Friday, 22 April 2011
Syd Barrett – Art and Letters
Idea Generation Gallery
Luckily I stole into this exhibition the day before it closed. Tipped off by a friend, he felt I should know it was on, and that it wouldn't be on beyond the weekend. I'm glad he told me.
The exhibition was a unique opportunity to see Barrett's artwork and read his personal letters. With the full cooperation of his estate, it's unlikely we'll be treated to something on this scale, and this intimately personal again in our lifetimes. It was a privilege to attend.
The standard of his artwork was variable, but when his canvases were good, they were highly accomplished works, and in a different league to exhibited works by the likes of Bowie and Dylan. Barrett studied under a scholarship from the prestigious Camberwell School of Art and Crafts, and unlike other rock star artists - due to his reclusive life, his return to and dedication to the craft is unparalleled in the music world. In a nutshell, the main reason for his superior work is that he had a firm grounding, followed by uninterrupted time to develop and become really good.
And you can see progression. The bolder, playful colours of his earlier works become darker, but sharper. There is clever use of perspective. One grey painting of a piece of barbed wire is finely honed in the centre, as if photographed by an expensive lens, with the surrounding area blurring into emotional abstraction.
A grid-inspired lino print is cleverly orchestrated - deceptively simple in pattern, with a blackish hue, yet every square is fully planned before setting lino to paper.
But sadly too, you can also see decline. As his health and will began to ebb in the closing year of his life, his work returns to an earlier boldness, but the handful of still lives are unfocussed. They're unremarkable, the brush strokes rushed and artless, and you can sense the love is fading.
In a room of their own are the early love letters he sent to girlfriends Libby Gausden and Jenny Spires. Barrett is a man with a soft heart. His handwriting is skittish, his prose and surreal poetry are punctuated with accompanying doodles. This is the hand of a doting sweetheart. The letters are of interest, not just because they're letters from him, but because on another level, they're a reminder of how pliable the heart is before maturity teaches us emotions aren't everything.
Seeing his heart fully open and bursting not only with love, but with a protective air over his girlfriends, induces a genuine sense of melancholy for his vulnerability and intensity. For a brief time, we're free to reflect on how idealistic love seems to be a privilege of the young.
In all sincerity, this was a beautiful exhibition and an unexpected window into those secret years, and formerly, an innocent mind.