I am often asked, ‘what is the best part of being a curator?’ This question is difficult to answer because there are so many possible responses. Writing about art comes near the top, as does researching and acquiring new works for the collection. Working with living artists is also enormously exciting and invariably illuminating. However, at this minute I am tempted to say that displaying great works of art is still, after almost thirty years of curating, the biggest thrill. There is something about seeing a painting or a drawing finally taking its place within a long-planned exhibition that constantly surprises. In that moment, familiar images suddenly appear in a different light and become vital.
Probably the reason I say this now is because I have just been hanging a new 20th century display: Patrick Heron – Studies for a Portrait of T S Eliot. This installation focuses on one of the Gallery’s most celebrated portraits, a remarkable image of Britain’s greatest modernist poet by a leading pioneer of post-war abstract painting. When the portrait was made, in 1949, Heron was a young artist still working in a figurative, though highly abstracted style. For the first time, this extraordinary image – with its arresting double-profile – is being shown with the studies that preceded it. Comprising drawings from life and oil paintings that experimented with invented colour and form, it now becomes possible to retrace the artist’s creative journey.
Over a three year period, Heron gradually proceeded from observation, through memory, finally arriving at a point when a leap in imagination had to be taken. A penultimate, cubist portrait of the great man signals that critical juncture. The outcome was an astonishing transformation when Eliot’s appearance was refracted through pure shape and collisions of colour. When I see these works now, I am astonished. They reveal a process of discovery and invention, leading to a decisive step into the unknown.
Image Credit (from top to bottom)
T.S. Eliot: Cubist Version by Patrick Heron, 1947–8 © The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013
Portrait of T.S. Eliot: Study from Memory by Patrick Heron, 1947–8 © The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013
First Portrait Drawing of T.S. Eliot by Patrick Heron, 1947 © The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013