Abstract Composition, 1943 is one of the finest works of the period, highlighting Tunnard’s highly imaginative and uniquely individual style. Here we can see the artist’s propensity for Surrealism in the dream-like composition, where a myriad of organic and geometric objects seem to float freely within a strange ambiguous, imaginative world. This association to Surrealism was prominent from the 1930s when Tunnard began to move away from the representational landscapes he had shown at the Royal Academy and the Redfern Gallery in the early 1930s, choosing instead to paint in a more abstract and experimental manner.
In 1936 he is believed to have visited the infamous International Surrealist Exhibition at Burlington Galleries and was also know to possess Herbert Read’s seminal book Surrealism, given to him by his wife Bob, which he is recalled to have exclaimed ‘It’s all in there; it’s all in there’ (quoted in S. Martin, John Tunnard Inner Space to Outer Space, Chichester, 2010, p. 17). Although never officially becoming a member of the British Surrealist group, Tunnard did develop his own mode of abstract Surrealism, which was no doubt informed by his friendship with John Trevelyan, who had been acquainted with artists such as Joan Miró and Alexander Calder while living in Paris in 1931-34. Indeed in Tunnard’s paintings of this period, as exemplified in Abstract Composition, one can see the influence of Yves Tanguy in his relation to space, and Paul Klee in his focus on the relationship between form and line and his interest in pattern and motif, which also stemmed from his start in textile design. Herbert Read stated, ‘Tunnard is, of course, a surrealist if that word has any precise meaning. He has not actively participated in the Surrealist Movement as such, but if surrealist is to be defined, in the phrase of André Breton, as ‘pure psychic automatism’, then I know no artist who has more consistently practiced surrealism. In comparison the automatism of Dalí or Max Ernst seems ‘contrived’ (Read quoted in ibid., p. 18).
Tunnard did not see his works, however, as being purely abstract and void of representation. He in fact saw that they were reflective of his life, taking inspiration from the organic forms of his Cornish surrounds, his love of music and the advancements in science and technology, in which he took great interest. He stated, ‘As soon as I started inventing, I found that it was so much more exciting, and that inventing came gradually into what was called non-representational painting. But even when I am at work on a picture, I do not feel that what I am putting down is exactly non-representational. I do feel it is something that does exist, and I am quite alarmed sometimes when I show a painting to somebody and find that they cannot see as it as I do. I feel that these objects are quite real to me, although they may not be in the three-dimensions of the canvas’ (quoted in 1944 in an interview with Raymond Myerscough-Walker, in ibid., p. 16). One can also see reference to war in many of his works of the early 1940s, with Tunnard often responding to the technology of World War II. A critic for The Times in 1959, reflecting on works of this period, wrote, ‘The imagery seems to spring directly from the war, from a time when deserted airstrips beneath the moon and sky scored with the smoke trials of aerial battles brought a sudden anticipatory glimpse of the space-age’ (quoted in ibid., p. 78).
The ambiguous nature of Tunnard’s works leaves the interpretation open for discussion, what is apparent, however, is the artist's joy of experimentation and invention. Indeed, when experiencing a painting by the artist it is sometimes hard to discern how he produced his unusual surfaces, which often bear a multitude of complex and experimental techniques. Tunnard enjoyed using a combination of different mediums frequently mixing gesso, tempera, oil, pastel, ink and wax crayon on board and in one or two anecdotal accounts is recorded to have used more experimental ingredients such as honey as an emulsion. Tunnard would then manipulate the surface using a series of techniques such as ‘frottage’ rubbings and ‘decalcomania’, as practiced by Surrealist artists such as Miró and Ernst, and would sand and distress the board to create a series of abrasions and incised lines, to give the impression of texture and depth. Tunnard often did not use preparatory drawings, preferring instead to work directly and instinctively. The pleasure that he took from painting and creating these visual effects was of utmost importance to the artist who stated, ‘I am trying to have fun still. I think it is very, very important. Don’t you think that painters should still have their sensual enjoyment of using paint? To produce abstract paintings that are entirely mechanical gives me a sense of loss … I think it is very important to paint from the stomach as well as the head’ (ibid., p. 106).
The 1940s marked one of the most prolific and successful periods of Tunnard’s career, when he began to make a name for himself internationally. In March 1939 he held a solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s London gallery Guggenheim Jeune. From this point on Guggenheim became a key supporter of the artist, describing his gouaches as being ‘as musical as Kandinsky’s, as delicate as Klee’s, and as gay as Mondrian’s’ (quoted ibid., p. 14). During this time he was included in a number of British Council exhibitions, which were sent to Australia, New Zealand and the United States, where he became widely recognised. In 1942 he was included in Guggenheim’s Art of the Century Gallery and in 1944 he held his first solo exhibition at the Nierendorf Gallery in New York, with many of his works remaining in the collections of American institutions such as the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.