John Beard

Book review
Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2011

The relentless, more than one hundred strong, series of paintings done by John Beard, between 1993 and 2007, of a rocky pyramid off the coast of Portugal— Adraga—is absolutely pivotal to an appreciation of the development of this ‘Welshman turned half-Austra­lian’s’ career. For the series begins in highly-coloured, gestural abstraction; it goes through a long period of resisting the reality of the triangular rock by prioritis­ing clouds, sunlight, waves and spray—even allowing the black and white contrasts of land and sea to meld in a glorious tumble of greys; and only right at the end is Adraga allowed to emerge triumphant, as rock qua rock, from the spume of Beard’s instinctive abstrac­tion.

It is a glorious moment, which leads directly into the on-going portraiture work that has confirmed for Charles Saumarez Smith, the eminent writer of the ‘Forward’ in this monograph, a belief in Beard’s ‘inter­national reputation’; has allowed catalogue essay-writer Michael Desmond to intuit ‘a fleeting glimpse of the soul’; and has encouraged the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) not only to award Beard the notorious Archibald Prize, but to elect him one of themselves!

John Beard’s progress from abstraction to figura­tion has also inspired essayists of the monograph, Professor Stephen Bann (of the University of Bristol) and Anthony Bond (of the AGNSW), to cogitate at length on the painterly dilemmas challenging artists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They see Beard as having outfaced these dilemmas by resolving the division between Monet’s ‘act of power over Nature’ and Cezanne’s ‘bringing the viewer over against the self-sufficient motif’.

For me, it is simply the story of the natural momen­tum in Beard’s art since his emergence, in 1983, from darkest Wales into the brilliant luminosity of Perth (Western Australia), that hits home most heartfeltly.

Back in 1985 when Beard had been less than two years in Australia, he was already being offered solo shows in Sydney and Melbourne, and I was inter­viewing him for the ABC’s ‘Artful Dodger’ radio pro­gram—though shamefully this is unrecognised in the four page list of print and TV references to the artist in the monograph! What emerged then was the artist’s own sense of the speed of his adaptation to his new country of residence—both its psyche and its light— though Bann’s essay prefers to date those changes to the exhibition, ‘A New Spirit of Place’ in London, in 1981, before Beard left the United Kingdom.

Both essayists see Beard more as an Atlantico­centric artist than an Aussie—that ‘Welshman turned half-Australian’ quote comes from Saumarez Smith’s ‘Forward’. Their artist comparisons are all European or American—especially Gerhard Richter, Philip Guston and Donald Judd—while they ignore an apparent Peter Booth moment in Beard’s Potato Man (1983). I am not convinced by this positioning, although, as Tony Bond points out, Beard’s sense of self-worth (and the cost of two families) has caused him to be equally exhibitable in Europe, America and Australia.

Beard himself admits to needing ‘to move away from his shadow’ to find fresh influences on his art. Which tempts me to contrast two statements by the much more political Richter—and rather more ‘suc­cessful’, in price terms, hitting $18.5m at auction last year—and Beard himself. While Richter told the Tate’s Nicholas Serota last year that his paintings ‘show what isn’t there’—suggesting that the subject-matter, how­ever obscured, is at least as important as its depic­tion, John Beard tells us in the monograph that his selection of ‘sometimes clichéd’ subject-matter allows him to ‘degrade the details so that the painting (not the subject) is given the dignity of not calling attention to itself’.

Saumarez Smith sums up delightfully: ‘(Beard) is tip-toeing back to where Monet left off; it once again becomes legitimate to paint a seascape which is rec­ognisable as a seascape even if that was not the pur­pose of painting it; that purpose is in the act of depic­tion’.

Bond’s essay generously takes us back to the Renaissance in a history of Western art, but eventually gets to the point to put his finger on Beard’s evanes­cence: ‘The image is on the verge of disappearing, like a memory or dreams’. He is matched by a Paul McGil­lick catalogue essay which links Adraga with the sub­sequent portraits. These, he writes, require ‘sustained scrutiny, and even then (reveal themselves) only with a continuing sense of fugitive vulnerability… What am I looking at? The harder it is to answer that… the better that painting is likely to be. This is because the dif­ficulty of resolving the painting mirrors the eternal dif­ficulty of resolving the many conflicting experiences which make up our everyday life’.

But perhaps this mighty tome is most magically justified by a line or two from a man who had never even heard of John Beard; so that even as we admire the artist’s serious transmutation through a Codex of two hundred and thirty-nine paintings, his universe of exhibitions and heavy-weight commentary, and appreciate the lighter touch of his family photos and co-production of art with his daughters, we cannot go past the words of Samuel Beckett (‘The New Object’, 1948)—which ought, incidentally, to be delivered in Beard’s Welsh tones to create the aural match for the artist’s visual virtuosity: ‘An endless unveiling, veil behind veil, plane after plane of imperfect transparen­cies, light and space themselves, veils and unveiling towards the unveilable, the nothing, the thing again’. 

notes: 

John Beard, published by Hardie Grant, 1/11/2011. ISBN: 9780980783537. 360pp, 310 x 265mm. 180 colour plates, case bound, square backed with French-fold jacket. RRP $180AUD.