Jonathan Leaman

Work

Past Solo Exhibition: Jonathan Leaman

6 April – 27 May 2017

Other Works Available

Bio

1954 Born London 1973-1977 Studied at Camberwell School of Art, London 1977-1983 Teaching at Camberwell School of Art

Solo Exhibitions

1994 Paintings 1989-1994, Beaux Arts, London 1996 New Paintings Beaux Arts, London 1998 Take 3, Beaux Arts, London 1999 New Paintings, Beaux Arts, London 2002 New Paintings, Beaux Arts, London 2004 Ziw, that Light, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel 2006 New Paintings, Beaux Arts, London 2011  As Above so Below, Beaux Arts, London 2017  New Paintings, Beaux Arts, London

Selected Group Exhibitions

1994 Lineart, Ghent, Belgium 1997 Artist’s of Fame and Promise, Beaux Arts, London 1999 Recent Acquisitions (Collection Display), Tate Britain, London Summer, Beaux Arts, London Home Life (Collection Display), Tate Britain, London 2001 Summer 2001, Beaux Arts, London

Art Fairs

1992 Art92, The London Contemporary Art Fair (Featured Artist, selected by Paula Rego) 1995-2005 The London Contemporary Art Fair, London 20/21 British Art Fair, The Royal College of Art, London 1996-1997 Art Miami, USA

Collections

Public Collections: The Tate Gallery, London (A Jan Steen Kitchen purchased in 1997) Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv (Ziw, That Light purchased in 2004) Private Collections: Belgium, Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland and the UK

Publications and Reviews

New European Artists (Volume 1), Published by Annual Development b.v. and edited by Edward Lucie-Smith. Beaux Arts catalogues to accompany solo exhibitions with texts by; Rudolph Nassauer, John McEwen and Richard Morphet. Jonathan Leaman, Rudolph Nassauer, Modern Painters, winter 1993. Stripped Naked in Arcadia, John McEwen, The Sunday Telegraph, February 1994. Art in Detail, Julia Weiner, Jewish Chronicle, May 1997. A Star is Born, John McEwen, Art Review, May 1997. Welcome a Sensational Modern Master, John McEwen, The Sunday Telegraph, May 1997. In the Big Time, Julia Weiner, Jewish Chronicle, October 1999. Glorious Mayhem, Laura Gascoigne, What’s On, October 2002. Jonathan Leaman, Elspeth Moncrieff, The Art Newspaper, November 2002. Ziw, that Light, with texts by Prof. Mordechai Omer, Director and Chief Curator of Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Mark Gisbourne, Curator and Art Critic, Berlin & Freda Uziyel, Freelance Art Critic. Tel Aviv Museum of Art Catalogue, Israel, 2004.

Essays
Martin Gayford, 2017

Always Adding to the World “If there is an intention to my life it is to discover who on earth I am”, muses Jonathan Leaman, “I have no idea and I don’t think there’s anything special about that”. He’s probably correct, although it is unusual to articulate the thought with such clarity. Many of us are on a lifelong quest to discover that most elusive of beings, one’s self. Something similar is true of Leaman’s artistic personality. Like that of all powerful painters, his output is sui generis. There’s nothing quite like it, in the same way that there’s nothing quite like the work of Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach or Leaman’s old friend Paula Rego. Artists whose pictures resemble those of other artists tend to be less powerful, and less interesting, because they are imitators. The most distinctive are generally following some inner imperative. This latest group of four large works – perhaps the finest he has ever made – are the product of over five years effort. As those figures imply, his process of creation is immensely time-consuming – to an extent that sometimes surprises Leaman himself. “Once”, he remembers, “I painted a wood, with a girl, which I thought would take me six weeks and actually took me nine months. I thought the wood would be simple, but it took over the picture”. Painters work at different speeds, and Leaman is at one end of the range, whereas Van Gogh – probably Leaman’s favourite predecessor, by the way – was at the other extreme. Van Gogh claimed to have painted the first version of L’Arlésienne (1888) in 45 minutes; a single element in one of Leaman’s pictures may require weeks or months. The surfaces of his paintings – with their beautiful precision and attention to details of surface, shadow and reflection – do not resemble the vehement brushwork of a Van Gogh. Rather, they bring to mind the Northern Renaissance and an artist such as Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470 – 1528). Leaman’s fascination with Grünewald’s masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece is such that he once spent an entire week in Colmar, the small town in Alsace where the great polyptych is kept in a museum. “You need three days there even to start looking”, he recalls. And of course, the almost hallucinatory naturalism of Grünewald’s art is paradoxical, because the scenes depicted – a choir of angel musicians, the resurrected Christ shooting out of his tomb in an aureole of coloured light – are scarcely everyday sights. It is the same with Leaman’s works. The individual ingredients in these new pictures such as flowers, spiders’ webs or human beings may seem mesmerizingly true to our visual experience. But the composition, taken as a whole, is anything but a view of the ordinary, workaday world. These four paintings, on the contrary, are more like visions, but they are not – like Grünewald’s altarpiece – images of a supernatural realm. They are more assemblies of piled up bits and pieces, unconsidered trifles, this and that. Thus Stèle (2012-16) is a picture of a hedgerow – a subject, you might think for William Morris or John Ruskin. This is, however, a very curious bit of Cotswold hedge in that it is upright, climbing vertically to the top of the canvas like a column. And trapped within the base, his hands clenched and grey head bowed, is the figure of a man. This is, then, no ordinary undergrowth.  On the contrary, these pictures bring to mind Courbet’s phrase, “a real life allegory” – especially when you discover that the man half buried in all that foliage is the artist himself.  This chap with grizzled beard and unruly hair appears repeatedly in the paintings. He is to be seen in Joy Fall (2012-17), a tiny figure occupying a chair far too big for him – like a character from Alice in Wonderland who has suddenly shrunk. The same fellow is cowering, knees drawn up and clutched in his hands, at the base of D’Adieu and shouldering the unwieldy burden of assorted bric-a-brac in Dark Monkey. All of which might lead one to suppose that these are self portraits and the pictures in some way auto-biographical. This however turns out to be both true and not true. “I use myself”, Leaman explains, “because the idea of having somebody else in my studio – a model – is almost repellent to me.  It’s a bad habit: the result it looks like a self portrait though it isn’t really, but I accept the ambiguous quality”. But Leaman goes on to point out quite rightly, he is “not the only artist who examines themselves in order to examine everything else”. So we return to the question: what sort of painter is Leaman?  The answer is not obvious. He is not, for example, as you might guess when looking at a detail from one of his canvases, a realist. It would be closer to the truth to say that Leaman works from imagination, but does so in a way that is closely anchored in visual reality. Sometimes when he is painting Leaman looks at a real object or person – generally himself – but on other occasions he is inspecting a sight that is within his mind. “It is easier to paint from your head than it is from life, because you suddenly become slavish if you paint from life. Similarly, it’s much easier to paint from a photograph than from a real person because you can change the photograph. They are there, mutely pleading to be represented correctly whereas a photograph is just a photograph”. Consequently, what you think you are seeing in Leaman’s pictures may not be what you are really looking at. An item might seem almost hyper-real, but be in fact an invention.  The tangled and superbly rendered undergrowth – with interlacing fronds and leaves – of Stèle might suggest that Leaman was a meticulous observer, examining each plant – as Millais did when at work on Ophelia. It turns out, however, that that is not altogether so. It is true that the effect is very much like that of the hedgerows in the countryside around his Gloucestershire studio. But the vegetation in this and in D’Adieu (2012-17) are as much inventions as they are images of reality. When asked whether the bare flower-heads that protrude from the mass tottering mass of stuff in the latter painting is cow parsley, Leaman answers, “I made it up in order to make it easier to paint”. Many of the objects he depicts were done in this way, partly from memory and imagination. He sees the plants on his daily walks, then draws and eventually paints them. “They are accurate enough, because I’ve walked past them, but a botanist would notice changes. Some I’ve just made up”. The turned wood balusters – like fragments of furniture or debris from an old staircase – which are stuck through the bundle of assorted objects in this picture are also invented. On the other hand, the suitcase which has appeared before in Leaman’s works, posed for its portrait from life. There it is, recognisably itself, in a corner of the studio. The four paintings in these groups, have subjects, in a general way. “They are all brooding on death and elegy”, Leaman says, but on the other hand, they are not completely dark. “To be honest I don’t think you can paint a depressive picture, it’s as simple as that. Painting just presents things, good art can’t depict depression because it’s always adding to the world”. Many of the items in the paintings have personal significance. The hand protruding from the hammock-like cloth at the top of D’Adieu is the hand of Leaman’s mother, who died halfway through the period during which these works were being made. The letter that appears elsewhere in that picture is addressed to her. Other layers of meaning are connected with art or literature. The burden-carrying man in Dark Monkey is related to Christian from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. “The weight you cannot bear”. The figure of Job from William Blake’s engravings – also grey-haired and suffering – was also in the artist’s mind. Stèle is named for a book of poems by Victor Segalen (1878-1919) a French poet and explorer (who died, as it happens, mysteriously in a Breton forest). The shape of the upright mound of wayside flora in that picture echoes the Chinese inscribed stones, or stele, that gave Segalen’s verses their title and also their forms. All this information is useful in understanding and appreciating the paintings, which deserve – just as Leaman feels is the case when contemplating Grünewald’s altarpiece – plenty of time. These are complex images, filled with thought and feeling. The associations and connections, however, enrich the paintings but do not explain them. In the final analysis, as Leaman comments, “an idea is an idea and a painting is a painting”. And these are some of the most accomplished, strange and fascinating of the current age.   Martin Gayford, 2017.

Martin Gayford, 2011

Someone has been breaking the by law against fly-tipping. All sorts of unconsidered trifles have fallen down this slope. Notably a suitcase nestling in the gloom among the autumn leaves, old telephone poles, a plastic bag and some bits of old electrical equipment, including wires and a plug, lying further down in the grass at the bottom of the slope. This is, in one respect, a picture of rubbish.

Rubbish, is of course, one of the main themes of the art of the last century (which is a quite different thing from saying modern art is rubbish). Kurt Schwitters made a whole Dadaist genre out of detritus, old tram tickets and similar litter, stuck together and transformed into art.

Jonathan Leaman enjoys rubbish too. Specifically, he loves the declivities at the margins or roads and railways. “Embankments are important to me”, he says, “people throw things down slopes, I’ve always loved the insouciance of that, throw just anything – fridges, bicycles, sheds, stuff gets chucked down, it’s fascinating.” So on one level, the picture we are looking at, “As Above, So Below” (2005-2011) could be part of the scruffy margin of the Oxford ring road, around which the artist sometimes walks.

The portion passing the estates of Cowley and Horspath, he notes, is strewn with trash, mostly is plastic bags, “but also toys, old swings, TVs, and dead furniture, at one place someone has thrown down a whole shed, collapsed and flattened, the mower and tools still sticking out.”

This sounds like a fine subject in itself, but there is more, much more, to the picture. There is an element of the sinister, and also of enchantment; or more precisely, since the artist doesn’t actually believe in enchantment, what could be termed “enchanted disenchantment”. There are layers too, of art historical memory, composting as richly as those dark but multi-coloured leaves.

The stratified rocks at the top of the slope can be seen on another of the painter’s habitual routes, the train line from Paddington to Oxford, which at one point cuts through limestone, in a way that reminds him of the “striations in Bellini”. Renaissance artists, coming from a mountainous land, were fond of placing holy and miraculous scenes in landscapes derived from the Apennines or Dolomites. There does not, however, seem to be anything overtly supernatural going on in As Above, So Below, although there are some odd features. The fly-tipper seems to live very high above this embankment since another suitcase is falling down from the sky, and on the right there is a strange radiance in the undergrowth.

That globe of light is, it turns out, the remnant of a previous idea for the picture. “It was going to have a fairy parade with everybody I know in it, but only the glow remained.” That locates another of the reference points of the picture: Victorian art. Leaman has a soft spot for the painters of that era. “You can’t really paint emotion directly without being camp or ludicrous. The Victorians had this problem, they walked straight up to it and failed. That’s why I loved them.”

Leaman went to the exhibition Victorian Fairy Painting at the Royal Academy in 1997-8, and came away impressed not so much by Richard Dadd, whose “Fairy Feller’s Mighty Stroke” he had “thoroughly absorbed” already, but by the less remembered work – today at any rate – of Richard Doyle (1824-83). It was perhaps Doyle’s “The Fairy Tree”, with 200 figures sitting on dark, bare branches against sky and leaves, that was at the back of his mind. Those branches recur in As Above, So Below, but of the autobiographical throng he once projected, only one remains: the painter himself, on a miniature scale, naked and curled up amid the leaves.

The ghost of one other idea, again not quite carried out, is hidden at the bottom of the canvas, where two feet can be found, protruding from the foliage. Is this a corpse perhaps, the starting-point of a case for Inspector Morse? Again, the answer is that it was, but not really anymore. A point of departure was an etching by Kathe Kollwitz from 1907 “Vergewaltigt” or “Raped” , of a prone presumably dead victim. But in the end Leaman found that he could paint this rape and murder no more than he could the fairies. What happened is something that seems to happen quite often in his work: the painting took its own direction.

“After a bit it was just the paint I was following, the leaves started taking on their own lives quite soon, the colours began just inviting themselves in. I had intended them all to be subdued, but purples and reds just flungthemselves down. The tree is painted in ten different blacks, planned miles before, by which time I’d completely forgotten what I’d meant at the time.”

What remains in the final picture is a picture hinting at supernatural events, intimating that some crime may have been committed, but gently (after all as Leaman points out, the feet could belong to someone resting in the grass). It is a landscape haunted by ideas that have almost but not quite disappeared, which is perhaps what gives it such a strange and compelling atmosphere.

Leaman finds this process of happens quite often with picture, perhaps especially works that like several of those in this exhibition, have taken years to complete. “When I start off I have a fairly good idea of the range where the work needs to go, but it takes over. I used to fight it and paint what I meant, but now I realise that the painting comes in a roundabout way.”

In the evolution of “Sheeny and Flora” (2006-2009) initially there was a lot of the complex narrative in the artist’s mind, a story about a maiden devouring monster with overtones of Little Red Riding Hood and the Brothers Grimm. But although the central figures remain, knife bearing little girl and monster, and some symbolic props, Leaman found that as he continued to paint, the picture became more and more a picture of a dark, leafless winter forest in which a mummified squirrel hangs from a branch: a place which could be the setting for the blackest of folk tales, the forest of the psyche. “I thought I’ll put it in a wood”, the artist recalls, “and the wood killed me. I took over a year just painting some of those trees. The wood became the subject-matter.”

More straightforward, if startling, is the conception of “Adoration and Bunfights” (2005-20010). This astonishing work is a reimagining of the central panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1490-1510) in terms of fruit, vegetables, and tacky fast food including hamburgers, kebabs and crisps. The idea has somewhat deeper art-historical roots than that description may suggest. After all Bosch himself included giant strawberries among his cast of characters. In terms of work you might see at the Prado, this is a conflation of Bosch and Juan van der Hamen y Leon, 17th century Spanish master of still life, especially sweets and biscuits. Leaman also had at the back of his mind a fantasy drawn by John Tenniel, ”The Field of the Cloth of Damask” the illustrator of Alice in which a battle is fought out between forces of tableware and food.

As quite often in Leaman’s work, there are echoes too of other contemporary artists. Sarah Lucas has used kebabs as a deliberately crude sexual metaphor. The Chapman brothers meticulously confected pastiche African tribal sculpture, intercut with the symbols and carved products of MacDonald’s. This complex and facetious cultural fusion is superficially not unlike the Boschian monument in the upper left which seems to be constructed out of pork pies together with some sort of quasi-Mayan sculpture, topped off with a finial of gigantic Big Macs.

The difference is that Leaman has painted all this in a virtuoso oil technique. At first glance, the picture might look photo-realist, at second you begin to realise it is a mixture of delicate naturalistic observation and imagination (rather as one suspects a lot of northern renaissance paintings by artists such as Bosch were constructed). Leaman has taken endless pains to capture the precise nuance of textural nastiness in his subjects: the gleam of salami fat against the congealed mozzarella in his slice of cold take away pizza, for example, the pallid greasiness of crisps. Some items he found he could visualise, some needed study and research. “The pork pies I couldn’t have done out of my head, I had to bake a pie crust. On the other hand the pizzas and fried chicken I couldn’t paint from life; I went and bought this disgusting fried chicken, but it was just not interesting enough to look at.”

As part of the project he bought a kebab, “I tried to eat one and they really are horrible. But the grossness of them seemed to me to have a sadness about it.” Similarly, he felt sympathy for his apples and pears. “The fruit are helpless, they are trapped in the helplessness of objects.” Similarly, a 21st century artist is trapped in this period. It is not possible to paint in a “gallant and heroic style” as he found himself wanting to in 2005. “I wanted to paint something more noble or grand, but I haven’t found a place where I could paint that, or ideas like love or passion, sadness. But if engage bathos, I found I actually could paint those things.”

That’s part of the point of Adoration and Bunfights, agrand and grotesque scene acted out by a cast of characters that could be purchase for a few pounds from the nearest supermarket. It’s ridiculous, facetious and in a way serious at the same time. It is clear that artists of the 15th and early 16th century mean a lot to Leaman. Masaccio, Uccello and Botticelli from Florence, the northerners Bosch, Altdorfer and Grunewald. He once spent a week in Colmar, looking at the Isenheim Altarpiece, masterpiece of the last of those. “I hated the pictures for about three days, then I learnt to love them.”

There was, even 500 years ago, an unstable fusion in the work of such painters, between the sacred or supernatural and the mundane. Van Eyck, for instance is partly about icons of the Madonna and saints, partly about still life and landscape detail that leads straight into the world of Vermeer. Half a millennium on, that fusion is not so much unstable as impossible. Yet a great many of our thoughts about art and life are still derived from that era; we continue to see partly at least through the eyes of Masaccio and co.

Leaman, living now, doesn’t “have any religious sense at all”. But he is still tempted to borrow the aureole of light which Grunewald encircled the risen Christ, and put it in a picture about the death of the Leaman family dog: “Waft Her, Angels. Through the Skies” (2008-11). “It’s my facetiousness again, I suppose”, Leman explains, “I’m not a believer in anything, but still I’ve seen aureoles and I’ve experienced that slightly sentimental idea that the dog will be taken up into the sky and go to perfect rest. It is sentimental, but I admire sentimentality. I’m just not sentimental enough.” The problem of how to keep painting, or – to put it another way – of what to paint is one that that has confronted painters for a long time now. Leaman’s subjects are at once highly personal and highly complex, but part of their function is to get the picture started. “I can’t even begin something unless I have a stirring inside me rather than a just feeling in my hands.”

There are all manner of connections in “It’s All the Same Electricity” (2009-11) and “The Great Pipe” (2006-11): allusions the concept of the ubiquity of nature in the thought of Spinoza in the first, and the levels of being posited by late antique philosopher Plotinus in the second, with the Chassidim and the Torah, and Picasso’s relationship with his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter (the beach hut in “It’s All the Same Electricity” is the one in which they met).

No art historian or view could discover all these layers of association, and Leaman knows that. “I don’t expect to be decoded because I hide things, and I lie when people ask what things are about. In any case, a lot is accidental.” The point of the ideas, which often beginning as drawings, is to give him something to paint. But once he does have that subject-matter, the painting takes over. A lot of thoughts and feelings may be buried in it, but perhaps experience a sea change: from a story to a tangle of trees, for example, or from a Chassidic metaphor about enlightenment to a jet of water and the sea.

The original impetus, though the mental associations may be complex, can be in a way quite simple. The notion of re-enacted Bosch with groceries and fruit just came to him. “That’s how it started. I got the idea and thought, that will be good.” And it is remarkable, as are the rest of these new paintings: ludicrous, realist, improbable, rich and strange.

Martin Gayford is a writer and art critic for Bloomberg News.

John McEwen, 2006

Jonathan Leaman: Pinning down God John McEwen

‘The world has no meaning. We make meanings in the world,’ Jonathan Leaman in conversation.   Jonathan Leaman says he writes best when he ‘spouts’. Spouting is his nature, applying as much as to his conversation as his art: both teem with ideas, expressed as clearly and volubly as in the studied fidelity of his painting and drawing of objects and people. As a child he remembers that one soldier was never enough, he had to draw whole armies. As an artist he says he would love to paint freely, but recognizes he is a born ‘literalist’, which requires infinite pains. He strives for and, as we can see, sometimes attains a simple image but, however simple, a Leaman picture is pregnant with allusion and reference; rich in hyper-realistic detail. His literalism has become more concentrated with time and the requirement to be true to life has drawn him away from the fleetingness of movement, which could drive him to caricature. This in turn has encouraged the accentuation of things. No title identifies the fact, but a glance will reveal that the same middle-aged man appears in Vanity, Incredulity and pulling a cart bearing a bed in the middle of Whinny-Moor. The man is Leaman himself; and in conversation he is happy to admit that he also used his face, feet and torso as the models for those in Acheiropoieton (‘unmade by hand’ – a reference to Veronica’s veil, with its miraculous imprint of  Christ’s face),  Abel and Summer. My exposure of this high degree of self-portrayal is to emphasise that, for all that he makes a virtue of objectivity he is also unfathomably subjective. No artist could take more trouble in explaining his pictures or is more willing to engage in their discussion, but he prefaced the detailed notes he helpfully provided for the writing of this introduction with a warning: ‘That I talk about what I am willing to talk about does not mean that I talk about what I meant – There is much hidden or laying on the surface I won’t, can’t, am ashamed to make clear.’ The earlier of these paintings – Vanity, Incredulity and The Electric Age – were included in the exhibition at Israel’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art, his first retrospective, which finished in February 2005. In Vanity, he redoubles the moral by making it truly a vanity of vanities through the inclusion of his self-portrait. As he says, what could be more self-deceptive than a study of the elusive self? An elusiveness ironically caught by his silhouetted paunch in Abel, a pitiless examination of  middle-age spread inspired by seeing the stark reality when caught off-guard by a bathroom mirror.                               Leaman has been described by the late Rudi Nassauer, an early supporter of his work, as a religious painter. His art is certainly full of  references to Judaic, Christian and other religious ritual and scripture, but he is not God fearing.The skull in Vanity with the cigarette clamped between its teeth could be a joke at the expense of government health warnings; while the cheeky figure of Death, peeking round the distant door, subverts the solemnity of the traditional Vanity. If there is a vain hope it is putting our faith in Elysium                          Leaman describes Vanity as the first ‘deliberate’ still life painting he has made; endorsed by his casting himself in the modern – guise role of the biblical Laban. In Genesis the story of Laban and Jacob tells of the solemn covenant between the two, in which Jacob, father of the future tribes of Israel through his children by Laban’s daughters, takes all Laban’s possessions, including his idols, on condition Laban has no further wives, and therefore no other descendants. In the picture Laban/Leaman is shown holding an idol surrounded by his possessions, boxed in stacks or represented by a few samples displayed on the marble slab, the accuracy of its foreground perspective daringly put to the test by the geometry of the receding shelves. The skull partly hides a snapshot of Leaman as a boy; an ironic twist on the artistic conceit of the picture within a picture – as is his reflection in the floating bubble. But above all this is a picture about ‘the power of things’, the hold of things. Leaman’s purest, most deliberate, still life to date is Patibole. How rich in metaphor and atmosphere this masterpiece of mimesis is compared with the normal run of this now debased genre. ‘Patibole’ is the English for ‘patibulum’, the transverse beam of the Cross. The spread glove with the stigmatic suggestion of blood made by the plum in its palm hints at the same; as does the Dutch notion of still life as betrayal, betriegertjes, the notion Leaman prefers. Patibole is still life as a staged drama.  A T34 tank (made more threatening by the artist’s discreet distressing of the original toy model) enters right, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake as it advances, under the swag of apples and towards the tied theatrical curtain on the left.  Meanwhile ‘Alice, as Lady World, perhaps reports wanly from on top of her apple ‘More of the same…’’. In the background gloom putti carry off a laden table representing ‘the spirit of still life’. Art is born of art but Leaman’s refutes and rebuts Modernism’s denial of observation. In Acheiropoieton the brick wall stamps its authority as singularly as the soft contrast of the ‘halo’ of pears or the ostensible subject of the mother and child. The wall was inspired by one seen outside Darlington station – its occlusive effect as complete and tantalising as the curtain he admires in a picture by the Master of the St Bartholomew altarpiece, at the National Gallery Leaman has recently been looking more at medieval art than that of the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch golden age, and perhaps this shows in the greater accent on decay and death. He proclaims the ‘holiness’ of things. His reference to doubting Thomas in Incredulity, the man exulting in the gore of reality, might celebrate realism in general Large canvases of mind-blowing detail have been a Leaman speciality for many years, but never so apocalyptic as The Electric Age, with its fire tinted clouds and floating boulders reminiscent of John Martin and Wright of Derby. It is a vision of the life force, the élan vital, as the melting point in a waste of disruption on the verge of  immolation: ‘earth is plane and surface – surfaces cracked, rent, splintered or gathered in – planes expelled, boiling erupting, peeling (and peeled back): fissured or brushed aside’. A volcano of a picture, eerily prescient of the awesome inferno at the fuel depot in Hemel Hempstead – the association the more apt since The Electric Age is not a night scene, as he reminds us by including the glimpsed glimmer of a sunlit sea beyond the cloud. Whinny-Moor, the subject of an ancient English ballad, is the other panorama. Whinny-Moor is a purgatory of whinns or gorse bushes the dead must cross where, if you have neglected to be kind or charitable in life, ‘the whinnes sall pricke thee to the bare bane’. Leaman’s burdened souls suggest memory in this world is purgatory enough. His walking dead bare the past on their backs, like characters in a Tadeusz Kantor drama. In the centre the artist drags a chassis supporting his bed. The same bed, with the same blood-red blanket, has appeared in other Leaman paintings over the years, notably Strongly, Wrongly, Vainly 1996. It is occupied by a kneeling figure, a giant hair-brush – a very intimate object; we instinctively avoid using another person’s brush – and a gorse branch. The branch, distinguished from the rest by a richer green, is tied to the frame – perhaps because in bed we are pricked by conscience even more than during the distraction of workaday life. Certainly it serves as a reminder that for all its doleful cast of wanderers this picture’s ‘main player is gorse’.                              The four pictures of the seasons make a logical set, although each is specific and self-contained. Leaman displays   them in the order of Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn: ‘Grabbing, drowning, collapsing. raising up. Chaos, fertility, war, apocalypse. Creation, budding, spoliation, annihilation.’ Leaman does not believe in ‘beauty’ any more than in redemption, for him there are no hierarchies in nature. Man does not ‘destroy’ nature. As a natural agent, along with all other physical agents, he merely alters it, neither for better nor worse. If this means he extinguishes himself, so be it. Nature will still be nature, missing only one – albeit a dominating one – of its myriad components. His symbolisation of the seasons may seem bleak – frustration, anger and desolation abound; and references to war and the torture that is the Crucifixion are insistent – but a ‘terrible beauty’, by whatever aesthetic measure, is nonetheless achieved. Summer is heat personified. The charred corpse, the glaring light, the detritus dry as the dust, everything speaks of desiccation, of wells dried up – the psalmist’s phrase for spiritual desolation. The implied erection of the upturned horn of plenty, spilling its fruit, could not be a more potent metaphor of impotence. It thrusts into nothing and suggests a rhino horn – hollow irony, the rhino threatened with extinction because its powdered spike is superstitiously regarded as an aphrodisiac. Reference to the Iraq war is intentional, in that the image of the charred human head and shoulders was taken from some footage of the US army’s notorious ‘turkey shoot’. But there is a more gruesome detail, which he saw on late night tv ‘when they show the pictures they don’t want us to see’. It is a draped and disembodied head. Autumn is equally topical. The thrust of the manhood is literally a hooded man, a suicide bomber who ‘has to force God to exist otherwise he has no meaning at all’. His faith is fully realized only through self-obliteration, an appropriate subject with which to symbolize the season of death and the dead. Spring and sub-aqueous Winter off-set the drought. The drowned cart of fertility is the same car chassis as the one being dragged across Whinny-Moor. Such cross references abound in Leaman’s art. To his surprise he realized on the train home from his annual winter holiday at a remote Cornish cottage, that he had modelled the ‘hidden lake’ in Spring on the mud flats at Dawlish. It is a reminder that, for all Leaman’s erudite knowledge of art and literature, his investment in the power of things is based on memory and an intense observation of the objects he takes such pride in getting right.     His pictures involve months, often years, of work. The seemingly blank sky of Whinny-Moor is in fact  full of ghostly clouds, which took a dozen glazing coats of white paint over ultramarine to perfect. The apparently straight-forward perspective of  Patibole actually incorporates four vanishing points,  each requiring arduous re-alignment. Every painting is an accumulation of numerous sketches, drawn details and the final transfer of a finished cartoon; the laborious counterpart of his abundant terms of emotional and historical reference. Above all, it is perhaps Leaman’s wizardry at conveying light which most distinguishes his art. Not just the fall of light on objects but the blinding light which etherealises his tattered childhood teddy in Entrance; the infinitely subtle gradations of cloudless skies which so distinguish Summer and Autumn. . ‘The most important thing is that pictures should belong to the people who look at them,’ he says. But a viewer must beware. Pinned to the table-cloth in Patibole is a latin tag roughly translated as, ‘Here’s a dragon eating its own tail’ – a warning that ‘if you attempt to find a meaning you just go up your own bum’. But meaning there is – in abundance. Leaman’s art is an obdurate exception to the fast-food culture which has made a virtue of disposability and historical amnesia. Thoughtful, skilful, questioning, informed, tirelessly observant, it celebrates the power of the imagination, which is why his godless and sometimes sad vision of the world is so uplifting.   John McEwen

Freda Uziyel, 2004, Exhibitions Curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

11 Works of Jonathan Leaman

Freda Uziyel, Exhibitions Curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

“…………The idea that painting was dead would have left the depiction of the visible world to the camera. What a horrible thought and what a dull idea!”– David Hockney.

Some artists appear suddenly, and at the right moment and create a revolution in their wake (Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp for example), some merely fulfil collectors’ and viewers’ dictates, producing popular shows. Jonathan Leaman is an artist, whose individuality and originality is striking. While conveying new ideas, at the same time he brings back an appreciation of old masters. He is a contemporary artist, who, “only adds a new link.”

Painting today is dynamic, and becoming an important force on the contemporary art scene. The pluralism within the art scene and the interest shown by artists in the painting tradition is significant, regardless of the mantra ‘painting is dead’, that has often been heard. Artists have suddenly begun to adopt the techniques of the Old Masters, as well as the subject matter that relates to current events and the human condition. The second half of the 1990’s and the first decade of the twenty-first century has once more brought us art that expresses ideas in a symbolic form, often with a spiritual message. These more traditional vision was foreseen by Roland Barthes:

‘The text is a tissue of quotations: drawn from the innumerable centres of culture… the writer can only imitate a gesture that is culture. The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original…. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know, that the inner “thing” he thinks to “translate” is itself only a ready-formed dictionary.”

One of the features of contemporary art, is a rebellion against Modernism and exploration of the Pre-Modernist tradition. At the end of twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, there has been a revival of classical forms. Most of this revival shows a concern and preoccupation with neo-classical beauty. Often this return to the classics is used by the contemporary artist in an ironic way. The aesthetics of Classicism or irony, while reaching to the cultural past, have no resonance in Jonathan Leaman’s works. The art that has influenced him is the art of the early Northern and Italian Renaissance and the Dutch painters. While the neo-classical revivalists are not interested in ‘expression’, the preoccupation merely with ‘beauty’ is not of interest to Jonathan Leaman: it is not enough for him. His paintings have what Gomrich described as ‘the pattern of living expression’.

Jonathan Leaman has been greatly influenced by Matthias Grünewald’s (1470-1528) Insenheim Alterpiece. This painting, one of the most colouristically brilliant in art, was probably meant to help terminally ill patients confront the agony that surrounded them. The expressive power of the painting is unique: no-one else has ever painted the intense tears of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross as compellingly as Grünewald did in this work.

Jonathan Leaman does not belong to any group or artistic movement. He is unique and independent and his works are in many aspects, unusual in a contemporary context. This uniqueness stems foremost from the breathtaking techniques displayed in his works and the strong yet detonated/ shattered narrative, interwoven with allegories that are present in his paintings and because of the readiness for sentiment (the influence of Victorian-era art). His paintings are a long time in the making. Often illusionistic (illudore in Latin means ‘mock’), they create its own world. Naturalistically painted, they are not a simulation of reality, because as Leaman says; “Illusion is not a depiction, it’s a play. There’s nothing authentic about art, you know: it’s like saying ‘paint is authentic’; Even the finest illusionistic art is just paint too.”.

His art does not try to be real, they do not contain what was described by Eco as a ‘vacuum of memories’, and their, ‘sense of history allows to escape from temptation of hyperreality.’

Jonathan Leaman’s works are hybrids; he dislikes any form of ‘purity’ (a book that influenced him strongly in his youth was Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger); they are deconstructed and constructed, creating layers of mystery and interpretations: “When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people” (Edgar Degas). Leaman is an artist of memories, fragments and—it may seem—disconnected details. His art, while not autobiographical according to the artist, show him, his immediate surroundings, and his relatives.

The spirit of his work reflects his attitude to life. It reverberates with the real, the dream, the fantasy. The paintings transcend a dark inner world and seek out the sources of the human condition; they are vehicles for ideas and thoughts. They also show the artist’s unusual ability to combine traditional, even conservative elements with experimentation in new ideas. Jonathan Leaman’s works are almost perverse: on the one hand very modern, and on the other, agelessly grandiose. The paintings are a strange blend of fantasy and rationality. Hiding infinitive readings, every detail becomes the picture’s focal point, containing microcosms of the artist’s observations. They are about a self-contained world, which is fascinating, aggravating, uncanny—like newly-discovered layers in our memory.

An enigmatic and sceptical artist, his images are still compulsive and impulsive for the viewer. The narrative works—detonate narration within them. Critical of human behaviour and wickedness—Jonathan Leaman affirms life with the detachment of a wise man. As much as he is distanced from the world, he still shows concern for the world, for human suffering, for memories of the Shoah: the works, with their meticulously-painted objects, speak of very complicated, philosophical issues. Leaman has the talent to put every day, unconnected objects in unified, complicated constructions, creating a new world for the viewer in the process. Although the images are pictorially obvious, the meaning of the work is never transparent. While the works are painted traditionally, they are highly conceptual.

While dealing with the contemporary world, Jonathan Leaman reaches for traditional iconography—Jewish and Christian; always hybridising. He examines culture, the visual forms of his European and Jewish—his mother is Jewish—roots.

When an artist chooses his medium, it is for the sake of what he can say with this choice. Jonathan Leaman has very high expectations of painting:

“Paintings are not about the world; it’s about more things and the world ….I wouldn’t want to be a sculptor because the thing about painting, the most fascinating thing, is you see all at once, and you ignore it all at once…”

“Painting is a paradox. Nothing could be more fixed, it never changes and yet its meaning is completely fluid. A stupid “reading is just as permissible as clever one.”

“….you don’t ‘steal’ things from a photograph you ‘spy’ on the things but you always return back to painting”

There will always be artists who cannot exist without a palette, brushes, linseed oil, turpentine, painters knives and so on … Leaman is one of them. As a ‘rose is a rose is a rose’ (Gertrude Stein), painting, is a painting, is a painting for Jonathan Leaman.

Jonathan Leaman’s works are meticulously painted, the brushwork is highly in control, but the climate of the paintings and the climate that they evoke is always threatening. Leaman is preoccupied by death, but his figures are highly animated. They are often engaged in mechanical and repetitive actions. They resemble puppets or cartoon characters in their stylised facial types, which express human personalities and emotions. Technique plays an important role in Leaman’s works; as light and mimesis are important for the storytelling. He paints in oils, a medium which, unlike acrylics, dries very slowly. He approaches the surface as the Old Masters used to: without reticence. His worlds are not understated; they are firm, vigorous and affirmative.

Leaman is a painter of detail. It is essential to take into account the way the artist builds his images through observation, with a restless eye, underlining every exaggerated texture, pattern, shape, shadow and light. Jonathan Leaman is an individualist, well read, cultured and scholarly. There is nothing in him of the ‘wild’ bohemian. As Anna Akhmatova spoke of Modigiliani as an artist ‘enclosed in a ring of solitude’, so too is Leaman.

The Throne of God (1997-99) “Art is nostalgia for God”—Alexei von Jawlensky “Creativity can almost be defined as the capacity for transforming the chaotic aspect of undifferentiation into a hidden order that can be encompassed by comprehensive (syncretistic) vision.”

Jonathan Leaman is not a religious man although religious imagery can often be seen in his paintings. One of the most important influences on Jonathan Leaman as an artist was a visit to Colmar where he saw theCrucifixion from the Isenheim Altar by Mathias Grünewald (1512-1516). Jonathan Leaman’s fascination did not come from the idea of Christ as a saviour, but, rather from the genuineness of human suffering displayed in Grünewald’s painting.

The Throne of God is a response to Masaccio’s 1426 painting, The Virgin and Child (National Gallery, London), another artwork that has been crucial in Jonathan Leaman’s artistic development. The inspiration forThe Throne of God comes from the Old Testament too, from Ezekiel 1:26 (King James Version):

“And above the firmament…was the fashion of a throne like unto a sapphire stone. And upon the similitude of the throne was by appearance, as the similitude of a man above upon it.”

This is not a painting about Judaism however. Jonathan Leaman is, “only Jewish enough to be a Jewish atheist, which seems more attractive from the Christian kind.” The interest of the artist in Christian forms did not arise from iconoclastic intentions. They are products of his interest in tradition and in the art of the old masters.

“The Middle Ages are the root of all our contemporary “hot” problems, and it is not surprising that we go back to that period every time we ask ourselves about our origin.”

If the Romantics and the Symbolists had borrowed from the art of the Middle Ages in order to give their images a religious aura, Jonathan Leaman, in quoting Christian and Jewish iconography is attracted to profane aspects of today’s issues. The iconic elements of the profane are overlaid with everyday objects. There is no aura of the throne of God.

The atmosphere in the painting is that of the early Renaissance; a time in history when Jewish, Christian and Islamic beliefs as well as mysticism, were closely inter-linked. In the history of humanity;

“… Religion has woven tradition as the fabric of meaning and guarded the portals of culture by rejecting those works of art which threatened the moral norms of religion.”

The artist combines past and present in this work. It transfigures fragmented reality into unity, of which the centre is the throne of God. Jonathan Leaman uses medieval or early Renaissance symbols and with a tradition of appropriation adapts and interprets it for the contemporary viewer. Fragments of past and present work to compose a unified picture; disintegrated objects create a contemporary throne of God.

A prominent feature of this painting, as in many of Jonathan Leaman’s other paintings is the emphasis on painterly virtuosity. The Throne of God has an atmosphere of trompe l’oeil, and the composition that of an early Renaissance painting, yet, the puzzlement, the eclecticism, and the dislocation of space (Picasso’s influence on the artist) make it, technically, a contemporary painting.

The composition is random, like so many other paintings (Babel 1997-99, Picnic in the Cockeyne 1993-94, Sleep and Have Sleep for Light 2001-02) but is very carefully designed. It appears dreamlike, although it is not a surrealist painting. Because of its fluidity, the eye is encouraged to move all over the surface. The point at which the spectator begins to view the painting is not important; he would always be led back to the rest of the picture.

In the painting, there is no separation between public and private. No human is visible. Instead, only the material signs of human existence are. Being and disappearing make this painting somehow poetically sublime and evocative.

By lifting from the vernacular artifacts to a veiled situation, he achieves an uncanny atmosphere (the camera, the shoes, the pipe, the columns, the tent, etc.). Leaman transfers the symbols of popular culture, creating a new iconography; for example, the camera on the right side of the roof is a symbol of our times, and at the same time, could refer to medieval notions of an all-seeing God spying on man. The camera (God’s eye) is a deterrent from sin. “God sees” in Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins (1480), an artist whose work has greatly influenced that of Jonathan Leaman. In Bosch’s painting, the eye of God functions as a mirror with Christ occupying the centre of the Eye. In Leaman’s Throne painting, the artist demonstrates the ability to create a work of mythological symbols, as well as an accurate representation:

“Modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one”

Jonathan Leaman succeeds in evoking wonder in the viewer. He achieves this through the sophistication of the painting’s realism. However, this is not the modern understanding of reality; it is a realism of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Northern Renaissance with its descriptive realism of particulars.

“I wanted something like those Dutch emblem things, where you would have the chariot where the horse is ridden by Love and it carries Fortune on its back and the world is balanced on an egg.”

The Throne of God is a painting about light and materiality. In the picture, there is a deliberate contrast between the high gloss and hard-edged clarity, painterly detail and realism of the object set in an unreal world.

“I always think it’s a picture about sunlight. One of the effects of sunlight is to render all objects that are within it somehow meaningless, and yet full of detail. …

I knew it had to be set in Portugal, because I have been dreaming about the light in Portugal for about two years. I just had this idea of colour in my head. It just was there and I could remember it, and quite often, paintings are like this and are about trying to get an idea and then getting rid of it… Throne was also a building. It was a real space. … I wanted to make it like a building. I didn’t want to make it a classical building as such, because I am not interested in classical art. I’m interested in what it looks like, what effect it has. I don’t like art that refers too much to classical cause: it has semi-nostalgia that (Giorgo de) Chirico used or the surrealists, in order to show oddness; I don’t want to be involved in that, but I wanted it to be a throne which was grand.”

The Throne of God can be approached by the viewer as an allegory. The fragmentary, the incomplete, the imperfect—the cracks in the walls, scattered stones and ruins of columns—are apparent in the work. Ruins are the most vivid emblem of the allegorical claimed Walter Benjamin; allegorical, symbolic realism with apparent visual truth, but a realism that should not be taken literally; this is the realism of fragmentation and detail.

All the artifacts—the pipe, the cushion, the slippers, the mug, television and so on, are the marks of somebody who has left the place; this is a vacated throne. This is a painting about absence of presence or presence of absence.

“God is dead, but the uncreated creator has taken his place. The same person who announced the death of God seizes all of his properties.”

Artists could always speak to God; they were different from us. What we, the viewers see in this work is not a glimpse of the divine, and there is no distinction between the “lower” (the flats on the left side of the throne are adapted from a council estate in Maida Vale in London that the artist has observed for many years) and the “higher” (the right side of the structure). Varying symbols of status are mingled with each other in this work. InThe Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin advanced the idea of “non-auratic” art. Jonathan Leaman’s use of everyday objects creates this non-aura on the one hand, while on the other hand, his use of traditional pictorial motifs serves to give a profane subject-matter, transcendental dimension.

The viewer can approach the painting in the “mood” of Nietzchean nihilism or by way of a Kantian interpretation of the sublime; either the Absolute does not exist, or does exist, but the only way that presentation of the infinitive is possible is through “negative presentation”.

“…But how to make visible that there is something which cannot be seen? Kant himself, shows the way when he names ‘formlessness, the absence of form’, as a possible index of the unpresentable…

He cites the commandment ‘Thou shall not make graven images’ (Exodus) as the most sublime passage in the Bible in that it forbids all presentation of the Absolute. Little needs to be added to those observations to outline an aesthetic of sublime paintings. As painting, it will of course ‘present’ something though negatively; it will therefore avoid figuration of representation. It will be ‘white’ like one of Malevich’s squares; it will enable us to see only by making it impossible to see; it will please only by causing pain.”

An empty throne has had a place in the rituals of many cultures. It can evoke the presence of God, or that of an absent ruler.

“The iconolaters of the Byzantium were subtle folk, who claimed to represent God to his greater glory but who, simulating God in images, thereby dissimulated the problem of his existence. Behind each of these images, in fact, God had disappeared. That is to say, the problem no longer even arose. It was resolved by simulation. This is what we do with the problem of the truth or reality of this world: we have resolved it by technical simulation, and by creating a profusion of images in which there is nothing to see.

But it is not the strategy of God himself to use images in order to disappear, himself obeying the urge to leave no trace? So the prophecy has been fulfilled: we live in a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear and, at the same time, to mask that disappearance.”

“I think these things are about presence because everything is presence except the one thing that it could be about.”

This painting, by creating an open—unlike a pyramid—construction, to the viewer is interpreted as the western idea of God, that while He cannot be seen, He creates the forms that we see.

“The image of the throne is as much a recognition as a construction, a reification, an hypostatization, not a meaning, and definitely not a metaphor. A remembrance like unto a sapphire stone perhaps.”

Strongly, Wrongly, Vainly (1996) “Strongly, wrongly, vainly, I love thee still.” —Lord Byron, last lines of “On Love and Friendship”

This is a very difficult painting to look at:

“Throughout a night without images but buffeted by black sounds; amidst a throng of forsaken bodies beset with no longing but to last against all odds and for nothing, on a page where I plotted out the convulsion of those who, in transference, presented me with the gift of their void I have spelled out abjection.”

In the painting, the viewer can see the artist’s London home. The bed, the blanket, the rag-the whole belongs to the flat. The curtains are from his childhood bedroom; everything seems so familiar. On the floor, which is strewn with scribbled pages, we recognise in the prostrate body—we don’t know if the person is alive—the artist. Jonathan Leaman explains:

I use realism to make the identity of the object clear. It otherwise doesn’t interest me. I use my life and household so as not to intend anything by depicting them … Nevertheless, I ask you not to look for me in these pictures. I hope they stand on their own.”

In the same letter, Jonathan Leaman also claims that one of the driving forces behind this work was his desire to use a lot of red colouring in his work. It is generally acknowledged that colour may be used for expressing emotions in art.

“Colour is what we associate automatically with feeling: age-old metaphor about ‘red anger’, ‘the blues’ and so on…”

One could think that Jonathan Leaman was inspired in this painting by Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles (1889), that shows the artist’s bedroom with a red bed cover. Van Gogh wrote about this painting,

“Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcibly.”

Leaman has created an intimate and unsettling painting. It is a work that points to a shocking moment in human life.

“And yet, in these times of dreary crisis, what is the point of emphasising the horror of being? … For abjection, when all is said and done, is the other facet of religious, moral, and ideological codes on which rest the sleep of individuals and the breathing spells of societies.”

There is something unsettling in the colour of the flesh of the lying figure. Jonathan Leaman is able to capture the quality of human flesh, extending its sensuality to its darker aspects, similarly to the contemporary artist Lucian Freud. The work, with its complexity of language and emotions, communicates angst and despair to the viewer. The prostrate figure on the floor, with his exposed genitalia (the artist acting both as observer and as a participant) is caught in an extremely distressing personal, and also compelling, experience.

Like Pierre Bonnard’s portrait of himself in the bath, Jonathan Leaman deals here in the “visual field”, the extent of what can be seen from any given position of the artist. The perspective, the foreshortening of the body is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s Femme Couchée (1926) or even Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ (c. 1480).

The association with Mantegna’s Dead Christ somehow chastises the painting. We know that something horrible has happened. The viewer feels uncomfortable seeing the foreshortened, helpless body–it could even be a dead body.

Death and images of corpses are the only area in contemporary art that artists, who normally deal with breaking any and all possible taboos, seem very shy of touching, although there are some exceptions. Ron Mueck has made a hyper-realistic sculpture of his deceased father. Even Damien Hirst, whose main preoccupation is the idea of death and mortality, expresses his work through animal representations (they become allegories of death).

At the foot of the dead? sleeping? unconscious? person (the artist?), appear beautiful, cuddly creatures. They stir childhood memories in the viewer. They are hares or rabbits, as if taken from (reminiscent of?) Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Beatrix Potter’s stories. These creatures are adorned with human clothes. Although they appear familiar, they behave in an unfamiliar way. Canny turns to uncanny, everything becomes darker and more frightening.

“There is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently.”

“Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama: art’s most profound moments express this frustration. When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy.”—Mark Rothko

Art can be a part of everyday life, but can also be an isolated practice outside the real world. Freud’s primal fantasies—Urphantasien—show how some realities that appear in our psyche are not necessarily connected with the real. Art often expresses what its creator pushes away from himself in his rational thoughts and actions; it is a palimpsest of his conscience.

“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror … and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

This is a painting in which Jonathan Leaman attempts the impossible, trying to achieve a truth by breaking the barriers of what one can do in art.

Tzim-Tzum (The Bull) (1999-2002) “Wherever I go, under my foot the last stone breaks and the darkness opens, and I am like the first one after the flood who sinned” December 6th 1942, Kamil Baczynski (Polish poet who died in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944)

“The greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation.” Francis Bacon (artist)

The Bull is a painting that belongs to contemporary “history painting”–the most problematic, the most prestigious, and the least practised of the traditional academic genres. It was painted following the expulsion of Kosovans by Serbs in 1999. Throughout history artists have dealt with the consequences of human suffering.

“The realm of culture is the realm of meaning, the effort in some imaginative form to make sense of the world through the expressiveness of art and ritual, particularly those ‘incomprehensions’ such as tragedy and death that arise out of the existential predicaments which every self-conscious human being must confront at some point in his life.”

Jonathan Leaman created a land, “Fever Parish”, where an enormous bull, “… would hold sway in magnificent indifference to the horrors committed under his sign.”

The Tzim-Tzum is composed of a structure that is turned upside down. What first strikes the viewer is the terrifying emptiness of the space. Max Beckmann wrote, after seeing the devastation of the First World War, that:

“This endless space, whose foreground has to be filled up with some junk or other again and again so that its horrifying depth is not as evident. What would become of us wretched humanity … This infinite sense of being alone.”

The structure is built from columns; behind it there appears to be a familiar landscape. There is an oft-repeated interplay in Leaman’s works—the familiar turning into the dangerously unfamiliar, the blurring of the boundaries … between the known and the unknown—to the viewer. On initial approach, the viewer is confronted by an enormous bull whose frontality (frontality was often used by Vincent Van Gogh and Eduard Munch, two artists that have greatly influenced Leaman) helps achieve a direct psychological impact on the viewer. The bull is expressionless, with his back turned to the (familiar-unfamiliar) structure, the desert of ruins of our civilisation.

This multidimensional representation of our cultural space, with its numerous references to the history of art (for instance to Botticelli’s Adoration-tondo in the National Gallery, London and the building on the crane in the State Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson), showing “the experience of all people in all times” and bringing to mind Marshall McLuhan’s remarks that we can only imagine the future through the past. The ruins and the landscape are “illuminated” by darkness. All of this somehow creates the impression of the end of our civilisation.

Jean-François Lyotard suggested in one of his writings that a fast-approaching cataclysm is facing our civilisation.

“that in my view, is the sole serious question to face humanity today.”

“Endist” philosophy is the leading trend within postmodernism. We can see this in the works of Fukuyama and Foucault, for whom Man perhaps is nearing the end of his history.

The Bull, “… like the painting of a sorrow, A face without a heart,” a monster, like King Minos’s Minotaur, who feeds on human disaster.

It is a very disturbing painting, with its extremity of mood reminding one of William Holman Hunt’s, The Scapegoat (1856). The stillness of the painting strikes uneasiness and terror in the viewer. The painting, like Edvard Munch’s Scream and Fear, expresses the dread of death, and like Picasso’s Guernicaor Goya’s Disasters of War condemns the violence and terror of war. The painting speaks of the absence of God in terrible times.

The title Tzim-Tzum—contraction, to become smaller, is taken from the Kabbalah. Tzim-Tzum means that God withdraws himself from human affairs; he is looking at a different direction from humanity. In the Kabbalah, the God is seen not as an enforcer, but as energy, a “light”. The light in this painting is overwhelming. It is a darkness illuminated by high sun: “No light, but rather darkness visible” as in John Milton’s vision of hell.

This painting seems to have a narrative language, though shattered and “repressed/ depressed”; it is not the narration of traditionally academic historical painting. It is the epic mood of this work that contextualises contemporary events. Through this mood—rather than through a narrative—Jonathan Leaman captures the spirit of the issues that trouble us today.

Jonathan Leaman uses contemporary sign language in a work made in the tradition of history painting, in the time when photography and television have taken over as the chroniclers of common memory. There are many photographs dealing with disasters, but unlike photography, painted images usually have an indirect mediated connection with the thing represented.

“Look at any inspired painting. It’s like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation.” Philip Guston—painter, to a reporter from Time Magazine (1952)

Picnic in Cockayne (1993-94) “And I think that the art of our century is most potent when it is nearest to, without going over into, caricature—when it is touching on that rawness which caricature gives.”—Francis Bacon When asked, how he chose the title for this piece, Jonathan Leaman’s answer was;

“I had to choose a title, and you have to choose them afterwards. Well I know I choose it before because it’s a problem and therefore I decided to solve the problem before I’d start.”

Albert Camus said that a writer does not tell a story anymore; he creates his own world. Jonathan Leaman has created a painting about a land; “it was the image of being on the edge of something …”, it was about a picnic in Cokayne.

“Cockayne was the land of luxury and idleness: where the streets were paved with pastry and walls roamed pleading to be eaten. Basted larks fell from the sky dripping butter onto fat puddings. Cream oozed and the rivers flowed with wine.”

In the work, with its buckled jumble of perspectives and disjointed planes, the spectator tries to make clear sense of “what’s going on?” A family or extended group of families covering three generations enjoys a picnic. We see people, centaurs, dogs, pigeons, food and so on. This appears on the first plane, on the grass; behind it there is a wall, which creates an enclosure, illuminated by hallucinogenic light—this is a paradise (as Leaman points out, the word “paradise” comes form the Hebrew word “pardes” for an enclosure or garden). This is an idealised world, the Arcadia of legend, with a unicorn in the background. A tree has fallen through this wall and is now uprooted—an allegory perhaps? The fall of the tree from the other side of the wall creates havoc, releasing the wild side of human nature. Everybody starts to become free of inhibitions, and a spectacle of transgression (of uprooting?), ensues.

This painting of unselfconscious people, behaving without restraint or reason brings to mind Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-10; Prado, Madrid)—a work about sexual excesses and indulgence, about transgression and confusion: what is right and what is wrong. The Cockayne painting, like most of the works by Jonathan Leaman is ambiguous; there seems to be a story in the painting, but there is not a definitive reading that can be easily attached to it. Taking into account the size of the painting and its composition, the first impression is that of a work of meta-narration, though this is not an Enlightenment narration. Here, the artist treats the narration with incredulity.

“… I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives… (the narrative) is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements.”

Moreover, in addition to its sense of narrative, this work demonstrates unprecedented attention to everyday detail. The viewer may want to take a magnifying glass, to admire the precise observation of detail with almost scientific curiosity.

As Blaise Pascal wrote:

“A town or landscape from afar is a town or landscape, but as one approaches, it becomes houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grass, ants, ants’ legs and so on ad infinitum. All that is comprehended in the word landscape.”

The space is created by multiple viewpoints and spatial distortion; the minutely detailed depiction, matched by the minute exploration of the paintbrush, the scale of the painting, the high horizon, all these factors create an ominous air. The direction of the objects and people and of the plane, relate to one another.

The painting with naturalistically and hyper-realistically painted objects deals with geometrical organisation of the space rather than what is generally considered as reality, as in seventeenth century Dutch moralists’ paintings. This is an extraordinary spectacle—when reality and illusion become one.

Jonathan Leaman uses heavy chiaroscuro, which creates a strong contrast between light and shade; the shades creating disturbing images of, possibly, hidden messages. They appear in relation to each other, as the artist intended them to be. Everything is exaggerated and out of focus, with no interest in the logical composition of spatial depth.

“Picnic” is a grotesque and theatrical painting. The dramatic imagery (the influence of James Ensor), the uncanny discrepancy between scale and perspective with enormous pigeons at the front, (probably symbolising the supremacy of imagination over reason), makes the viewer sense that everything is possible. This is a painting with a dynamic disorder, disruption and irregularity.

The joie de vivre in the painting seems strained; the bodies are unnatural and tense. The distortion becomes grotesque. The grotesque is related to sixteenth century Flemish art, rather than the caricature, grotesque distortion of Goya’s Capricho a la Goya. A note attached to Jonathan Leaman’s drawings and preparatory sketches for this painting, said: “abomination, perversion, the slipped category”. Our culture is often fascinated and deals in images of abjection:

“For, facing abjection, meaning has only a scored, rejected, ab-jected meaning—a comical one. ‘Divine’, ‘human’, or ‘for some other time’, the comedy or the enchantment can be realised, on the whole, only by reckoning with the impossible for later or never, but set and maintained right here.”

The contemporary viewer is fascinated by spectacular images of disgust, disfigured bodies morphed into unbelievable shapes; the modern viewer is as much engrossed by these themes as were the first to see Bosch’s paintings.

This painting, with its portrayal of people having a picnic that has gone spectacularly wrong, the happy riotous atmosphere, which then becomes a poisoned land, the animated figures in contorted poses that convey a sense of action and brutality, the composition of the painting, all bring to mind Piero di Cosimo’s The Fight Between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (c. 1500-15, National Gallery London), which the artist based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Cosimo’s work depicts drunken centaurs disrupting the wedding feast of the King of the Lapiths. There are specific references in Leaman’s own painting to this work; in the upper part of Cockayne, we see two centaurs (probably father and son), watching the people in disbelief. Like in Cosimo’s painting:

“Everything is being mixed together and it’s all about disorder … This detail came from Pierre de Cosimo about the Lapiths, I stole them.” (Showing the laying of the tablecloth on the rush mat on the ground)

Cockayne is a painting about human wickedness, a gritty world, of grassroots vulgarity and corruption. Even the paradise behind the ruined wall is not spared a corruption: the rotten apple with an image of the face on it exemplifies this.

Babel (1997-99) “The mind having received of sense a small beginning of remembrance, runneth on infinitely, remembering all what is to be remembered. Our senses therefore, which stand as it were at the entry of the mind, having received the beginning of anything, and having proffered it the mind; the mind likewise receiveth this beginning and goeth over all what followeth: the lower part of a long and slender pike being but slightly shaken, the motion runneth through the whole length of the pike, even to the speare’s-head…so does our mind need but a small beginning to the remembrance of the whole matter.” – Maximus Tyrius, Philosophumena

We are faced with a massive construction—a tower. On display there is an assortment of commonplace objects, the objects of “higher” culture, the symbols of our civilisation, unrelated images forming the unusual structure. The objects are transferred and translated to the space of art, removed from the realm of social and commercial life.

The artist proceeds backwards into space, from the object at hand to the infinite distance of the sky, picking his way into the depth by relations and differences. The painting does not explain how objects stand in space. Instead, it just points to the independent qualities of every single one and then names them.

… “Seeing comes before naming”

By using geometrical elements rather than abstract elements, stressing the horizontal, the vertical components and the contrast, the artist achieves a structure with definitive statement.

The use of unexpected juxtaposition and its hyper-real clarity and the accidental relationship between the objects may seem to give the painting a surrealist touch. The irrationality and absurdity of attaching accidental objects bring to mind the Dadaist movement. The work combines the discipline of painting, sculpture and architecture. The painter as the engineer, the builder, acts like Vladimir Tatlin in his Monument to the Third International (1919 Musée Nation d’Art Moderne, Paris). The balance and composition of objects evokes a sense of depth like that seen in Kasimir Malevich’s Supremacist abstract works.

In this painting, Jonathan Leaman explores how to rearrange real objects suspended in space in a geometrical manner, as El Lissitzky did with geometrical forms, placing them in unprecedented configurations.

The massive scale of the structure is conveyed by the cutting of the image at the top and the bottom, reminiscent of Fernand Léger’s The Builders (1950, Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot).

Babel, a hyper-structure realised by geometries, brings to mind another painting by Jonathan Leaman, The Throne of God.

Babel is a response to a series of drawings on the subject of “connection”, which the artist made impulsively fifteen years before the painting took shape. He combined them in a tower, creating their own reality. By playing with objects, lifting and transferring artefacts to this unusual situation, the artist achieved a new system of information, a vision.

By blurring the lines between real appearance and artistic imagination, Jonathan Leaman painted a work that appeals to the archaeology of our memory. These structures and layers produce a form that represents the universe of our collective memory, triggering our imagination.

Memory is more than remembering; it is also a palimpsest simultaneously of: objects, places, people, events that unfold, a place that we revisit. For the viewer of this work, recollections wander, becoming dispersed and then reassembling.

“Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” wrote Walter Benjamin in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

The painting shows a tall sculpture that aspires to, but does not quite reach the heavens. While the viewer may admire the balance, composition of objects and the tonality of colours, he may feel confused – “what is the connection between the objects?” Walter Benjamin wrote: “Babel is bafflement, not meaninglessness”. The “Babel” which seems so real, transforms the viewer into abstract and complex ideas, creating an “infinity of interpretations”. The basis of this work comes from Gershom Scholem (explains Jonathan Leaman): “One of the principles of mystical exegesis is to interpret all words as nouns–language is ultimately founded on a sequence of nouns that are nothing other than the deity itself (hence language itself is a texture of mystical names).

“…..‘recognition’, ‘knowing’, ‘seeing’ are all immediate”. According to Aristotle, through mimesis (imitation), Man develops his earliest understanding.

This painting points to the instability of language, and to the fact that the connection between signifier and signified (the word and its meaning) is arbitrary. It raises doubts regarding the western tradition of belief that words can communicate:

“ … Language is ineradicably marked by instability and interminancy of meaning; … interpretation is, therefore, a free ranging activity more akin to game-playing than to analysis as we normally understand the term”.

To the left of the centre of the painting, there is a diagonal pole running upwards to the right, trying to reach the sky. The artist has wrapped the pole with the lines from the poem by Paul Célan: “Sprich! Doch scheide das Nein nicht vom Ja” (Speak, but do not split no from yes).

Four Nieces Berating a Dead Uncle (2001-2002) “In this world, we walk on roof of Hell gazing at flowers” – Czestaw Miłosz

… “that ineffable breath of the sinister, the violent and the ruthless that dominates almost every product of that land of spleen!” – Charles Baudelaire, comment about William Hogarth

The painting depicts four contemporary adolescent girls, standing, jumping on dead wood, surrounded by a garland of flowers. Beyond them, there is a white space of nothingness. The flowers are naturalistically painted. They are beautiful as were flowers painted by Dutch seventeenth century artists. Jonathan Leaman is a great admirer of the art of this period. The rendering of the details of the garland points to this admiration, as well as to the fact that the artist has a brilliant technique. The painting is set on a dark background and the garlands form a frame around the girls, creating a picture within the picture.

The dark background adorned with garlands that have a luminosity of their own was characteristic of the style of Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder (Madonna in Floral Wreath, Munich, Alte Pinakothek). The use of the religious imagery with connotations of the garland was adopted by many Dutch artists (for example, Davidsz de Heem, Eucharist in Fruit Wreath, 1648, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Daniel Seghers, Floral Wreath with Madonna and Child, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent), as well as in the art that emerged from Catholic countries. The great cult of the Christ-Child was characteristic of the seventeenth century art. Often, Christ was venerated in artistic representations as a small figure wearing beautiful clothes. One such example is a painting by Josefa de Ayala e Cabrera, Christ the Redeemer, (1673, Church in Cascais, Portugal). In this work, Christ, who appears with a clumsily painted woman’s face, wears doll-like, transparent clothes and is surrounded by a garland of flowers, symbolising beauty and, first and foremost– innocence.

Picasso adorned a seated young boy with a garland of roses in Garçon à la pipe, (1905; The Boy with the Pipe). The wrath on the boy’s head gives the picture a magical and poetic quality, full of melancholy.

Four Nieces by Jonathan Leaman also has young people as a central subject (which we would expect to symbolise innocence). The painting was created in appreciation of the work of seventeenth century Dutch artist, Bartholomé Pérez, Garland of Flowers with Saint Anthony and the Christ Child (Prado, Madrid).

The faces of the girls are painted dark on a light background, like the faces painted by Carel Fabritius, (who reversed the technique of his master, Rembrandt van Rijn, painting light on dark). The painting embodies strong contrasts:

garland of flowers –angry faces light – dark white – black lovely flowers – dead wood

This picture, unlike most of the works by Jonathan Leaman, has a central area to which the eye is led: from the frame – a garland, to the girls, to dead wood, to beyond… In the painting, we have two heterogeneous, discontinuous elements; two elements that do not belong to the same world: the beautiful garland, always associated with the works of the Old Masters, juxtaposed with the faces of the girls, who wear contemporary clothes and behave like cartoon characters. This kind of duality or theatricality unsettles the spectator.

In real life, Jonathan Leaman has four nieces, only one of whom was a model for this painting. The similarity in this work between the faces and of the expressions they wear, but without individuality and identity, reminds one of Vincent van Gogh’s desire to burst the bounds of identity. They assert the right of the body over the mind.

“… the human face is temporarily (and I say temporarily) all that is left of the demands of the revolutionary demand of a body that is not yet and was never in keeping with this face”

In an interview, Jonathan Leaman said he would love to paint a sentimental picture (like the pre-Raphaelites did): “I would love to paint a sentimental picture. I mean, it’s very difficult to paint sentiments in pictures […] but everybody’s so ironical at the moment. […] It seems like an attack upon sentimental feeling, which I admire. I’m fascinated by them.”

In Four Nieces, there is nothing nostalgic about the children, who look and behave monstrously. Brutality usually arises from weakness. In this painting, the pastoral is disturbed. Jonathan Leaman deconstructs the myth of innocence and with that, innocence itself. These four girls exemplify what John Ruskin called “the Grotesque Expressional School”. Similar to James Ensor, with his grotesque, gruesome figures and bitter humour, and to Vincent van Gogh, with his attempts to convey emotion through colour (The Night Café, 1888), Jonathan Leaman finds strangeness in (probably) any given subject.

The distinction between the girls and the garland of flowers turns into a battlefront of expressive energy. Childhood, usually associated with innocence, becomes a descent to hell in this painting.

This painting can be fascinating and at the same time aggravating. What happened just before this picture was painted? What happened afterwards? What does the artist want to show? What does he want to hide? Jonathan Leaman writes; “Four Nieces berating a dead Uncle is a mischievous title. It was always meant to be a flower picture. I was attempting a picture of simple means – rather, a painting where the real subject was its framing matter. It must be said that it was an arrogant ambition to present virtuosic depiction at the edge of a simply seen group – the imagery of angry girls just occurred to me. I wanted the flowers to act as a transition between nothingness and, well, something–as an act, perhaps? To let the flowers be noticed as if they were incidentally (sic). I suppose I was nagging away at the mystery (as it seems to me) of belief in a picture object.

Illusion is extraordinary and subverts irony, imposition and intention. Implicitly, then, I was testing my skill against objects: a folie. I never finished the picture due to exhaustion with the vanity of it.

Vanity (2003) “… vanity of vanities, sayeth the preacher, all is vanity.” – Ecclesiastes (12:8)

On the first plan of the painting, on the counter, we see objects that symbolise transience: a skull, a broken clock, a glass bottle, half an eaten and rotten lemon, a dead flower, a rotten apple, a big skull jokingly decorated with a peacock feather (peacock tail feathers, like a rainbow, represented the totality of colours throughout art history. The bird itself was also a symbol of incorruptibility and immortality in early church paintings – shedding and renewing its tail every year), a photography under the skull, money, old papers, an empty container, a dead bird…

Vanitas as a genre is always about death. The meaning of every still life, in principle, is of vanity and transience.

Behind the counter, we see a narrow, shelved room. Death is peering behind doors left ajar. The next room beyond the door is completely dark; we can just about recognise stairs leading into the upper floor.

This painting represents what Henry James used to describe as “solidity of specification”. In the centre of the painting, clutching a clay figurine, stands a man. This man is the artist, who has painted himself with extraordinary frankness. Akin to Lucian Freud and Philip Pearlstein in their works, Jonathan Leaman scrutinises himself, showing extreme accuracy in his own depiction. This is a self-portrait with a still life painted with “perceptual realism”.

“One always has a greater involvement with one self than with anybody else. No matter how much you may believe that you are in love with somebody else, your love of somebody else is your love of yourself”

Jonathan Leaman says; “… What happens when you see the Dutch paintings (I love them), everything there is fuelled with iconography. So nothing can escape from it, not one little thing on the table but there’s some way you can retrieve it back and take it back to artificiality. I love the fact that they are about an artificial mind game that you can see and you can walk around it”.

Since the Dutch still lifes of the seventeenth century and throughout the history of art, many artistic movements and many artists have made references to this genre of art.

Cezanne painted his still lifes making them nearly theoretical works for future generations. Picasso, Braque and the Cubists painted still lifes, as well as the Futurists and the Constructivists. Pop art picked up the theme. In contemporary art, still life is often used in installations as an ultimate realism. Recently, Sam Taylor-Wood, one of the Young British Artists, interpreted the genre of still life as a video piece (Still Life, 2001).

Probably, artists will always be drawn to interpret the idea of the still life.

“… Much of their meaning comes from the inflections they are able to introduce into the field of previous work. The still lives of Chardin are highly self-conscious adaptations of still life conventions first developed in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. The luxury still lives of de Heem and Willem Kalf depend on prototypes in the Vanitas painting, which they modify and push in specific directions, in the same way that Matisse in turn took de Heem and refashioned de Heem’s design for his own distinctive purposes”.

Excerpts from a letter from Jonathan Leaman ‘I started out being “good at doing things”, at getting the likeness of things, but, pretty soon, I colluded with an idea of moderness that avowed a picture was a whole, an image, a spiritual “act” of vision that joined maker and beholder. I became a generalist, abstracting down and planning off things into simple “identities”. With a bend for caricaturisation, I had more need to make an emblem of Kingliness of a crown than that I bring with it qualities of shine, weight, dents, patterning, etc. I taught myself to look down on those who admired the painted grapes and said, “You could almost eat them”. Consequently, I had little time for still life, firmly stuck as a student exercise. If I thought of mimesis and the painting of things at all, it was to puzzle out how to remove their particularity.”

“In a sense things pushed themselves onto me as I began to see how tightly the identity of objects is tied in with remembrance and association (- a rough touch, frayed edges, browning thumb marks on the edge of a page, the lettering or packaging) – details place the object in experience. I signed regretfully that the ‘look of things’ didn’t look right beside my writhing, coiled figures. I didn’t realise yet that it was just this lack of a reflective past for my characters, these figures, that meant I would have to change.

I was glutted with things but couldn’t see in still life anything beyond a display of skill. The best seemed like a box full of attributes knocking about without their stories, a sort of Arma Christi without Christ. More often I found them to be excuses for the act of painting a deliberate eschewal of association.

I wanted to paint lots of things but was exhausting myself inventing stories to get them together. I would ask myself “what are the things doing there? What is the reason for it? What is in the background?” I couldn’t isolate them in the dark, like Chardin, nor plonk things down, like Vincent, on a table in their wrappings. Things didn’t come without associations and the straightforward fact of their ‘thisness’ their ‘haeccity’, wasn’t enough. I still yearned, though, for the mystery of ‘likeness’, for that moment before one sees the paint and says “ah yes, we had one of those.” Mimesis is not important for itself but it has an immense power. I wanted that power and sensed that if I could ‘sentimentalise’ eyes with some kind of narrative then, here and there, in patches, one wouldn’t notice that the apple was seen before the brushstroke.

…The figure standing between the shelves and the counter is the artist impersonating Laban clutching at a figurine, one of the Terafim (household gods) stolen by Rachel.

…Ibsen’s Brand scolds the world for holding onto its idols – Agnes, his wife is forced to give up her dead child’s clothes to an elf gypsy mother at the door – “idols!”

…Two further vanities – the vanity of paint tricking the eye (‘Trompe l’oiel’, ‘Bedriegertje’, ‘The deceit’ in Dutch),

And, what else is a self portrait?’

Retreat (1990-92) “Those exuberant blueberries, which I’ve remembered for the rest of my life, were growing so high that there was no need to bend down for them. When we sneaked through that way, I didn’t know that the forest had seen and heard the agony of the entire Dobre and my family… I’m glad we were forbidden to stop in that forest and that I wasn’t allowed to eat those berries.” – Henryk Grynberg

The artist has conjured up an endless pine forest with naturalistically painted bark. These layers of bark and forest hide and uncover enchanting as well as often-terrible memories. On the first plane the viewer sees a happy, naked (uncovered?) boy, his sleeping bag next to him.

In the undergrowth of the forest, we see large nails, bolts and pins. Do they have a function; are they supposed to bond the people to the objects, to memories? We appear to see many unconnected objects: a ruler, a shield, a hair brush, clothes carelessly thrown on a chair, a flying cup and saucer, a fork and a knife, shoes and a radio, the broken eggshells, a jar of cream (or, as Jonathan Leaman wrote: “the Magdalene’s ointment jar”…), a chess board, and so on… All the objects point to a human presence, a recurrent motif in Jonathan Leaman’s work. The people portrayed in this painting, with their convulsed bodies and their strange behaviour are not from “this world”. They look like they are resurrected (back to life or to our memory?). The forest is timeless, unlimited and all embracing. For the boy, as for us, it uncovers and covers unlimited, timeless, and all-embracing memories and secrets.

Through these strange shadows of people and objects, through a totality of an uncanny atmosphere, through references to a supposed reality, Jonathan Leaman achieves mythological qualities in his paintings.

“Meaning is the secret is scarlet S, the beetle is in the matchbox from Wittgenstein: in the egg and spoon, the gingerbread house’s head from Breughel and the knife end cup-handle from Bosch (“Oreille”). But meaning, also, in the domestic particularity of fish-slice and the echoing tunes of the fork, on comb and soap and orange-stick”.

Are these “Secrets” or Meanings”?

“Is meaning itself anything more than dead man’s clothes thrown onto a chair? Echoes of regeneration?” asks Jonathan Leaman. In his works, the artist struggles with well-known issues, but he approaches them as an artist in a new way, a complicated but clear methodology: “Simplicity and elegance are never reasons to think that a philosophical theory is true: on the contrary, they are usually grounds for thinking it is false.”

We are enchanted by the forest, which is a place of secrets. It could be a happy place, but also equally a haunted place.

Memories of Hansel und Gretel. Memories of Einsatzgruppen….

“I believe that (these) images have a therapeutic impact. They are as passing flashes because they capture a given moment, an anxiety… that they frame and represent so that your attention is drawn to it here and now, in the same way that analytic practice does … Postmodernism, … tries to integrate this wandering in an eclectic unity, containing regressive elements to be sure, but constituting a step beyond the idea of an avant-garde as it imposes a content and the elaboration of a mediation…”

The Retreat is a disturbing and mysterious painting, which, in its fragmented narrative, reveals many layers of the scars of humanity.

The title of this work was given retrospectively and Jonathan Leaman took it from the poem by Henry Vaughan (a seventeenth century poet)

“Happy those early days, when I Shin’d in my angel-infancy! Before I understood this place Appointed for my second race,”…

Entjudungmeer (1996-97) “The story of shattered life can be told only in bits and pieces.” – Ranier Marie Rilke

“The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”—Walter Benjamin

The viewer is faced with a colossal painting whose scale totally absorbing. The sense of movement of the sea and its sheer scale makes us aware of how fragile we human beings are.

On the rocks of the sea, there is a family of survivors of a shipwreck or a deluge. Submerged and floating on the sea are the remains of their past lives, the memories. Shoes are used as an allegory; as were the shoes seen in Vincent Van Gogh “Peasant Shoes” symbolizing peasants’ misery and poverty. These shoes, for anyone acquainted with the Shoah, are also an allegory of death and suffering (the shoes in these paintings are clearly reminiscent of the piles of shoes left by those who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz).

Jonathan Leaman often shows objects in his works to point the attention of the viewer to the absence of people connected with them (the presence of absence); they are a reminder of life past. We see a suitcase, a bag with clothing, furniture, photographs, lamps, a slice of bread… The first words of Genesis (“In the beginning…”) are submerged in the sea; the books are engulfed by the water, as are the gravestones. The family and the viewers are encircled by the enormity of the sea, and its lush waves. The juxtaposition of the sea and of the fragile people, the impression of reality and horror, the dark tonality, which provides a foil to the brilliant white crest and swirls of the waves; all this produces a highly theatrical scenery. The sea seems real; it floods the senses. We can almost feel the wind, the smell of salt, and hear the slap of the waves. This is an angry nature in its very essence.

Yet, the longer one looks into the surface of the water, the more elusive it seems. The sea is a spiritual entity. In the distance, an island appears. “Time” lies smashed on the rocks there. In the sketches for this painting a note written by Jonathan Leaman with an impression of this island says: “It was, it could, it will”.

This shipwrecked or castaway family struggles to survive; one of the men reads the maps, another is praying, a man takes care of the children and keeps the family together; somebody is building a wall. A grandmother is looking through family photographs. Further, along on the horizon, we see a young girl standing on the cliff, a yellow Star of David sewn to her coat. This is a painting about the Shoah and about survival. These people, the Jews, are a paradigm of continuity for the artist.

The title Entjudungmeer comes from the term used by Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, to describe the takeover of Jewish assets and the removal of Jews from the economic life of Germany before removing them from life altogether.

“I had the idea for this picture in Cornwall. I was reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews when it occurred to me that the exhilaration of the day, looking at the sea were, by way of reaction, a reassertion of my humanity. I had thought the rubbish filling my brain on the cliffs was a lack of concentration unable to rise itself to splendour. But, I now realised that I had been under attack from impersonality and that the sea-trivia was a wall against the cold-heartedness of it all. The image of my mother fused with Hilberg’s awful statistic of extermination. As a British Jew, she never had to wear the yellow Magen David. I have painted her as a child looking back at us, wearing it now for memorial’s sake.”

It is interesting to discover just how much Jonathan Leaman identifies with the history of the Shoah;

“I have a Jewish mother, and, that would have elected me, as a ‘mischling of the First’ to the attention the Nazis, but what happened there didn’t happen here. None of my family suffered in those times because all my family were here, English Jews of long standing…”

The Nobel Prize winner for literature, Imre Kertesz, claimed in one of his books that a culture that knows to live with the knowledge of death and create from this knowledge, a life force, is a much deeper and more interesting culture than one that does not need to face these existential, moral and historical questions about the human condition.

“All that is a family is held in the mind. Love is not a thing, nor kinship a process. Knowing that we are bound for extinction, we implicitly acknowledge that we make up our attachments. Memory and custom are the true blood line, the blood serving only to take away choice. Race is just a dream that merely boils down to Phylum and genus. Lineage is really an act of remembrance. Conformity is Commemoration.”

This painting symbolises the belief in a form of rebirth. The Greek tragedy was born out of this belief: re-enacting Dionysus’ death and regeneration every year. The ancient Greek plays had many layers, as has Jonathan Leaman’s work.

Is it possible to “write poetry after Auschwitz?” Theodor Adorno himself answers:

“Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it; it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.”

To paint a work about the most tragic event in Jewish history, to create a historical picture today, could only be done by “emplotment” of past events in a certain type of message. Traditionally, history was told (or painted) in the third person, in a realistic style. This form was employed, because it has the effect of a rhetorical device, which creates the illusion of objectivity, to give the impression that the painting is a reference to the world outside. Of course, realism is a style, like any other style, no more truthful to any other “art-ificiality”. The “neutral”, the “objective” in a story, in history, is impossible (what Lyotard called the end of meta-narrative).

Jonathan Leaman’s approach is very personal, imaginative and individual. His is a distressed, shattered narrative. The people portrayed in the painting are not symbols of great struggle. He shows a family, more so, even, he shows his own family, transplanted into an imaginary situation. This personal touch, the use of images of everyday objects, of memories and belongings, creates a story inside the story, transgressing the borders of what was and what could be.

Unlike history painters, in Jonathan Leaman’s narrative, there are no indications of the belief in progress and of moral improvement (as indicated in the works of the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant), there is no use of the old Western tradition in art: drawing on religious imagery of martyred saints in order to create new martyrs. Jonathan Leaman expresses thoughts and ideas in a new way in his work, yet at the same time it bears similarity to traditional painting; in this way, he creates a painting that demands intellectual awareness, while remaining accessible to a wider audience.

Jonathan Leaman uses allegory: “How could one hope… to make them understand that allegory is one of the noblest branches of art?”

The allegory of deluge and of storms at sea was quite popular in nineteenth century art: J.M.W Turner’s, The Shipwreck, (1805, Tate Britain, London), Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, (1819, Louvre, Paris), Arnold Böcklin’s The Waves (1883, Bayerische Neue Pinaktothek, Munich) and Francis Danby’s The Deluge (1840, Tate Britain, London).

The Entjudungmeer has some affinities with and philosophical connections to Edvard Munch’s The Human Pillar and Böcklin’s Tontenisel. Munch also designed the compositions The Storm and The Rainbow, which, on one side, depicts a man fleeing from a catastrophe, and on the other, a man resting in hope.

“Real heroes are always impelled by circumstances; they never choose because, if they could, they would choose not to be heroes. … The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”

In this work—Entjudungmeer—of conjuncto oppositorum, the artist expresses light and darkness, life and death, suffering and hope. This painting is a reaction to a knowledge of experience (not the experience itself). This somehow places Jonathan Leaman in the expressionist tradition.

Electric Age (2004) “There has never been an age, however rude or uncultured, in which the love of landscape has not in some way been manifested. And how would it be otherwise? For Man is the sole intellectual inhabitant of one vast natural landscape. His nature is congenial with the elements of the planet itself, and he cannot but sympathise with its futures, its various aspects, and its phenomena in all situations” – John Constable

“It took a long time for humankind to understand that life on earth originated in a succession of improbable events.”

A sweeping landscape dominates the painting and immediately engages the viewer’s eye. The predominant colour of this work is a blueish green, which, combined with the calligraphic grace of the images makes this painting look somehow elegant; one can see Sandro Botticelli’s influences on Jonathan Leaman in this painting. Only the burning sun that rises above the coastline has the intensity of red-orange fire. This sun makes one think of the probable influence of J.M.W. Turner’s Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843). Turner’s painting–an allegory of light–was influenced by Goethe’s theory of colour.

In “Electric Age”, a carefully depicted fantastic geological structure dominates the visionary landscape: the blend of fantasy and naturalistic details. In this highly imaginative painting, the artist lavishes his attention on all parts of the canvas, from the centre to the background, creating a chaotic space of extreme dynamism. This landscape is a system of machine-like generated variables, of Dionysian vision and Dionysian life force. The artist has juxtaposed nature with technology (falling electricity pylons) and created an enormous organism whose outcome is our realisation of the permanent struggle of this dynamic system. The mutations are endless; nothing is determined and no state is final.

The grand view does not focus on one important subject matter. The details are vivid. Everything here is mixed together; it is all about disorder, about the force of life. The work depicts the motion and dynamism of the world and its terrifying movement of things that happened; monumental and awe-inspiring image, the deconstructed landscape embodies dramatic effects. Everything happens here, and everything is possible:

“The complexity is what makes the picture breathe, I think. I don’t think it’s simplicity, I think it’s the complexity, and handling that complexity and not let it overwhelm the painting.”

Within the highly structured and evolving arrangements of naturalistically painted objects, interlocking across this blueish-green plane, which from afar creates a beautiful tapestry effect, the artist presents us with his highly evocative vision. As in many other works by Jonathan Leaman (such as The Throne, Babel, Picnic at Cockayne), the artist blurs the boundaries between real appearances and imagination:

“If you are able to develop this artistic approach into an instrument of perception, you will find in the outer macrocosm the phenomenon that exists in the human being.”

Jonathan Leaman painted this fictive work as a trustworthy document. The individual objects are clearly recognisable. The naturalism in this painting implies a high degree of objectivity; at the same time it is a completely visionary and imaginary work; a work that joins naturalism with fantasy. The naturalistically painted work does not produce a “reality-effect” (Ronald Barthes’ terminology “effet de reel”). It may produce an atmosphere of narrative, but as in most of Jonathan Leaman’s works, this is only a mood of narrative.

The exotic and the mundane everyday is mixed in Electric Age, everything is richly decorated, creating a paradox by displaying its own artificiality. This work, with its dream-like quality, with its rhythm and tones, expresses continuous shifts. It does not illustrate specific visual memories, it evokes the vision of “élan vital”, the life force:

“A force that cracks pavings, that arches branches, that splits the overreaching limbs of trees; a non-crystalline force that lifts concrete slabs; a curved force, an upward force, (an) arching, splitting force.”

This force of continuous shifts ‘pangea and panthallosa’ of interconnected tangles, spreads to all possible directions, creating a chaotic and uncanny network (the hands suddenly appear from the opening created by the shattered floor; the appearance of dramatic centaurs).

“The German word ‘unheimlich’ is obviously the opposite of ‘heimlich’ (native)–the opposite of what it familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is uncanny is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.”

The uncanny atmosphere in the painting appeals to the palimpsest of our memories. This element of the unknown-known, the expected-unexpected and the sudden, creates a sublime effect (an extremely suggestive crack in the earth, the falling of electricity pylons).

“Having considered terror as producing an unnatural tension and certain violent emotions of the nerves, it easily follows from what we just said that whatever is fitted to produce such a tension must be productive of passion similar to terror, and consequently must be a source of the sublime, thought it should have no idea of danger connected with it.”

Electric Age, with its references to history, the Bible, art history, mythology, while alluding to “high” culture; with its drama, beauty, and mixture of everyday objects, also succeeds in appealing to a wider audience.

The painting is inspired by visual art and by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbetter’s “Occult Chemistry” of 1908, but it is not a description of Jonathan Leaman’s beliefs. It is an open book. The naturalistically painted landscape brings to mind Jan Breughel the Elder’s (the “velvet” Breughel), The Animals Entering the Ark (1615, London, Wellington Museum). The idea of centaurs derives from Arnold Böcklin’s, Centaurs’ Combat(1873, Kunstmuseum Basel). The peeled-back pavement with the hovering potted tree is a “play” on Giovanni Bellini’s, Christian Allegory (1490, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The bended arch is a reference to Paolo Uccello–one of the most skilled artist and craftsmen of his time (1379-1475).

Overall, Electric Age–is an overwhelming and sublime composition. Its contents may appear to be evident, but in fact, the painting reflects some complex philosophical issues. This affinity with the landscape is global in its geographical, geological and philosophical context, which is also interwoven with Jewish themes.

Imagining ideas is a concern of conceptual art; it is also a concern for all profound artists; as Leonardo da Vinci observed: painting is, “una cosa mentale”.

“But I don’t want to produce good paintings, I want to get the arguments out of my head and stop them being inside my head…”

Jonathan Leaman has said that, “it seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in definitive space”. He adds, “Before the law of gravity started, before (the) onset of entropy, there was an ‘electric age’”.

The label on the suitcase in the painting reads “Pandora”. The quotes are: “He removeth the Earth out of her place, and the pillars…” (from the Geneva version Job 9:6) and: “The opposing brings concert and from tones at variance comes perfect fit: all things come to pass through discord.” (Heraclitus, fragment B-8-Diels). Jonathan Leaman writes: “The ‘vital flame’ is active matter (being-at-doing-Nishida), the fiery will of shape”.

“The Electric Age is Act before buds and greening. We want to say ‘gravity has not yet become! … To say ‘A force runs through all things’ is to say that all things’ are neutral but for the Act. The motion of the enraged force is in its act.”

As with all of Jonathan Leaman’s artistic output, this beautifully constructed work has many layers. It shows him as an artist and as a thinker who deals with ideas.

“Finally, it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented.”

Incredulity (2003-4) “All right, I am going to extremes. A castaway two drifts on a wreck by climbing to the top of an already crumbling must. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” – Walter Benjamin “I’m just always going to be internally centred and it’s always going to be like that. I always felt that there was only me.”

The paint in this work is applied subtly, almost as immaculately as in seventeenth century Dutch vanitas paintings, almost as in icons, painted by God’s hand. A man is standing on a semi-circular lush grass spot (is it the top of the world?). Behind him lies the ruins of a tomb covered in old growth and at the “end of the world”– an all-embracing sea. As the man stands with his bloodied index finger pointed, we see him in profile behind a blood-stained cloth; we can not see much of him. The cloth mysteriously hides most of his body and face. This is a highly mysterious and rhetorical figure, with an emphasis on exaggerated movement and facial expression. The fragmented body, as referred to in Lacan’s famous “corps morcelé”, reminds us of images by Hieronymus Bosch.

As in most paintings by Jonathan Leaman, we are confronted with naturalistically painted non-reality. In his distortion and exaggeration, he attains emotional impact. It is mimesis taken to extreme.

It is difficult to refer to this painting as a self-portrait. And yet this is not pastiche. Is it a self-portrait as a saint with a sudarium? Is it a self-created God? Is it fulfilment of Pierre Bourdieu’s idea about an uncreated creator taking the place of God?

“I became jealous of the freedom of Munch at the same time as I was reading of the Greek and Byzantine tradition of Acheiropoeton, an image ‘unmade by the hand of man’. Some few icons were believed to be literally God-made, as true an expression of God’s mind as scripture. Those became the Vera Icona, the ‘true image’, figured as St. Veronica. The cloth was to display a screaming, expressive head, pretty clearly that of Christ. The hanger obviated the need for Veronica’s hands. The figure was added as an attribute of the sudarium, somehow showing disembodiment (hence the tomb as a figure of resurrection). But I couldn’t bring myself to paint the head, I don’t know why, replacing it, instead, with two bees and a bloodstain. The pointing man, then, needn’t be Thomas, puzzling at godhead, but, maybe, awe at becoming and life itself – perhaps the Christian references are themselves attributes of the mystery of blood and birth.”

There are many references to art history in this seemingly simple painting. The cloth that hangs from the hanger can be a reference to the cloth, veil, sudarium or vernacle, that St. Veronica wiped Christ’s face with as he was carrying the Cross to Calvary; legend has it that by a miracle his face became imprinted on the cloth. However, the legend of St. Veronica and the sudarium only appeared at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The bloodstained cloth usually symbolises suffering. It has a symbolic meaning in every monotheistic faith.

A cloth–or rather a veil drawn to the side – reveals the figure of Truth in Renaissance allegorical art. Incredulity and the pointed finger is associated in Western art with the apostle Thomas (called Didymus in Greek) who had doubts and refused to believe in the Resurrection unless he touched the wounds of Christ (John 20:25-8). In art, it is depicted as the Incredulity of St. Thomas (putting his index finger to Christ’s wounds).

Cloth-curtains were used throughout the history of art, even in ancient times. Pliny in Natural History (the only account of the history of ancient art) writes about a competition between the artists Zeuxis and Parrhasios (fifth century B.C.E.) to paint the most lifelike painting. Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes with such a great mimesis, that the birds tried to eat them. Still, the winner of the competition was Parrhasios, because he painted a curtain so realistic that Zeuxis wanted to pull the curtain back to see the painting behind it, thus becoming in effect the first ever conceptual artist. Rembrandt, in his Holy family with Curtain (Staatliche Museen, Kassel, 1646) included a painted curtain, covering and uncovering a secret. He also painted a frame and again the curtain on the frame. By doing this, he made the viewer aware of the artificiality of the image.

In his letter, Jonathan Leaman mentions Munch’s freedom. One can suppose that by this, the artist meant the fact that Munch created many self-portraits, mostly prints (lithographic works), full of symbolism. The Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (Albertina, Vienna/Munch-museet, lithograph, 1895) has a skeleton arm at the base as part of the framing of the image. The face of the artist – still a young man of 32 and handsome – appears as if a vision. In the Dance of Death (1915, also a lithograph), we see Munch in profile, no longer a young man. The skeleton here is the alter ego of the artist. On the other hand, we have Munch’s Self Portrait in Ekely (1926) showing him surrounded by a Scandinavian landscape, and the Night Wanderer (1939, a character from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt), an extremely depressing self-portrait.

These numerous references are given in the hope that the viewer will be able to solve the puzzle behind the painting, as the viewers of Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, are also required to do.

Drawings The basis of Jonathan Leaman’s art is observation. He permanently draws everything that he sees and everything that his imagination creates. Sometimes his drawings are naturalistic and meticulous, but often they are distorted and grotesque, intensive. Some of his drawings are just spontaneous sketches. Often, he adds some written remarks to his drawings, some notes of visual experience or some thoughts.

The drawings show Jonathan Leaman’s working methods, providing us with an insight into his world. They are the means to achieving something truer in the end than only the verisimilitude of the objects. Transferred into his paintings, the objects in his drawings are often transformed into allegories.

Jonathan Leaman spends a lot of time drawing in small notebooks. This is his immediate connection between seeing and making, between thinking and creating.

Jonathan Leaman writes about his approach and work with drawings:

On Drawing by Jonathan Leaman Years ago I made the decision not to make drawings for sale. This was a great relief, and, since then, all my drawing is Preparatory. Some might seem “finished” up but that is misleading.

A “drawing” is either a picture in my head that I have to put down or it is an exploration of balances and nuances, a meander of appearing pictures in my mind. Actually, these aren’t too different: both acts pry images out from the mess of words in the brain.

The drawing can be extremely light, or awkwardly done, or “partial”, abandoned as the idea dies between head and hand, or, then, they might be in the form of detailed fantasias. Sometimes finish comes from the spiralling bad dream of going wrong but I consider all sorts of drawings equally as useful to me. I treat them as the holy relics of Inspiration.

I draw anywhere these “pictures” come to me (as long as I am not overlooked). Occasionally, I have magic spots where I go to draw or draw-out ideas or half thoughts (currently a particular tree in Bushey Park, and a conjunction of rocks on the cliffs and, in Cornwall). I hardly ever draw from life. I rarely draw in my studio.

All the drawings are now the same size. I cut down sketchbooks of detail paper to fit into a coat pocket, the same dimensions as my notebook which are held together by an elastic band into which a pen is stuck (Many of my notes deal with the same ideas of drawings – contexts, assonances, jottings of colours or titles). I carry these all the time.

I draw in pen and correction fluid. When I have the space and time (and the wind is not too fierce) I might add charcoal, chalks, marker pens etc. I never quite know what type of picture is going to come, as though the first mark were dropping a cue to my hand. The head, a benign uncle, looks on to assent or put his oar in. Sometimes painting and drawing are like riding a canoe down rapids – the task is not to make it go, nor to decide where to go, but just to stop it bashing into the sides.

I use these drawings to make a cartoon onto tracing paper over the canvas, drawn with charcoal. This is a different type of drawing, “drawing-in”, and is more like a map to the painter-me, telling me “here” and “how much”: a sort of diagram that “imagines” paint. This would be some time after the drawings I have described before.

Some pictures don’t have any drawings as such, but notes, or division of rectangles or the placing of the horizon – a drawing can be just an angle, or a list, or act as a mnemonic and I would only make a distinction between these and other drawings in that these are studies for a picture whilst those “inspired” drawings are searching for a pictures, before a picture gets drawn-in and fixed on the cartoon. Some of these drawings never find pictures at all.

CONCLUSION “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy.”

Jonathan Leaman is an original artist whose roots reach deep into Christian, Jewish and European traditions and whose works are not an idle novelty (as prophesized by Theodor Adorno, who dreaded that there might be a time where it would be impossible to tell the difference between fashion and something historically significant). Leaman deals with the concepts that operate between the light and the dark sides of life such as pleasure and suffering; romanticism and scepticism; life and death. His paintings challenge the ephemerality of contemporary art by exploring these themes with constant attention to the pursuit of excellence in the craft of painting. His search for parallels in tradition (between Jewish Kabbalah and Christian iconography) and his preoccupation with death, destruction and renewal is a North European tradition of Flemish art, Dutch genre still life painting and the art of Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh. From these Northern traditions and their concept of allegory and also form early Renaissance and Symbolist art, came the juxtaposition of ideas and contrasting images. Leaman’s works are locked in a dialectic struggle between the instinctive (Dionysian) and the intellectual (Apollonian).

“…the continuous development of art is bound up with Apollonian and Dionysian duality–just as procreation depends on duality of sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations.”

The combination of opposing ideas and images disturbs the viewer and introduces him to new possibilities in art. Leaman has a Pantheon of artists to whom he turns to for inspiration. It is made up of Munch, Van Gogh, Picasso, Botticelli, Massacio, Ensor and Poussin as well as sixteenth century Flemish and seventeenth century Dutch artists. He often connects the moods and preoccupations of the contemporary world with traditional art.

The appreciation of and references to great art of the past does not make Leaman’s paintings dead-end formalist. Instead they are highly subjective and figurative responses, based on likenesses of his family and himself. His painterly language could be seen as a simple one, but at the same time its multi-layering of messages can be extremely complicated and sophisticated. They do not exist on the basis of the tenets of academic or traditional paintings; their concern is not in a ‘proper’ perspective, or colour, or form, or illusion of depth. Rather their main concern is ‘ideas,’ the message, the deconstruction of the above issues and reconstruction of them in the artist’s own vision. The works may seem eclectic but in reality are very well planned and organised as well as being extremely logical. They are like a puzzle of which separate elements relate to a subject matter.

Leaman paints in hyperbole whereby he exaggerates the natural and the human aspects of his paintings to shock effect. With such excess and extremity, he achieves in his work the aesthetic of the sublime.

“I think in particular that it is in the aesthetic of the sublime that modern art (including literature) finds its impetus and the logic of the avant-gardes, finds its axiom.”

His works often hide literary, historical, mythological and religious references. The derivation from the late medieval/early Renaissance art of Bosch, Grünewald and Piero di Cosimo, and the treatment of the canvas as a stage (with Ensor-like theatricality), both point to literary aspects of his imagery. The use of large-scale canvases, turning to ‘tableau d’historie’ are in the best tradition of Goya and Picasso with their portrayal of the horrors and inhumanity of war. Leaman reinterprets and relives history painting (“in the nineteenth century the doctrine was central to art theory”) whilst adopting it to our times.

Leaman’s paintings create ‘theatrium mundi,’ whereby the viewer is immersed in the expectation of painting along with the cultural baggage it carries. At the same time they appeal to individual and collective memory (Strongly, Wrongly…), they investigate the world around us (Electric Age), they bear witness and protest (Tzim-Tzum), they bring up philosophical ideas (Babel, The Throne, Incredulity) and they explore ideas of spirituality (White Fire on Dark Fire).

Often, the large scale of his paintings affords a monumental quality. In most cases, the artist treats the canvas as what Panofsky called, an ‘aggregated space’ (a shape made of juxtaposed objects without a central point of view). Leaman’s interest in improving his painting techniques leads to experimentation, which in turn leads to the creation of new ideas (Four Nieces, Vanity). As much as they are meticulously and skilfully painted, their concern is not about beauty.

“Modern aesthetic question is not ‘What is beautiful?’ but rather ‘What can be said to be art?’”.

Jonathan Leaman’s provocative and unsettling paintings, (which are like Pandora’s Box with interwoven ideas, secrets and mysteries) tackle philosophical problems and questions of metaphysics. In many of them, he attempts to visually translate the dictum of abstract thoughts. In doing so, paradoxically Leaman is similar to Marcel Duchamp, who also disliked and disagreed with the modernist notion of ‘painting for a painting’s sake’–where only the physical side of painting carries any importance.

“I was much more interested in recreating ideas in painting. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind. And my painting was, of course, at once regarded as an ‘intellectual, literary’ painting!”-Marcel Duchamp said after painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art).

Leaman says about his work: “Well, because it was about ideas I had been thinking about for years. I mean, they are all about ideas that I’ve been thinking about for years.”

The naturalism of his paintings often disguises their unreality. His individual objects many times painted with hyper-realistic effect, do not deal with the ‘real’. His paintings are a combination of watchfulness and imagination, their concern being the artistic truth. These scattered realities appeal to our senses. The hand wants to touch them because they are so life-like. Leaman is a master of ‘illusionistic realism’. His paintings awaken our senses of touch, smell and taste. We feel the surface of glass and the wind from the sea.

Leaman’s distortions and exaggerations attain considerable emotional impact. If expressionism emphasises the absolute validity of the personal vision projecting artist’s inner experience (aggressive, mystical, anguished, lyrical) on the spectator, then Leaman is an ‘expressionistic’ artist. “Expressionism is not a style but an attitude.” Through expressive tendencies and the use of his own physiognomy he explores an inexhaustible diversity of themes and ideas.

Leaman’s works show the concerns of post-modernity: an impending cataclysm, so characteristic to the thought of Foucault (–‘man is an invention of recent date and perhaps one nearing its end’), Lyotard’s ‘endist’ theory and Derrida’s deconstruction theory.

At first glance, the paintings may lead one to the assumption that Leaman is a surrealist artist – we like to put artists into neat categories of schools and styles. However, his works are not ‘automatic’ and they are not fixated on ‘dream images’ (Andre Breton in his Manifesto defines these two characteristics of surrealism)

“It has been said that the spirit of surrealism begot every new movement in modern art. This is another way of saying (as we did) that modern art aimed at disrupting or twisting one’s normal sensibilities as a matter of principle.”

On the general landscape of the contemporary art scene, Leaman with his traditionalist, ‘old-fashioned’ approach to painting, is a true avant-garde artist; “Paradoxically, the avant-garde of today turns against the nihilistic ‘modern art’ of the past; it is groping for a new, still very unsure traditionalism, a new reverence for older values, which our fathers thought to be shattered forever.

….All new art at its inception, must have appeared less solid and more dispersed than it now appears to a later generation.”

Jonathan Leaman’s oeuvre, is at the same time both ‘easy’ and sophisticated, canny and uncanny, appealing to both the cognitive and to the sentimental. As often happens with most interesting and unusual art—his work defies any categorisation. Leaman’s only preoccupation is being a painter. He is a perfectionist who is hardly ever satisfied with his work. His greatest admiration and even identification, is with (in Leaman’s own words) ‘Vincent’. “Van Gogh who from as early as 1882 thought that it would be better to be Prometheus than Jupiter, cut sun out of himself.”

Footnotes: David Hockney: Pablo Picasso in Writers on Artists, Modern Painters; UK, 2002; page 22. Paul Cezanne to Roger Marks, January 23rd 1905, in Letters; edited by John Rewald, London 1971. Roland Barthes: ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image-Music-Text; trans., Stephen Meth; New York, Hill & Wang; 1977. Previously published as: ‘La mort de l’accteur’; Manteia 5, 1968. E.H. Gombrich: Portrait Painting and Portrait Photography in Apropos 5, London 1945, page 6. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Umberto Eco: Faith in Fakes; Travels in Hyperreality;, London, Vintage, 1998, page 30. Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger, London and New York, Routledge, 1966. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. John McEwan: Ex. catalogue Jonathan Leaman; Beaux Arts, London, 2002. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Anton Ehrenzweig,: The Hidden Order of Art; A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Perception; Phoenix Press, London, 2000, page 127. From correspondence with the artist regarding this article, May 2004. Umberto Eco: ibid, page 65 Daniel Bell: Modernism and Capitalism; Partisan Review, Volume 45, New York, 1978, pages 202-22. Jean-François Lyotard, transl. Régis Durand: Answering the Question: “What is Postmodernism?” in I. and S. Hassan (eds) Innovation / Renovation, Madison, Wisconsin, 1983, pages 71-82. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin: Edited by David S. Ferris (2004); pages 45-47 Pierre Bourdieu: The Rules of Art, translated from the original Les règles de l’art, Polity Press and Blackwell, 1996, page 189. Jean-François Lyotard : ibid, pages 71-82. Jean Baudrillard: The Perfect Crime, translated by Chris Turner; London, 1996, page 5. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. From correspondence between the artist and author regarding this article, May 2004. Julia Kristeva: “Powers of Horror”; An Essay on Abjection; translated Leon S. Roudiez, New York, 1982, pages 207-10. From correspondence between the artist and the author regarding the exhibition, June 2004. Julian Bell: What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 1999, page 146. Julia Kristeva: ibid, pages 207-10. In Medieval art, rabbits and hares symbolised lust—see the Seven Deadly Sins. At the feet of the Virgin Mary, the animal represents the victory of chastity. Sigmund Freud: A case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of Disease, 1915, Standard Edition, Volume XIV, page 269. Finley Eversole: Man’s Extremity and the Modern Artist, in Theology Today, 1963, page 386 Sigmund Freud: ibid, page 269. Ranier Maria Rilke: The First Duino Elegy, in Selected Poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, New York, 1980, page 84. Kamil Baczynski: White Magic and Other Poems (in press). Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press/Green Integer; page 15. David Sylvester: Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Thames L Hudson, London, 2000, page 239. Daniel Bell: Modernism and Capitalismin Partisan Review, Vol. 45, New York, 1978, pages 206-22. Richard Morphet: essay, Ex. catalogue Jonathan Leaman; Beaux Arts, London, 2002, page 27. Max Beckmann to Mina Beckmann-Tube, May 24th 1915 in Max Beckmann, Die Realitälder Träume in den Bilderr: Aufsötze un Vortäge aus Tabebüchern, Briefen, Gesprachen, 1903-1950; Leipzig, 1984, page 75. Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992, page xi,. Jean-François Lyotard: The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowley, Oxford, 1991, pages 8-9. William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act IV, (Claudius speaking of the murder of Hamlet’s father) Milton: Paradise Lost, Book i. Line 62 David Sylvester: ibid, page 241. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. From an interview with the artist, February 2003 From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Picnic at Cockayne. Jean-François Lyotard : Introduction to the Postmodern Condition transl., ibid Catherine Pickstock: Thomas Aquinas and the Quest for the Eucharist” in Modern Theology 15, (1999), page 159 Julie Kristeva: “Powers of Horror” originally Pouvoirs de l’horreur; Paris, 1980, translated by Leon S Roudiez as Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York, 1982, pages 207-10. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Maximus Tyrius: Philosophmena, ed. H. Hoben, Leipzig, 1910, pages 123-124; in Francis Junius’s The Painting of the Ancients, page 344. Jonathan Leaman notes on Babel. Walter Benjamin: Theses on the Philosophy of History from Illuminations, Fontana, London, 1992. Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Babel. Stuart Sim: Structuralism and Post-structuralism in Oswald Hanfling, ed., Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction”, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992, page 425. Czestaw Miłosz: “ The Issa Valley”, Farrar Straus Giroux; 1982, page 16. Charles Baudelaire: Some Modern Caricaturists, Essay, 1857. Antonim Artaud: Le Visage Humain (manuscript) in Antonim Artaud: Works on Paper from Agnes de la Baumelle in M. Rowell (ed.) MOMA, New York, 1996, page 90. Interview with Jonathan Leaman, February 2003. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Four Nieces Berating a Dead Uncle. David Sylvester: Looking back at Francis Bacon, Thames & Hudson, London, page 242. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Norman Bryson: Looking at the Overlooked, Four Essays on Still Life Painting, Reaktion Books Ltd., London, 1990, pages 10-11. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Vanity. Henryk Grynberg : Zycie jako deyintegracia (Polish), in English “Life as Desintegration” in a collection of essays entitled “Prawda nieartystyczna” (The Unartistic Truth), Berlin 1984, Warsaw 1994, Wołowiec 2000, page 94. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Retreat. Ibid. Thomas Nagel: Moral Questions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979, page X. Julia Kristieva: Flash Art, no. 126, February – March 1986, page 44-47. Henry Vaughan: The Retreat in the “Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918”, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1939, page 372. Zygmunt Bauman: Intimations of Postmodernity, Routledge, 1992, page 9 Walter Benjamin: Theses on the Philosophy of History in “Illuminations” translated by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, N.Y., 1968, page 255. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Entjudungmeer. From the artist’s “Notes on not being Jewish Enough” given to the author June 2004. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Entjudungmeer. Theodor Adorno: Commitment; trans. F. Mc. Donagh in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader; Oxford, 1978 (concluding section) Charles Baudelaire: Salon of 1845 in Art in Paris 1845-1862; ed. Petra Doesschale Chu; Englewood Cliffs, N.Y., 1977, page 48. Umberto Eco: Why Are They Laughing in Those Cages?; essay in Faith in Fakes; Travels in Hyperreality; Vintage, London, 1986, page 122. John Constable in his last lecture in Hampstead on 25 July 1863. Yann Arthus-Bertrand; The Earth from the Air, Thames & Hudson, London 2002, page 289. See: John Cage, Colour and Culture; Thames and Hudson; 1993, page 201. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Rudolf Steiner: Harmony at the Creative Word; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; Anthroposophic Press, 2001, page 20. In a letter from the artist to the author, June 2004. Jonathan Leaman’s terminology in a letter about the Electric Age, May 2004 Sigmund Freud; The Uncanny (1919) in The Standard Edition of Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vol., ed. Y Strachey, London 1953-74; vol. XIX. Edmund Burke; A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful; Ed. David Womerlsey; Penguin Books; London, 1998, page 163. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. In a letter from the artist to the author. In a letter from the artist to the author. Jean-François Lyotard: ibid, page 82. Gershom Scholem; Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship; London 1982; from a letter dated April 17th 1931, also in Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations; Essays and Reflections; ed. Hannah Arendt; trans Harrison, Schocken, N.Y., 1968, page 19. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Pierre Bourdieu; The Rules of Art; Ibid Full text of Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Incredulity sent to the author, June 2004 In a letter from the artist to the author, June 2004. Jean-François Lyotard: Introduction to The Post Modern Condition; pages XXIV – XXV. trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi; The Post Modern Condition. A Report on Knowledge; Minnesota and Manchester, 1984. Frederick Nietzsche; Basic Writings of Nietzsche; trans. and edited; Walter Kaufman; New York; 1954. Jean-François Lyotard: ibid, pages 80-82. Richard Wrigley: The Origins of French Art Criticism; from the Ancient Regime to Restoration; Oxford; OUP, 1999, page 299. Thiery de Duve; Kant after Duchamp; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, 1996. Tony Godfrey; Conceptual Art (Art and Ideas); Phaidon Press, London, 1998, page 14. Interview with the artisit, February 2003. Donald Kuspit; essay in Expressive! Cat. Exh. Foundation Beyeler, 2003. Andre Breton: Manifestoes of Surrealism; trans. R. Seaver and H.R. Lane; Michigan, 1969 Anton Ehrenzweig; The Hidden Order of Art; Phoenix Press,; London 1967, page 69 Anton Ehrenzweig; ibid, page 70 George Battaille in his essay; Van Gogh Prometheus; from Europe Transformed: 1878-1919 (Blackwell Classic Histories of Europe); Blackwell Publishers, London, 1999, page 300.

Richard Morphet, 2002 for Jonathan Leaman Hardback Book

The Art of Jonathan Leaman

Introduction When contemplating the paintings of Jonathan Leaman, with their even surfaces and abundance of precise and intriguing detail, Vincent van Gogh is not the first artist whose work comes to mind. Leaman seems closer to the Pre-Raphaelites, whose crowded subject pictures (which he much admires) draw one in to the stories they tell and, like Leaman’s, provoke speculation as to their meaning. Yet van Gogh is one of the key figures in Leaman’s crowded pantheon and the quality he mentions first in Vincent’s art is his ability to convince us of the reality of what he represents by putting us there, as if we are ‘in his feet’. Pre-Raphaelite painting, too, has something of this quality, but with a work by Leaman it is one of the most immediate sensations. We inhabit the scene at once, in its verifiable extent, its strange atmosphere and the forceful emotions that pervade it.

We have the sense of participating, too, in the physical actions Leaman shows being performed, such as bounding, gripping, pulling, carrying, floating or hurtling at high speed. Numerous paintings by Leaman depict extremely demanding bodily activity, in some cases evoking pain. His ability palpably to convey sensations, ranging from tension to relaxation, extends from the intimacy of facial expressions (whether grimacing, surprised, joyous or terrified) to the stresses and precarious balance of a complex spatial construction, as in Babel 1997-1999. In several pictures there is a powerful sense of some large form looming over or amid the scene. We see this in The Bull Tzim Tzum1999-2001, as well as in The Ante-Room 1999-2002, in which a massive figure walks away from the viewer. In the largest work of this period, Memorial to the Feeding Chain 2000-01, the entire complex that confronts us rears like some vast living organism risen from the sea, wisely fenced off like a place of danger (as one quickly perceives it to be).

This triptych typifies Leaman’s art in presenting an overall image of great impact which is then followed, for the viewer, by the sense of a close tapestry of physical conjunctions and (more often than not) human relationships, this in turn leading to innumerable rewards when the picture is explored for its wealth of minutely-realised detail. At each of these levels the effect of the discovery is physical and psychological at the same time. It is enhanced by Leaman’s predilection for unusual angles of view and for leaps in scale within a single work. In picture after picture the impression is of an uncommon intensity of vision in which, however, acute observation of the material world is joined with feelings of loss, disbelief or alarm, and in which the everyday becomes unnerving when it is not evidently disturbing or chaotic.

Leaman’s paintings since 1999 Memorial to the Feeding Chain 2000-01

Leaman writes of this painting: In Cornwall, on the site of the collapsed harbour of Nanjulian, at the end of the Nanquidno valley, sitting on my perch on the cliffs, looking out towards the Scilly Isles, the fissures and cracks in the rocks below me seemed to grip like mouths, to convolute into meat and turds, clenching and grasping. A cleft turned into a vagina: snatching fingers pinched, and fractures became the sad loss of hope.

A name came: “The Memorial to the Feeding Chain”, that carried the shape of an heraldic emblem on the motif of predation and collapse. The picture would be ostentatiously grand, with figured appetites and exalted innuendo provoking greed, betrayal and mercilessness.

Did I see this? Probably not, but I was convulsed by a force of inspiration. I started drawing after drawing and after three weeks I had nearly eighty, at least half of them highly finished. I would sit and draw all day, hiding under overhanging outcrops if it was raining but still drawing, in my coat if in a soaking mist. Apart from tidying them up and filling in areas with texture I wasn’t able to draw anywhere else but on my rock with its protective wall behind me. The spot was graced. I felt unsafe elsewhere and frightened by this unbidden outpouring of images. I prefer my fixations to be patient and slow moving: this only alarmed me. The picture seemed fully formed and all I had to do was assemble it from these glimpses.

Very little invention was needed to paint the picture. I treated the drawings with all the respect due to the relics of revelation. I attempted to transfer them as closely as I could. Some ideas, indeed, did come later: the sepulchres on the left and right of the central cave, or the section of meat above it, but these came from the same sources of imagery: ideas I hadn’t been able to express. I never made preparatory drawings for them. Painting was very easy. It only took me eight months.

It quickly became apparent whilst I was making these drawings that distinct themes were emerging. For years I have been intrigued by an equation that came to me in a dream: FOOD + SEX = RELIGION (which neatly reverses: SEX + RELIGION = FOOD and FOOD + RELIGION = SEX), and it occurred to me that my picture was splitting along these lines.

The sexual material was dirty and grubby as well as lewd. The innuendos were sad rather than ribald. At the same time I was drawing chains of people wresting food from each other. Other drawings were numinous, vaguely implying activities in and around an inner sanctum. I tried to think what kind  of space could combine these conflicting needs of depiction: symbolic, narrative (sort of) and emblematic. Very soon I had settled on a triptych with the main themes of sex in ‘The Ensor Ticket’ on the left, and food in ‘La Ronde’ on the right. The central picture was not necessarily going to be religious but was somehow to deal with the intermingling of the images and the grandiose sense of consecration in ‘Non Omnis Moriar’.

Back in my studio I developed the three pictures separately and interconnectedly. Each canvas was overlaid with tracing paper on which I made three drawings in charcoal before transferring them. I let rocks drift to their chosen home and tried to make sense of the space of each picture whilst still letting them share common divisions (mainly in thirds) and levels. I tried to place some objects in all pictures, in an analogy of stepped trajectory, but it is one of the delights of the triptych form that whilst each panel is, in some way, a reprise of the adjoining one, images do not necessarily want to skip over the central one. Thus there are three strawberries and three hats (if we allow pie to be a surrogate), yet salami doesn’t get to sex, and money fails to get caught up with food except in the inevitable form of a till receipt (which itself has its counterpoints in the 27 bus ticket in the middle and, of course, the Ensor ticket in the hat).

The Ensor Ticket The left panel of the triptych is titled after the ticket tucked into the band of the hat at the top of the composition. Leaman kept the ticket after visiting a retrospective at Antwerp, in 1983, of the painter whose disturbing late nineteenth century pictures of multitudes of figures and grimacing heads would be a powerful influence on his own art. In this panel of the triptych, rocks form faces and genitalia, while some of the everyday objects lying on the rocks double as sexual parts. The sex being had pervasively in this picture is described by Leaman as unpleasurable, disconcerting and dangerous. The mood is one of selfishness and callousness, but also of a gnawing sexual longing.

La Ronde Titled after the brand name on the opened tin of sardines at top right, the right hand  panel is a scene of violence. Seven people and a dog, all naturalistically painted, seize and hug food greedily or tear it from one another, while here and there inanimate rocks and objects resolve into human images with grim expressions. The details are simultaneously beautiful and revolting. One section of the rock face is stuffed with cooked chickens. Beneath the weight of one of this panel’s several self portrait figures, the jam filling oozes from a slice of cake, while nearby a girl licks raw egg yolk from the surface of a rock. Chocolate, bacon, cheeses and a salami sandwich are among the items depicted with striking verisimilitude. They balance the diamond, fag-end, coins, screw and cord in the pendant panel, as more closely do the spilled peas here and The Ensor Ticket‘s heaped pearls.

Non Omnis Moriar The side panels flank an enigmatic central scene that Leaman himself claims not fully to understand. The title (from Horace, and as inscribed on the tomb of Böcklin, whose spirit permeates this triptych) translates as ‘I will not entirely die’. The picture’s prevailing mood is of sadness. Unlike the side panels it includes no human figures, but recent human presence is implied in the materials that litter the ramshackle setting and which include more cigarette butts, a crude weapon, glass vessels, a hairbrush and a bus ticket. They also include more food (such as a beautifully observed crumpet, rotting apples, Cornish fairings, a hamburger, sliced bread and the partly-opened can of corned beef that sits beneath the highest object in the whole triptych, a lopsided crown). Interwoven with these signs of occupation are the grotesque faces that, here again, are formed by rocks. In addition to individual such faces, the panel’s whole image can be read as a face, with cavernous eye sockets and prominent teeth. A further human connection is the piece of meat propped, rock-like, behind the corned beef. This is a section cut through a human body (transcribed from Ellis, Logan and Dixon, Human Sectional Anatomy 1999). The location is inhabited by living creatures, albeit non-human; a dog pulls at the white sheet on which lie turds, while tiny half-animal figures lurk amid the debris (one is a wrapped toffee on spider’s legs).

The decrepitude of this forecourt, which resembles an abandoned camp-site, curiously co-exists with indications of a certain solemnity. The uprights grouped around the centre, all surmounted by horizontals, cannot but suggest the three crosses of Calvary, while one of the three apertures is blocked by a large stone (an emblem of the female sex) and another (its lintel bearing the inscription of the panel’s title) is that of a sepulchre. This reinforces the Böcklin association. But the life led here is unlike that on Böcklin’s Island of the Dead. People have gone, perhaps never to return, yet though most of the protagonists are not living, they seem to have developed a kind of consciousness. It is as though the elements themselves are feeding on one another and in their interaction are echoing life as we know it.

Leaman insists on the separate identity of each of the three panels in Memorial to the Feeding Chain and draws attention to the different ways in which they are painted  –  the left panel more crystalline, the central the most naturalistic and the right more super-real. Yet he also stresses that the panels are intended to be through-read. Separated from us by a chain-and-post fence derived from one on the Serpentine near the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the triptych seems to offer for contemplation Leaman’s image of the contemporary world. It is a place in which everyone takes from someone else (as he feels he does, himself). Nevertheless, it presents the world in terms not so much of clear-cut assertion as of puzzlement as to the nature of its condition.

There is a similar ambiguity with regard to the extraordinarily clearly depicted objects that abound in this panorama. Each declares its particular identity so directly as to seem to exclude any alternative reading, yet ultimately there is a strange openness as to what its identity might be. Leaman suggests this when he writes:

There is an ostensive Rhetoric in placing a crown on a corned beef tin that is not directly a reference either to the kingly, nor to processed meat, nor to any melding of the two. It may be a benighted stone’s attempt at becoming, or a sad reflection on immured flesh wearing its pompous hat. It might gather up all the body images about, or, somehow reflect the implicit Christian ethos of incarnation and scourging. But I want to stress the elevation of a gaily apparelled meaninglessness, a Rhetoric of the unmediated, what Novalis calls “the ur-tones of my feelings” (and, perhaps, what Walter Benjamin means when he says “imagelessness is the refuge of all images”). But, if you take every meaning away what would one hope to get? Perhaps the “ur-tones” of a picture, a vigour trying to bring itself into existence not any informing idea. A thing that is just not fixed  –  is that the suspicion of a sensibility? The picture is a person, maybe? At the very least the picture might bring out of itself some of the passion of selfishness and its liberation in cruelty that it is depicting.

White Fire on Dark Fire 1999-2001 The history of art abounds in paintings of domestic interiors. It also provides a fair number of pictures painted to convey the urgency of a vision experienced by the artist. It is unusual, however, to find the two modes combined, and still more so when the vision, though centred on subject matter of the utmost spiritual importance, had no emotional force for the artist, despite its arresting nature. Leaman himself again gives a vivid account of the circumstances.

A couple of years ago, during a period of intense work, I experienced visions which took the same shape on at least three occasions. At that time I also had mini blackouts which were associated with a loss of balance. I would wake up with the room spinning. About half an hour later, after the nausea had subsided and I had recovered, I would see lights. These were in a chain, like beads on a necklace, of prisms and spectra in which I seemed to ‘see’ visions. The first time these were Hebrew letters (which I cannot read) rolling past me. After this time they were seen as inscriptions on broken masonry in the desert. Once again I couldn’t make out what they said. These scenes would bob from left to right for at least twenty minutes until the prismatic purity of colour faded. At no time did I sense any exaltation or illumination, and it is noteworthy [that] I felt no emotion at all apart from curiosity. Indeed I felt boredom at their endless scroll being unwound. Once I returned to watching T.V. through them. During all this there was a deep cobalt blue glow before my left cheekbone.

I recalled reading of mystical visions of the Torah and misremembered these as being described as ‘White Fire on Dark Fire’. The notion of ‘Black Fire on White Fire’ refers to the vanished ‘White Torah’ upon which the black Hebrew letters of the Torah form a commentary. I was intrigued to share the ecstatic encounters of devout Kabbalists who would practice visualizing the Tetragrammaton (YHWH, the holy name of God) in letters of fire bathed in colours. I do not think that I was influenced by my reading, though. Anyway my picture is a ‘version’ of things seen.

I have shifted the scene to the sitting room of my mother’s house (where I have a studio) so that I could observe the cast light from a television. I have given her the picture of John the Baptist by Bosch [Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid] to hang on her wall, and a postcard, on the bookshelves, of angels embracing from the foreground of the Mystic Nativity of Botticelli [National Gallery, London]. The photographs are of my family but replace others of marriages and granddaughters. The books are not my mother’s books (bar Proust) but a mix of titles that might or might not mean something, which may make references or not. Their titles’ primary purpose was to become concrete, so that each spine was particular to a content one is not to see. It is not a symbolic or an ideal library, but a specific library.

The television set shows the fluttering ribbons that are behind the opening title credits of John Ford’s Western “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, which reminded me of the way the prisms danced.

I, likewise, chose the barely comprehensible “Ziw Jenes Licht” (pronounced ZIV) by association. I needed writing that couldn’t be read yet was also readable (like letters of fire). I took the line from Paul Celan’s poem ‘Near, in Aorta’s arch’ (Nah im Aortenbogen). The end reads:

Still, in den Kranzarterien, unumschnürt: Ziw, Jenes Licht.

(Still, in the coronary arteries, unbinded: Ziw, that Light).

‘Ziw’ is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that Celan takes to mean the splendour or brightness of the Grace of God, the indwelling in brilliance of the Shekhinah (the female manifestation of God) within the community of Israel in exile. I follow John Felstiner (in his Paul Celan: poet, survivor, Jew) in saying ‘because we cannot translate Ziw, we must not’. Not readable yet concrete with effulgence.

Though he goes on to identify the inscriptions on the vignettes of broken masonry seen within the seven visionary bursts of light, Leaman stresses that ‘it is not strictly desirable to read [them], any more than I could the Hebrew and Greek’. From left to right, the inscriptions are as follows. 1, in Hebrew, reads: ‘The Man of God is buried here’. 2, in Greek, possibly from Demokritros, reads: ‘Look whither? When?’.  3, in Latin, reads: ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. 4, in Hebrew, reads: ‘Moses, Moses’. The visible part of the inscription in 5, in Latin, is from words in a fifteenth century Italian source on the Incarnation, reading: ‘ What the tongue uttered is a seed: in the flesh the word is gathered’. 6 starts with words from lines by Rimbaud (from ‘Mouvement’ in Les Illuminations, XXXIII): ‘ On voit, roulant comme une digne / au-delà de la route hydraulique motrice / monstrueux, s’éclairant sans fin’. At the foot of the inscription is the single word ‘Boisgeloup’. 7, in Hebrew, reads: ‘Zohar’, which means ‘brightness’ and is also the name of ‘the chief text of the Jewish Kabbalah, presented as an allegorical or mystical interpretation of the Pentateuch’. The quotation that follows, from Joel II.28, reads: ‘and your young men shall see visions’.

One is struck by the contrast between the extreme solemnity of these utterances drawn from several cultures and the impossibility (if one has not read his surprising explanation) of determining their significance for the artist. Other aspects of the picture compound this ambiguity. As in all Leaman’s paintings, one of the central preoccupations is with light. The light that illuminates the inscriptions is mystical in nature, yet it plays against a quite different light, that cast by an everyday television screen (from which, however, the string of bursts of bright light appears to emanate). Leaman’s treatment of each of these kinds of light has its own distinct beauty. Their weird coexistence makes the picture compelling even before its complex subject matter is considered. Just as each bubble of light is the gateway to a world elsewhere, so the ordered domestic interior abounds in references and images (several relating to prophecy or memory) that similarly open the door to other worlds of mind and spirit.

Each of the seven prism-ringed visions is realised in the form of a small picture that is highly satisfying in itself. Each gives the sense simultaneously of intimate proximity and of an endless distance beyond the inscribed masonry. Distance is expressed in three sharply-defined stages. While one could almost reach out and touch the monuments, the curtains frame and focus them, in a sense barring us from them  –  one is even chained off  – by emphasising, tantalisingly, that they occupy a different time and spiritual space. In turn, the monuments block the way to the desert and the sea and/or sky that lie beyond. The eye is drawn to details at all three degrees of distance, from the figured curtains in the fifth vision through the small yet compelling skull in the third to the smoke rising from a mysterious source in the seventh. The structure in the middle distance in the sixth vision is a bathing cabin. It recalls Picasso’s reiteration of this motif in his art of the late 1920s, during his passion for Marie-Thérèse Walter. The configuration of propped forms recalls the sculptures, inspired by the same muse, made at his Normandy retreat at Boisgeloup in the early 1930s, and more particularly some of his drawings for sculpture (one of which, of 1928) is titled Bathers (Study for a Monument). Though the genre within which Leaman is driven to create is painting, the inventive forms taken by his obsession with relating one object to another are evidence of a strong sculptural sense. This is evident in such different examples as The Throne of God and Babel and in the extraordinary ways in which rocks and found motifs are stacked in Memorial to the Feeding Chain.

The Bull, Tzim Tzum  1999-2001 Leaman explains how: In the wake of expulsions of Kosovans by the Serbs [in 1999] I planned a series of pictures that, after the example of Baudelaire’s Voyage to Cythera, would make a place the figure of emotions and allow me to depict great cruelty and violence (a long held ambition) without the specifics of politics. In this land (called ‘Fever Parish’) the Bull would hold sway in magnificent indifference to the horrors committed under his sign.

Eventually I abandoned work on two of the pictures, not able to outdo the photographs: a field emptied of refugees yet still strewn to the hills with their clothes and plastic water bottles: or those of great chunks of concrete, pockmarked by shrapnel: what had I to add to that that would not, inexorably, lead away from it?

But I was left with a bull which I now thought of as Providence, or, at least, an indifferent God who might, offhandedly, turn the world upside down. There were columns and a brick sea where people might have been. In this wasteland cranes gather bones and rubble.

The peacock is for immortality. The monkey is pointing out the great bull’s bollocks. I borrowed both from the Adoration tondo in the National Gallery, by Botticelli.

The term ‘Tzim Tzum’ means ‘contraction’ in Hebrew and is, properly, a Kabbalistic technical term for God’s withdrawal from His infinite extension and into Himself to allow room for the Creation. It also suggests the belief (heard in relation to the Shoah) that there are periods in history when God is looking the other way.

At first sight, the panorama of columns and seeming walls amid which the bull is standing might be read as a roofless building or some kind of pleasure garden. One soon perceives, however, that the capitals of the columns are bases, and vice-versa, and the ‘walls’ vaulting. Thus, signalling some unimaginable cataclysm, the location is a building that is upside down. An inverted road sign warns of falling rocks. With its declivities among stark uprights, the scene offers parallels with the devastated landscape of the western front in the first world war. The supernatural here is denoted by more than the gigantic scale of the bull: for example, the object swinging from the crane to the left is the dome of the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson. At the same time, details of life amid the ruins emphasise the pathos of existence at its most rudimentary.

Incongruously (yet tellingly), this grim scene provoked by an outrage in the Balkans is set in a very English landscape, not unlike parts of the countryside near Leaman’s studio on the border of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Once again, the treatment of light is remarkable. The time could be dawn or dusk, yet the sun is quite high; the strange effect, at once bright and dark, is unintentionally reminiscent of an eclipse.

The Bull, Tzim Tzum is the third picture since 1999 so far discussed in which one or more scenes follow a terrible occurrence. In each, something blocks an unimpeded view of what lies beyond. Each involves rocks or masonry and draws attention to structures put together by human artifice, but now decaying. Each also shows physical remains of once-living beings. Finally, each proclaims a preoccupation with God, the central subject of the picture Leaman painted next.

The Ante-Room  1999-2002 In the central canvas of this work, the room of the title is observed from its threshold. Once again, the view is partly blocked, in this case by the figure of a man who has just entered the room. Separated only by a door visible on the farther side of this room, the space beyond it is conceived as the very site of the Godhead.

Leaman presents the ante-room as a place of ambiguities, or at the least of exceptional tensions. These arise from the presence, in immediate proximity to God’s unhindered manifestation, of impediments to goodness. On the one hand it is ‘the Ante-Room to Paradise’, and as such is ‘filled with the cloud of the immanence of God’. Yet Leaman describes it also as ‘a site of opacity and hypostatising veils’, a place where ‘that which is not-God would be the most evident’. Thus, although the cloud is the one that (in Exodus) ‘went before Israel in the wilderness and filled the tabernacle with the Glory of YHWH’, there drop from it ‘the husks and shards of the broken vessels which have imprisoned the souls of the righteous that rise as sparks to become one with divine fire’ and ‘a turd of matter is explosively expelled’. On account of the quantity of discarded items that accumulate in it, Leaman sees the ante-room as a lumber room. Among the bin bags a golden calf may be seen, upside down.

Further ambiguity attaches to the giant figure, who carries a wand of Artemisia absinthium (wormwood, one of the bitterest herbs). He can be read as an ordinary mortal observed at the moment of arriving in heaven, yet he may be an image of God himself. Leaman cites the passage in Exodus XXXIII, 20-23 in which God tells Moses: ‘I will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:… and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen’. Interpretation of the figure as God is encouraged by the contrasting scale (once we notice it) of the tiny figure of a witness near the bottom left corner. Literally, this is a self portrait of Leaman in his painting apron, but of course it might be Moses who, tattered, and half shrouded by what could be a prayer shawl, is an embodiment of humility. Recipient of God’s message, just quoted, and also the bearer of God’s Commandments to the Jewish people, Moses used a veil to hide from the children of Israel the radiance his face retained after he had spoken with God (see Exodus XXXIV, 29-35).

While the brickwork that faces the viewer is mouldy, the doorway we glimpse on the farther side of the ante-room (and that leads to God’s presence) is crisply-articulated. It is derived from a doorway in  –  of all places  –  Hitler’s study in the chancellery in Berlin. Leaman explains that the eagle and swastika are fallen, like the husks: ‘I needed some antinomian coldness for the brink’.

The walking figure has just passed beyond a semi-transparent curtain that blows in the wind. This is ‘the Pargod… the curtain that shields the Infinite one (‘Ein Sof’) from the gaze of its angels. On it are stitched the attributes and archetypes for all emanations and matter’. With striking illusionistic fidelity, Leaman gives these configurations the appearance, in paint, of having been sewn on. Their prominence signifies his distaste for ‘these “symbols of power” and the implicit presumption that they are in some way “active”‘. It also brings out the quality of ‘flummery’ that he perceives in the flaunting of such images by religion. Though these images are presented here as confidently assertive, the viewer cannot but notice a parallel between them and the attributes of worldly authority, military power, human vanity and modern technology that compose the gold swag that is observed on the point of disintegration as it shakes beneath the overpowering cloud.

The majority of the imagery in the main canvas of The Ante-Room is a literal visualisation of phenomena that are described in a variety of written sources  –  the Bible, the Kabbalah and other mystical writings. Though these do not persuade Leaman of the existence of God, they are compelling imaginatively. Moreover, he is fascinated by the writers’ insistence at once on the physical reality of the phenomena they describe and on the truth of religious revelation. He writes:

I can’t remember how I got the urge to depict ineffability. I like the idea of materializing God (even here in a picture showing matter being discarded). I like the idea of mystery being made into a thing…

The breaking of the second commandment is a primal act of the picture maker but this arrogation of divine privilege is the commonality of dreams and remembrance, of those who tell them, and those to whom they are told. I despise those who bow down yet the makers and painters are as deities bringing a thing where there was only chaos before.

Besides, the second commandment offends, and its transgression is beside the point  – What? Is an idol to be confused with God? Is a picture of God an idol? Could one, even, picture a believer’s god? The proscription by the faithful degrades any sense of the ineffable. This is an atheist’s picture of things you can see and I don’t consider it to be religious. Ask me why I painted these things (the husks and sparks: the golden calf; the must and rot of brickwork, chancellery doors and golden swags) and I will say that “I do not know, but there was a darkness from which I brought this thing into existence” and then send back a rejoinder “Is this not a picture?”.

The format of this large painting is echoed by that of each of the six of the smaller pictures designed to flank it on either side. Still writing of the main picture, Leaman explains:

During the painting of ‘The Ante-Room’ I felt a strong pull towards thinking of the picture as a series of lapidary frames and borders. The image seemed to be floating towards the edges and, like an onion, to unpeel the layers would be to risk vitiation. I imagined the bricks as the torturing of colour, a mosaic of dark intensities; I saw the slipped foliated framework from the ‘Benedictional of St. Ethelwold’ [a tenth century manuscript in the British Museum] pitched in this same grinding murk; I felt and responded to them as though they were frames in the literal manner as well as objects in space and in meaning. I suppose it was in this sense that the idea of framing the ‘image of frames’ with pictures attracted me. I saw them as frames, adornments, necklaces…

He planned them as a series of loose variations on ideas of entombment and transmigration. In this the Spirit would simply mean the non-material individual presence of a person…. Through their various strategies, all the pictures depict a world from which any God is absent or departed… When I started them I felt them to be ‘Sepulchres’, various entombments of the body or its concomitants: the Soul and Hope. As ever, resignedly, what is laid to rest is hope, or, more exactly, the loss of hope, since hope is what will walk away from the grave.

The straightforwardness of predella panels has always impressed me. Examples would be Masaccio’s Pisa polyptych, the Pesaro altarpiece of Giovanni Bellini, Fra Angelico’s pictures in San Marco, Giovanni Paolo’s ‘St. Francis entering the Wilderness’ in the National Gallery, Domenico Veneziano’s ‘Annunciation’ in the Fitzwilliam. The plain techniques and simple description of narratives seem to eschew the complex churning of motif and iconology that clings to larger, more ‘significant’ works.

I am uneasy, however, about the religious overtone of such accompanying panels and their potential for aggrandization…

These smaller canvases invite various readings  –   as complementary columns of three; as three pairs (each consisting of two works hung at the same height); or as a continuous narrative, read from top left to bottom right. Yet each was painted as a self-sufficient image and can also be read as such. All were painted in 2002 and have in common a bleakness of view that complements that of the main picture. In five of the six, things are shown as having been broken off physically, and every panel concerns the breaking off of hope. Some of the particular themes addressed in these panels are highlighted below in bold type.

In the panel at top left, the feet of a corpse floating at sea are those of John Davidson off Newlyn (around April 1909). Davidson (1857-1909) was a poet whose writing rejected the idea of the existence of any world other than the material one in which we live. He is believed to have committed suicide six months before his body was found floating off the Cornish coast, and in that act to have fulfilled a longing, in Leaman’s words, to ‘merge back into the infinite in deliquescent transfer of matter between matter’. One senses an affinity between that impulse and several evident in Leaman’s art as a whole. These include his love of the indefinite extension of closely knit aggregations of often previously unconnected objects and organic matter; his intense interest in eating and in bodily and procreative functions; and the unusual degree to which he gives the viewer the sense of being part of whatever section of the material world he depicts. There is probably also a link with Leaman’s generally unfulfilled wish to be overwhelmed, rather than simply to be the spectator of a human comedy he regards as in many ways absurd.

The central panel on the left side, The Old Queen, shows a cowering figure who is in exile. In the panel below it, as indicated by its title, Amor in Vinculalove is seen in chains. In a disturbing scene of genitalia on and around an altar, ‘love (by which I mean sex and generation)’ is ‘reduced to a process  –   the male is spooled in by the insistent womb [on the pedestal at lower right], reduced to a functionary’. The composition derives from Dürer’s woodcutThe Mass of St. Gregory (Bartsch 123). Startlingly, the figure of Christ in the Dürer is replaced by that of the pierced and captive male, seen here as the progenitor in a purely mechanical process.

In the topmost panel on the right side, Artemisia, widow of Mausolus (d. 353 BC), is seen at lower right excreting his ashes after having drunk them mixed with wine. The idea (and the form of the abandoned vessel in the foreground) were taken from Gerrit van Honthorst’s painting of the same title, of c.1635. Leaman drew this picture when it was exhibited at the National Gallery in an exhibition of paintings of the Utrecht school. He both admires and emulates the Utrecht artists’ preoccupation with depicting the qualities of light. The dilapidated setting seen in Leaman’s panel recalls the fate of the long-perished Mausoleum that Artemisia erected at Helicarnassus, to which ‘of course the inevitable happens. Everything will pass‘.

That message is reinforced in the fifth panel, There is no Clavis, in which waves flood through the arched interior of an unspecified building. Leaman comments on this picture: ‘There is no key, no soul: only burial‘, adding a quotation from Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall. Finally, the lower right panel is titled Sleep, and have sleep for light, from a line in Ave Atque Vale, Swinburne’s poem commemorating Baudelaire. The poet observes there thatthe dead man can never again have experiences of any sort, and that his soul is to be found only in the works he leaves behind. The recumbent figure was inspired by the fractured recumbent effigies of crusader knights at Jedburgh Abbey. Both his sarcophagus and two giant sheets of paper that hang above it are penetrated by the trunk of a snake-like tree that breaks off in mid-air. The last word of this panel’s title reminds us again of Leaman’s constant preoccupation with light. Like so much of Leaman’s work, these small pictures create strange and beautiful light effects of a variety of kinds.

Four Nieces Berating a Dead Uncle 2001-02 Whether from observation or from imagination, Leaman achieves in the pictures already described a striking fidelity to appearance. This quality is at its most remarkable in Four Nieces Berating a Dead Uncle. One impulse for this work was his wish to make a flower painting. He was impressed by a late seventeenth century picture by Bartolomé Pérez, Garland of Flowers with Saint Anthony and the Christ Child (Prado). However, while the action of Pérez’s figures is affecting, we view it as observers. In Leaman’s picture, by contrast, the viewer feels engaged with the figures almost alarmingly; they seem to address one directly and angrily. This immediacy relates to another source in seventeenth century Spanish painting, the figure groups of Murillo, in which many of those depicted look straight at the viewer, often with demanding or quizzical expressions. Such works struck Leaman especially in the exhibitionMurillo: Scenes of Childhood at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2001.

As implied above, Leaman’s painting has a dual focus. The human images are indeed arresting, yet while one might imagine the function of a border as being to focus attention on what it surrounds, this border itself compels unusual scrutiny. In all their freshness and in the seemingly unmediated way they receive a clear and steady light, the flowers are as if in our own space. They are a tour de force of application and realisation. At a time when he was having regularly to travel from his country studio into Oxford to obtain appropriate fresh blooms for this painting, Leaman wrote: ‘This picture is going to break me with its slow incremental method. How great the Dutch flower painters are was not apparent to me until I tried it  –  what a wonderful vibrant unity they displayed…. It costs me quite a bit in flowers as I have to supply a need to ‘find’ whichever shape or colour comes to me  –  now, I can get into the garden for some at least. It occurs to me that the seasons will get into this picture in ways quite unchosen by me’.

Like all Leaman’s works, Four Nieces… brings contrasting ideas into unexpected relation. It repeats the theme of containment, which all the works of 2000 to 2002 variously address, yet like them it gives simultaneously a sense of infinite extension. The eye is drawn through to a wasteland of dead branches with no termination, and then to a vast space beyond. Moreover, Leaman must have felt the task of painting the flowers would never end. Another opposition is that between life and death, each pushed to an extreme. The girls could not be more insistently alive, yet the picture’s title points directly to death, a theme central to Leaman’ s imagination and to all the works in this exhibition. Exquisitely depicted flowers have long been employed as a vanitas motif. Here, however, not only do they surround an image of young life but the garland itself contrasts vigour (in the great majority of the blooms) with decay (seen in the short section towards upper left in which, unusually, the flowers have withered). Finally, the subject of four girls framed by flowers suggests an image of gentle beauty, yet the reality shown here, in all its expressive variation, is confident and aggressive. Like the girls’ attitudes, the weird juxtaposition is peculiarly of our own time. By curious chance, the painting includes another link to the theme of life and death. The vest worn by the second girl from the right bears an image that Leaman had not even noticed till he began working on this figure from a photograph. It is of a dolphin, the creature chosen by the Christian church to symbolise Christ’s resurrection and the salvation of mankind.

How we are to interpret the picture’s title is left enigmatic. It suggests we should understand the flowers as being a wreath. It also provokes speculation as to the identity of the dead uncle. Leaman’s self image is so frequent in his work that even though we do not see this uncle we are bound to wonder, however illogically, if he might not be the very person who painted the picture. Indeed, Leaman does have exactly four nieces. Consistent, however, with the elusive character of his many earlier paintings of his family, only one of them is among the four children depicted here, and in any case the uncle could be someone else.

Even within what must always be the fiction of a painting, we are given no clue as to why the nieces should berate their dead uncle. Is it because of acts he performed in life or, perhaps, simply for having died? One of the oddest things about this work is the sense it gives of actual contact between this life and the next. Not for the first time in Leaman’s work, this most avowedly rational of artists opens a sense almost of supernatural communication, albeit rooted, characteristically, in material reality. He also offers a meditation on time  –  the uncle’s past and the nieces’ present; the photo-derived instantaneity of their gestures and the infinite care with which the live flowers were captured on canvas; the gulf that separates seventeenth from twenty-first century art, yet also the ways in which these can connect; the brevity of the life of the supposedly ‘timeless’ flowers and the potential for long life and change in the startling pre-adolescents; the hiatus of the threshold that separates life from death.

A singular vision

The sense of narrative in Leaman’s pictures and their close examination of the natural and man-made worlds are consistent with English tradition. Less so is the frequent uninhibited exploration of raw private and group emotion that has been so evident in his work for three decades. Added to this is a quality of instability, arising from the role Leaman gives to the symbols, especially religious ones, in which his paintings abound. The placing of these in incongruous settings seems subversive and raises questions about the symbols’ received import. Many of the faces that recur in Leaman’s pictures are his own or those of close family members, and some of the paintings show family scenes. These are distinctly fraught in character. One of their locations, Entjudungmeer 1996-7 (his second-largest work), is akin to Memorial to the Feeding Chain in showing rocks beside the sea. More than just a scene of disaster, however, it is an allegory of the Holocaust  – its title means literally ‘un-Jewing-sea’ –  and includes an image of his mother as a child, the Star of David on her coat.

From all this, one could be forgiven for supposing that Leaman’s own family is a major subject of his mature art; that, given the psychologically charged character of this figure-rich oeuvre, the family was probably German; that it suffered grievously in the Holocaust; and that Leaman’s upbringing insisted, with unforeseen results, on strict religious belief and observance. Yet none of this is the case.

Leaman’s family is English on both sides. His father was an actor and while Leaman himself did not act, his continual experience of theatre, throughout his formative years, had major influence on the nature of his art. Though his father was not Jewish, the prominence of Jewish subject matter in Leaman’s work compels consideration of the extent to which he feels he has any Jewish identity himself. It is striking that despite the facts of his birth, he does not. His mother is from an English Jewish family long resident in west London, but although Leaman’s maternal ancestors helped establish the Bevis Marks synagogue in the City in the eighteenth century, his immediate family circle was non-practising and he attended neither synagogue nor Jewish schools.

His family was much involved in the arts, his parents meeting through work in the theatre, while painters included an uncle. Cousins of his mother attended the Slade; one of these was Michael Salaman (1911-87). One of Leaman’s great-grandfathers, Alfred de Pass, was a benefactor of public galleries in England and South Africa. There is no German blood of which Leaman is aware and in general the art he saw in the family, most of it English, inclined towards French taste and included works by Gwen John. In such a context the idea of Leaman’s working as a painter caused no friction. He was actively encouraged in this direction and always felt himself to be an artist. There was no sense of repression in his upbringing and he felt a particular freedom of thought and action owing to being the second son. While he received an excellent education in a broadly conventional milieu, the receptiveness of his home to bohemian acquaintances of his parents gave him the sense in early adulthood of having never been ‘normal among the normals’. For this reason he played briefly, at one period, at working in a bank.

In 1973 he began ten years at Camberwell School of Art (four as a student, followed by six as a teacher). One of his aspirations in going to art school was to find out who he was, and like many students he did this in resistance to the values of his teachers. These included Dick Lee, Francis Hoyland, Sargy Mann, Graham Giles, Christopher Pemberton, Anthony Eyton and Ben Levene. Collectively, such teachers embodied an approach to painting perceived by Leaman as French in orientation and according high status  –  as he does not  – to the painting of Bonnard. They encouraged painting from observation, in which considerable importance was attached to the picture surface, to awareness of its flatness and to painterly activity right up to the edge. The marks made asserted the painter’s role as decision-maker. Leaman found this aesthetic unsympathetic; the difficulty of escaping from it strengthened his determination to do so. Though his work was praised, he felt there was a missing element. He realised that this was urgency of subject matter. As he worked towards communicating this through painting, his explorations took some unusual forms.

For a period he was preoccupied by the idea of images in sequence. For some eighteen months he painted a self portrait every night. He also filled books obsessively with watercolours of the sunset, painted daily if there was one. Impatient to get feeling into his art, he introduced pornography, but of special importance was his love of cheap American comic books, which conveyed human drama through uninhibited graphic fluency. Starting in the Camberwell years and continuing after, he applied these qualities to works on paper of his own, ‘publishing’ many of them in printed form by sending them to his friends as slender volumes, stapled or bound. The imagery in these volumes is startling, and while its technique makes it distinct (the black printing leaping from the white page), its scenes of violent passion and abandonment to the senses link directly to the mood of some of his paintings, as well as foreshadowing the gymnastic postures of many of his painted figures.

The scenes are wild, erotic and scatological, including blood, axes, cannibalism, exploding intestines and bodily emissions. In Charming Drawings, of 1985, figures, some with more than one head, are seen, across fifty-four pages, at the point of turning into waves or plants (or vice versa). A preoccupation with the decomposition of organic matter, often seen later in Leaman’s painting (as in the vignette of rotting apples in Memorial to the Feeding Chain), is here assisted by graphic disintegration of the bodies, in a wild excess of rococo-like ornamentation. The fantasy and its sense of urgency bring to mind Beardsley, Bellmer and the drawings of erotic orgies by Masson and Oldenburg, among others. By the time of The Feeble Map, of 1987-88, Leaman’s figures are, by contrast, sculpturally whole. Engaging in acts of violence, sex and sheer acrobatics, they form complex configurations in space. To My Duck (n.d.) explores the relationship between a human figure and a bird, which, among other things, the figure confronts, has sex with, washes the feet of, prays to, kills, eats and even becomes. A six-fold pull-out at the end of To My Duckreinforces an implication of The Feeble Map, namely that Leaman’s interweaving imagery may extend indefinitely, an idea suggested from time to time by his paintings also. The fluted column, nails, glasses, brick, stake, book and hooks that appear in The Feeble Map signal the increasing emphasis on objects evident in these printed works. Apart from two birds in flight, a startled face amid waves and an opened boiled egg on legs, the imagery in The Retreat, of 1992, is of objects only. But all the scenes, with their furniture, sliced fruit, cutlery, sewing things, dice, screwdriver, brush and comb, strongly suggest human activity. They exemplify an impulse  –  again evident in Leaman’s painting  –  towards the description of an event entirely through the representation of things, as in medieval and later pictures of the Instruments of the Passion. Variously recalling Magritte, Balthus, Milroy and Cragg, the secular conjunctions of objects in The Retreat surprisingly illustrate metaphysical poems by Henry Vaughan (1621-95), as do other volumes those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Leaman’s paintings of and since 1989 have been published in catalogues of his one-man exhibitions, but the pictures he painted earlier were also recognisably extraordinary at the time and take on added interest in the light of his subsequent development. Notable were paintings of two distinct kinds that must then have seemed antithetical, but which, adapted and brought together, are taken up again in his mature work. The first were family portraits, which developed from a dour dark/light palette into hypnotic, naturally-coloured frontal images of figures against dark grounds. The latter included an ambitious family group of 1979 (sadly destroyed) and paired portraits of his parents, of 1980 and 1981. In a transitional phase of 1982-3, single family figures began to merge with their now increasingly disintegrating backgrounds of innumerable patches of colour, eventually themselves becoming distorted and rearranged, in a manner reminiscent of 1930s Picasso. Leaman’s father is often seen in a wheelchair and several pictures show him and his painter son together. By the end of this period, the palette had become lighter and more vividly coloured. The sense of fluidity increased, as did the introduction into a picture of succintly-shaped symbolic images. A growing concern with dismemberment of the body and/or its transmutation into other things demonstrates strong parallels with Surrealism.

The family pictures had an unnerving quality, either through facial expressions or, as the images grew more abstract, through what seemed to be happening to the individuals depicted. From 1984 Leaman embarked on the second major distinctive phase of his pre-1989 work. Portraiture as such disappeared, while the size of the pictures increased, as did the alarming character of their imagery. Compositions consisted of complex fusions and interlacings of forms, occupying the whole of a picture space that pulsated with activity in all its parts. In Her Fist 1984 a fighter lands a punch on another’s face, the two being surrounded by terrifying figures with outstretched claw-like hands, from one of whose mouths blood pours. In Wave, of the same year, all the figures seem enraged, as do many of some one hundred and fifty faces which, in facing phalanxes, crowd both sides of I Want, I Want, I Don’t Know What I Want 1985, another confrontational scene. The invention of these faces is extraordinary, both in the variety of the paint handling and in the inventive fantasy. Big Bang Painting 1985 marks an extreme of Leaman’s obsession with the painterly (as opposed to the later more ‘naturalistic’) transmutation of one organic motif into another. The scene seems to be at once out of doors and underwater, the latter analogy suggesting (like the contemporaneousCharming Drawings) that bodies are turning into coral, or certainly into Shakespeare’s ‘something rich and strange’. Yet many of the limbs also again resemble tracts of bowel. Figures in wildly contorted postures meet at body or lips. There is an apparent act of cannibalism, a bodiless winged head flies, a fanged animal leaps, claws extended, and the composition centres on a ghostly standing figure, perhaps ejaculating, his body dissolved into a delicate filigree of droplets of glass, who stands in front of a giant leaf.

I Have Seen This 1985 marks a noticeable step towards the more precise definition of appearances (if not situations) that would become a hallmark of Leaman’s mature work. Finely-executed passages representing fluids that are almost boiling in their turbulence alternate with a boat prow, bedhead and car radiator that are more lucidly depicted. Similarly, the contorted bleeding figures in boat and sky contrast with the clarity and precision of the myriad molluscs along the picture’s lower edge and of the weird Bosch-like beings that swim in the serene intervening stretch of water. These include fish with heads in the form of a lampshade and of a hypodermic syringe, as well as one that is bound in barbed wire. Among items caught by the tentacles of an octopus in a sailor’s hat are a flashlight in a net, and a string attached to the cross on which a crab is crucified.

This concern with meticulous realisation of detail is taken further in Lorry d’Amour 1986, which abounds in strange particulars such as a skeleton pushing a lawnmower and walking figures carrying wristwatch or toothbrush as large as themselves. The driver’s compartment is crowded with figures reminiscent of Ensor, Dix’s mutilated war veterans and Burra. Beyond the still life of pills, ointment and syringe that rises above this cabin, the back of the truck accommodates the vista of a flowery meadow. This recalls Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke 1855-64 (Tate), for figures of wildly divergent scale are discovered either on the grass (in postures of agony or death) or half concealed by its vigorous shoots. Above them, individual genitalia (a recurrent motif of Leaman’s pictures, whether attached to bodies or not, and sometimes shown in diagram) hang from the branches of a tree-flower.

In 1986-7 Leaman painted a triptych more than 7.5 metres wide, of which the parts were titled Es ist genug [It is enough] (Christ’s last utterance upon the Cross), Walk on By and  L’AvventuraEs ist genug is a frieze-like scene of figures (one with at least six legs) suggesting a wild dance, an orgy and the Crucifixion. In Walk on By, discrete body parts and a disembowelled body form part of a complex construction that also includes everyday objects such as a pipe and an axe. This fantasy of a single interlinked structure of normally unconnected items strongly foreshadows Leaman’s Babel 1999, even to the point of a light-emanating form being raised high in the picture (the bowl of flames in Babel being preceded here by the nimbus-haloed flambant turd that floats just above the prongs of an upraised fork). Peal 1987 relates closely to Es ist genug in consisting of naked bodies set against a roseate sky, though here their agonised contortions suggest the setting might be Hell. It and Walk on By come close to the drawings of convoluted naked bodies in unspecified space that Leaman was circulating among his friends at the same period. All have the feel of self-images.

By this date, many of the principal characteristics of Leaman’s mature painting were evident, though no-one could have anticipated the illusionistic fullness with which he would come to realise his motifs, or the powerful fusion he would effect between the seeming normality of the scenes he painted and their actual impossibility (not to mention their atmospheres and their strange conceptual themes). The interests in violence, sex, food, implements and interactive structures that were all to the fore by the mid-1980s suggest affinity with a painting such as Dalí’s Autumnal Cannibalism 1936 (Tate). Already uniting Leaman’s individually distinct pictures is a pervasive atmosphere (as in the Dalí) of desperation in the figures and situations depicted, and an obsession with the transmutation or merging, actual or implied, of things we know to be discrete. About to burst into the centre of the fantastic scenes that he painted, however, were religion and the dramatic reappearance of the family.

It is clear in retrospect that during his Camberwell years Leaman was developing an impulse towards the idea of art as story, conveyed through images the identity of each of which was extremely clear, even if the story itself was not. This began to emerge in his painting shortly after he stopped teaching there in 1983. His developing practice reversed what he saw as goals in painting typical of Camberwell. As he told John McEwen in 1999: ‘I’m not a ‘modern artist’ in the modernist sense. For a modernist the placing and identity of things within the picture is less important than the activity of the artist himself. I don’t make my identity apparent. It is the pictures which make the artifice, the play’. Symptomatically, the first exhibition he remembers going to on his own initiative, a year before he arrived at Camberwell, was The Pre-Raphaelites at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1972. While at Camberwell, again in reaction against French taste, he was discovering for himself German art, from the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece, Dürer and Altdorfer to Grosz’s Suicide 1916, Dix’s The War 1929-32 and the art of Beckmann. A visit to Colmar to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald was of key importance, and Böcklin’s Island of the Dead actually appears in Leaman’s work, out at sea in Entjugundmeer as the graveyard of time, and, adapted, in Memorial to the Feeding Chain, the image of an island centred on sepulchres.

Numerous paintings by Leaman include one or more pictures within the picture, as if to confirm the assertion made implicitly by his paintings themselves, that ‘everything we think about comes from the richness of earlier art’. In addition to the names mentioned, an incomplete list of artists to whose work Leaman feels close includes Masaccio, Botticelli, Bosch, Brueghel, Tintoretto, Orazio Gentileschi, seventeenth century Dutch painters of moral allegories (notably including Metsu, Ter Borch, Jan Steen and van Mieris), Watteau, William Blake, Ensor, Picasso, Ernst and Dalí. There are certain painters, however, to whose art it comes as a surprise to discover that Leaman does not respond keenly. These include C.D.Friedrich, Stanley Spencer and Meredith Frampton, all of whose techniques he finds unpleasant. The one Spencer he admires greatly is The Centurion’s Servant 1914, with its seemingly elusive meaning, but in general he dislikes what he finds to be the patchwork effect in Spencer, and the nature of his underlying drawing. Perhaps equally surprising, conversely, is the degree of his admiration for Poussin. He highlights the richness of Poussin’s colour and this is a further clue to his reservations about Spencer (as is his excitement at the fiery image of the passionate allegory painted by Gertler in Merry-go-Round 1916 and Matthew Smith’s incandescentFitzroy Street Nudes of the same date). Colour is the factor to which he draws special attention in Grünewald.

As with van Gogh, these comparisons help us to perceive the importance for Leaman’s own art of a marriage between emotionally charged subject matter and an application of paint that is at once living and rich. It encourages us to see how far Leaman’s paint marks, though necessarily precise, are from being mechanical or automatic. It is illuminating here that his admiration for two great painters, Goya and Manet, is mixed with fear. For the directness with which, in a few simple strokes, they capture the actuality of everyday things  –   the very feel of their surfaces and substance  –  is a challenge he feels he has yet to measure up to. Indeed, grim though many of Leaman’s subjects are, the warmth of life is a key component in his art. Viewing Spencer’s nudes, he longs by contrast for the glow with which Rubens and Rembrandt imbued the women they painted, the quality of desire.

The comparison with Spencer is worth clarifying because Leaman, too, paints crowded figure scenes peopled with images of individuals he knows well and concerned both with religion and with narratives driven by emotion. The difference between the artists in these terms hinges, Leaman believes, on the fact that his own art is grounded neither in autobiography nor in religious faith. One reason why he paints his family and himself (and a few close friends) so often is the familiarity of their appearances and their availability when he needs a figure. He also concluded years ago that since so much of his material derives from the imagination or from his reading, it would be artificial actively to avoid using images that avowed his own origins and personal context. But for him, the chief role of family likenesses is that they simply form part of his vocabulary. And far from aiming to paint a family chronicle, Leaman often uses recurrent images from his personal circle as a smokescreen. More important to him than the identities of its models is a picture’s story. Thus while in life he has four nieces, the image of only one of them appears (as we have seen) in his Four Nieces Berating a Dead Uncle. Still more confusingly (and though the viewer cannot be expected to know this in any given instance), the highly particularised images of inanimate objects in his pictures often perform, for him, the roles of people.

From the early 1990’s religious imagery grew in importance in Leaman’s work. At the heart of his discovery of art had been Italian painting of the Renaissance, especially altarpieces. For years, he had wanted to paint a crucifixion, both because this subject was part of his education and because of his fascination at the idea of a man  –  humanity  –  nailed to geometry. The overwhelming experience of the Crucifixion in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiececonvinced him, however, that he could not do so, for the picture’s power derived from Grünewald’s engagement with the concept of Christ as Saviour, an idea he found impossible to accept. He felt he must disconnect himself from Christianity, yet somehow nevertheless make paintings that were portentous, elevated. He needed an iconography sufficiently foreign to him to enable him to draw freely upon it, while inventing the situations he depicted. Such a source must promote the realisation of individual motifs in a highly literal manner. Jewish sacred writings furnished such material in abundance. Though Judaism prohibited its being painted, the imagery was compellingly concrete. Moreover, the Kabbalah (the ancient tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible) was so esoteric as to encourage an infinite range of interpretation, and culturally it was easier for Leaman to draw on Jewish sources than, for example, on those of Islam or Buddhism. Thus while Christian symbols recur in Leaman’s paintings, the imagery of Judaism, the religion on one side of his family, is reiterated more often. As we have seen, he was drawn to it neither by familiarity nor by belief, but by hunger for imagery. However, religious symbols, like family narratives, met an additional need.

Leaman sees the world as governed by systems and codes of belief and behaviour, but he resists such constraints. Though not personally oppressed by family or religion, he has a strong sense of the unavoidable tendency of institutions of both kinds (as well as schools) to impose limitations and obligations. His art, by contrast, asserts scepticism and independence. In doing so, it often focuses on the observance of rituals (prominent among them meals), on other organised gatherings, or on the reiteration by a religion of the nature of its godhead. Acts of ethnic cleansing are a related subject. His painting also draws attention to thresholds, among them marriage, defloration, conception and the border territories between land and sea, the real and the hallucinatory, and this life and the next. At least sixteen of his paintings since 1989 depict or allude to death.

All these are zones of tension, a quantity that for Leaman is particularly evident when, as happens at certain meals in religiously observant families, issues of kinship, religion, food and sex are combined in a single event. He describes his painting Thy Statutes Have Been My Song 1991-92 as a paean to the savagery at the heart of human love and community…. Behind drawn curtains the children are framed by blood and statute, pinioned to forefathers, shackled by the ties of ritual and remembrance. Sex, blood and food become a function of law and prohibition: family and continuance: blood and subjugation: fear and fiat.   [In a picture within the picture], Abraham…  sacrifices Isaac anyway… The ritual has become a frenzy of enraged inarticulacy. The family perpetuates the statutes without comprehension… There is no salvation in this ferment, only the relentless continuance of the bones of the law….. We are not our family, even if we have to find our liberty in chains.

Leaman’s paintings often depict the breaching of decorum, or more. Symbolically, the figure that dominates New Year 1989-1990 bursts both into and out of the picture, while in Picnic in Cockayne 1993-4 ‘a great tree has fallen through the wall of a…  park’, and ‘some monstrous force has been released by the fall… unleashing unbridled passions’. Throughout Leaman’s art there is a pervasive sense of the breaking of taboos. A Jan Steen Kitchen 1995-6 blasphemes against both Judaism and Christianity. In Prayer to the Fayum 1997-98 a tomb robber desecrates the face of a mummy and ‘simultaneously ends identity and all hopes for eternal life in heaven’. The Throne of God 1997-99 indicates that a bored deity has ‘decamped’. In Interior with Row 1998-99 a child, careless of adult values, sets fire to leaves from Holbein’s Dance of Death woodcuts.

Leaman’s art thus opposes obligations being laid on the individual by the system, whether these are solemnly pronounced or assumed. He cannot believe in Salvation because he sees it as ‘coercive interdependence’, insisting that one has to save oneself. He resists the idea that anyone should make anyone else think anything and wishes to dispose of his own affairs completely. He is chary of close personal links, lest these undermine the barriers of selfhood. Remarkably, while human feeling interests him greatly and is the very subject of his art, he claims to be free of feelings himself. The world, he finds, abounds in people who overstate emotion and feeling. His purpose in painting behaviour more extreme than we normally encounter is to throw light on human nature. He sometimes feels his pictures are akin to the reports that might be made by a visitor from another planet, attempting to convey the intensity of feeling so many people so often declare.

There is a strange disjunction between the vividness with which Leaman conveys powerful emotions and beliefs in others and his own detachment from these feelings. An important source of this disjunction is his experience of his father’s professional world, the theatre. The first experience of wonder that I can recall was at the rising of a curtain. This would be in the late 50’s, probably at the Opera House for the ballet, but pretty soon in productions in which my father acted. The predominating feeling right from the start was my father’s ‘pretending’. He didn’t appear to change, only to impose a role, and I, for one, didn’t believe him…  Very quickly, watching him devoured by sea monsters in Dr Who whilst at the same time sitting beside me on the sofa, I felt a rip in truth. Seeing a play from the wings or in the flies, hearing applause down the P.A. in the dressing room… all set me apart from this ‘posture’… One thing I never regained if, indeed, I had ever had it, was a belief in what they were saying…. In ‘display’ (being the actor’s game), the very articulacy was suspect, and, more, it was flawed by something I could never understand, still do not understand: what is it that people want? I never wanted, I always knew what to do. Acting seems caught up with all this: a coercive attempt to make you believe… Feeling has always appeared to me to be a theatre of power…  More than just showing things, the actor wants belief… I was led to an awareness of societal manipulation through the ostensive fracture of the theatre, of seeing the living father pretend to be a librarian, or a timelord, or a vicar, or a cardinal, or a railway engineer, or dead… I do not remember a time when I believed them rather than admired how they did it.

This perspective of Leaman’s on human pretence was fundamental for the development of his art. It has much greater importance, in his view, than any reflection in his work of Jewish experience or belief. Nevertheless, he acknowledges a link between the fact that he has always felt himself to be outside everything and the concept of Jewishness as ‘otherness’, in this and many other societies. Though Jewishness is itself one of the things he feels   –  or, as he puts it, knows  –   himself to be outside, he ‘chose to exploit a structural ‘outsiderness’ in Jewishness in order to alleviate any sense of my own alarm at other people’. For Leaman, humanity consists not in feeling, but in being logical and rational. It is in the exercise of this conviction that he feels his identity consists.

Leaman admires certain Surrealist art but considers that desire, which was so important to the Surrealists, was too consciously willed by them. By contrast with their will to be out of control, he actively wills the exercise of control. In the highly disciplined process by which he paints his pictures of indiscipline, control is strongly in evidence. It is interesting, therefore, to discover how uncontrolled are the ways in which many of his works are conceived. Leaman believes that ideally the inspiration for a picture  –   and the source of the momentum that drives it to completion  –  should be a coup de foudre. One work created in exactly that way, as we have seen, wasMemorial to the Feeding Chain. Leaman describes it as having been ripped out of him. He had gone to Cornwall intending to paint a quite different picture, but sitting on the cliffs he could not stop making drawings of rocks imbued with metamorphic qualities (which, in the studio, he translated into the finished triptych). He felt possessed of an Apollo-like power directly to dispose imagery, his mind and hand working as one.

Other pictures start in his imagination or in his reading, but he begins work on a picture only when he is certain of its character, when the picture is already ‘talking’ to him. The sole exception since 1989 is Corronach 1999, which he began by painting the sky without knowing what imagery would appear below it. Once the vision of a work is established, Leaman feels he must clothe that vision, and not betray it. He gives himself to it completely, regarding himself as the picture’s servant. Personally unemotional, he follows dictates by the picture that are insistent in their intensity. The picture’s emotions are not chosen by him  –   such complicity would invalidate the work  –  but the stronger they are, the better.

The need to follow a picture’s lead in this way blocks Leaman’s ability to work on anything other than it. A picture imposes a range of tasks which he tackles in order, preferring each to be clear-cut and of short duration. These range from the search for relevant visual data to the transcription of appearances or the rendering of fields of colour. While everything must be clearly recognisable, Leaman derives no particular satisfaction from simply transcribing the appearance of any given motif accurately. For a painting is valueless, in his view, unless it has the character of something that did not previously exist. The urge to work is a compulsion. Extremely different though his vision and procedures are, this driven quality reminds one of painters such as Kossoff and Auerbach, among artists in entirely unrelated idioms of whom the same might be said. For Leaman, the activity of making pictures keeps him continuously alert, firing his intelligence and breathing his imagination.

This inward motivation gives Leaman the stamina not only to take on dauntingly ambitious pictures such as Entjugundmeer and Memorial to the Feeding Chain but also to undertake the complex mathematical calculations that are needed to determine the proportions of structures within a picture; or to undergo physical strain (as was unavoidable when, necessarily lying on the floor and observing himself from an oblique angle, he was himself the model for the dead body in Strongly, Wrongly, Vainly 1996). The conditions necessary for generating a picture can be surprising.  Memorial to the Feeding Chain was developed from drawings Leaman made of rocks. The only place in which he felt able to create these drawings was while seated on a particularly-shaped conjunction of rocks on the Cornish coast. Unusually, he was thus surrounded by actual rocks. Yet he felt unable to use any of these in his drawings, which were done purely from imagination. This rock-seat is one of a number of places that Leaman has regarded, over the years, as magic places in which to make drawings that will generate pictures. At one time these included a special seat in the British Museum, where alone he felt ‘safe’ enough to draw.

Even when they are naturalistic, most of the scenes Leaman paints are implausible. The multi-figure compositions have a quality of wildness, but he orchestrates postures and physical interaction with an intricacy of spacing that belies the messiness of real life. Several scenes include hybrid fantasy creatures, from the tortoise-headed letter-carrier and the head that is also a house, in The Retreat 1990-91, through the centaurs in Picnic in Cockayne, and the tiny humans with the heads of birds and rabbits in Strongly, Wrongly, Vainly to the sinister black grotesques in Memorial to the Feeding Chain. Part of the structure of The Throne of God is a section of a block of flats in Maida Vale. In the Memorial… triptych it is extraordinary to speculate how (were the scene to be viewed as real) the teetering rocks, drainpipe and fitted garments, let alone the profusion of foodstuffs, got where they are. A tour de force of invention, in which stones are turning into bodies and faces, this work demonstrates Leaman’s rapport with Arcimboldo.

Though these paintings are directed by Leaman’s imagination, he insists that they are independent of him. They ‘do’ him and should not, he stresses, be seen as evidence of his own nature. Though he has provided partial accounts of each picture’s origins and iconography, he views such texts with reservation, emphasising that no picture has a fixed meaning or even, in some cases, any meaning (or motivation) that he can understand. This is despite the fact that all his paintings have hidden information and that some incorporate secrets about other people. He insists that in no work is he telling a definable story, and that there is never a ‘solution’ to what a picture presents. In each work he positively seeks a quality of disassociation, and an abandonment of the logical and rational (which are so important to him in life in general). Vital to him in any picture is openness to interpretation. He would like the viewer to have a sense not so much that figures and objects are observed as that the picture is active. A sense of things being observed would imply the importance of the artist’s actions, the very assumption he wishes to escape. The picture must have its own life; its meaning is for each viewer personally to determine.

If painting a packet of (for example) biscuits, Leaman insists on our apprehending them not just as biscuits but as ones of a particular brand. His obsession with the distinctive appearances of pre-existing things in general might seem like an affirmation that the material world, at least, is verifiable. But there is a close and paradoxical relationship between Leaman’s emphasis on the specific and his underlying conviction that nothing will last. A consistent theme of his paintings is instability. In his art we cannot be sure that anything is what it seems. Not only (as mentioned earlier) do many objects stand for other things, or even for people, but, as in the Memorial… triptych, others are mutating before our eyes. A central idea of From Mucking 1996-7, which considers the effects of the tidal estuary of the Thames on detritus deposited in it over the centuries, is that everything becomes transformed. This theme is reinforced by Entjudungmeer, painted in the same years. Leaman writes of the sea in this picture that: ‘vast and ungovernable, it swallows coasts, men, and their works  –  the sea washes clean’, adding that its ‘never-changing constant movement is inimical to memory and laws writ in stone. It wears them away’.

This belief in the inevitability of changes of state is closely connected to Leaman’s obsession with the idea of merging. He aims to convey a sense of the ‘oceanic’, a protean condition in which any object can fuse with any other. Averse to purity, he wants everything to be mixed up and is fascinated when objects become so confused that their identities are lost. This is one reason why so many of his pictures are of scenes so rich in pictorial as well as narrative incident. It also helps explain his attraction to such multiply-fragmented motifs as proliferating plants, piles of furniture, accumulated shards of pottery, tangles of bodies, rock-faces and forests. The man-made structures that Leaman imagines tend to be no less complex. Thus The Throne of God is like a small city, while the very subject of Babel, his other extraordinary structure painting of 1999, is the confusion of identities (and their fusion). Both these images are so lucid, and the diverse modes of physical connection between the parts of Babel made so explicit and plausible, that it takes an effort to appreciate that these structures are purely fantastic. But an ambience of fantasy frees us to perceive each of the objects we are shown not only in its familiar meaning but also innocently, as might a child. The relationships set up in Babel through simple adjacency of objects may seem, at first sight, light-hearted. On consideration, however, they suggest unexpected readings, often dark in mood  –  telephone receiver and catapult, crown and bone, baguette and dripping blood.

A Jan Steen Kitchen 1995-96 reflects not only the confusion celebrated by Steen in his scenes crowded with figures harbouring diverse motives but also Leaman’s attraction to the practice in seventeenth century Dutch art of using recognisable emblems to tell stories. In art of this kind, things can be protagonists in a narrative as readily as can people. In A Jan Steen Kitchen (as in Babel) all the objects can be named, but Leaman loves what Gershom Scholem called ‘the revolt of the images’, whereby the representation of an object makes its identity clear, yet by being presented within a work of art this identity is deprived of fixed or stable meaning. As Leaman puts it, ‘the fables take off and take over’. The multitude of objects in Leaman’s pictures are fastidiously delineated, but the imaginative role he gives them is a function not only of what they are but of where they are on the picture plane. Far apart though they may be in terms of the depicted space, they may adjoin pictorially; when they do so, their meanings intertwine in unpredictable ways. Leaman is indebted to Mary Douglas’s insights, in Purity and Danger (1966), that harmless things can become dangerous when put in the wrong place, and that dangerous conjunctions of people can have their symbolic counterparts.

This essay has touched on affinities between Leaman’s painting and that of many artists of the past. It is sometimes implied that, by contrast, his work is incongruous in relation to art today on account of its traditional technique. This is absurd, since identifying the distinctive art of a period cannot be a process limited by technique (or idiom). Moreover, art made since Leaman’s career began shows many points that suggest interesting links with his own.

With his elegant spaces, gestural paint and concentrated zones of focus, Francis Bacon may seem an unlikely connection, but both artists’ work is concerned with showing extreme behaviour in others, and with representing it to unnerving effect. Both paint religious imagery, combining detachment towards biblical suffering with rejection of the authority of doctrine. Both passionately admire van Gogh. Leaman, who much admires Bacon’s early work, feels that even Bacon’s later period (about which he has reservations) is redeemed by a vigour that overwhelms the paintings’ bleakness, and that ultimately the pictures are not about despair. The same can be said of the effect of his own many disturbing visions  –  he is in love with life.

As is well known, Leaman’s work first reached a wider public thanks to the advocacy of Paula Rego. Rego’s art accords central importance to story, often in a family context; as in the case of Leaman, the intriguing effect is also unsettling. Rego, too, examines moral issues and casts a sceptical eye on the relationship between the church and the world around it. Both artists make pictures crowded with figures and abounding in significant objects, tellingly painted (or in Rego’s case often drawn, in sensuous pastel). Leaman feels a deeper relation between his work and that of Rego’s husband Victor Willing (1928-88). At first less easy to appreciate on account of the older artist’s freer paint handling, Willing’s influence becomes clearer when one recalls the improbable, imaginary constructions he depicted, as well as his frequent articulation of human images out of non-human objects. Leaman’s small picture The Remains of Portugal was painted in memory of Willing and is in some ways a portrait of him. A rotting apple, a lace-edged handkerchief, a glove, a rapier, a dead bird and the bleached jawbone of a fox lie on a beach beside the waves. The wind makes a red ribbon flutter towards the open work metal obelisk of a small spire that rises from a brick pedestal incised with the initials ‘V W’. From its top droop feathers that recall the ‘tatters’ that appear in several of Willing’s pictures.

Rego is the most ‘natural’ of Leaman’s contemporary connections. At various levels there are, however, correspondences with many other artists who were working in Britain as he developed his personal vision, albeit not conscious on either side and co-existing with radical dissimilarities of aim. One is with the upsurge in the 1980s of an interest in picking out specific artefacts from everyday contexts such as home, office or shop and, without altering their form, juxtaposing them in unexpected new relationships. This is seen in the work of Michael Craig-Martin, Tony Cragg and Lisa Milroy, among others, and, with a more metaphysical flavour, in that of Stephen McKenna. Another is with the mysterious atmosphere of the scenes created by Christopher Le Brun who, like Leaman, acknowledges the power of kinds of late nineteenth century painting too easily dismissed till recently as ‘sentimental’. A third is with the fusion of ordinary and extraordinary, individual and place, reality and symbol in the painting of Timothy Hyman. With both Rego and Hyman one is tempted to add the parallel that the work has an autobiographical character, were it not that Leaman denies this of his own art. In all three cases, however, the artist’s own face recurs insistently in the work.

The painting of Bernard Cohen has not engaged Leaman’s attention, yet it is remarkable at how many points these artists have interests in common. Their paintings do not look at all alike, yet they similarly display a teeming abundance, along with any work’s physical origin in long and demanding periods of concentrated application. Both are London-born artists with Jewish ancestry who are themselves non-practising, both acknowledge a debt to Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger and both are keenly interested in religion, ritual and food. Cohen’s and Douglas’s interest in the interaction of the sacred with the profane is shared by Leaman. Both painters ’embed’ a multitude of images in their pictures and have an obsession with what happens when things are unexpectedly juxtaposed, or merge, and in particular with the notion of the hybrid. There are, of course, massive differences, among them the substantial absence from Leaman’s work of Cohen’s fascination, in any picture, with carrying a procedural programme peculiar to that work through to its unpredictable completion. But each painter’s art has its own strange atmosphere of impassioned intensity.

Parallels with the art of R.B.Kitaj are striking in more evident ways. At the heart of his work, too, is the telling of stories. Like Leaman, he has put some of them into words, but acknowledges openly that some of these (optional) accompanying texts are fictitious in part or whole, and in any case leaves the final interpretation to the viewer. Though appearing to depict plausible scenes, each of Kitaj’s multi-figure compositions, like Leaman’s, combines imagery from a wide range of sources in the visual and other arts and in life. These scenes are frequently disturbing, dealing with sex, violence and genocide, among other topics common to both artists (which include family life and great art of the past). In Kitaj’s paintings, as in Leaman’s, the artist’s own image is recurrent. His interest in hybrids goes back at least as far as Erasmus Variations 1958. Finally, it was only in middle life that each painter developed an active interest in the Jewish religion, which from then onwards became a major preoccupation of his art.

Conclusion Such references cannot encompass adequately the unexpected correspondences between Leaman’s art and that of his contemporaries. Moreover, his work could not for a moment be mistaken for that of any of those mentioned, for it depends on a unique vision, which it communicates with great directness.

All Leaman’s paintings are the works of an avid observer. In the world that he sees, individuals not only express strong emotions but are also passionate about being involved one with another, to a degree he finds surprising. The subject of his pictures is human behaviour and human codes and beliefs. The detachment with which he views these includes a strong element of scepticism. He sees emotion as a kind of madness that attacks the individual against their will. Contemplating religious belief from the same standpoint, he challenges ‘the God who does not exist’ to prove his existence by sweeping him off his feet. God has not yet done so. Yet Leaman has been swept off his feet by the imperative demands for realisation made on him by particular imaginative visions. When he follows these demands, a picture in one sense paints itself. Nevertheless, both then and when a picture’s conception requires greater deliberation on his part, most of the work involved in making it consists of the carrying through of physical tasks that call for a degree of application, patience and commitment so unusual as to become an aspect of the painting’s expressive impact. Both positions help explain Leaman’s observation that ‘everything I do is to try not to have a choice’.

Leaman’s paintings are enigmatic in bringing such focused industry to bear on subjects that are either involuntary or viewed with sceptical detachment. They also oddly combine worldly wisdom with something of the directness of the vision of a child. Bemused yet fascinated by the systems of belief on which he draws for material, he also tries to look at things just as they are visually, independent of their meanings. Voracious, wide-ranging and retentive in his engagement with facts and with the observed world, he is driven by the impulse to create images. His pictures communicate this hunger with a strange power. The strength of the impulse makes him indifferent to the concerns of Modernism.

Leaman’s work is the site of further paradoxes. He insists on the primacy of control and rationality in life, yet in his art persistently conjures the excessive and the irrational, and in some works is even directed by them. In defiance of the ethos of his art education, he foregrounds the role of story in painting, yet he denies that definitive readings exist for the stories he tells. The beneficiary of a liberal upbringing and not burdened by any family memory of genocide, he paints pictures of both individual and racial oppression. His paintings are subversive of the imperatives of Judaism, Christianity and family life, yet insistently thrust before us powerful images of these very systems. In a final paradox, while one has to believe Leaman’s avowals of detachment (and, to religion, maybe even of hostility), the force of his imagery invites speculation that the insistence of certain subjects in his art, from the authority of religion to the warmth of the family to abandonment to the senses, may also reflect a deep need on his part for full participation in these institutions and kinds of engagement. His pictures give them all a compelling reality, as if they are being experienced from within.

Viewing two decades of Leaman’s art makes one aware that, whatever his own family’s circumstances, his vision began to be formed not long after the Holocaust, one of the great cataclysms of history. References to the Holocaust recur insistently in his pictures and one senses a connection between its inescapability and the paintings’ no less recurrent questioning of received religious truth. Moreover, the atmosphere of suffering and the instances of cruelty of man to man that pervade his art are explicable in this context, as are the depiction of emotional indifference and its direct expression.  However, Leaman’s very insistence on some disturbing truths makes it possible also to see his mature art as one often of compassionate response. It is also intensely life-affirmative in the sense it conveys  –  with anything but resignation  –  that life goes on and also that so much in the world, not to mention in its art and literature, is of compelling beauty, strangeness or human interest.

It is impossible to ignore pictures in which the means of articulating a crushingly bleak view of life is countless responses of lasting freshness. To this should be added the vitality of Leaman’s invention. Conjuring a wholly distinct scene, each picture is a striking feat of imagination and organisation. The peculiar power of these works derives from the urgency of Leaman’s need to realise each image, combined with unusual gifts as a painter. Very much of its own time, his work makes a distinctive contribution to art today.

Richard Morphet

Richard Morphet was Keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery 1986-98. Exhibitions he has curated include Tate retrospectives of Richard Hamilton (1970, 1992), William Turnbull (1973), Meredith Frampton (1982), Cedric Morris (1984) and R.B.Kitaj (1994), as well as The Hard-Won Image (Tate, 1984) and Encounters: New Art from Old (National Gallery, 2000).

All quotations in this essay that are not otherwise identified are from letters to the author from the artist in 2001and 2002, or from statements made by him to the author in interviews in 2001. New Oxford Dictionary of English 1998

‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. (Exodus, XX, 5)

Leaman’s teachers at Camberwell also included Mario Dubsky, David Hepher, Arnold van Praag and Christopher Stein, but those named before this footnote exemplified a certain Camberwell aesthetic of which Leaman was specially aware. His Camberwell teachers also included his cousin Michael Salaman, mentioned above. In a tribute contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition The Salamans, held at Gallery 27, May – June 1997, Leaman wrote: ‘I suspect he deplored the fix-it, nail-it, paint-neutral style of dash then current’. Salaman’s paintings of figures in settings convey a certain mystery and tension. His strangely-lit La Petite Kermesse 1937-38 (75 x 160 cm.) is curiously prophetic of Leaman’s post-Camberwell art in presenting nineteen nearby figures whose gestures and interaction are oddly disturbing.

Exhibitions
As Above So Below, 2011

16 Nov – 17 Dec 2011

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2004
Press Release
As Above so Below, 2011

As Above so Below, 2011

Please Click Link Above to view Press Release

Jonathan Leaman at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2004, Press Release

JONATHAN LEAMAN          PRESS RELEASE       TEL AVIV MUSEUM OF ART

Jonathan Leaman is having a major, one-man show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The exhibition, his first in Israel, will coincide with the Museum’s International Board Meetings and runs from 29th October until 9th February 2005. It is being curated by the Director and Chief Curator, Professor Mordechai Omer.

For seventy years the Tel Aviv Museum has built bridges between art and the public, playing an important role in the cultural life of Israel by housing a growing collection of art (by both national and international artists) and by attracting visitors from all of Israel’s different communities. The museum also has a strong commitment to education by playing host to over 100,000 school children every year and running numerous courses and workshops.

Today, this inter-communal venue serves a world-wide public with over 500,000 visitors annually. During these unsettled times, the museum has found itself a vital role in providing a place of beauty and tranquillity where visitors, regardless of creed and background, can be enriched and uplifted.

Jonathan Leaman’s paintings are truly epic. Each painting, worked on for years rather than months, is made on a monumental scale (the largest being over 10 feet wide). The work is executed with astonishing painterly skill, so rare in today’s contemporary scene whilst every painting is marked by an incessant attention to detail. Leaman’s polished technique and strict, methodical discipline comes in glaring contrast to the prolific styles of modern talents. The result is the creation of eccentric and enigmatic masterpieces which are loaded with classical images and multi-religious overtones.

 

“My whole subject matter is completely permeated by religious overtones. All my reading is religious because it provides a vocabulary. Cubism began with the spiritual, the abstract, and moved towards the material. I start with the material and move towards…God…religion provides a vocabulary, so does art, the two inextricable.”

 

To see a Leaman painting is to experience a curiously unnerving world of bizarre and twisted imagery. The viewer instantly becomes drawn into the scene, thereby becoming part of the narrative. The talents of this artist are un-debatable, indeed, the paintings are executed in such a way that he seems to surf that fine line that separates genius from insanity. Nevertheless, whether inspired or disturbed, his fertile imagination is contagious. Translated onto canvas with his customary galaxy of detail and we are given a topic of endless conversation and debate. A story with limitless interpretations where one can always return to make a new discovery.

Jonathan Leaman first came to public attention when he was selected by the artist Paula Rego to show at the London Art Fair in 1992. Following his second one man exhibition at the Beaux Arts, A Jan Steen Kitchen was purchased by the Tate.

The exhibition is being in part sponsored by the British Friends of The Art Museums of Israel. It will coincide with the publication of a catalogue with an introduction by Professor Mordechai Omer and text by Freda Uziyel. The book; ‘Jonathan Leaman’ by Richard Morphet is also available.

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