once profoundly disorienting and—as with Urban Detail—materially compelling. The blurred marks and prints that make up the glove contrast with the comparatively elegant line of the wire that fades into a yellow blur at once suggestive of both energy and rust. The horseshoe-shaped print of what seems to be a tack is almost an irrelevance as it teeters on the edge of the fading grid. But as with the various blotches and scrapings and marks across the surface, relevance is hard to judge here: the surface is crowded with detail, but the compositional space nevertheless remains curiously empty. The main objects are dispersed, possibly held by the mesh, possibly seen through it—and this renders the whole space uncertain. The topography of surfaces like Mesh with Glove is static: the kind of energy that draws together such disparate elements in collage, for example in Kurt Schwitters’s work, is missing. Neither does Clough return to a neo-romantic inspired metamorphosis in which elements formally twist towards some kind of new relation.

The effect of this stasis is to emphasize the objects as left-over, and in this they resonate with the anxieties of the atomic age. A decade before, between 1964 and 1974, the British pop artist Colin Self worked on a series of images in which he sprayed etching resist around objects placed on an etching plate. This series, entitled 1000 Temporary Objects of Our Time recorded the traces of an object—what Self called “nuclear non-being.”[48] Self’s process, and the indistinct boundaries it created, drew directly on the images of thermal shadows left by an atomic explosion. While Clough’s painting was never explicitly about the atom bomb, her war experience which included a familiarity with aerial photography and maps suggests that the idea of remaining “traces” of structures and objects offers one way of reading the orientation of objects in the spaces of her canvases.[49] The dislocation of urban fragments in her compositions and their presence as remnants of an absent existence evokes this thread of “atomic consciousness” that permeated the cold war era.[50] Moving between the actual found-object of the glove and the scraped-away trace of it in paint, Clough’s oeuvre echoes the matrix of visibilities associated with the effects of the atom bomb—as does her stated preference for “the trace rather than the direct frontal confrontation or representation,” which also speaks to the way in which her objects claim their uncertain subject-object territory (Clough interview with Bryan Robertson, 1982, rpt. Tufnell, Displacements, 45). 

At the same time, the disorienting compositions of Clough’s objects in Mesh with Glove and Plastic Bag (1988) and the amount of mark-making that annotates her surfaces can be read—against the resonances of homogeneity and standardization in her unified machine-painting compositions—as indicative of the new characteristics of advanced capitalism (fig. 17). Britain, it has been argued, changed qualitatively but incrementally in the 1980s; diversity, fragmentation and differentiation had replaced homogeneity and standardization as society moved towards an increasingly “post-fordist” economy.[51] Setting the heightened abstraction of the alienation accompanying the shift from a goods to capital economy as the background to those works in which Clough directly deals with objects refigures these works as assemblages that contain multiple directions, even multiple presentisms.[52] The discarded glove and the drifting plastic bag are not images of economic growth but the waste of its progress, they are also a kind of capitalist salvage, the stuff of stories and actions and transactions that make up the actual every-day—in contrast to the kind of ironic/exultant objects made by neo-Pop artists such as Jeff Koons in this period.  Historians have argued that the “ordinary” or everyday had a new kind of unifying force in the 1980s (politically it became a key part of the unifying and aspirational strategy of Thatcherite rhetoric), but it enters the assemblage of Clough’s work as an uncertainty: is this a shared realism or nuanced fetishized detail?[53] Is it a claim for a reality that represents a rift with narratives of progress, or is it waste—salvaged by an art form that reifies it for the very ordinariness that restores it as a narration of the social reality it had apparently already exited?

Bag on concrete
Fig 17. Prunella Clough, Plastic bag (1988), oil on board, 107 x 79.5 cm, private collection. © Estate of Prunella Clough. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022.

In Plastic Bag, a red and white polythene bag drifts across a surface that is both pavement and wall—pavement if we understand the bag to belong to the scuffed and painted brickwork beneath, or wall if we read the surface as bricks, mortar just visible between them, spattered and partially painted with chalked graffiti towards the top edge. The plastic bag, then, is another of Clough’s objects, disconnected and placed within the surface. The depiction of pavement raised to the vertical canvas becomes wall-like too, which retains the sense that this piece combines urban landscapes. The scraped-down layers of white and red on the left side enhance the gritty texture that continues across the board, and these also echo the red and white of the bag. The thin materiality of the bag is suggested, but not minutely described; however, the unbranded bag in cheap, striped polythene is irretrievably bound up in British culture with small grocery stores or tobacconists-turned-general-stores at the end of the twentieth century. The representation of chalk marks, in dryly-applied crosshatched blue and orange oil paint, and the jagged edges of the “chalked” shape that becomes a space within a space, bring casual and non-signifying expression into the composition. This is added to by the spattered paint across the surface, especially the white marks—which look like finger marks, small spills or errant brush marks. These pieces of matter signify themselves, but also speak to a space of unfinish, of excess and aimless mark-making.

There is a realist claim to be made here: returning to Barthes, these flecks of paint and the correspondence between the worn-away, worked surface and the urban environment make, as Patrick Heron noted in 1989, a direct and compelling connection between the world outside the painting and that of the canvas or board. In Plastic Bag, the drifting bag and the scuffed surface approach the kind of mimicry of the arbitrary and contingent that Barthes described as central to the reality effect. But it remains the case that Clough’s paintings still retain a distance from these details and connections. Heron also wrote of this, when, having elaborated on the correspondences between Clough’s “identifiable pictorial habits (her abstract language) and certain objects typical of the world we all live in” he went on to say that the great beauty of these works “is undoubtedly to do with the fact that we cannot resolve [their] component shapes and textures into anything like exact references to  known objects—which would then relate to each other in recognisable terms of the known spatial sequences of a familiar reality.”[54] And he continues:

Despite the connections with the external scene which I indicated earlier on, these paintings are not “images of…”; still less are they “symbols of…” My point, on the contrary was that [through Clough’s work] the “real” world was being made to approximate to these paintings. The paintings themselves are an infinitely varied continuum of subtle sub-divisions of the canvas’s surface—these sub-divisions being rendered visible by means of paint: dots, smudges, glazes, outlines (sometimes tight, sometimes trembling), sharp and heavy infillings, opacities, rainbow transparencies. This purely pictorial imagery she extends across her surfaces with a breathtaking absence of the slightest repetitiveness or visible method. (Heron, “Recent Paintings,” 50)

Heron articulates the way in which Clough’s abstraction takes up the real and re-engages it within the world of shape, paint, and marks. In doing so, she transcribes not the world, but arguably the alienation and fragmentation of that world through the act of abstracting its surfaces and details into those of the painting. Clough once said that what she had inherited from the twentieth century was the liberated surface of painting—and it is in this, I have been arguing that her work sits at a distance from the reality that, as Heron puts it, approximates to her aesthetic effects (Tufnell, Displacements, 43). However, this is not the pure aesthetic distance found in Kant or in Greenberg; but rather, in Clough’s work, a distance that itself starts to speak for the experience of the late twentieth century. Works such as Mesh with Glove and Plastic Bag, in their emphasis upon the discarded, resist any sense of ‘belonging’ between the viewer and the world of the painting; neither, despite perhaps an initial reaction to the images of waste, is there an easy nostalgia with which to engage. This lack of remembering or imagining through the objects in Clough’s abstraction can be described as picturing the kind of vulnerability of cultural memory—as something that cannot be wholly established—under the conditions of deindustrialization. This vulnerability, where objects sit unanchored in a shared experience, brings the reality of the fractured form of alienated social landscape into focus.[55]

Arguably, then, Clough’s works are deeply affective, and it is her abstract aesthetic itself that enables this profound and wholly disorienting, even pessimistic, experience. It is one of detachment, a lyrical, beautifully-handled detachment that turns on us: Clough’s works do not engender “belonging” of the kind of temporal or affective accrual of lived experience. As “detritus,” they detach us similarly; bits and pieces swirling in an alienated but compelling visual landscape. Indeed, Clough’s intense notations across her notebooks that persist in applying the formal and painterly to the seen are a similar form of detachment and estrangement. In terms of affect, this disorientation is complex. It alienates the viewer from any hold on the world as “found” (unlike, perhaps, collage), but also resists the world-as-thought—as Heron points out, the component parts of Clough’s compositions are irresolvable. It is this that emerges in her abstraction, from the symbolic objects of her early work through to these abstracted pieces of the world. If abstraction, understood as a multivarious process in post war art, often protects that with which it is simultaneously critically engaged (for instance Peter Lanyon interrogating aerial vision or Howard Hodgkin’s portraits), Clough’s work performs no such aesthetic “making safe”: it retains disillusion and disorientation. In this, her work is a collision of realism, abstraction, and affect—an unresolved and ultimately disturbing collision.


[1] Handwritten note, 1958, Papers of Prunella Clough, Tate Archives, London, TGA 200511/2/1/1 (2/2) (15 VII. 58).

[2] Christopher Green, Picasso: Architecture and Vertigo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 102.

[3] John Berger, “Machine-Life Painting,” New Statesman and Nation 45, no. 1154 (1953): 454.

[4] Maurizia Boscagli, Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 2–3.

[5] Frances Spalding, Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped, (Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2012), 28.

[6] Prunella Clough, “Fragment,” folder of Clough poems, TGA.

[7] Diary, 1944–1946, TGA 201215/1/3.

[8] This is behind numerous literary explorations of a time-lapse between the signal of and implementation of destruction, such as Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking Press, 1973).

[9] Prunella Clough, cited in Bryan Robertson, “Happiness is the Ligh,t” Modern Painters 9, no. 2 (1996): 20

[10] Paul Nash quoted in Jemima Montagu, Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), 77.

[11] Ziva Amishai-Maisels, “The Iconographic Use of Abstraction in Jankel Adler’s Late Works,” Artibus et Historiae 9, no. 17 (1988): 62.

[12] Diary, 31 May 1945, Tate archives TGA 201215/1/3.

[13] Diary, 15 March 1946, Tate archives TGA 201215/1/3.

[14] Catherine Spencer, “Abstraction’s Ecologies: Post-Industrialization, Waste and the Commodity Form in Prunella Clough’s Paintings of the 1980s and 1990s,” British Art Studies, no. 1 (2015): 6.

[15] Georg Lukács, “Narrate or Describe?” in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Arthur D. Kahn (London: Merlin Press, 1970), 131.

[16] John Berger, “Machine-Life Painting,” The New Statesman and Nation, 18 April, 1953, 454.

[17] Louis Vauxcelles coined the term ‘tubism’ to describe Leger’s use of cylindrical forms.

[18] Carr to P.C., n.d., folder of letters, Tate Archives.

[19] Fernand Léger, quoted in Malcolm Turvey, “The Avant-Garde and the ‘New Spirit’: The Case of Ballet mécanique”, October 102 (2002): 45.

[20] See David Tucker, “‘an anthropology of ourselves’ Vs ‘the incomprehensibility of the real’: Making the Case for British Social Realism,” in British Social Realism in the Arts Since 1940, ed. David Tucke (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 1.

[21] Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” in The Rustle of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 141.

[22] Varun Begley, “Objects of Realism: Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes, and Marsha Norman,” Theatre Journal 64, no. 3, (2012): 337–53.

[23] See Karl Marx, German Ideology, trans. T. Delaney and R. Schwartz (London: Progress Publishers, 1968); and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: Dover Publications, 2007), section 5, 67.

[24] On freedom and alienation in Marx, see J. J. O’Rourke, The Problem of Freedom in Marxist Thought: An Analysis of the Treatment of Human Freedom by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Contemporary Soviet Philosophy (Boston: Reidel, 1974). Lowry’s “stick” figures, making their way in and out of factories have been read as illustrative of this kind of production (even also mythologize the factory environment)—rather in the same manner as Charles Dickens metonymically describes the “Hands” in the mill at Coketown in Hard Times (1854).

[25] Michael Middleton, introduction to Prunella Clough: A retrospective exhibition, (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1960), 9.

[26] Stuart Hall, New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, ed. Martin Jacques, (New York: Verso, 1990).

[27] Notebook 1956–8, Tate Archives, TGA 200511/2/1/7.

[28] Anne Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[29] Clough to Carr, undated, Tate Archives: TGA200511/1/1/23/61 (1/3).

[30] Prunella Clough, interview with Bryan Robertson, in Prunella Clough: New Paintings 1979–82 (London: Warwick Arts Trust, 1982), n.p.

[31] Maurizia Boscagli, “Objects to Stuff and Back: Materiality, Value, and the Politics of the Ordinary,” Roots & Routes: Research on Visual Cultures, 2011,

[32] See Laurent Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 93–116.

[33] See defamiliarization in Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Hoboken, NJ: Wikey-Blackwell, 1998).

[34] Quoted in Ben Tufnell, Displacements: The Art of Prunella Clough (London: Tate, 2007), 19.

[35] See Claire Shepherd, “Prunella Clough’s altered paintings,” Burlington Magazine 159, no. 1369 (2017): 290–97.

[36] In the early 1980s, Clough was fascinated by the abstract shadows cast by figures on subway walls, and made a number of works exploring this theme in cellulose paint spray and formica on board (interview with Bryan Robertson, 1982, reprinted in Tufnell, Displacements, 44–45).

[37] Natilee Harren, “Fluxus and the Transitional Commodity,” Art Journal 75, no. 1 (2016): 47.

[38] Despite Harren’s equation of these object-oriented aesthetics with postmodernism, I would argue that in fact although they are historically coincident, the following discussion orients Clough and Nouveau Réalisme around a complicated alienated commodity which is very different to a post-modernist simulacrum. My forthcoming book on Clough and other abstract painters and writers expands upon this difference.

[39] It should be noted that Duchamp tried in this period to distance himself from the anti-art sentiment associated especially with Dada literature.

[40] Agnes Berecz, “Close Encounters: On Pierre Restany and Nouveau Réalisme” in New Realisms: 1957–1962, Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle, ed. Julie Robinson, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 58. See also Jill Carrick, Nouveau Réalisme, 1960s France, and the Neo-avant-garde: Topographies of Chance and Return (London: Routledge, 2010).

[41] See Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), 83.

[42] Arjun Appadurai, “Commodities and the Politics of Value,” introduction to The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63.

[43] Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process,” in The Social Life of Things, 70. See also Anna Tsing, “Sorting out commodities: How capitalist value is made through gifts,” HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, no. 1 (2013): 21–43.

[44] The most well-known account of this kind of amnesia is Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); see also Horkheimer and Adorno on the amnesia of reification in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[45] Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 69–70.

[46] Margaret Garlake, “Fishermen and Velvet Kebabs: Prunella Clough’s Subjects,” in Tufnell,  Displacements: The Art of Prunella Clough (London: Tate, 2007), 107.

[47] Rosalind E. Krauss, “Grids,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 9. See also Margarita Tupitsyn, “The Grid as the Checkpoint of Modernity,” Tate Papers, no. 12 (2009).

[48] See Simon Martin, “Painting the End: British Artists and the Nuclear Apocalypse, 1945–1970,” in British Art in the Nuclear Age, ed. Catherine Jolivette, (London: Routledge, 2018), 228.

[49] See also Catherine Spencer, “Covert Resistance: Prunella Clough’s Cold War ‘Urbscapes,’” in British Art in the Nuclear Age, 171–94.

[50] On this question of the influence of the atom bomb on art and cultural consciousness see Akira Mizuta Lippit, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

[51] Matthew Hilton, Chris Moores, and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, “New Times revisited: Britain in the 1980s,” Contemporary British History 31, no. 2 (2017): 145–65.

[52] On these ecologies and transactions of assemblages, as well as on salvage, see Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World.

[53] See Amy Edwards, “‘Financial Consumerism’: citizenship, consumerism and capital ownership in the 1980s,” Contemporary British History 31, no. 2 (2017): 210–29.

[54] Patrick Heron, “Prunella Clough: Recent Paintings 1980–1989,” (1989), rpt. in Displacements, 48–49.

[55] See Jay Emery, “After Coal: Affective-Temporal Processes of Belonging and Alienation in the Deindustrializing Nottinghamshire Coalfield, UK,” Frontiers in Sociology, May 28, 2020,