Julian Bell is a master of light and space.
In “Skylit Room,” a shaft of light descends from a skylight and dominates the canvas. Time passes as four men sit against three walls in stiff, ladder-back chairs, waiting to begin a spiritual exercise. Of course we cannot see the light move across the room in real-time but we know that it does. Time as a concept we know a priori is immobile, yet it continues to pass. We sense in “Skylit Room” a still frame from a motion picture.
“Shooters Hill” captures motion as well as light. We are in medias res. At the bend at the top of a hill, commuter traffic mixes with pedestrians. Multiple gazes cross paths and again we have the sense of a very fluid moment captured forever in time. On the left and closest to us, a young man stares hard at the woman to the right of center. There could be recognition here or there could be something more significant, more sinister. Perhaps, the moment before an illicit touch or even a grasp.
In “Bathroom in Bow,” a woman soaks in a tub in a sunlit bathroom, surrounded by the ordinariness of daily life: towels, clothes, a boom box, a bathroom scale. The lid to the toilet is up. Natural light cascades into the room and there is a square of bright sunlight reflecting off the polished tiled floor. Outside there is a courtyard. The mirror above the fireplace shows the neighbor’s flat at a hundred and forty degree angle from the center of the composition. We see the light first certainly because it is in the middle of the frame, but the theme of the painting is the woman who occupies the tub, and all of the space around her, including the out of doors. She is the center of the story.
Present in all of these paintings are the play of light and motion as well as the “consumption of space” by human beings. The commingling of these two in my mind constitutes a parallel to fiction. I am thinking here of Forster’s premise regarding plot versus story: when the queen dies of a broken heart you know you are on to something.
In the best example of this argument, “Light of Dawn Palermo,” based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard,” firmly captures the moment and the story at the breaking light of day. On the left, a long soiree in a golden ballroom is finally breaking up. A woman sleeps in her finery leaning against the wall. A man in coat and tails is still holding forth in front of the last of the diehards. On the right a bohemian, probably the dishwasher, perhaps himself a painter, drinks from a bottle, while over his shoulder dawn breaks over the city. The door in the center of the composition is the bridge between night and morning, between recreation and work, between old regime and new.
Each of these paintings share with Cézanne’s stills that the viewer is almost seeing around corners, around dimensions, around and through time. But this latter piece most directly highlights a conjunction of themes whereby fiction intersects with painting to preserve a human moment in time and space. Bell is both a writer and a painter and in an interview with Bell in The Tamarind, from April 2010, Giovanni Biglino, follows this thread:
GB: Looking at your paintings, it appears that light is a major preoccupation in your work. How do you approach light?
JB: The most difficult question first! In fact, when I’m at work painting, the thought of ‘light’ as such never enters my head. There are just different pigments which I put on the canvas to make the figures and the environment in my image look the way they need to look – that’s how I approach it – and some of those combinations of pigments happen to be lighter, some darker. (I wonder if this is the kind of Cezanne meant when he said ‘For the painter, there is no such thing as light.’) And yet of course when I stand back and look at what I’ve done, what stays in the mind is the light. I realize that I’m typically drawn to scenes where low-angled sunlight jangles against strong artificial light, and for that very reason I try to break my own habit, avoid my own clichés – do scenes where the light is very muted; where it’s all artificial; or where it’s high in the sky and purely natural. One canvas just has sunlight falling from a window in the ceiling into a room where four men sit with their eyes closed. And thinking of that, the best way I can express my sense of how this theme operates in painting is to get paradoxical and to say that light is natural metaphysics. It is a physical load of pigment with certain optical properties, and equally it is nothing less than understanding and grace.
Human beings, the interaction with the crowd and the surroundings, the human figure – these also appear to be important in your work
JB: Yes, that is what I am mostly thinking about when I’m making the pictures – rather than ‘light’, per se. My general theme is how human beings occupy environments, occupy different types of space. Or I could turn that upside down by saying, what concerns me is that a rectangular picture has got to have something in it, something that’s not simply coextensive with it, and that entity is generally going to be an analogue for myself or things of a similar nature, i.e. a figure, one way or another. Many of the present collection of pictures have become crowd-filled, as you say. Partly because I had the use of a big studio and thought I’d take the chance to try painting some big canvases – but more deeply because the artist I’ve always looked up to most is Brueghel, and I’ve always longed to imitate his panoramic sociological approach to humanity.
(cf. Giovanni Biglino, “Conversation With Julian Bell, http://thetamarind.eu/en/2010/04/19/english-conversation-with-julian-bell/; April 2010, Accessed August 2010)