Bernard Heslin The Fossil Series paintings 1994/5
A critical review by
Mary Rose Beaumont September 1995
Bernard Heslin's abiding interest in ancient cultures, and the arts of
gradation of his colour planes receding into space, enabling a
those ancient cultures, is an integral part of his work. Without some
contemporary artist to understand the complexities of perspective
familiarity with the art of the pre-historic world, of such diverse cultures as that of the Australian Aborigines and the deities of Old
Another artist important to Heslin is Rouault, as
much on account of his subject matter as of his
Europe, the Bronze Age spiral markings and cup and ring devices in
Scotland, of the Viking stones of Scandinavia and fossils of all kinds,
of society, drew criticism from his close friend Leon Bloy, the French
it would be impossible to penetrate the full meaning of Heslin's
author who, as well as novels and essays, wrote religious and critical
Rouault's paintings of clowns and prostitutes, the outcasts
studies with a strong Roman Catholic bias. As a member of a religious order Heslin studied with the Jesuits at Heythrop, but left on account of his frustration with the length of time it was taking to put into practice the changes suggested by Vatican II.
Rouault's series CHRIST IN THE SUBURBS, which put forward
the idea that Christ lived and worked in the suburbs and did not simply exist in Heaven, was a notion which Heslin could embrace wholeheartedly and furthermore it chimed with his own Socialist leanings.
It is significant that Heslin wrote his thesis at College on
Rouault. Obliged to choose between Rouault and Soutine, an artist who also interested him profoundly, ultimately his affinity with Rouault's colour and drawing won the day. Quite different, but also pertinent with regard to Heslin's colour, is his interest in early Indian miniatures, in particular their exquisite use of blue, green and gold. Heslin's training as an artist was unusual.
Having made the
Heslin is deeply
decision to leave his religious order in the late summer of 1968 he
influenced by Van Gogh, especially by his wonderful colour
wanted to further his art education immediately. He was directed to
harmonies and the energy and vitality with which he deploys non-
Christ's College, Liverpool, a new and radical catholic teacher
As a colourist himself Heslin is also acutely
training college which, a week away from the start of the new
aware of the methods of CĂŁÂ´zanne, his spatial organisation and the
academic year, offered him a place as a mature student. The ethos
More modern influences also play their part.
of the College was pragmatic, although it covered much of the same ground as an art college.
The students were expected to concern
themselves with volume, with notions of colour, rhythm and space, and were encouraged to set up their own practice, and after they had worked on it to explain what they were doing and be able to demonstrate how they were thinking.
The aim of the teaching was
that the student should understand the nature of painting as much as the method by which a painting is created. Besides drawing and painting there were classes in sculpture, pottery and design.
leaving college Heslin and his wife, who had studied with him, moved to Lancashire where he worked part-time as a teacher in order to fund the time he could spend painting.
They moved to
London in 1979, from which time Heslin has been a full-time painter and house-husband. The present series is primarily concerned with the idea of a fossil, which by extension embraces the physicality of antiquity, the living relic of past ages lost in the mists of time. important to the flow of Heslin's ideas.
Books and poetry are
His reading of Teilhard de
Chardin is doubly interesting, since Teilhard de Chardin was not only a Jesuit priest and philosopher, but he was also a geologist and palaeontologist, which chimed in with Heslin's interest in marks made by the use of primitive stone implements and the study of extinct, or about to be extinguished, species.
His reading of the 'Ariel' poems of Sylvia Plath was the inspiration for his ARIEL FOSSIL paintings and a line from a poem by Louis MacNeice provided the title for a painting.
ARIEL FOSSIL II is composed of etchings torn up and painted over. The etchings were made at Lowick House, Cumbria, where Heslin had a residency.
He also made linocuts and monoprints with
collage elements such as pieces of string to give depth and texture. After a rigorous assessment of the prints he decided what he wanted to keep, and those he wanted to destroy he ripped up and recycled into this series, which gradually assumed the lineaments of a female figure.
Many of Heslin's interests are concentrated into this image,
in particular the Bronze Age markings on stones in Scotland, as well as the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira, which are a constant point of reference to him. The notion of the fossil itself is here a means of getting back to our ancestral past, of firing the imagination as to how the people who made those marks lived, what they were thinking about and what caused them to make those signs and drawings.
The title of one painting, which comes from a poem by Louis MacNeice, is LET THEM NOT MAKE ME A STONE, the penultimate line of 'Prayer before Birth', a poem which provided Heslin to take his ideas further.
The figure is also fossil-like, but in addition it is
compressed, encased, held together, almost mummified. It gives the impression of being a prisoner, a victim, unable to escape into its environment, a notion enhanced by the fact that the surrounding background is a single colour, blue in various modulations.
almost embedded and entrapped into its a springboard for background.
The colour is very strong, applied in powerful
striations, like a zebra on the veld in Africa, although in colour rather than black and white.
Less fantastically perhaps the striations
resemble those African tribes who paint their bodies for festivals. The armless figure, squashed and compressed as she is by the flattened planes, is able to breathe the air around her which is represented by the blue veils drifting across her face.
may be, but there is still hope.
The figure in STAR FRAGMENT is freer, more relaxed.
comes from a previous series, the Indian series, which started as a head and shoulders and metamorphosed into a seated figure in an interior, possibly seated on a bed.
The pose is reminiscent of
Munch's PUBERTY; Heslin had made a point of visiting Oslo to see the Munch Museum when he and his wife had made their tour of Scandinavia on a tandem bicycle. There is, however, an important addition to the figure as originally conceived: a very prominent black painted cross is slashed across the upper part of the figure, almost obscuring the face.
Whether it is an acknowledgement of Heslin's
Jesuit past, or whether it is quite simply an armature, is up to the viewer to decide, but one cannot avoid some religious significance. It may not be specifically Christian, but could possibly owe something to a Tantric notion or to Tai Chi Chuan. The opposition of the orange body against the blue background of the lower half of the picture is a deliberate exercise in the theory of colour contrasts as employed almost instinctively by Van Gogh and more deliberately by Seurat.
A more complex rendering of the figure is to be seen in LANDSCAPE, although the pose is quite similar. figure and background are integrated.
In this painting
The planes going through
the head are linked with the planes of the space beside them, relating the figure to the environment and the landscape.
stripes on the body are here related to Australian Aborigine art, a device which Heslin uses to distance himself from any danger of realism in the figure.
He also abhors the notion of prettiness,
deliberately using crude colours.
The powerful blue brushstrokes
which almost attack the primitive, mask-like head represent the air, the element in which we exist and which we breathe and without which we would die.
WILDERNESS TREE FOSSIL and the study for it are closely related in pose but not in mood. Heslin started with the big oil painting, but because of inclement weather he was forced inside from his outdoor studio and began to work on the acrylic study. At this point we may consider Heslin's method of working.
He keeps both the large oil
and the smaller acrylic study going at the same time.
If he were to
finish the study he would then be unable to go back to the canvas, since the ideas would already have been worked out, he would already have covered the ground, so to speak. The figure in the oil painting has a feeling of freedom, of wildness, with the wind streaming through her hair, but she is not only a woman, she is also a tree, a single tree standing in the wilderness, hair and branches interchangeable.
She has a relationship with a Venus figure and,
more specifically, with the Winged Victory of Samothrace, yet she is also a seated figure, a seated figure who has metamorphosed into a tree rooted in the earth.
This painting in particular is inspired by
Heslin's visits to Scotland, away from the city, where the wind blows freely.
What strikes one immediately about NOTHING CAN ERASE THIS NIGHT is the extremely crusty surface.
Heslin's surfaces are often
heavy, but this one is exceptionally so.
The painting was proving
difficult to resolve, and needed continual reworking, again and again, trying new things and altering the image, which accounts for the clogged and nobbly appearance.
He paints across the whole
surface, so that if one area gets changed, the whole work has to be repainted.
This is parallel to the practice of Cã´zanne, who
repainted the whole surface if one small alteration had to be made. Unlike Cã´zanne, however, Heslin does not paint in front of the model.
Although he does make life-drawings with a model, and the
ideas may feed into the paintings, these are separate activities. Rays of light seem to be emanating from this figure, although she is unusually static despite the energetic handling of the paint. Perhaps this immobility owes something to the mask-like face and the cross which holds her in a rigid pose.
Interestingly the black
cross was added on the same day, or at any rate within the same two or three days, as it was added to STAR FRAGMENT and LANDSCAPE. The poetic title of this painting stems from a painting by Samuel Palmer which Heslin saw in Carlisle.
romantic painting put him in mind of a nocturne, the quiet evening service of Vespers, with a vestigial moon hanging high in the sky.
The notion of the archetype is promulgated in WHEN THE AGE WAS BORN I WAS HERE. The painting is related to ARIEL FOSSIL in that it has the properties of a geological discovery about it, perhaps a piece of agate which has been buried deep in the earth, but it is less compressed and bound than the previous FOSSIL pieces.
It almost looks as if it is dancing in an abandoned manner,
thrusting forward out of the picture space. Heslin was influenced by a book written by the Sioux chief, Black Elk, about Sioux rites, and he became interested in the Sun Dance, the notion of dance as a method of prayer and meditation, of getting outside oneself, or alternatively the idea of waiting for something to happen, such as waiting for the rain, and consequently a Rain Dance.
painting, as in the others, the blue brush strokes are an indication of the air passing across, and the figure, although alienated from its environment, is less of a victim and more hopeful than the previous ones discussed. Heslin claims not to be political, but his paintings exhibit a strong concern for the environment in general and for the rape of the Amazon forests in particular.
He was powerfully influenced by the
murder of Chico Mendez, who was the leader of the movement for Civil Rights for rubber tappers in Brazil and later recognised as an important environmentalist, and by the poem which Ian McDonald wrote as a tribute to him, 'The Sun Parrots are Late This Year', of which I quote the last two lines:
Is it my imagination that the days are furnace-hot, The Sun-parrots late or not come at all this year?
Heslin's painting OUTSIDE THE STONE, THE SILENCE is also a homage to Chico Mendez.
Although he usually avoids narrative in
his paintings, there is more anecdote in this painting owing to its polemical content. The barren tree is eloquent of the destruction of the rain forest, and the figure reflects the conflagration burning all around her. She almost looks to be on fire herself, emphasising the violence of the situation. The woman has a parrot head, linking her not only to the poem but also to the Bird Goddesses which are found in 'The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe' by Marija Gimbutas, a book which has much influenced Heslin.
She and the skeletal tree
stand out against the ashy background, tragic remains of a world which has passed.
The Garden of Eden is no more, and it is man
who has polluted it, now as much as in the Book of Genesis. Heslin believes that the Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient World had a more harmonious relationship to their environment, partly because it was more female in outlook and therefore supposedly gentler.
woman's curiously marked arm in this painting refers to an image recalled from an Australian Aboriginal painting, snake-like, sinuous and reptilian.
The title of the painting is an expression of Heslin's
sense of alienation and his notion of the obliteration that our present civilisation (if that is the right word) is no longer leaving behind any fossils.
SUN PARROT SHADOW DANCE is still concerned with McDonald's poem, but here there are no longer flames in the background, it is all ashy grey, burnt out, the figure standing out in high relief.
She is a
tree woman, representing the forest. The violence of her colouring, the reds and yellows the colours of flames, are all part of the agony she is suffering, while the black lines surrounding and traversing her head are indicative of her mental torture.
She, like her sisters in
Heslin's paintings, is a victim, whilst at the same time she is the embodiment of a primitive goddess.
The lightness of touch in IKON FOR A FREE SPIRIT, a painting whose title also refers to Chico Mendez, is an extraordinary contrast to the preceding paintings discussed. The painting was very quickly achieved, contrary to normal usage, when Heslin would have gone back and painted over the figure several times. The figure is almost ghost-like, a negation of itself, seeming to occupy its own space, paradoxically as an absence rather than a presence. The canvas is barely stained, as if its appearance personifies a distant memory rather than a positive presence.
The drips of paint come about
because Heslin turns the canvas round and round, working on it from the sides and upside down, to ensure that it remains fresh. Visible scoring lines made with the sharp end of the brush would, according to Heslin's usual practice, have been covered up by subsequent layers of paint.
In this painting, again unusually, the
colours are low-keyed, almost subfusc.
The canvas seems to be a
summation of the whole series and to point the way forward.
contains the idea of the fossil, and the head is that of the bird woman, but there is a lightness of being in the figure which reflects the title and offers the possibility of freedom to the victim.
Heslin's education at Christ's College, Liverpool, and his continuing self-education in painting have produced an extraordinary body of work.
The influences already cited -Van Gogh for his colour, Cã
´zanne for his spatial organisation and Rouault for his drawing and colour - are joined by Klee, principally for his ideas as manifested in his books 'The Nature of Nature' and 'The Discerning Eye', whose contents contain his teaching at the Bauhaus, and Soutine for his angst-ridden portraits.
One must add to these Heslin's admiration
for Tapiãµs, his wonderful richly textured, almost wall-like paintings in which a cross is often embedded, and Rothko, whose planes of rich colour exist in space and involve the viewer, drawing him into the painting.
Very important too is Jackson Pollock, principally for
his energy and his sense that anything may be pressed into service to achieve his ends.
Pollock it was who said: "There is no
accident", a statement which proves that his painting, far from being random marks, was the product of long and hard thought. finally it was Pollock who said: "I paint what I am". epitaph could a painter have?
Certainly Heslin would endorse that
statement. Mary Rose Beaumont
List of works 14
Ariel Fossil Acrylic on Paper 71 x 51 cm
From the Age of the Sun Parrot Oil on canvas 132 x 112 cm
Outside the Stone the Silence oil on canvas, 137 x 52 cm Star Fragment Oil on Canvas 106 x 91 cm Landscape Oil on Canvas (1526mm x 1068) Wilderness Tree Fossil Oil on Canvas (1982mm x 1678mm) Nothing Can Erase This Night Oil on Canvas (1578mm x 1068mm When the Age Was Born I Was Here Oil on Canvas (1068mm x 916mm) Ariel Fossil 11 Acrylic on Paper 75 x 51 cm Outside The Stone The Silence Oil on Canvas (2134mm x 1678mm) Sun Parrot Shadow Dance Oil on Canvas (1524mm x 1270mm)
Ikon for a Free Spirit Oil on Canvas (1320mm x 1068mm) 15
An earlier series of works with a critical review by Mary Rose Beaumont; - with an underlying environmental theme.