One of Ireland's most enigmatic artists Basil Blackshaw – who once attended an art exhibition with a bag over his head rather than be photographed – has finally provided some insights into what motivates and inspires him.
The 82-year-old Co Antrim painter was persuaded by his friend, journalist and art expert Eamonn Mallie, to slightly open up for the cameras in a programme, Basil Blackshaw: an Edge of Society Man, to be broadcast tonight on BBC2 Northern Ireland.
Blackshaw, who Mallie describes in the programme as a “figurative painter with a later tendency towards the abstract”, is noted for his paintings of people, landscape and animals such as greyhounds and horses.
His portraits include playwright Brian Friel, actor Clint Eastwood, former Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby, politician John Hume, poet Michael Longley and writer Jennifer Johnston.
In the programme, Blackshaw explains that, for his own artistic fulfilment, his work must have “excitement”.
Asked by Mallie why he had used bits of cardboard and newspapers in his portrait of Eastwood, he says that if he had just used paints the work would not have had any “spirit”.
Capturing Clint Eastwood
“Painting a portrait of Clint Eastwood was not going to be enough. I mean I had to do something that was a bit more exciting,” he says.
Blackshaw also explains how, when his studio beside his home near Antrim went on fire in 1981, he was prompted to break new artistic ground. “At the time the studio burned down, I was painting realistic landscape-type paintings that were getting nowhere,” he says. “I could go and do the same thing all over again any day.”
The fire was a catalyst for him to do something new and more challenging.
He tells Mallie that Cezanne was a great influence, particularly the “sense of space” in his paintings. “All I know is that they had some sort of an effect on me that made me want to paint, that made me want to make marks and shapes and forms and get the elements of art.”
Blackshaw, perhaps mischievously, tells Mallie that if he had not been a painter he would have been a butcher. He says his inspiration can come from anywhere.
“It could be a piece of paper lying on the floor out there. It could suggest a starting point, anything [could suggest] a starting point. That’s really it. It could happen anytime, anywhere, any day. You never know when it is going to happen.”
Even with this warm and engaging profile, Blackshaw remains a deliberately elusive figure who is reluctant to divulge too much of himself. It’s left to friends and admirers to explain the eminence of his work.
“Whether it’s the painting of a cock or a horse or a woman or a bunch of flowers or a landscape, you are looking at much more than the subject; you are looking beyond the subject into the artist’s own soul,” Longley tells the programme.
The profile recounts how, at an art exhibition in Cork, Blackshaw put a paper bag over his head with the eyes cut out so that he could not be photographed. “There is a delinquent streak in Basil Blackshaw which is hugely releasing and refreshing and an essential part of him,” says Longley.
Former Irish Times chief critic and literary editor Brian Fallon says Blackshaw "has no equal" in Britain or Ireland. "He is as good as any painter in Europe I know."