He may be 77, but there is no sign of John Beard’s intellectual and painterly curiosity diminishing.

John Beard and After the Raft of the Medusa

A Common Theme

Born in Wales in 1943, the painter John Beard immigrated to Australia in 1983, quickly becoming an Australian citizen. Although compulsively peripatetic – and notwithstanding the pandemic – Australia remains home base for him and his wife, Wendy, with a secondary base in Greenwich, near London.

But the pandemic saw them isolating in rural Wiltshire in the UK. Both John and Wendy have medical issues which make them especially vulnerable to the virus. Here Beard completed a number of landscapes – a genre in which he has produced some outstanding work, including the exquisite 71 watercolour miniatures, The Beautiful and the Damned, from his Dunmoochin residency in Victoria in 1993.

Hill 3 (2021), oil on canvas, 155×135 cm

Another product of this period in Wiltshire in 2021 was After the Raft of the Medusa, Beard’s immense re-imagining of Théodore Géricault’s 1819 painting. Beard had exhibited preliminary studies for this work at his last Australian exhibition in 2016 at William Wright Artists’ Projects in Sydney. The 2021 version, however, was scaled to match Géricault’s original at 491×716 cm and shown in a grand mediaeval tithe barn near Salisbury converted by London gallerist, Johnny Messum, into a contemporary art venue.

At first glance, the Medusa project may not seem to have a lot in common with what has been a richly varied output over the last 25 years (including Beard’s most recent Australian exhibition at the Dominik Mersch Gallery in Sydney in November 2021) – landscapes, seascapes, portraits and the fugitive Uluru and Houses of Parliament paintings, not to mention the abstract work which preceded all of that.

In fact, all of this work has a common source.

Asking Questions

John Beard is a painter. His focus is on – “pardon ye word” – the teleology of painting, which involves deep reflection on the purposes and history of painting. If you want a definitive discussion of this programme, look no further than E.H. Gombrich’s illuminating classic, Art and Illusion (1960).

Starting from Kant’s famous dictum that “the innocent eye is blind, as the virgin mind is empty”, Gombrich asserts that the “innocent eye is a myth”. He adds: “If all seeing is interpreting, all modes of interpretation could be argued to be equally valid.”

Essentially, both Beard and Gombrich are concerned with the relationship of art and appearance, challenging the notion of the “innocent eye” and addressing the psychology of art – how we look at art, and how the act of perception is mediated by established habits of seeing.

As a painter, Beard takes these dynamics – what is represented, how it is represented and how we process our perception – and makes them the heart of his work. But, while he has from time to time dabbled with conceptualist conceits, he remains a painter and committed to the idea that painting is a way of generating meaning through the aesthetic object.

Having said that, Beard’s work is driven by ideas, invariably by the question: what if…? In this sense, all his work is part of an ongoing experiment.

Habit is a Great Deadener (Samuel Beckett)

Samuel Beckett (2012), oil/wax on linen, 48×41 cm, artist’s collection

Every Beard painting is autonomous and demands to be appreciated in its own right. However, each painting is also part of an ongoing programme to interrogate the function of painting. Indeed, every painting re-asserts the proposition that painting – indeed, all art – aims to renew perception and to call into question our assumptions about the visual world.

These assumptions are based upon visual habits, which include ways of seeing established by the whole tradition of painting – hence Beard’s re-imagining of The Raft of the Medusa (monochrome, viewed at a low level of light and consisting of a grid of square panels, hinting at the artist’s grid which ‘corrects’ what the artist sees) which asks us what we are looking at and to look past habit and re-assess what we see and what the painting might mean.

Similarly, Beard’s re-imagining of Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting, The Ambassadors (seen in in the recent Dominik Mersch exhibition) which prods us into questioning the visual habits established through looking at how painting has, over time, explored the nature and representation of appearances.

Over a long time, painting has typically used defamiliarising devices to subvert the assumptions we, as viewers, bring to the act of looking at a painting. Hence, Beard’s interest in the Holbein painting in which an anamorphic skull at the bottom of the painting forces the viewer to look at the painting, literally, from a new perspective. In Beard’s cropped version of the painting, the skull figures prominently.

After the Ambassadors (2021), oil on canvas, 131×200 cm

Fugitive Visions

After Adraga 6 (2009), oil/wax screenprinted paper, 71×71 cm artist’s collection

What I have called John Beard’s ‘programme’ dates from the mid-1990s and his Adraga paintings. He was living outside Sintra in Portugal at the time and had become fascinated by a massive rock called the Adraga just off the coast. The rock had an endlessly fugitive character, constantly transformed by the mercurial Atlantic Ocean and its light. (see John Beard in Portugal)

So, given its unrelenting mutability, what was the Adraga? The answer lay not with neo-Impressionist optics, but with an exploration of the psychology of perception, initially ushered in by the Post-Impressionists. It was less to do with the thing in itself, as with how the viewer responded to the thing. As Beard himself puts it, it is more about evocation that representation.

After Adraga, Beard soon turned to another visual conundrum – the human face. After all, this is never still, either. At best, a portrait is nothing more than a snapshot in time, but mediated through our feelings and perceptual habits. But the face is just one facet of the head and takes on different identities depending on the angle at which we view the head.

Head (2001-02), oil/wax on linen, 180×180 cm, NGA

This new preoccupation was announced in 1998 with Beard’s exhibition, Heads Phase III (part of The HEAD Project) at the Art Gallery of NSW and the Tate St Ives. The Rock and the Head (Stephen Lacey Gallery, London) followed in 2000, with The Head and Uluru (2002) and Headlands (2004), both at Boutwell Draper Gallery in Sydney.

Coastal Path (2005), oil, wax on linen, 120×180 cm, private collection

Each of these exhibitions took optical mutability, visual habit and conceptual process as both the material fact of the painting and its artistic subject.

Two-Two (2020), oil on canvas, 190×162 cm

Beard further explored the idea of the head as portrait, along with subjects such as Uluru, the ocean headlands off Sydney and the Houses of Parliament in London as visual icons whose visual identity nonetheless remained constantly mutable due to a constantly changing environmental context.

In these invariably monochrome paintings the viewer often has to peer intently at the picture in order to make out what they are meant to be looking at. The paintings re-assert the injunction: what am I looking at? These paintings seem to emanate from an antechamber of perception, underlining the fact that we can never take for granted what we are looking at. It is like listening to the Largo from Beethoven’s Op.7 piano sonata or the monumental slow movement of his Hammerklavier sonata: we often have to strain to hear the music as though it is coming from some other place.

Of course, there is another injunction at work here as well. Namely, that viewers of art are not passive. The work of art is not a given, but the result of an active collaboration between the work itself and the viewer. This is not an ideological exhortation, simply a fact – albeit one which viewers tend to overlook.

Through the Looking Glass

Given Beard’s preoccupations, it is not surprising that the distinction between abstraction and representation becomes irrelevant – either that, or the two are in a constant dynamic tension as the mind, through the agency of the eye, tries to make sense of the world we inhabit.

Harbour 7 (2021), oil, wax on linen, 51×69 cm

This is as true of the mid-90s watercolour landscapes as it is of the recent Wiltshire landscapes and Sydney Harbour marinescapes seen at Dominik Mersch. Similarly, the Vesalius Heads (seen both at Messums in London and Mersch in Sydney in 2021 and inspired by the 16th Century anatomist who identified 22 bones in the human head) which continued Beard’s exploration of the human head, especially the self-portrait.

Here Beard eliminated at the start all the knowns of a self-portrait – looking in a mirror, photographs, videos or existing drawings or paintings – and asked: who am I without the props?

The result is an exhilarating tussle between space and non-space, between the painterly/gestural and the austere serif Times Roman letters and numbers which anchor the dynamic, form-defying images of the heads. Likewise, the landscapes and seascapes are evocations, combining aerial and ground plane views, simultaneously abstract and representational.

As an artist John Beard is as mercurial as the subjects he explores. He interrogates many things, but especially the whole tradition of Western easel painting. This is a tradition often more honoured in the breach than in the observance – after all, what is that great tradition but an ongoing wrestle between ideas and the visual embodiment of those ideas.

John Beard and a ‘Vesalius’ self portrait