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Ka V

Ka V
signed and dated 'Riley '80' (on the turnover edge); signed, titled and dated ‘KA V. Riley ‘80.’ (on the overlap); signed, titled and dated ‘KA V Riley ‘80.’ (on the stretcher)
oil on linen
25 ¼ x 20 7⁄8in. (64.3 x 53cm.)
Painted in 1980
Rowan Gallery, London.
Karsten Schubert Ltd., London.
Private Collection, Canada (acquired from the above in 1992).
Thence by descent to the present owner.
R. Kudielka, A. Tommasini and N. Naish (eds.), Bridget Riley: The Complete Paintings, Volume 2, 1974-1997, London 2018, p. 532, no. BR 208 (illustrated in colour, p. 533).

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A dazzling chromatic symphony, Ka V is an outstanding early example of Bridget Riley’s celebrated ‘Egyptian palette’. Executed in 1980, it takes its place at the dawn of one of her most important bodies of work, marking her decisive return to stripes and introducing a distinctive set of colours inspired by her travels in Egypt. As she immersed herself in the country’s ancient culture, she noted the predominance of five hues: ochre, brick red, blue, turquoise and green, as well as black and white. Back in her studio, Riley produced her own version of the palette, mixing colours that were ‘purer and more brilliant than any I had used before’. The present work is part of a sequence of eight oil paintings, plus one acrylic version, titled Ka. The term refers to the part of the soul that—in ancient Egyptian religion—is said to survive the body after death. Here, Riley’s colours burn brightly, marching in rhythmic procession to their own internal hymn.

Riley’s trip to Egypt in the winter of 1979-1980 came at an important moment in her career, marking the culmination of a decade that had witnessed her rise to critical acclaim. During this period, her early stripe paintings of the 1960s had morphed into complex, lyrical studies of curves, giving rise to major cycles including Songs of Orpheus and Orphean Elegies. In 1978, with the launch of a landmark two-year international touring retrospective, she had embarked upon an intense period of travel, following the exhibition as it made its way across America, Australia and Asia. Colour, during this time, was very much on her mind. In New York, and again in St Louis, she had visited a major exhibition dedicated to Monet’s years at Giverny, marvelling at his sensitivity to light. En route to Australia she had stopped off in Tahiti, where she paid homage to Gauguin. Afterwards she had visited Bali, drinking in the bright colours of its landscape, theatres and festivals. By the time that Riley’s sister persuaded her to make a detour to Egypt in December, she was primed to enter a new chromatic world.

During her three-week stay, Riley travelled widely across the country, absorbing its history and geography. Her group began in Cairo, where they encountered ancient artefacts in the city’s museum. They travelled through the lush green farmlands of the Nile Valley, whose landscape had remained unchanged for millennia: Riley noted the distinctive strips of cultivated land, which reminded her of the horizontal planes into which the ancient Egyptians divided their paintings. It was upon arriving in Luxor, however, and observing the decorated tombs of the West Bank, that Riley began to piece together a profound realisation. The five colours she had observed appeared time and again over more than 3000 years of history: from majestic wall paintings—many recently excavated—to decorative arts and furniture, to fields and rivers bathed in sparkling Mediterranean light. ‘With Egypt colour began to open out differently’, enthused Riley. ‘… [Their palette] stood up to outside light and the darkness of the tombs, and so announced a rich, powerful and beautiful civilisation’ (B. Riley in conversation with M. Harrison, Bridget Riley: Malerei/Painting 1980—2012, exh. cat. Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen, Siegen 2012, p. 74).

The strength and brilliance of this new palette, which Riley recreated from memory, demanded a more rigorous structure. The thin, delicate curves of the 1970s were abandoned: stripes, instead, made a striking return, their wide, totemic forms creating a powerful sense of spatial rhythm. The presence of black in the present work’s palette, struck three times like a chord, is notable, placing it within the first wave of paintings that Riley produced upon her return from Egypt. With almost half held in museums worldwide, these works are particularly distinctive within the series, the alternation between dark and light striations throwing the surrounding chromatic relationships into dramatic relief. Riley worked from full-scale ‘cartoons’, or paper studies, allowing her to contemplate the interaction between her hues in detail. The final colours were then mixed in oil, capitalising more than ever before upon the depth and saturation of tone that the medium afforded. While Riley never intended her titles to be descriptive, her reference to ka is nonetheless particularly evocative. As the work oscillates between chromatic extremes, it seems to transcend its physical form, leaving behind a glowing residue of light.

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