Tony Bevan Painting Heads Klaus Ottmann

Tony Bevan’s paintings share with Cézanne an “abstract” fascination with peculiarities, which finds its expression in the titles of his works – giving prominence to seemingly secondary elements of the composition, such as Black Chair, Exposed Arm, or simply Horizon, - thus replacing one pictorial order with another; or as Wittgenstein would say, one magic with another.

Using his own body as model, Bevan has been painting “exposed” structural portraits, not unlike Leonardo da Vinci’s “mechanical” anatomical drawings, which oscillate between natural and abstract representation and not only endowed Leonardo’s anatomical drawings from dissected corpuses with an unprecedented living quality but reconstructed his “objects” in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of their (physiological) functioning.  Leonardo’s figura istrumentale dell’omo (man’s instrumental figure”) is reflected in both Bevan’s paintings of heads, as well as his architectural studies of rafters and his studio tableaus.

Tony Bevan is sometimes associated with a tradition of British figurative painting that began in the 1940s with Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.  Now commonly known as the School of London (named so by R.B. Kitaji in 1976), it has been applied to painters as distinct as Frank Auberbach, Leon Kossoff, David Hockney, Jenny Saville and Peter Doig.

But Bevan has little more in common with this group than an interest in the human body.  He is a peculiarly singular figure amidst that honorable tradition of British painting.  Unlike his peers, Bevan paints himself exclusively, and most frequently, and rather persistently, his own head is the preferred subject.

But it is not a simple head, not the head we encounter on the figure of the modest man who greets visitors in his studio, nor the gentle face he himself sees in the mirror shaving each morning.  Bevan’s paintings feature the distorted facial features recorded in photographic studies he takes of himself, usually close-up shots of his head taken from odd angles that over-emphasize his nostrils or accentuate his neck and chin.  Mainly Bevan’s heads are heads without bodies; heads balanced on abstract imaginary horizon lines, sometimes leaning tenderly to one side, occasionally supported by ladders or other props.

Furthermore, Bevan does not paint faces.  A face is an exterior structure, much like the façade of a building. Like Bevan’s paintings of deconstructed roof spaces and, most recently, of stacked studio furniture and tableaux of aggregate objects in his studio, his heads are internal, architectural structures.  Increasingly the black or red scar- like links that appear in his earlier self-portraits and reappear in his later architectural paintings as rafters have been moved inside his head.  The most recent heads not only seem to incorporate the organic architecture of his body, but appear to be completely autonomous, unlike Marc Quinn’s remarkable frozen head, which is cast in several pints of his own blood and depends on an elaborate cooling system.  More reminiscent of works by Kiki Smith, which seem to unite body and mind into one visceral structure, Bevan seems to have relocated his body inside his head.  Some of his heads even resemble organs, particularly hearts.  ..... continued

Valencia: IVAM, 2005 Painting Heads


Klaus Ottman is an independent curator, writer and philosopher based in New York.  He is the author of numerous texts on art and philosophy and the curator for the 2006  International SITE Santa Fe Biennial.

Firstly, then, I perceived that I had a head, hands, feet and other members composing that body which I considered as part of perhaps even as the whole, of myself.  I perceived further, that the body was placed among many others, by which it was capable of being affected in diverse ways, both beneficial and hurtful; and what was beneficial I remarked by a certain sensation of pleasure, and what was hurtful by a sensation of pain […] and although I may, or rather, as I will shortly say, although I do possess a body with which I am very closely conjoined; nevertheless, because on one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I (that is, my mind, by which I am what I am) is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.  -Descartes, Meditation VI

The Cartesian body/mind split as a schizophrenic condition was first described by the Geman judge Daniel Paul Schreber who began psychiatric treatment in 1884 and whose published account of his own illness was later used by Freud in his Psycho-Analytical Notes Upon an Autobiographical Case on Paranoia.  Schreber suffered from a distorted body image that made him believe, among other things, that his stomach and his intestines had disappeared.  Later, in their critique of Capitalism, Anti-Oedipus, Félix Guttari and Gilles Deluze speculated that the schizophrenic “body without organs” may be a product of Capitalism.

The schizophrenic “body without organs” has a parallel in art history in the changes that emerged in the pictorial order at the beginning of the Renaissance.  The pre-Renaissance (Trecento), Italo-Byzantine paintings of Duccio di Buoninsegna surpassed Byazntine art in their illusionism and naturalism and were characterized by delicacy and fluidity of form. Duccio’s overall compositions were visual dialogues between representation and void, figure and space, solid and fluid; between form – the silhouettes of the figures in the “foreground” – and formlessness: the shimmering gold plane in what the modern viewer perceives as the “background”.  Renaissance painting relegated the “formless” gold plane of Trecento painting to a background understood as secondary, and ultimately replaced the intuitive “lived” perspective of Trecento painting with invented landscapes constructed in linear perspectiva artificialis, devised by the architect Fillippo Brunlleschi and first applied by the painter Masaccio.

But as the art historian Henri Focillion reminded us, “the space of art is a plastic and changing material.  We may find it difficult to admit this, so completely are we influenced by the rules of Albertian pespective.  But many other perspectives exist as well”1  The perspective of Renaissance art, in other words, is only one of an infinite number of symbolic constructions.

Consequently, beginning with Cézanne, Modern art is filled with confusions of pictoral orders.  According to Mauice Merleau-Ponty, the influential phenomenologist, Cézanne was the first to rediscove the “lived perspective” of pre-Renaissance art: “By remaining faithful to the phenomena in his investigations of perspective, Cézanne discovered what recent psychologist have come to formulate: the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one” 2

1 (Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art (Zone Books, New York, 1992), p69.)

2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty “Cézanne’s Doubt” in the Merlau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed Galen A. Johnson (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illl 1993), p.64.