Reflecting, sometimes ironically but rarely without warmth, the aspirations of his paintings' protagonists, Bell's is a vision of urban society that oscillates between a grand, panoramic overview and a care for the small and quotidian. Fittingly for a painter-writer who in his much admired essay What is Painting? (1999) reflected on the changing shape of representational art in the Western tradition, Bell acknowledges a debt to the Northern European masters. From the world landscapes of Bruegel ('still the supreme boss of my department') he has developed his taste for far-roving perspective: the presentation of a crowd scene, sometimes including landscape elements, seething with detail, but masterfully orchestrated from an overhead viewpoint which takes in each incident in its fullness and weaves a narrative which the viewer is invited to unravel.
Contrasting with crowd scenes are calmer, more lyrical compositions, such as Rain or Bathing in the River Orb, where for all the contemporary detail (the transistor radios, wrist watches, mobile telephones that Bell likes to dwell on), there is an intimacy which recalls the artist's long-standing advocacy of the exquisite, small-scale works of the 17th-century German master Adam Elsheimer.
Throughout his career Bell has taken a distinctive position on the issue of pictorial style. Let the subject rule the treatment, he has argued: one scene may suggest a venture into the open brushwork of late impressionism, while another asks for the exactitude of the quattrocento or the Persian masters. What identifies the painter, for Bell, is not so much a set of repeated and recognizable techniques as his over-arching humane and philosophic concerns. When he writes that for Aristotle, painting can be 'a sane way of widening the mind's access to the world', he expresses his own beliefs. In this openness and freshness of vision - a characteristic reminiscent of his Bloomsbury forebears in the practice of both painting and writing - lies much of the appeal of Julian Bell's paintings.
Julian Bell was born in 1952 and grew up in Newcastle and Leeds. His father was the potter and writer Quentin Bell, and his grandmother the painter Vanessa Bell. In the 1950s he stayed frequently at Charleston Farmhouse in the Sussex Downs, the home shared by his grandmother with the painter Duncan Grant. He read English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford and subsequently attended the City and Guilds of London Art Schools. He was tutor at Goldsmiths College, London 1997-2001, City and Guilds of London Art School 1999-2008 and from 2009 at Camberwell College of Arts.
From the mid 1970s Julian Bell has worked full time as a painter. Extensive work and commissions, ranging from formal group portraits to inn-signs (following the tradition of Antoine Watteau and Dora Carrington) has, he claims, been as much a formative influence on his work as his training at art school. In 1990 he was assistant editor on the Grove Dictionary of Art and from then on began to write on other artists’ work for the Times Literary Supplement, later also Modern Painters, The Guardian, the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, with his poetry appearing in the London Quarterly. For three years he was an associate editor on Macmillan Publishers’ Dictionary of Art. Bell is the author of Bonnard (Phaidon, 1994) What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art (Thames and Hudson, 1999) which with many copies now in print has achieved a classic status, 500 Self-Portraits (Phaidon, 2000) and Mirror of the World: A New History of Art (Thames and Hudson, 2007), widely acclaimed for its innovative and global approach as an answer to E H Gombrich’s authoritative but eurocentric The Story of Art. A volume of his poems Three Odes was published by Dale House Press in 1997.
Julian Bell has been represented by Francis Kyle Gallery since 1993 with one-man exhibitions in 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2010. His work is in the Collections of Brighton Museum and the Museum of London.
‘Pictures are primary for me, but texts have complemented – or supplemented – pictures in my imaginative life for almost as long as I can remember. The kinds of pictures I loved as a child – an endlessly thumbed book of Bruegel reproductions, above all – naturally proposed stories to the mind, whether or not I knew the texts they referred to. This affected what happened when I started to make pictures with oil paint.
It was already too late, by then, for me to embrace the modernist tenet that narrative was not for ‘serious’ painters. Maybe I'm not of their number, anyway: I have always happily settled to be labelled a 'picture maker'. I love oil paint, and I love the look of the world, and I find that jointly, those two factors supply me with at least a lifetime's worth of challenges. The pictures that, as a result, I paint don't always have any narrative implications – often they are about nothing but looking and wondering. But should such implications arise, I have no impulse whatever to suppress them.
My pictorial 'wondering' is often a matter of staring round about, panoramically; and I think that's been my general impulse as a reader, too – to rove this way and that, trying to get a bigger sense of the world. In my recent book of global art history, I took that impulse rather to extremes… From all this it emerges that in general my pictures do not have stories 'behind' them. Rather, stories follow on from them. I start them saying, Let there be certain figures in a certain space. Then I ask myself, who are those figures? Where is that space? When was this? I research, I sketch, I sketch again. And through that process those images find a place in the solid actual world. And maybe that world comes to look like them.’
Julian Bell is a modern painter – and there are fewer of those than you might think. In a hundred years from now, Bell’s Grazia will be recognised as what it is: a superbly composed, lusciously painted distillation of a phenomenon which, by then, will have an exotic air of mystery. Yet in 2010, it is a challenging image. Why would anyone want to paint a nondescript family browsing the magazine rack in an ugly commercial space? Where’s the art in that? Why bother reproducing – in delicate brushwork – the covers of all those crass, ephemeral magazines? The answer given by Grazia is partly: Because this is what we find in the spaces we inhabit. But there’s more to it than that. Bell is every bit as fascinated by the light in this kind of place – the fluorescent, merciless irradiation that modern buildings produce at night – as Monet was fascinated by sunshine on haystacks. It is a light that encapsulates our age, and he has captured it.
All of Bell’s paintings are capturings of light, whatever else they may be. Beechams, an expressionist snapshot of a crowded pub, works on the level of a multiple portrait. These faces and bodies are alive. Yet it is also a painting about the peculiar light in pubs, that amber-stained, gloomily convivial, faux-campfire glow in which humans huddle for company. Rain is, at a glance, an incomparably different picture, but it, too, is a celebration of a very distinctive light. The fact that this display of aqueous luminescence functions equally well as a portrait of two lovers – one of whom is absorbed in texting – is an achievement which this picture carries off with quiet aplomb.
Perhaps my favourite Bell picture is Lewes Listens. Again, its most extraordinary achievement is the way it captures an optical phenomenon: the subtle intermingling of natural and artificial light in a large indoor space. It would be a gorgeous and impressive image even if the room were empty. The audience of provincials – some bored, some sceptical, some enthralled – provide us with a vivid profusion of character studies, a feat of ensemble portraiture seldom attempted since the days of Frith. In today’s arts scene, where even the most strenuously “controversial” gestures fail to change anyone’s preconceptions, a picture like Lewes Listens manages to be deftly provocative. It cannot be ignored: it’s too damn good for that. Yet the sorts of pundits who’ve only just come round to the idea that painting isn’t dead after all are likely to ask: Why paint a town planning meeting in East Sussex? The answer is, and will remain: to illuminate the people of our time.
Michel Faber, February 2010
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