To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.
He was the Roman god of beginnings, the guardian of gates and doors who presided over the first hour of each day, and the first day of each month and, as his name, suggests, January. Depicted on Roman coins with a double faced head, one side bearded, the other clean shaven, Janus represented both sun and moon. A sort of Roman ying and yang he symbolised the light and the dark within human experience. Facing both East and West, the doors of his temple at the Forum marked the beginning and end of each day, whilst many Romans began their morning with prayers to him. Worshipped during the time of planting, he was also evoked during rites of passage such as birth and marriage. Throughout Rome a number of freestanding structures – ceremonial gateways known as jani – were used as thresholds to make symbolically auspicious entrances or exits. Emblematic not only of new beginnings, Janus represented the transition between primitive life and civilisation, between the rural and the urban, youth and old age, whilst having the ability to look back at the past and simultaneously into the future. So what relevance does this obscure Roman god have for a contemporary British painter?
Born in1935, in West Hartlepool in the north of England, Basil Beattie is often referred to as ‘an artist’s artist’. Such a phrase denotes a high degree of respect among peers, whilst tactfully acknowledging that his is not a name that tumbles freely from the lips of the general public. Beattie’s work has never received the recognition that it deserves, despite his being described as “one of the most significant of bridges in the generations of contemporary British painters” and that, as a teacher at Goldsmiths College, he taught some of this country’s most successful young artists such as Gary Hume and Fiona Rae. In 1994, the Tate Gallery, where director Nicholas Serota is a long-term admirer of Beattie's, bought two of his paintings, while Saatchi, who planned to mount an exhibition of neglected, older British artists, bought three. But for some reason the exhibition never materialised. Though in 2007 Beattie did show work at Tate Britain as part of the BP New Displays.
Basil Beattie’s career spans the emergence in Britain, in the late 1950s, of abstract expressionism, through to his more recent emphasis on figurative signs that meld gritty northern muscularity with a voluptuous sensuality towards the painted surface. Yet his uncompromising, expressive canvases, with their ambiguities and ironies, their depth and intelligence are, perhaps, too demanding to be ‘popular’ in these times that insist on easy access and constant novelty. In many ways his sensibility is that of a 50s existentialist. His work feels more akin to Giacometti or Philip Guston than to the, now, not so Young British Artists. Best known for his evocative abstract paintings featuring architectural motifs, Beattie typically employs a muted palate of earthy colours and expressive, gestural brushstrokes to create an array of archetypal images and pictographic signs such as stairs, steps, ziggurats, ladders, gateways and tunnels. These are not intended to be read literally, but to act as psychological ‘thresholds’ into the subconscious, much like those Roman jani. “Landscape”, as Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares, writes in The Book of Disquiet: “is a state of emotion.”
An only child, Beattie missed a lot of school. Often ill with bronchitis his mother worried about ‘lung disease’. Yet he knew that he could draw and remembers listening on the wireless to the BBC Home Service’s broadcast of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, whilst copying pictures from adventure stories. He can still recall the embarrassment of being in the same room as his parents when Myfanwy Price dreamt that Mog Edwards, “a draper mad with love”, would “warm her sheets like an electric toaster”.
As a student at the Royal Academy he painted like de Kooning, though, he says, he was looking at Rothko. The problem he had with English painting of the period was that it always felt “too well done”. He admired the way Guston stuck his neck out, embracing an idiosyncratic figuration when abstraction was considered to be the only possible language for a serious painter.
It was in the late 1980s that Beattie began to relinquish the influences of American Abstract Expressionism, with its formal grammar of colour, gesture and relationship to the flat surface. The titles in the Janus series: No Known Way, Been and Gone, Dancing in the Night, Beginnings and Endings, Touching Distance, The Approaching Night, Night Embrace, read like lines from a Samuel Beckett text and function as poetic and philosophical underpinnings to his imagery, whilst all the while refusing literal translation. There is an inert silence about these canvases, where the only evidence of human presence is the linear traces incised across the empty landscape. One senses that Beattie might well be tempted to substitute the word ‘painting’ for ‘writing’ in the Sam’s Beckett’s 1969 statement that: “Writing becomes not easier, but more difficult for me. Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”.
Comprising of a purposefully limited repertoire of stacked domes tiered in threes and, occasionally, fours like a series of ‘portals’ that open out onto an illusionary space, the images in the Janus series act as a framing devise and suggest a car mirror in which the viewer cannot be certain whether he or she is looking at a reflection or an actual view. As in Plato’s cave, there is a confusion as to what is real; or what simply a reflection or shadow of reality. It is as if, speeding through these barren terrains, we are forced to witness our lives unfurl in front of us as in a silent film, so that Janus-like we find ourselves looking both back at the past and forwards into the future.
“Birth was the death of him,” Beckett once wrote with ironic black humour. Drawn into Beattie’s series of vistas, where horizon lines, ploughed fields and railway tracks disappear into a series of classical vanishing points, we are made aware, in the underlying existential emptiness of this Godless landscape, of the continuum from birth to death.
Eschewing easy autobiographical interpretations Beattie, nevertheless, talks of being a young boy visiting his father’s signalman’s hut and watching for oncoming trains down the distant track, as his father pulled the lever. There are, too, other dim memories of listening to the disembodied voices of war correspondents on the radio as they recounted the chilling evidence of the death camps. For it is impossible not to see the incised lines, cutting aggressively across these scrubbed fields towards a distant tower on a far horizon, as anything but the railway lines that ended beneath that infamous iron gate, topped with the words: Arbeit macht frei. Then, too, there were journeys Beattie undertook as an impressionable young soldier, whilst doing National Service in the mid 1950s, across Germany on the way to training exercises.
Yet despite the allegory and allusion inherent in these works, their meaning ultimately resides in the physical reality of the paint. Clotted, thick and deceptively casual in its application it emphasises both mass and absence. Whilst offering a basic illusion, the tension in Beattie’s work comes from the constant attempt to deny that illusion, whilst simultaneously accepting that the viewer is already reading his lines, as they disappear into the horizon, as journeys.
“I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams and their hopeless hopes,” wrote Fernando Pessoa. Looking at these lyrical paintings, in which the whole of life appears to unfurl as we head towards inevitable extinction, Beattie’s visceral canvases seem to echo Pessoa’s bleak words.
Abbot Hall Art Gallery
22 January – 6 March 2010