Berenice Sydney’s Journey to Abstraction

Neo-classical Aestheticism becomes post-modern Abstraction

Shortly before her 39th birthday, Berenice Sydney died from a sudden and unexpected asthma attack. It was 1983 and at this point Berenice Sydney was a well established Artist having exhibited in more than 39 solo and group shows across the U.K.

Under her more common mononim Berenice, the british born artist had produced by the time of her death an extensive collection of work often in stark contrast to the brash materialistic Pop Art of the times. Drawing on classical influences her work began with abstract renderings of mythology - pieces include: Aphrodite and Ares, Nymphs Dancing and the wonderfully named Psyche and Eros.

Untitled (1966) Berenice Sydney

Untitled (1966) displays her playful interpretations of greco-roman inspired diorama. The hard but expressive lines are reflective of her education in traditional ballet and love of music. The energy of the piece captures deep expression, are the figures dancing, playing or is it more intimate?

In 1968 Sydney began experiments with print. She builds on the foundation of her affection for mythology with a series of very human and at times wickedly funny depictions of mythos. Below are a series I found in a recent exhibition of her work at the Saatchi Gallery in London. We see an intimate Hebe and Artemis to the left, lovers tending or playing with one another. In the middle a seated nude, noted as “Twiddling her toe”. To the right a rather interesting pair, to me an awkward moment as a male figure reveals himself to a seeming unimpressed mermaid.

Collection of three prints (1968) — Berenice Sydney, Saatchi Gallery

Over the next five years Berenice begins to play in the world of abstraction, taking her classical influenced style and applying it square canvas. The smooth curved lines of her early pieces are perturbed and reimagined. Her canvas’ become playgrounds where she can explore expressive lines and emotion through colour and form.

Below you see three examples of such pieces, each feels attentively natural. The viewer can see Sydneys obviously botanical influences blended with her studies in shape from earlier pieces. Colour is crucial in how Sydney builds the organic feel of this painting, the earthy browns and purples keep everything routed in reality. Abstraction is presented by taking the natural curves from flora and fauna seen in Sydney’s early work and exaggerating them, stripping them from anything recognisable.

Journey to Abstraction. Berenice Sydney Oil on Canvas (1973 onwards)

These wonderful examples of motion, colour and shape come together in a collection of vast works, each of which leaves the onlooker consumed. I take a great sense of meaning from these pieces; you can stare into and out of them for hours. They surely convey a greater meaning than Berenice intended.

Is it any wonder they influenced Bridget Riley’s kinetic works?

During this period Sydney also took on printing again. This time aquatints and lithoprints. She was prolific. Her prints and paintings from 1974 are extensive, each varying in its choice of colour or form. Upon viewing I am hit by how much I would appreciate them as my iPhone background. Perhaps not a compliment or perhaps the greatest. Theses semi-minimal, kinetic patterns were in ’74 surely an oasis of respite in the decade of loud block colour and cocaine.

Untitled Prints (1974)
Untitled (1974)
The Lesser of Two Evils (1974)

The final two pieces are both acrylic and chalk on thick mottled paper. Berenice created hundreds of these abstract experiments. They are each on A2 sized paper, flicking through each is an insightful journey in colour and form. Every one of them has a personally uniquely it’s own. They are some of Sydney's final work and some of my favourite. They are a perfect showcase of the artists obsession with experimentation, the numerous pieces exist as a collective and really only make sense together. The wonder of Sydney’s work is often best experienced when viewed together.

Over her lifetime Berenice Sydney created an unending collection of experimental pieces, she was clearly ahead of her time and it is a great shame that she passed away so young. I have no doubt that Berenice Sydney's en masse experiments in abstraction would have lead to yet greater collections which would have challenged the Pop Art movement in ways that it did not see.

A large collection of Berenice Sydney’s work is currently up for auction and on display at London’s Saatchi Gallery. I would highly recommend a visit.

Photographs are a mix of personal shots and from the Auctioneers. Thanks to the Saatchi Gallery.