During the Christmas / New Year break I went on a road trip to some of my favourite places.
My mini cultural tour took in The Hepworth in Wakefield, The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, MIMA in Middlesbrough, Baltic Mill in Newcastle/Gateshead and then on to Edinburgh.
I managed to see some exciting and interesting art shows on my personal cultural Olympiad. Highlights were Jim Shaw at Baltic Mill, Liliane Lijn and Jannis Kounellis – two brilliant and surprising shows at MIMA, Jitka Hanzola’s photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and the Peploe show at the Gallery of Modern art also in Edinburgh (I do like a Scottish Colourist every now and again).
But the two stand out shows I saw were the “Hospital Drawings” by Barbara Hepworth at the Hepworth in Wakefield and the John Bellany retrospective “A passion for life” at the National Gallery in Edinburgh.
The surprising thing for me was the complete contrast in the NHS inspired series of paintings by each artist.
Looking at Hepworth first, I should declare now she is one of my favourite artists, she completed a series of paintings born out of both her socialist roots and as a homage to the surgeons who operated on her child. The stark fact remains that had the NHS not been created just before the operation the cost would have been immense and possibly beyond the purse of Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson. Indeed Nicholson made public his gratitude on this point. The NHS is, in my view, the proudest achievement of the United Kingdom, but I digress.
The works are masterly, engrossing, and quite astonishingly different to what I expected. They are drawings focused almost exclusively on the eyes and hands of the surgeons and nurses. The smooth and simple approach is a mirror to her sculpture but the patient and the surroundings are ethereal and indistinct.
Hepworth, as the external observer, has captured the skill and the intensity quite brilliantly, the eyes hold the paintings together, the surgical masks making the fine painting in this area especially impressive.
The yellowish pigments give an almost sunny feel to many of the paintings that lifts them, needed as the surgeons and nurses are almost always looking down to the space where you know a patient lies. The surprising thing for me is the lack of focus on the patient, the remoteness of the imagery. Therein lies the contrast with John Bellany…
John Bellany has had an exciting life I think its fair to say. It has not been without its ups and downs, but he remains a powerful exponent of his art. Sometimes I find his work hard to read and hard to engage with, but I was taken aback by the paintings and drawings he made as a patient in hospital.
The show opens with this most unusual series of works. Bellany needed a liver transplant in 1988, it was a tricky operation, he had been quite unwell even after giving up alcohol. Professor Sir Roy Calne agreed to operate however, at Addenbrookes Hospital, in Cambridge.
The operation was a tremendous success, and, almost unable to believe he was still alive, Bellany asked for a pen and paper immediately. He started painting and drawing on almost anything he could get hold off and you get the sense this was his way of proving to himself he was alive and that he would not waste his remaining time.
Like Hepworth he drew the doctors and nurses who were caring for him, but unlike Hepworth he had the customer perspective. He was painting his personal and very real experience and I think the paintings are more powerful for that reason. The draughtsmanship is not of the quality of Hepworth, after all he was recovering from life threatening surgery, but it carries greater impact for me.
The portraits are packed with emotional punch, they are not especially visceral but they grip you. Bellany stares out at you the viewer of his recovery. Like Hepworth the eyes are crucial , but there are no down turned views from Bellany.
After the initial surprise I found the works peaceful and almost sunny, they share a palette with Hepworth in Bellanys use of orange and yellow making the works glow in the background. I especially like “self-portrait 23 May 1988” and the almost reverential “My hand 15 May 1988”.
Why compare the two? after all more than 40 years separates their production and the two artist could not be more different.
Well what I like is that both artists had the same thankfulness for the NHS and both paid homage to the professionals who cared for them. But more than that I think it is a helpful, if a little unusual, illustration of the power of customer insight.
The reality of Bellanys first hand experience makes his works much more powerful to me and whilst they may never win an award for composition or draughtsmanship (he was recovering from major surgery remember) they are borne of reality not assumption or observation.
That’s a good lesson for a Marketer I believe.
19 January 2013