BASIL BEATTIE IS OFTEN referred to as ‘a painter’s painter’, which marks the respect he’s held in by his peers. He is an artist who has kept to his vision without compromise. A show at Hales Gallery – Above and Below: Step Paintings 1990-2013 – followed hot on the heels of a successful exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.
That Beattie became an artist at all is, perhaps, surprising. Born in 1935, he grew up near Hartlepool. His father was a signalman on the railway and there was not much access to art. It was a strongly protestant upbringing. His grandfather was a lay preacher and the young Basil sang in the local church choir. At his secondary modern school, art was taught by the teacher who also oversaw English and gardening, and art books were few and far between. At home Beattie copied images from Picture Post and drew what he saw out of the window.
‘I remember going shopping with my mother in West Hartlepool and across from the bus terminus was the art school. I decided that’s where I wanted to go. There was lots to draw. The shipyards and steel works. There was a steep stairway down to the sea. People used to collect sea coal. I saw a man coming up carrying his bicycle and balancing a sack. I was taken by the struggle and drew him in red and green inks. I used to go to the Odeon on Saturday morning but then started going to art classes. The art school was an oasis. I began to buy the Modern Painters series on Paul Nash, Victor Pasmore and Graham Sutherland. The plan was always to get to London. I wanted to go to the Royal College but wasn’t accepted, so I went to the Royal Academy.’
Beyond the obvious physicality of Beattie’s paintings, there is the question of the complex metaphors he creates. ‘Well, I have been working this way for a long time. In the early 1960s, I saw an article in Life Magazine on Rothko. I realised he was trying to say the unsayable, to calibrate something inchoate. He wasn’t using colour in a decorative way. And I sensed that there was something else going on in these works.’
Beattie’s paintings are full of his signature pictograms or hieroglyphs that create their own semantics, though he’s at pains to point out that he wouldn’t want them to be to read as literal symbols or signs. His architectural shapes – towers, doors, steps and ziggurats – his tunnels and passage ways teeter and go nowhere. Everything is precarious, everything tenuous and on the point of collapse. These almost archetypal images seem to come from deep within the unconscious. ‘It gets harder with age,’ he says, ‘wrestling with what you think you have learnt. You still doubt. You have to circumnavigate what you’ve learnt in order to arrive at things obliquely. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was particularly interested in architecture per se. I’m always trying to subvert the things I know.’
His images are both assertive and evasive. Full of uncertainty, there is a struggle for identity that seems almost anthropomorphic. A ziggurat begun as a grid turned, as he subtracted elements, into a shape with a broad base and something that might be read as a head. It was a coincidence that he was prepared to accept. Doubt and possible failure run like the bass-note through these works. There’s something atavistic about them. Whilst he is very well versed in contemporary movements – he taught for many years at Goldsmiths – they feel as though they could be understood by ‘primitive’ peoples who would relate to their darkness and references to death. Even the earth on which his steps are based seems unstable. There’s a strong sense of claustrophobia and entrapment; the grids, the shut doors beyond which there seems to be nothing, the tracks that lead into infinite tunnels are nightmarish. It’s hard not to be reminded of Auschwitz with its railway lines leading to that infamous watch tower, and Beattie admits that, as young man, while doing national service in Germany, he visited Belsen and it had a profound effect. Mostly he remembers the silence. That no birds sang. Germany was his first trip abroad. It was there, too, that he encountered Picasso. Running up the museum steps in Cologne he came face to face with Guernica. His work has often been yoked to that of Philip Guston, and the Abstract Expressionists are an obvious influence, but there’s also an edgy existential quality suggestive of Giacometti. It’s there in the nervy movement and the sense of doubt. Although he often works from drawings, a painting is largely ‘found’.
‘You struggle on with it, finding it, losing it. You also have to be prepared to obliterate it. Often you’ll say to yourself, why didn’t I do that before? But you couldn’t. You had to get to that point. Often expunging something is as significant as adding something. But there isn’t a formula. The spaces where the cotton is left bare are just as important as those covered with paint. When the paint is thick it fills the weave of the canvas like a skin. The absence of paint allows the painting to breath.’ Does he paint on the floor? ‘I did when I used thinner acrylics. Now I paint on the wall.’ What tools does he use? ‘Brushes, screwdrivers, squeegees, my hands. But I couldn’t ever tell anyone else how to paint my paintings.’ That, one might suggest, would be like telling someone how to live his life. In his Janus series, where a shape that resembles a car mirror allows the viewer to look both forward into the future and backwards towards the past, the formal structure is paramount. These works are full of illusionistic space, as if life, itself, was an illusion and the only destination and certainty: death. They are among the most existential of his paintings.
He is emphatic that a painting only becomes a vivid experience though the process of being made. He is concerned to try and place physical things, such as a door, within a painting, to describe something that has a recognisable quality but that is not actually the thing itself.
‘What I’m trying to do is parallel certain experiences in life but there is no obvious known way of doing it.’
The result is a form of alchemy. An essential relationship between the viewer, the artist and the heart of the work. That place, he says, feels like another zone. ‘It is essential to remain directionless but alert to what is happening in order to discover what I am feeling.’
For a painter who never directly paints the figure, his work is redolent with human emotion. It is the sense of human absence that makes it so keenly and vividly felt. There is a sense that what he depicts are the traces left behind, clues to human activity. Samuel Beckett’s lines reverberate: ‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
For many years, Beattie had a demanding and complex life as a tutor at Goldsmith’s, a single parent bringing up his young daughters, and as an artist. It was, he says, a struggle to find the time he needed in the studio and for a long time he felt like a Sunday painter. Now he is one of the most recognised painters of his generation. Recently there’s a new vibrancy to his work with the introduction of brighter colour and a move away from exclusively earthy tones. ‘Oh, the colours just happened,’ he says. ‘Lots of people don’t like them. They prefer the muted ones. But the colour is never used decoratively. There is a symbolic force behind it.’
He is very keen to deny elements of autobiography in his work, yet looking at his paintings is like inhabiting someone’s mind. They seem to be maps of sorts, of how to find one’s way out of the existential crisis of living. Some of them are terribly sad, like the Steps to Nowhere. The staircase sags as if utterly defeated. It almost seems to be weeping. After having climbed all that way, the view from the top is, apparently, no clearer than from the bottom. They suggest a Sisyphean struggle to ascend and never an arrival at a destination. His endless corridors that lead nowhere conjure Robert Frost’s lines in The Road Not Taken: ‘I took the one less travelled and that made all the difference.’ Yet, for all their bleakness, his paintings seem tentatively to adopt the language of shelter, to be a search for some sort of structure, dwelling or resting place, however inadequate.
In an age when painting struggles to hold its own against other media such as installation and video, Basil Beattie continues to revivify the form – both technically and emotionally – with his personal pictorial dramas. The work touches on those most serious of subjects, the meaning of human existence and mortality. As Jung wrote: ‘Only paradox comes anywhere near to contemplating the fullness of life.’
Basil Beattie’s paintings are abundant with paradox, ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty and it is this that makes them deeply, movingly, human.