The British art scene has nurtured numerous painterly masters throughout the 20th century who left quite a mark on the later development of the medium. The ones working with figuration had a difficult task to challenge the constraints of representation by giving a more conceptual flavor.
The leading figure of figurative painting, a German-born who came to prominence in the UK during the mid-1950s, Frank Auerbach released a compelling body of work characterized by the ghostly impasto portraits inspired by both the Old Masters and Modernists such as Picasso.
Almost three decades later, Tony Bevan, another intriguing painter emerged, apparently inspired by Auerbach and a long tradition of portraiture. Unlike his predecessors, he took a contemporary stance by exporting the mental states as manifestations of social and political dismay in Britain at the time. Bevan’s signature linear style and a fascinating approach to the consideration of the mental space made his head portraits a sort of testimonies of the alterations in the human condition that occurred throughout the decades.
Currently on display at Ben Brown Fine Arts is an exhibition based on the dialog between the two artists. Titled What is a head?, the same tends to unravel a myriad of philosophical implications coming out of 22 physical and most inner representations by Auerbach and Bevan selected for the occasion the curator, Michael Peppiatt.
The current exhibition is of great importance as it coincides with this year’s celebrations of Auerbach’s 90th and Bevan’s 70th birthday.
What is a Head? will be on display at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London until 30 April 2021, and it will travel to Hong Kong later this year.
This event was a perfect excuse to bring you closer to the thoughts of one of the artists, Tony Bevan, who kindly replied to a few questions regarding his practice, the fascination with the mental space, and the creating in the current moment.
Widewalls: The comparison between your and the work of Frank Auerbach seems fitting as you both have interrogated the psyche through the portrait. What made you turn to this particular genre?
Tony Bevan: Well, I've been painting and drawing heads for as long as I can remember and in particular self-portraits. The self-portrait gives me the freedom to go beyond the surface appearance to the liminal layer.
I think of the self-portraits as internal landscapes.
Widewalls: Although at first glance expressionistic, your visual vocabulary evokes a rather dystopian association. Has your work been infused by such literature or is it just a reaction to the rise of neoliberalism and the rule of Margaret Thatcher back inthe 1980s?
TB: I suppose it was a reaction to neoliberalism: Margaret Thatcher stoked the fires and famously said "there’s no such thing as society." Needing low rent, I've always had studios in rundown parts of London. The paintings and drawings around the ’80s and ’90s were confrontational while exposing a vulnerable area of the body. The paintings have titles such as Exposed Arm or Self Portrait Neck.
Widewalls: Another important aspect of your work that one might notice is the performative nature. These captivating renderings of the mind are expressed as actual gestures, poses, or different facial expressions. Would you comment on this observation?
TB: Some of the paintings in the ’80s, in particular, are sourced from newspaper photos, unposed, a captured moment with a performative element. I photographed areas of myself not visible to me, looking underneath the chin or the side of the head.
As an art student in the 70’s, I came across the head sculptures of Franz Xavier Messerschmidt. They were a surprise, so contemporary in appearance although from the 18th century. I still feel very close to these sculptures bringing them into my own paintings and drawings.
Widewalls: Alongside portraits, you also paint trees and isolated structures, spaces reminiscent of warehouses or other industrial spaces. Are those depictions physical manifestations of the thoughts or dreamscapes of portrayed people?
TB: Collectively, the architectural work, corridors, rafters, and interiors, are about the experience of inhabiting a mental space. For me, they are psychic spaces. I do see them as self-portraits. I see the tree paintings as flow ways, pathways, like neural pathways.
Widewalls: Has the human suffering in terms of coping with the notion of life changed your direction of thinking about art in this unprecedented time marked by the pandemic?
TB: My paintings originate from the senses and the pandemic has certainly affected my senses. Over the last year, I’ve been painting and drawing self-portraits.
Solitude I can manage - it's the isolation that’s difficult.
Widewalls: Could you share with us the most poetic thing you have encountered recently that inspired you to produce new work or at least challenged you to engage in a creative process?
TB: I woke one morning (recently) encountering a reverie of being in a sanatorium, having communication with people limited to the internet. So, I’ve started to read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann; a book I have been meaning to read for many years but never got round to it.
Featured image: A portrait of Tony Bevan. Courtesy the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts.