The tentative beauty of Basil Blackshaw's art


Basil Blackshaw cleared himself a corner in Northern Irish art in the 1950s, and he has lost none of his ability when it comes to the exploration of the 'purely visual image'

Basil Blackshaw is one of the most highly regarded Northern Irish artists to have emerged during the 20th century, and he is also one of the most brilliant. To mark his 80th birthday, the Royal Hibernian Academy and the FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio in Co Down jointly invited the artist to select a retrospective exhibition. As even a cursory glance around the show at the RHA will confirm, he is a brilliant draughtsman and painter, fluently adept while never interested in showy virtuosity. In fact, a significant component of his brilliance has to do with this quality of reticence, a reticence that could even be described as evasiveness.

Blackshaw was an early developer: he was acclaimed as a precocious talent and enrolled in Belfast College of Art when he was 16. But from early on he managed to sidestep any of the things that might have stereotyped him as a great, “official” Ulster painter, or as pretty much any other kind of establishment figure. In his 1957 essay A Portrait of a Young Man as the Artist, John Hewitt presented a concise overview of Northern Irish art of the time and concluded that Blackshaw was “clearly the most promising of the Northern painters of his age group. He has, in spite of his youth, cleared a corner for himself among the artists of this country.”

“Cleared a corner” strikes just the right note for a distinctly rural artist. Blackshaw’s instinct has been to keep that corner consistently clear. Traditionally, artists tended to make a living by teaching part-time in the schools they have attended. In Belfast, Blackshaw found himself working as an assistant to his teacher, Romeo Toogood, whom he admired greatly and acknowledged as an important influence. But, as he put it bluntly: “I wasn’t interested in teaching.”

When a heavy spell of snow prevented him getting in to the college, he simply didn’t go back once the snow had cleared. He walked away from a subsequent job in a technical school in the same way.

Artistic approach

It has been noted that Blackshaw’s work does not engage directly with the Troubles, which echoes similar criticism of Seamus Heaney. Equally, it could be said, Blackshaw did not get pointlessly diverted into mainstream modernism, gravitate towards the British art world, or relax into a provincial version of either, a fate that befell many Northern Irish artists preceding and contemporaneous.

Not that his record is unblemished. Blackshaw has owned up to being unduly swayed for a while by the 1980s vogue for neo-expressionism, an influence evident until about 1990. But in general he has not been averse to influences. There are many, some obvious, but he has usually managed to absorb them well, infusing them with what Hewitt termed his “characteristic intensity”, an intensity deriving from and “within the circle of his experience”. It is this immediacy that comes through strongly in his best work.

Oskar Kokoschka was an early influence, but Blackshaw quickly became wary of the risk of painterly swagger underlying such a bold, expressive manner. Paul Cézanne was and perhaps is important with respect to Blackshaw’s approach to landscape but he has always made something personal and exceptional with anything taken from Cézanne. As early as 1953 his The Field is a superb, fully achieved, iconic painting.

Alberto Giacometti is another enduring influence, most notably in the portraits, figure paintings and nudes. In one sense Blackshaw, at home in muddy rural lanes amid dogs and hens and horses, may seem like an unlikely painter of the nude, but he was lucky enough to encounter a model, Jude Stevens, who has been an inspired collaborator in a long series of very fine paintings. Stevens has also written informatively about the experience of working with Blackshaw.

Sketchy quality

Lecturer and critic Mike Catto once referred to the “hesitation” of Blackshaw’s style, immediately pointing out that hesitation wasn’t quite the right word. But it does convey Blackshaw’s practice of only taking a painting as far as it needs, and of closing in on it as though he is stalking it. He never goes for an overly elaborate finish, lending a great deal of what he does a beautifully tentative, sketchy quality.

On occasion, the image as such is barely there, bringing to mind the Lacanian idea expounded by Darian Leader in his book Stealing the Mona Lisa that a painting is in essence a screen for what lies beyond it, a decoy designed to engage our attention.

Blackshaw’s most fully achieved exposition of this idea – and there is no suggestion that he was consciously setting out to do this – is in a magnificent series of Windows paintings made in the early 2000s. As minimal and spare as Rothkos, with a more austere palette, these works indicate how serious Blackshaw is about what he does.

The impulse to configure the painting as a screen is evident in every area of his work, including figure paintings and portraits. It should be said, though, that when he paints people and, even more so, animals, they are certainly there before us. Just look at his paintings of dogs or horses in isolation, and you can feel a direct, nervous connection with a living animal.

Blackshaw prioritises that moment of looking. He is famously uneasy about theorising. When he noted, in an interview with Brian Kennedy, that he would like to own a drawing by Joseph Beuys, he quickly elaborated: “I think his line is beautiful.But there again talking about association, Beuys had a philosophy behind his work but I took no notice of this.

“I just love his line and love his images. I wouldn’t want to know what they are about, it doesn’t matter to me. People always want to know what a painting’s about, but I don’t as long as I enjoy the image – a purely visual image.”

Blackshaw at 80 is at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin until February 24th

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