John Beard, The Gods (1984-85). University of Western Australia Art Collection, gift of Nunzio Gumina, 1993. On display, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia, Perth, until September 28.
FOR three years John Beard painted portraits of his fellow artists for the Archibald Prize. Finally, in 2007, he won the celebrated award with his picture of friend Janet Laurence.
In the two previous Archibald competitions, he’d painted Ken Unsworth and Hilarie Mais, and while those pictures didn’t take the top prize, they were hung in the finalists’ exhibition.
Beard’s criteria for choosing his portrait subjects could be considered pretty tough. He once said he had to like the artist, know them as a friend and respect their work; they also had to be ‘‘ reasonably good looking’’.
While Beard is well known for his portraiture, he is also versatile in his artistic practice: the year before his Archibald success, he won the coveted Wynne Prize for landscape with his painting The Gap.
Born in Wales in 1943, Beard immigrated to Perth in 1983 to take up the position of head of painting at the Western Australia Institute of Technology (now Curtin University). Before moving to Australia, he’d been awarded the Welsh National Art Scholarship in 1962, aged just 19, and had studied at the University of London and the prestigious Royal College of Art, London.
When he resigned from teaching in 1989, he became something of a nomad, travelling extensively and establishing studios in Lisbon, London and, in 1997, Sydney. While he still continues to paint and exhibit, he also has held significant administrative positions, such as a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW.
Given Beard’s distinguished career, it is interesting to look back at one of the first paintings he produced after moving to Australia. The Gods (1984-85) documents his initial impressions of a landscape as viewed from the perspective of the outsider. Created during a period when he was interested in neoexpressionist painting, it blurs the boundaries between abstraction and figuration.
The Gods is on show at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, on the campus of the University of Western Australia, and when I visit Perth I’m shown the painting by Ted Snell, University of Western Australia museums director and a Perth-based art critic for The Australian.
When Beard arrived in Australia he occupied a large studio in Fremantle and his work adapted to the massive scale the space afforded. He proceeded to produce works such as The Gods, which highlights thick layers of paint and scraping into the surface.
‘‘ The Gods shows that he came out of the royal college at a time when there was a strong interest in Picasso and Picasso’s late works,’’ Snell says. ‘‘ You can see that Picassoesque construction of the figure and very, very densely worked acrylic.
‘‘ John was working in a studio in Fremantle, an old warehouse which had a tin roof and it was fiercely hot. He is a macho sort of guy and he loved the idea that he had to work so quickly because it was so intensely hot and this acrylic paint was drying so quickly.
‘‘ He was painting these very large canvases and they were quite different in terms of their surface and their presentation of Western Australia. He was using a different palette, a much more acidic and acerbic palette than anyone else was using.’’
According to Snell, Beard’s work came as a shock to many artists and he had an impact on many of his students because of his energy, his dedication and commitment.
‘‘ John was definitely the iconic figure who was doing things that were totally different, with energy and an international focus, and this was a dramatic and radical change in attitude to the way many local artists thought about their work.’’
Synthetic polymer paint on linen; 203.2cm x 251.5cm