From Abstraction to Figuration - Intoductory article to retrospective exhibition catalogue 'Un parcours atypique' by Annick Le Mée


It would be hard to imagine the journey travelled by Oliver Bevan over the last forty eight years of his career. With his insatiable curiosity for everything around him, his continuing search for a satisfying means of expression, the painter incessantly questions his artistic practice. Moving from Expressionism to Abstraction, from Op Art to Post Modernism, he gradually liberates himself from all constraints. In its many aspects his work is unexpectedly rich and diverse. We propose to show you the various stages which have taken him from Abstraction to Realsim.

Nothing about Oliver Bevan’s birth and early life in Peterborough (United Kingdom) in 1941 tends to suggest that one day he will consider an artistic career. A strong family tradition pushes him towards the financial world and he is sent to Eton at the age of thirteen. Despite being literary and artistic, he is badly advised and decides to specialise in the sciences for his ‘A’ levels. Mathematics however, fail to inspire him. Conscious of his mistaken direction, he continues to question his future. The built environment interests him, but his tutors seriously dissuade him because of the mathematical element in architectural studies. So what is he to do? He finds the answer to his question quite by chance when he follows a fellow pupil into the school’s open art studios. There he discovers something that will change the course of his life - oil painting.

Mad about painting from the age of 17, I nearly failed my exams. I was so taken by that stuff which I applied with a palette knife, with brushes... Most of the numerous canvases tended towards abstraction. My teachers wanted me to go to art school, advice which was not appreciated by my family. I was nonetheless determined to go.

Oliver Bevan now knows what he wants to do. With great determination and science ‘A levels’ behind him he swiftly puts his teachers’ advice into practice by applying to the Royal College of Art in London. His application and those of four other young men, are accepted. The prospect of teaching undergraduates intrigues the tutors who place them in a studio where they are to receive an intensive period of instruction. The idea is promising, but the staff who habitually teach much older and more experienced students, have some difficulty in understanding the needs of their new pupils. After six weeks the rhythm of teaching slows, the visits by professors become increasingly spaced out and eventually so rare as to leave the students more or less to their own devices.

Not that it matters. Oliver Bevan’s determination is still intact. An admirer of Pierre Bonnard, Jackson Pollock and Nicolas de Staêl, he wants more than anything to be ‘modern’. His first paintings waver between abstraction and expressionism, but his technique is inadequate, so he spends many hours drawing the nude in the studios of the Royal College. At twenty three, still searching for a form of expression to suit his needs, he attends a lecture by the artist and historian Peter de Francia. It was a revelation. Until then none of his professors had so excited him. De Francia’s lectures not only allow him to understand the work of Fernand Léger, but also, and more importantly, introduce him to the polychrome installations of Vasarely.

Not yet widely practiced in England, Op Art occupies an essential place in Oliver Bevan’s work between his student years and his later career. Closely tied to mathematical processes which he will never abandon, this artistic movement is not simply a continuation of Modernism, which dominated the thinking of artists of the time. It is above all a cultural manifestation accessible to everyone. Enchanted by its architectural aspect and the originality of these visual ‘games’, he sees new developments up ahead and interests himself in colour theory. The work of Josef Albers on the juxtaposition of colours fascinates him. Convinced that he has at last found his path, Bevan throws himself passionately into this adventure. In a flurry of squares, circles and triangles he abruptly deserts his former subject matter. Concerned by this sudden change of direction his tutors warn him of the impact that a final exhibition dedicated to a technique which he has not yet mastered, could have on the examiners. Having thoroughly considered this advice, but equally unwilling to give up on his idea, Oliver Bevan decides to split his exhibition in two. Inevitably at a disadvantage because of his lack of experience, the works he shows in the early summer of 1964, just allow him to scrape a pass.

Despite this setback he is not discouraged. More or less freed from financial pressure by a few hours teaching in an art school, he decides to devise his own learning scheme. After all, is not that just what he has already had to do at the Royal College? With the aid of a ruler and graph paper, he examines the constructions of Le Corbusier. Inspired by the works of Max Bill and Vasarely, he restricts himself at first to grey and white. Seeking visual ambiguity, he blocks in shapes, juxtaposes them, increases their variety, and with growing confidence enlarges the scale. Changing media, he moves from charcoal to oil paint. His work evolves. Conscious of the numerous interpretations which the human brain can provide, he exploits visual instability by the use of: broken links, simultaneous contrast, and interactions of colour. Pushing optical illusions to the limit, his work becomes vertiginous.

His first exhibition in 1965 at the Grabowski Gallery is highly successful. The approval of critics and collectors can only vindicate his choice of direction. Wanting to include more three dimensional effects, he adopts isometric perspective. With visual ambiguity always a priority, he explores many variants and paints a series of small gouaches, some of which he will use as the basis of large scale works on plywood. Having in mind an art accessible to all, he puts the spectator at the very centre of the work by devising interactive ‘puzzles’ whose colours and forms will evolve according to the visitors’ degree of inspiration.

The playful, yet at the same time intellectual aspect of this work succeeds with the public, and attracts the attention of the professionals. On the look out for an art work which he can divide, John Constable, art director at Fontana paperbacks, finds in Bevan’s blocks, a potential way of fragmenting a painting to form the jackets of a set of ten books. (page 12) The concept is full of possibilities. Not only does each book become in itself a work of art, but in conjunction with other volumes, an infinite number of patterns can be created. The first set, which presents the thinkers and theorists of the XXth century, was hugely successful, and it allowed the artist to realise one of his dearest wishes: Making the work of art democratic and accessible to everyone.

Always ready for a challenge, Bevan visits an exhibition of kinetic art in Brighton, where he finds an fascinating new means of expression. He decides there and then to find out how to make works of this kind. An artist to the core he tirelessly works, teaches, and explores the possibilities of kinetic art. Every couple of years he exhibits in London galleries (Grabowski Gallery, JPL Fine Art, London Arts, Jordan Gallery). His artistic life is a whirlwind and he never stops extending it’s limits. To improve his linetic works, he equips them with Polaroid filters and electric motors. Shown by the Electric Gallery of Toronto, these pieces attract a large public. The Beatles, (Ringo Starr, Georges Harrison), Mia Farrow... acquire his works. His increasing success results in the genesis of a kind of cottage industry. With the cooperation of various crafstmen his pieces appear in editions of fifty, to be sold in a London West End gallery. Insidiously a kind of routine starts to take over Oliver Bevan’s life, leaving less and less space for creativity. Technical aspects predominate.

In 1977, in full mid-life crisis, he decides to leave for Canada to teach painting at the University of Saskatchewan. This period of self questioning shows him the limitations of Op Art. The spell is broken. Despite being well designed, all those optical illusions and magic lanterns only make him feel more and more trapped. All of that lacks emotion and creativity. He confides his frustration to a colleague, the painter Mina Forsyth, whose words gives him a key to the way his work as an artist will evolve.

You must make your work out of your life, Oliver. There is nothing else!.

Oliver Bevan has never forgotten these few words. “Make your art out of your life.“ Say goodbye to magic lanterns and the imperious diktats of Modernism, to be just oneself.

But you cannot go from abstraction to figuration from one day to the next. Things move slowly, one step at a time. Soaking up the atmosphere of the places he visits, Oliver Bevan walks, watches, observes natural processes. The gouaches he produces at this time are pure feeling and sensation. Influenced by Mark Tobey, he paints with short brush strokes, works in pastel, and takes up photography. In 1978 he exhibits his last kinetic pieces whose blurry effects confirm their imminent disappearance

His return to London in 1979 puts an end to the Op Art period. Stressed by the noise and lack of space, he experiences some difficulty in readapting to city life. It is almost as though he is seeing London for the first time. With the aim of reappropriating his environment, he walks the streets and takes photographs. In no hurry to find new subjects he makes a series of pastel drawings based on shop windows and on his impressions of street life. The quality of his photography impresses the ‘Photographers Gallery’ of London, who buy a set of his prints and exhibit them at the photographic festival ‘Salford 80’. This exhibition entitled New British Colour Photography, not only confirms his status as a photographer but also allows him to make his own prints in a colour dark room installed in his own home.

The success of these photographic exhibitions makes him wonder about a possible career change. But what he loves most of all is the movement of the hand across the paper, that mysterious exchange between man and matter.

Even though photography is not his principal means of expression, it is an essential element, a way of seeing which accompanies him throughout his career. In the end everything was there, reflections, light, the city as a subject...

In the spring of 1981 Oliver Bevan finds a studio on the top floor of a building in the City of London. In between teaching a regular class there, he continues to make collages from torn papers painted in gouache, such as the circus series or the pebbles. These transitional works, together with a set of his photographs were exhibited the same year at the Angela Flowers Gallery. Needing a more flexible and sensuous medium he paints in oils again, for the first time since 1965, and creates a series of four canvases - ‘The writer’s study’

The view which he glimpses from his windows is inspiring. A chance event comes into play. Trying to help one of his students who was in difficulty, he sets about drawing the Underground station far beneath the windows of his studio. The plunging view of the street fascinates him and results in a small canvas which he finds too figurative. He is torn between two visions. Then an idea strikes him: compose his canvases as he woud have done a collage. This solution is perfectly adapted to his painting. Pleased by the outcome he decides to work on a series of big colourful canvases, with plenty of geometric elements. Trying to stay with abstraction, he flirts with cubism, simplifies and distills. The Underground, the street... everything excites him.

But the subjects he tackles push him unawares towards a more figurative art. Gradually real spaces and objects impose their presence, subtly altering the course of his work and pulling him towards the ‘Postmodern’ It is for him the end of Modernism.

Everything was possible, no need to apologise, we felt free to dive back into the past and mix styles as needed...

Delighted by this renewed freedom, he learns the trechnique needed to make monotypes. Taking his inspiration from his surroundings, he introduces some vehicles without really defining them.

The area around the Barbican provides him with a laboratory in real time. More drawn towards the dark side of the ‘city’ than by its aesthetic aspects, he decides to detach himsef from Modernism by his choice of subjects. The seeming ordinariness of a supermarket appeals to him. The colours generated by the fluorescent strip lights on the packaging, attract him, and he asks permission to take photographs. By now used to him, the shoppers pay no attention, unaware that they are to be the first human figures to appear in his compositions. This series contains both abstract and figurative works, one of which is in the collection of the Museum of London.

In 1982 with the city as his chosen hunting ground, he begins the ‘Subjective City’ series which continues until he moves his studio to Elephant and Castle four years later. Excited by the minimalist architecture of the Barbican, he transfers the sensations which this series of forms elicit in him onto the canvas. He prefers strong flat colours, and intensifies the contrasts, suggesting by these means a frightening yet exhilarating energy. Conflict, essential to the work of Oliver Bevan, is present in the daily life of each one of us. The survival of the species depends on it. Here it is the opposition of two possibilities: Modernism or Realism. This conflict never stops tormenting him. But everything is recycled, nothing is lost. The creative artist, if he allows himself the means, has the privilege, of realising his childhood dreams. Oliver Bevan wanted to be an architect. Was it not this notion that led him to paint the city?

From one canvas to the next, his microcosm of the city becomes peopled. Human figures appear and multiply.

Bevan’s work is exhibited from 1984 onwards in public galleries such as the Rochdale Art Gallery, the Minories in Colchester...He shares with Ron Bowen the privilege of showing some fifty canvases at the Barbican Arts Centre, London, the culmination of his urban period. Under the title of ‘City: Two Views’ this exhibtion confirms the position he already occupies in the art world.

In 1987 finding himself by chance under an urban motorway in West London his eye is caught by the forest of columns and spans. Considering it as a possible new subject, he instantly takes photographs which he interprets freely in chalk drawings on black paper. He paints ‘Westway’, his hommage to XXth century urbanism a set of almost abstract canvases, based on this jungle of lines and curves, full of power and rhythm, which transcend the armature of this futuristic construction.

One year later, just after he has started a new canvas called ‘Looking Back’ he is abruptly informed of his father’s death. Shocked by this sudden turn of events, he abandons his work and only takes it up six months later. It is at this time that he moves his studio from Elephant and Castle to his house in Shepherds Bush. When he starts work on this canvas again he begins to wonder about the meaning of ‘Looking Back’. Does it perhaps refer to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice? The coincidence is curious.

Photography has become indispensable for Oliver Bevan, a sort of extra memory which can be summed up in a word: the Minox. A tiny miracle, this first miniature camera had such a good lens that I was suspected of having a Leica!

The melancholy atmosphere of a late afternoon in Edgware Road inspires him. He takes a number of discreet shots with the Minox. As he tries to recapture the moment, he eternalises these passers-by in a series of vibrant, realist compositions.

The theme of ‘the street’ which begins in 1988 only ends in 1995 with ‘Coming Towards Me’. This picture which is at first sight no more than a simple view of people walking on a city pavement, is interpreted by the painter a year or so later as the ineluctable force of the life cycle. Each generation is represented. This well balanced composition leads from one age to the next, from childhood to adolescence, right down to the two old people wedged in their phone boxes at the bottom of the canvas. Brought up short by his own mortality, once again the painter is compelled to respect the power of the unconscious mind.

Innovative as always, he decides to organise group exhibitions around an urban theme. Well connected in the art world, he has no trouble finding a dozen established artists. With the title ‘Subjective City’ this first venture tours to prestigious venues like the Cleveland Gallery Middlesbrough, the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and concludes very successfully several months later at the Barbican Arts Centre in London.

In 1990, interested by a canvas called ‘City Under Pressure’, Gatwick Airport commissions four large canvases. The energy of the place cannot fail to impress him. Having obtained permission to take photographs on the tarmac, he puts together a library of images which provides the subjects for these four paintings.

The street, pedestrians, motorways, aeroplanes... Only one thing is missing: vehicles. He watches the cars in the frequent traffic jams near where he lives, After all, are they not also part of the daily life of the city? Sensing a potential subject he takes photographs of course. This subject, relatively little exploited by his contemporaries, fascinates him. With ‘One Way System’ Bevan offers the viewer another aspect of the urban environment

The theme of ‘people in the city’ suggests a further travelling exhibition, “Witnesses & Dreamers“. Together with eight other artists, he decides to exhibit eight canvases from the polyptych ‘One Way System’. By hanging them closely in two rows, the power of the subject is at its most intense. Shown in important galleries, the exhibition is very successful and finishes a few months later at the Museum of London.

Trying to find a big enough space to run his art courses, he discovers an unused classroom in a primary school. The place suits him and he decides to move his studio. Each change is followed by a period of adaptation. At first he continues his street paintings, but is rapidly attracted by the laughter and shouts of the children. Intrigued by all this he makes a point of watching them. This is an incredibly multi-cultural playground: Chinese, West Indians, Arabs, Nigerians, Pakistanis... the children speak sixty six different first languages! All of which generates a spontaneity and an incredible energy. Exposed to such high spirits, he can only reflect on his own somewhat repressed and unconfident childhood. This is so unlike anything he has experienced. Overwhelmed by these memories, he thinks again of the intense emotion he felt in front of the little Infanta of Velasquez in Las Meninas. He is obsessed by this painting. In a subtle chemical reaction, like a cocktai whose ingrediants are perfectly proportioned, the artists’s mental processes guide him towards a his subject. Finally in 1996 he starts the ‘Playground’ series. Diametrically opposed to the interiority of his passers-by, movement now becomes the focus of interest. Gradually the built environment takes second place, sometimes disappearing altogether. Bursting with life and variety, the playground offers the artist an ideal field of study.

In 1997 London’s Royal National Theatre offers him a retrospective ‘Urban Mirror’, containing some fifty canvases from the previous ten years of his career. Vehicles, pedestrians, motorways, all the subjcets concerned with the city are presented side by side. The number of visitors to the show is considerable and their reaction enthusiastic. Well covered by the media, the exhibition is an enormous success, and leaves very few paintings unsold.

In late summer for some years now, he gives over a couple of weeks to teaching painting near the city of Siena. Linking work with pleasure, and being away from city life, he lets himself glimpse other horizons. To encourage his students he starts to work on the landscape. The light of Italy and the strength of colour, give these works an expressionist quality. After a number of trips he realizes that the city is no longer indispensable for him. Wherever he is, painting is there too. He is free to go.

In 2001, he leaves London and moves with his family to Uzès, where he sets up his studio on the top floor of a building in the Place aux Herbes. While getting used to his new surroundings he continues to paint the London playgrounds. But the subjects are there. He only has to lean out of the window to see them. Far from the tensions of the playground, and in the strong sunlight of the South of France he starts the series ‘L’élastique’. Children are still present, but now they are his own, joyful and spontaneous, their energy is entirely free of conflict.

Light becomes his esential element. Scattering shadows, it slides between branches, splashes the pavement, dissolves colours, reinforces the contrasts. Over the years, by arresting present reality, Bevan lets us glimpse his daily life. Taking advantage of the high angle of view of his studio, he paints a series of diptychs which offer the spectator two viewpoints one vertical, the other horizonal.

Based on his trips to Italy he takes up the theme of the city and its inhabitants again, painting many canvases of the Piazza Duomo in San Gimignano.

The intensity of the light brings a new feature to his compositions: cast shadows. Back in the Gard under a blinding sun, he is captivated by the beauty of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes. By intensifying the contrasts, he makes us see the shadows as though they have been cut out on the ground. Coupled with a high viewpoint, this theatricality gives even more power and humanity to the figures. Without light there can be no shadow. Whether in front or behind, friend or foe, intangible proof of our reality, the shadow is part of the ambiguity of mankind. Exhibtied at the Galerie de L’Ancien Courrier in Montpellier, these canvases meet with a huge success.

One day when asked what his next subject will be, after a moment’s hesitatation, he comes out with ‘Rivers! I want to paint a hommage to Georges Seurat for his magnificent painting “Baignade à Asnières“. A few months later, inspired by bathing under the Pont du Gard, Bevan finds a satisfying composition without too much difficulty. ‘ Baignade sous le Pont du Gard’ is one of a number of river paintings, an ongoing series.

Like unceasing time, the river flows ineluctably on. More solid than light and shade, similar but always different, water becomes the perfect subject for the painter. In its most varied aspects: rain, river, or fountain, furious or almost evanescent, Bevan never stops telling us of its beauty.

Tirelessly, as he has done in London, the artist continues to take his camera when he walks in the city or on the beach. Enriched by what he has seen, the painter interprets and reinvents the simple moments of life with a total mastery of the relationship between form and colour.

Seeking a sensation so subtle as to be hardly there at all, Bevan places on his canvas a tiny incident which we had not noticed.

Attracted by contrasts, the idea of perfection is of no interest to him. With the human figure at the centre of his compositions, he delights in emphasising an ordinary detail. In the ‘Tuscan dinners’, a plastic bottle takes centre stage in a number of subtle modulations. Highlighting his own presence when he took the photograph, the painter has even forgotten his own glass; but nothing is posed for the sake of the composition. Each new subject is a world in its own right. Suggesting a possible harmony between man and the moment in time, between London and the Pont du Gard, via the sky sccapers of La Défense, Oliver Bevan lets us glimpse the reflection of a certain kind of happiness.

Annick Le Mée, Aigaliers, May 2012.