Pip Benveniste©


a portrait of the artist

by rozemin keshvani

the pink house


Pip Benveniste was born in 1921 at Myrtle Cottage, a large pink-washed 18th-century house in Newlyn to a family of artists. Her mother was Kay Earle, a painter out of the Newlyn School. Her father AlecWalker co-founded with Tom Heron, Cryséde, a company producing hand printed wood block designsfor fine silks.

Pip’s upbringing was hardly typical. She lived among community of artists and writers with whom she studied and learned painting. She was immortalised in Dod Proctor’s painting Kitchen at Myrtle Cottage. She freely roamed the countryside, developing an intuitive appreciation of nature with its harmonious interdependence of forms and its patterns of degeneration and renewal. These early childhood experiences contributed to Pip’s love and understanding of her physical surroundings and would continually inform her work and shape the artist she would become.

a journey begins…

On the outbreak of the Second World War at the age of 18, Pip left home to join a pacifist experimental community grounded in organic agriculture but soon moved to London once the war was over. She became friends with Lilian Wolfe who introduced her to anarchist philosophy.

Benveniste began reading every book she could lay her hands own and meeting the London underground literati and activists associated with the Freedom Bookshop in Red Lion Street. In 1949, Benveniste headed for Paris. Here she became familiar with bohemian artists, poets and writers associated with the Bar Verte, among them the writer James Baldwin then exiled in Paris with whom she would become close friends, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst and two publishers of Zero Magazine, Themistocles Hoetus and the poet Asa Benveniste with whom she would begin a long period of artistic collaboration and together establish Trigram Press in 1965.

Eager and youthful, Benveniste was captivated by her new environment, absorbing the avant-garde Paris art scene, attending literary events, painting portraits and creating work from the surrounding landscapes. After Paris, Benveniste travelled to Tangiers and New York studying colour and painting landscapes which grew progressively expressionist in colour.

She returned to the countryside, this time settling at Dutch Cottage in Tenterden, Kent, where she embarked on a study of the space of the canvas, looking beyond its representational field. Working with landscape, au plein air, she discovered that the ‘spaces in between’ were never constant but were rather influenced in colour and texture by what immediately surrounded it -- by its neighbouring subject -- leading her to begin a life-long investigation into colour and medium.

By1957, her paintings embodied bold movements in colour and lengthened brushstrokes, reflecting time spent in New
York and her experiments with abstract painting. On her return to Britain, she aspired to expand the field of her practice, and to move beyond servitude to the canvas.

In 1958, Pip returned to London making her home in West Hampstead where she became part of London’s emerging avant-garde artist scene influenced in part by Paris’s avant-garde and beat counterculture. Benveniste collaborated with poets, writers and artists who sought to make art relevant to life by moving out of the studio and on to the street.

As an artist, Benveniste was fearless. She befriended the ‘bad boys’ of the London art scene, collaborating and learning, while experimenting with multiple media which took her practice far beyond the studio. This period of unparalleled experimentation and collaboration that lasted throughout the 1960s would prove an extremely influential and important period in Pip’s development. These experiences would deeply affect her subsequent work and have far-reaching implications to her development as a painter, contributing to her unique understanding of colour and time in painting.

Pip-Benveniste-Untitled-1967Benveniste had her first solo show in May 1965 at the dynamic and defining New Vision Centre at Marble Arch, London. Her work was controlled but explored delineation of energy in space. She was now fully immersed in abstraction and concerned to eliminate superfluous details and break free of representational painting. She was determined to move beyond oil painting, her medium for over 25 years, and she began experimenting with acrylic. This lighter medium allowed her to work to take on calligraphic and gestural qualities. She even began to make her own brushes, smashing bamboo to a fringe and then elongating the brush with a broom handle to create these gestural
paintings in her Camden studio.

painting and poetry

Benveniste’s painting was deeply influenced by poetry. She collaborated with poets and writers throughout her life and her paintings often expressed a poetic form. In the 1960s, at her Camden studio, Benveniste began to develop her own unique style of an abstract non-representational poetic in her painting. She was studying Taoist philosophy through the I Ching, and also took inspiration from the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho leading her to incorporate poetic forms and build calligraphic strokes into her work in order to strive beyond representing the material in her work.

She worked on mastering the hand & arm gestures with large brushed marks in black paint on white canvas. A very hard way of painting as just one or two large marks had to be completely acceptable to herself, and needing a lot of peace of mind and well being with the large white canvas surface which incidentally could be ruined in a second, costing a bit too.

- Jasper Vaughan

As a painter, she was concerned to excavate the form of landscape, its idea, its energy. She was unmoved by
‘abstraction’ as such which she viewed as overly mathematical and out of tune with the truth of the landscape she experienced. She sought to work with a more organic form of abstraction, and to re-evaluate the role of ‘time’ in her work, studying Jung’s theories of ‘synchronicity’ as meaningful coincidence and the relativity of psychic time.

Benveniste began to create a series of works in which the line meets poetry. Sensual and calligraphic, these monochrome works present an idea of abstraction that challenges the traditional canon, alluding to landscape through a process which Benveniste felt to be more organic and alive. She achieved these abstractions through a continued and systematic sketch of a single scene or concept.Pip-Benveniste-Exploding-Line

Benveniste would repeatedly draw her subject using a process of successive abstraction in order to deconstruct and overcome mimetic form, being careful not to treat this exercise as a form of reduction, but instead focusing on the poetry within and between. She sought to paint the raw energy of her subject matter as idea, as concept, by reaching into liminal, non-material space, exploiting chance and accident as part of her imaginative manipulation of paint.

Drawing was essential to Benveniste’s compositional technique and process in painting. She took inspiration from Klee, of whom she often spoke, allowing the pencil to wander and flow until becoming one with the line. The artist was principally concerned to draw negative space. Benveniste interpreted positive space to be subordinate. It would follow once negative space was comprehended.

When speaking with her students, she would  encourage them to view a piece of furniture and then imagine the piece vanish, leaving only the surrounding negative space. It is this negative space she would encourage them to then paint. Benveniste sought to push the line to its limits.

Benveniste began making films in 1967 as part of her move from the studio to the street. Her first film EVENTUAL ultilised footage she shot from the performances of John Latham, Stuart Brisley and Jeffrey Shaw (Event Structure Research Group) to create a psychic reinterpretation through film of what she understood these artist's were trying to achieve in their event-based performance works. Pip’s camerawork reveals the revolutionary nature and time-based structure of the cinematic experience and the medium’s direct relationship to these event-based performances. The soundtrack is atonal, disturbing, industrial. Her camera reflects and amplifies the fluxus nature of these happenings and her own investigations into ‘time’ as an element in her work.

She used the camera to explore ideas about the relativity of psychic time through her study the effects of non-linear composition and juxtaposition of random interpolations. Repetition combined with nonlinearity became a means of progressively abstracting an object’s inherent force. Awareness of the subject is replaced by an awareness of essential energy.


a study of the canvas

Working with film gave Benveniste a renewed appreciation of the possibilities within the canvas and the grid itself. The artists began to make a study of the canvas as more than mere supports for her painting. Benveniste discovered that the canvas was potentially more significant than the painting it supported.pip-benveniste-transference

No medium was passive. No support could be neutral. The canvas itself was an active force in the work, governing the mode and structure of presenting work. Focusing on primary geometries, paint could be applied so as to force the canvas into an act of self-disclosure that structured and revealed the truth of the work.Pip-Benveniste-alternate-rectangles-1978

By the 1980s, Benveniste began to work more and more as a print-maker and eventually became accomplished with etching and biting plates of all types. The print became a new way of interpreting her theories of colour and the dynamics of relatedness. The artist set up her own print studio at Barrington
Road in Crouch End, producing aquatints and etchings. Etching provided Pip with the means to embark on a deeper, and more precise, structured, and systematic study of colour.

a return to painting

Pip-Benveniste-Look-thru-darklyIn 1996, Benveniste returned to the coast, this time settling at a cottage in Dorset. She would once again re-focus her efforts toward painting, bring her mastery of colour to the medium of watercolour. For her, watercolour made possible a return to her roots and an encounter with landscape that would allow her to integrate her now vibrant and exploding palette with her ideas about time, organic abstraction, dimensionality and drawing.

Benveniste had been interested in opposition throughout her practice. She viewed negative and positive forces as coming together to create each moment. She sought to find the harmony between the active ocean and its seemingly passive recipient, the coast. She was interested in the flux and flow of nature. The natural balance of light and dark and achieving a balance between two opposite poles, revisiting her ‘groyne’ series, this time through watercolour.

the influence of the coast

The artist’s childhood in her coastal home of Newlyn was a continued source of inspiration throughout her life. And the coastal landscape of Britain became a subject through which to explore her obsessions. The poet Tony Ward has noted that Benveniste’s move to Dorset in the late 1990s was profoundly important:

Her art changed significantly. Maybe she imagined she was back in Cornwall, a place in which, I believe, her heart always resided, as her work made a very brave move back to her own origins in Newlyn, Mousehole, Penzance, St Just and St Ives. In these later watercolour paintings on handmade papers, the colours became translucent and the images more rural, with frequent references to the landscapes of her youth.Water in all its forms would repeatedly appear in her work to depict emotional energy and the idea of the landscape she experienced. She was incredibly prolific, creating a vast and varied oeuvre. She would continue to produce marvellous work until her death in 2010.
-Tony Ward

Benveniste‘s dedication to her craft can be seen at every stage of her long and involved career, spanning every media from paint to printing to her most innovative works in film and photography and even rug design. Her involvements and collaborations with contemporaries place her among an elite group of avant-garde and often radical British artists who were searching for new ways of responding the experience of life after World War II.

Pip-Benveniste-Groyne-3 At her memorial, Professor Andrew Dewdney of London’s South Bank University honoured Pip with the following words:

Pip Benveniste needs to be part of the story of 20th century British art. When we think of Modernist Britain, we think a long list of men such as Lucien Freud, Richard Hamilton, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Victor Pasmore or John Piper. Benveniste was all the more singular within her generation in committing herself to being a full time artist. The price that all artists pay for their singular purpose is, I suspect, visited more painfully upon women artists…She clearly had a context, and as happens with many good artists after their death, a deeper and more rewarding revisiting of their legacy and struggle reveals refreshed pleasures and new insights that allow us to validate again their journey and their place in history.
- Professor Andrew Dewdney


Rozemin Keshvani represents the artist's estate and manages the Pip Benveniste archive:

We are currently working an exhibition of Benveniste's work, and if you hold the artist's work or would like to help, we would be very grateful to hear from you.

If you are interested in film hire or learning more about Pip Benveniste, please email here.


List of Images:
1. Pip Benveniste in Garden
2. Pip Benveniste, Untitled, 1967
3. Pip Benveniste, Exploding Line, 1966
4. Pip Benveniste, Eventual, 1968, Film Stills
5. Pip Benveniste, Transference, 1979
6. Pip Benveniste, Alternate Rectangles, 1978
Pip Benveniste, Look Thru Darkly
Pip Benveniste, Groyne, 2003
9. Pip Benveniste, The Sea, 2005
10. Pip Benveniste, Taking a Walk, 1993

All images, courtesy of the artist's estate.