The tentative beauty of Basil Blackshaw's art
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.
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