John Bratby – Breakdown, 1960

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA young man of twenty-six, who sold rare books in a little shop in Fulham, and who played the washboard with thimbles in a traditional jazz-plus-skiffle group much in demand at art-school parties. A young man who attended evening painting classes at Esmeralda’s art school: hearing of Brady’s coming sketch club talk at the art school, the young man had brought his paintings to Brady’s home to criticize, as he admired Brady’s painting. The visitor sometimes set fire to his painting on paper during the evening classes at the art school, much to the distress of the ladies and gentlemen around, earning him a reputation there as a crazed man due to be forbidden to work at the school in the future. His paintings he showed Brady were Action paintings, dribbles of paint, trodden upon and tortured in many ways. Brady did not know what to say, and opened a conversation about the sketch club he was due to visit. The pictueresque visitor praised Esmeralda’s teaching, and then began to praise Esmeralda, pure sexual admiration, disguised as admiration for her sincerity, open-mindedness, and understanding of Action painting and painting with bicycle wheels.

‘Now the Tachistes of the states are Big Men,’ enthused the visitor, his eyes fixed on the horrible messes he had brought. ‘The tensions in the work of Jackson Polock are wonderfully created between one ribbon of tar and another. He is an expression of this Age – directly in tune with the Universal Subconscious of the Beat Generation of the U.S.A., the only generation that is up to date,’ went on the visitor, getting more and more intense. ‘Jackson Pollock was Great, really expressing the basic unrest of the atom-bomb-threatened today. He was in touch. He never Unwound, never rested, kept up the Tension all the time. Now in England most of the artists are working – painting – in the past. It’s no good: they are out of touch, they are reversed anachronisms. A few are a bit in touch, take esmeralda whatername at the art school, she is intelligent. It’s a fine thing to meet a true Child of the last half of the 1950-1960 Decade,’ Brady weakly sugested the use of vacuum-cleaner emptyings for use with the bitumen used on the visitor’s paintings. The visior mumbled politely and went on quickly: ‘I want my work to have the immediate impact of an emblem on a shield carried by ancient knights. Immediate Impact, that’s my aim.’ The visitor threw a painting on Brady’s floor and squashed his foot over the slightly wet paint. ‘You see? Dynamic action paint. Look how the pictorial impact is enhanced!’ Brady looked at the splashes of paint on his floor. The visitor seized the tricycle belonging to Brady’s child, and wheeled it over the hardboard painting on the floor, crashing his pelvis into Brady as he did so. Brady wailed inwardly. Now look at the crossing movements of the tyremarks against the central paint explosion,’ muttered the visitor excitedly. ‘They are Active.’

As Brady went to get a large bottle of of very old and decayed printers’ ink, the visitor attacked his painting with Brady’s bread-knife. Brady returned to an atmosphere of creative turmoil and an excited voice shouting incoherent words such as ‘Big Men – Stresses of Force – Basic Tensions of this age – Pollock’s being  was a mess of exposed nerve endings, in touch – Sam Francis—–‘ The visitor seized the old printers’ ink delightedly, and straddling his masterpiece, with legs far apart, the painting on the floor between his feet, he sploshed and splashed the ink down and across his Expression of the Tensions of Today, singing wildly and happily a Charlie Drake rock-‘n’-roll hit called ‘Splish, Splosh, I’m having a wash.’ His face covered with spots of ink, the visitor assailed Brady with: ‘Spread those Tensions amongst the Grease and Oil Pools on the Garage Floor – The Power of the Inertia of the Beat Generation – how can we find roots in an Atom-Bom Explosion? – the Beat Generation has to survive, they will squash us if they can (he squashed his foot descriptively into his painting), so can you blame them for their bicycle chains and flick knives!’ Flabbergasted at the incoherence, Brady recoiled. ‘Don’t be afraid, man. See this razor. I’d use it on any – now don’t scare, Mr. Brady, you are all right – I’d use it on any old man who laughed at my clothes. They will not let us live unless we assert our right to to live in the Ne w Way.’

He pocketed the razor and sprinkled bread-crumbs into the pictorial blasphemy at his feet.

John Bratby, 1928-1992     Breakdown, 1960.  Chapter 6. Mounting inferiority complex

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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