DOUGLAS BLAND was born in Eccleshall, Derbyshire, England, on 7th April 1923 and died in Hong Kong on 15th May 1975. He grew up and was educated in Sheffield. In 1942 he joined the Royal Navy and was stationed for much of the time in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, where he twice survived his ship being sunk through enemy action.
He ended his service career when he was seconded to the Chinese Maritime Customs service as a hydrographer. In 1948, he joined the Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. Ltd. and rose to the position of Commercial Manager.
This but faintly suggests Bland might have been a painter too: the near truancy to art classes and a hydrographer’s plotting skill. But he never stopped painting or, more importantly, looking at things as an artist must. This with an urgent passion which one might think excluded any ideas of his observing office hours away from his studio. Yet in four years his company increased its earnings by 700%. Asked about his unusually divided interests, Bland would give the half throw-away reply that he didn’t see why an artist shouldn’t be a good businessman. A part of the real answer, however, was his unusual thrusting energy.
After the office, hours of painting canvasses whose immediate impact on those who see them is one of energy, often even of explosive energy. This characteristic could sometimes seem to mark the acute personal and painterly sense of precariousness which under lied his art. He was a ruthless destroyer of any work which appeared unsatisfactory to him, a fact which contributed to one’s certainty of his own modesty towards his work. He has recorded his belief that art should not be held in awe, and also his desire to paint with irony – to strip all the pretensions of literary, figurative art down to abstract paint. This was the credo of a man who was more self-critical as an artist than he was of the honest, rather unabashed man who was that artist. This seemed to have made his life history more evidently a clue to his work than with most.
The opulence which often distinguished his colour, for instance, could mirror a desire for luxury which he turned to business to provide. More obvious influences which made him the painter he was would appear to be the experiences he underwent in the war. First the impact of the sea on the landsman: its remote beauty and its terror – for you can’t escape from drowning a second time unimpressed by the insignificance of your human self in relation to natural forces, or without an abiding sense of precariousness.
This might well have been reinforced by his experience of China, a third and most obvious influence on Bland’s work. He was one of those expatriates who chose to be so because of the strength of his imaginative affinity with an alien culture. His temperamental satisfaction with China was, too, heightened by the Chinese painter Zhao Wuji, whom he met in 1958. It was under his influence that Bland found his way to abstract art, initially through a series of “calligraphic” paintings generally employing Chinese ideograms.
Almost obsessively, Bland’s abstract forms exist in a limbic space recognisable to us because we too have at some time sailed on days – under lights – when the sea horizon has fused invisibly with the sky: abstract space, yet our own experience of three-dimensional void. Generally, when his forms are not suspended, you will find you are down in the heart of turmoil.
The flavour of China permeates so much, if not all, of his work: recollections of Chinese wash drawings, of the landscape we know from those – and he from charting the great rivers; and islands or forms on so many Chinese scrolls. Bland was a great one for themes which were usually first worked through as a series, but never afterwards quite abandoned. Chinese calligraphy remained such a constant. The land of China, and the ideas the Chinese have had about themselves, haunt Bland’s work in a way unique in any westerner’s art.
His last theme before his untimely death – “reflections” – seemed to have moved a step away from this Chinese background. (He hoped new images would present themselves when he would spend more time at his house in Italy). Of this series, he wrote that he was trying “to compose forms which contained ideas about places and things reflected in space”. He added that that might not have seemed to have meant anything, but it might not have been a bad description of his work.
Douglas Bland’s years working in the Far East had a crucial impact on younger Chinese painters torn between the claims of their native traditions and the international, westernised demands made upon present-day artists. Bland’s success in working from west to east has offered them an exemplary solution to their problem and his work has proved to be a seminal influence on the emergent schools of free Far Eastern art today.
(Abridged from Christopher Kininmonth’s Forward to the “Douglas Bland Paintings and Drawings Exhibition” at the Hintlesham Festival, Suffolk, June-July 1973)