The trees are coming into leafPhilip Larkin, ‘The Trees’
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Subdued, sombre, undemonstrative, potentially desolate: the current of feeling that runs through these words and the rest of the short poem by the English poet Philip Larkin has many strands: the cycle of death and rebirth, the complications of our relationship with nature, and the struggle to make some sense of a world in which there’s always more going on than we’re aware of. A ‘something almost being said’, beyond – even below – our hearing. Larkin’s poetry, written in the middle of the last century, is deceptively simple. Everyday words, speech that’s far from ‘poetic’ diction, bring us directly to a true poetry, the sublime embedded in the everyday. In its rather different handling not so much of the everyday but of the casually overlookable, the paintings of Yves Beaumont carry a strikingly similar charge. To change to a more apt metaphor, of tactility, these landscape paintings can be harder to grasp than might appear. (These are paintings with a strong physical presence.) Though they’re not difficult to understand in the obvious sense, as with some classic creations of High Modernism, they’re nevertheless paintings that simultaneously offer and withhold. There’s more there than we glimpse at first. The waters in his Waterlines series have depths we can’t fathom; the thickets in his forest landscapes shut off more than the paths between them reveal.
It’s a happy coincidence that Larkin is writing not just about nature, but to be exact, about trees. For Beaumont they’re one of his constant themes, a strong marker for his undogmatic geometry. Trees, the vertical, recur whether individually, as in the Orchard series, or massed together in towering forests. Intermediaries between earth and air, roots and branches plunging deep into each, lacing the land to the sky.
And if not trees, then water. The horizontal. Parallel ripples over the surface of water itself (‘Waterlines’), or the low tide of the estuaries and sandbanks where the sky is reflected in the flat plane stretching out to a distant sea.
But the subject of a painting is not always what can be seen; Yves Beaumont paints the landscape, the treescape, the seascape, and his constant concern is not so much the horizon, seen or unseen, the sky present or hidden, but rather the element they appear in – light itself. Indeed this was the title of his first exhibition here with us at studio1.1. “Licht. Light”.
As we wrote at the time (February 2008):
‘The vehicle carrying the image through into our world is always light; defining the landscape at the dissolving midpoint of image and abstraction, light is the constant element explaining the world to the painter. As the act of painting obscures the landscape a different light reveals the work, leading us in turn to a re-interpretation of that work and its point and place of origin. Our focus changes in looking, as we search what was the landscape upon what is the canvas: the paintings recede constantly but are stopped before any horizon. With this unnerving sense of unresolved distance these fragments become new; simultaneously true and transformed from truth.’
Nature abstracted, in other words, but all the same specific. The places he habitually chooses, the ones he goes back to physically and metaphorically are quite close to home, his neck of the woods. They actually exist, these treescapes. The forests of the Ardennes, for instance, where the sky is simply a space that bisects the thick paint of the encroaching dark, endless woods. The sandbanks and mudflats to the West of his native Ostend.
Abstracted, to some degree, but we are always borne back to the image. These are paintings, unusual today, with a strong emotional charge. These stripped-down views, typically in a bi-tonal palette, no more, draw us in precisely by virtue of their reticence. They refuse, and their refusal to play Po-Mo games. The tropes of the effortful struggle to impress are all a long way off. This is painting that works in ways that are somehow clear and ambiguous all at once, being equally brushstrokes and ripples of water, obscuring dark blocks of paint and dense woodland. Memories in the artist’s mind chime with memories of our own.
Most of the time the subject is not outside the painting, because the subject is the painting itself, rather than the painting as reference point to a specific external reality. These woods, this water, are locked in the memory, this respect for the geometry of the images necessarily makes them into fragments of an idealised landscape, rather than photographic representations or plein air studies. At the point at which the land dissolves, or the forest closes in, the horizon itself comes into question. Does light or darkness have the stronger value?
The Channel shores inevitably establish a link with England across the sea, the England of Constable and Gainsborough, painters of intimate, yet bravely re-imagined topography, but most particularly of Turner, Beaumont’s great hero. JMW Turner whose last words – ‘The sun is god’ remind us of Goethe’s ‘mehr Licht’ and the key element in Beaumont’s work.
Turner’s light of course is more dramatic, recording unique moments of sometimes cataclysmic power beyond man’s control or understanding whereas Beaumont’s, no less beautiful, has a human scale of deep melancholy which speaks of fortitude rather than awe, stoicism rather than impotence, above all silence rather than tumult. A silence that awaits a voice, the viewer waiting for vision to clear. Beaumont’s sun is caught not in smoke or tempest but in the fragments of frozen water or puddles in broken, saturated earth, captive in reflection only. Beaumont holds time still, more poignantly to record its passing. The long moments just before a dawn. The contradiction between eager anticipation and imminent regret.
That frozen moment before a godless dawn was the subject of ‘Flanders’, seven small paintings he exhibited in London last year to commemorate the execution of Edith Cavell (‘Brussels, Dawn, October 1915’). In painting the estuaries and mudflats to the west of Ostend, Beaumont gives us an unfamiliar topographical exactness. Here he anchors place and time to the historical events by the minimal yet intense plainness of the acrylic paint (a new departure for someone who habitually uses oil to distil the effects of light and liquidity) a plainness that all the more intensifies the poignancy of the indistinct lowering seascape, tolling the bell repeatedly for humanity’s absence.
In his words these are the ‘desolate landscapes of the area „behind the Yser”, as we call it. The soil is darkened, the skies are misty, pale, sometimes grayish. The horizons are vague, here and there there’s a beacon or a landmark. The land is drowned by water. The landscapes symbolise sorrow and show a landscape torn by war or some other disastrous situation.’
‘The land is drowned by water’- once again there is the humanisation of the empty landscape. Beaumont’s humanity saturates these silent seemingly empty paintings which yet echo each other in their melancholy – a repeated note of sadness bringing us up short. As light defines space so space here defines time.
In the ’14-’18 war, these areas were battlefields and here something of Larkin’s desolation becomes explicit, rises to the level of speech. In the muted tonality, here a murky, scuffed brown and a spectral grey, the division into darkness and light is still clear, and the water momentarily, temporarily divided from the land; but with the exactness of a Rembrandt etching each small feature of the landscape takes on a symbolic intensity, and there are different ambiguities at play here than we normally meet in Beaumont’s work. Brown and grey take on meaning by their interaction, as grey fills the absence of brown and becomes water or sky, while the absence of grey is matter, mud, or sandbanks, or terra firma. Small disturbances, tiny marks that seem insignificant are anything but, and in fact it’s the very attention to detail, Beaumont’s, and correspondingly ours, that surprises and moves. Whether the disturbances are trees, living or dead, pylons or, in the distance, church spires, becomes irrelevant as they resolve themselves, finally, into marks on the canvas, not open to our scrutiny except as flicks of paint. We are brought back, as we expect from the work of this painter, to a renewed awareness of the painting as autonomous object, purely and uniquely itself. Endlessness measured in time, by light.
Keran James & Michael Keenan