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PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF JEFF KEEN (1923-2012)
Jeff Keen’s incisive and visionary art of the late 1940s and early 1950s, was conditioned by both his wartime experiences and the prevailing pictorial styles of the time. His drawn style could incorporate the spiky abjection of Burra and Freud in tracing peculiarly sordid urban vignettes - as in Victoria Cinema - Betty Grable (lot 184). Equally he could demonstrate a mastery of English Neo-Romanticism leaning towards the Magic Realism of contemporary American artists, such as Ivan Albright or Pavel Tchelitchev, in Organic Landscape (lot 183). But, like so many young English painters of that moment he was impacted on primarily by wartime demands on artists conscripted into engineering and electronics. A particular kind of precision and a grasp of the ways in which military technology was reshaping the contemporary imagination would lie at the bottom of not only Keen's work, but also that of Richard Hamilton and Nigel Henderson, for example, as well as the nascent Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Until 1945 Keen worked as a draughtsman involved in the development of projects such as submersible armoured vehicles, in advance of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Such projects were in themselves fantastic – like so many aspects of the conflict itself. Two of the drawings in this group deal with the aftermath of that war. Both concentrate on the melancholy disorientation of a wandering female civilian finding themselves in environments which are radically strange. In The Shorthand Typist in the Wilderness (lot 185) Keen’s photo-collaged figure is inserted into a mutated version of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ as it might have been realized by Andre Masson, Yves Tanguy, Graham Sutherland or even Punch cartoonist Rowland Emmett. In Ruined Town (lot 185) the photo-collaged element is a battered cityscape, exemplary of post-war European urban vistas, while the superimposed female is a beautifully drawn and mysterious composite of Cecil Collins’ luminous supernatural entities and medical diagrams: she bizarrely leads a dog on a lead. Such weird graphic comedy anticipates Keen’s later work in cinema animation in the 1960s, when he was at the centre of the ‘Underground’ culture in London.
David Alan Mellor, May 2015.