Essays by James Hyman

Tony Bevan: an interview by James Hyman

Tony Bevan: an interview by James Hyman

 
 

Tony Bevan interviewed by James Hyman
Journal of Contemporary Art (U.S.A), Summer 1993

Tony Bevan's longest interview. Recorded in New York in February 1993.

For an abridged version of this interview please see the following entry:
Tony Bevan, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1993

INTERVIEW EXTRACT:

James Hyman
Your paintings have an incredible intensity of colour. How are they made?

Tony Bevan
In general I start working from drawings which are charcoal on paper. Sometimes I also draw straight on the canvas which I wet so the charcoal soaks into the fibres. I make my own paint using pigment and medium.

The canvas is stretched on the floor and I tend to work from all sides on my hands and knees. When it's put on a stretcher there may be a loss of the full image, but I try and compensate for that when I'm working. But in some cases the cropping can be intentionally quite severe.

I find the behavioural patterns of charcoal fascinating and the possibilities of paint endless.
Often a series evolves through familiarity with the subject, through drawing and drawing. I think that's why there is a similarity in poses. But I don't work to any specific rules. The source may be from life, photograph, another painting, even from a dream.

James Hyman
Does the strong colour have a symbolic value?

Tony Bevan
Colour has an attachment with emotions and certain meanings. The saturation of the colour in the backgrounds is almost like the colour of the air around the person. It's describing a particular space.

James Hyman
You often use lines of deep red that can be read as actual markings on a body, even as scars or incisions.

Tony Bevan
I've never actually thought of them as scars or open wounds. That's a very literal reading. When the markings were on the face, it was a way of showing the structure of the head, the way it's held, with flow patterns. I was interested in exaggerating a line or a mark that already existed. More recently, the lines have gone underneath the skin. They seem to be pressing through the surface.

James Hyman
There is also an ambiguity to the black lines you use to show a person's hair. In Upturned Hands the stylisation of the man's centre parting reminds me of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson, where the man's brain is similarly divided.

Tony Bevan
I've always been interested in being able to show two things at once. I'm fascinated by what's underneath the hair and the colour of the person's scalp. In some cases there is a simplification, but for me it's enough.

James Hyman
Often there is a feeling that your figures are presenting themselves to us. When you are working on a picture, how mindful are you of an audience?

Tony Bevan
Some of the concerns may well be mindful of the audience. I think it's about presenting their vulnerability; the idea of not being ashamed.

James Hyman
This is not the vulnerability of a person caught in an unguarded moment, with defences down. The subjects seem self-aware and conscious of their audience.

Tony Bevan
There is a degree of awareness. But I also think that there is a strong possibility that the figures are not sure how they are showing themselves. In the earlier works, the figures often hide their faces and are closed up.

James Hyman
More recently this exposure of emotions has become more public especially in The Meeting where the men address us directly. How did this picture evolve?

Tony Bevan
This accessibility found form in the frontality of the figures in a choir. The group is small enough that you can relate to the figures as individuals and in relation to each other. The viewer stands where the conductor or in this case the controller of the choir would stand. I had seen a photograph in a newspaper about two years ago. It showed a choir and illustrated a story about a community or sect set up in Chile in the 1960s. I did a number of drawings, but from the photograph you couldn't really pick out any features. It was really a question of finding out the sort of person who would be there, how they looked, in what direction they were looking, their age, height and relationship to each other.

James Hyman
The role of conductor or controller suggests that the viewer has some kind of authority over the figures. To me, though, the men are threatening and confrontational.

Tony Bevan
It's not my intention to make the viewer uncomfortable, but the group are behaving as one and have quite a power. There is a confrontational aspect in many of my paintings. In The Meeting adolescence interested me.

James Hyman
The half-boy half-man figures remind me of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. The idea of a choir is harmonious. The Meeting seems to be more raucous. The scale of the figures, the frontal poses and shallow space give it a directness.

Tony Bevan
We are not looking through windows. The figures inhabit our space. It's almost one to one. People find that quite threatening. There's not much chance of being a voyeur as is possible in some paintings where one can look, in secret, into a particular space.

James Hyman
The use of a number of canvases encourages us to break down this unit, to look at the men as individuals, or at least as pairs of figures.

Tony Bevan
Yes, hopefully after time you build up a relationship. For me there's also a nervousness.

James Hyman
You make us aware of our and their vulnerability. Even your self portraits draw attention to where the body is weakest. Often they are less about the face than the neck and the paint itself emphasises the surface of the body by forming what you describe as scabs.

Tony Bevan
That has tended to happen. But it's only in retrospect that I can say the wrist, the inside of the arm and the neck are there to be looked at - those very fragile parts.

In 1977 I had a serious neck operation. I was concerned with what had gone on, with the marks that had been left. It wasn't a conscious decision to stress the neck. It came about purely by accident.

James Hyman
The self portraits of Rembrandt in old age, or of Van Gogh, are said to be psychologically revealing, to be about stripping away to get at the essence of the man. Your paintings, on the other hand, seem less concerned with the psyche than with the body. You've even made huge pictures that isolate parts of the body such as the foot, the hand and the back.

Tony Bevan
I recognise the bodiliness of my portraits. They don't hold the psychological content that the face can hold. We normally see the face as holding all the content, as being the central subject, but to have another part of the person as the focus I found very interesting.

Since I was a student I've been interested in physiognomy and in artists who used it. I did my thesis on Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's life-size busts and am interested in artist's handbooks, like Charles LeBrun's, that show how to represent individual emotions such as anxiety and sadness. But what interests me is how to get beyond the illustration of a single emotion, to be able to hold a number of emotions and actual thoughts.

I don't find my subjects divorced from me. On the contrary, in many of the works I use myself as the subject. But when I'm working on a self portrait, I'm not constantly looking in a mirror and correcting. I still work from drawings and there is an evolution through the work itself. It's not a matter of going back and correcting and formulating some kind of a replica of a person. There is a lot of stripping away. There isn't a lot of excess baggage.

James Hyman
Readings of your work fall into two basic categories. On the one hand there are references to artists engaged in social or political commentary such as Daumier and Beckmann and, on the other, to artists strongly fixated on the individual, as in the wretched self-portraits of Artaud or Arnulf Rainer. How do you feel about the way critics categorise your work?

Tony Bevan
With the artists you mention, you realise just how inextricably those two categories are connected. But I've never liked the idea that some commentators have put forward that the subjects are a social type. I don't like those generalisations and the stereotyping. I've always seen them as individual human beings. They're not an illustration of this particular kind of person, of this particular age, of this particular type.

James Hyman
We've talked about pictures of the last decade. Where do you see yourself going in the future?

Tony Bevan
I'm never that sure what I'm looking for when I'm painting or what the final picture is going to be like. Certain directions are suggested during the process of painting. There's a degree of being out of control. There are certain things which I would like to get into the paintings, but it doesn't make sense to talk about them yet. They are fragile at the moment.

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