Man in Squared Space

Dr Rose Stone, Art Historian, March 2008

Godwin Bradbeer’s drawing, Man in Squared Space, (2007) is a key image in this new exhibition of his work titled Soliloquy. Part of the artist’s sustained investigation of the human figure, this work is one of a several images of the head and shoulders of a man seen slightly from above, immobile and alone within a large pictorial world of white geometricised space. As with his oeuvre in general, the exhibition itself consists largely of solitary figures. The word ‘soliloquy’ is defined as the act of conversing with the self and it is derived from two Latin words, solus meaning alone and loqui meaning to speak. It seems that the solitary self and the interior monologue have informed the work of Bradbeer almost from the beginning of what has been a long and impressive career. In the art of Bradbeer, the vehicle for the self is most often the human form. As the artist tells us: ‘In becoming a figurative artist I really chose the vessel of the self . . . I am committed to the human figure – that’s where my loyalty lies.’1  But the human body, he says, is simply the metaphor he works with.2

A virtuoso draftsman who has won most of the major drawing prizes on offer in this country, including the Dobell Prize in 1998, Bradbeer has a profound understanding of human anatomy and he also teaches drawing from the human body. However his own images of the body are not derived from a model or from photographs; rather they are products cultivated from memory and imagination. As he says: ‘In order for the body to be symbolic or ideal it can’t become too descriptive.’3  Of Man in Squared Space he has said ‘the image is an abstraction of a man … a composite of men.’4  Similarly, the space the man occupies has no relationship to any observed reality. It may be a room or the page of a book, or it may be as literal and formal as the sheet of paper on which it appears.5

Ideas of the metaphorical and of abstraction come into their own in the continuing Imago series, represented here by the monumental Imago XXII and three others of the same motif. This motif has been a preoccupation of Bradbeer since 1998 and it is an embodiment of many of his core aesthetic principles and sources of inspiration. These drawings, he says ‘seek an abstraction of human design that is simultaneously universal and specific.’6  Within this series there are individual differences but all consist of a single frontal head, suspended in a dark void, and they are all characterized by marvellous, densely textured surfaces. Using chinagraph pencil as the principal medium, these textures are derived through a complex process of layering, reworking and polishing, from which the figure is ‘reclaimed’, so that ‘ it actually feels as though I am working with a sculptural form.’7  Racially indeterminate and ambiguous in gender identity, these heads have the universal, timeless and serene disposition that we find in imagery from ancient Greece to sculptures of Eastern deities. Bradbeer testifies that the Imago drawings are ‘a search through a million faces seen, for an image that represents the complexity of humanity beyond the cliché.’8

Interestingly, a central influence on his work has indeed been sculpture, from the Egyptians and Greeks through to Rodin, Brancusi and beyond. In the case of the Imago series in particular, the image was initially inspired ‘by many things amongst which are the beautiful sculptures of Brancusi.’9  The sculptured heads of Brancusi are among his best known works and his embrace of the fragment (begun by Rodin) contributed to his status as a modernist hero. The use of the fragment, here as the disembodied head, connects Bradbeer to Brancusi on the level of iconography but there are other and less obvious shared qualities. These include an exceptional feeling for materials, a fondness for iteration in the production of multiple versions of the one image and a reductive abstraction of form. As much as direct influence, the relationship between Bradbeer the draftsman and an artist like Brancusi seems to be more one of shared sensibility. More generally, Bradbeer has an attachment to the art and sensibility of the fin de siecle, the Symbolist generation, whose aesthetic of allusion and imagination, metaphor and the metaphysical has correspondences to his own. As he has said of the Imago drawings, they are not specifically rendered reality but rather the ‘projection of reflective imagination.’10

Drawing, it has been argued, is the most subjective and hence spiritual, of all the various artistic pursuits. This is because the basic ingredients of drawing are marks that have ‘a symbolic relationship with experience, not a direct … similarity with anything real.’11  Given this assertion it is not surprising that Bradbeer has taken drawing as his discipline, because his art for all its materiality, is concerned most of all with intangibles. As he says of his work, it is ‘not the body itself but the kind of markings that are used within the body that one tries to use metaphorically.’12  While committed to the vehicle of the figure, his work moves beyond the recording of appearance in favour of the universals of human existence, the spiritual and the metaphysical or, as he puts it, a concern with transcendence and ‘the true nature of the human subject.’13

1. Godwin Bradbeer interviewed by Mark Pennings, in ‘Godwin Bradbeer’ catalogue, Bulle Galleries, Melbourne, 1999, unpaginated
2. Ibid
3. Ibid
4. Godwin Bradbeer in conversation with Rose Stone, March 2008
5. Ibid, March 2008
6. Artist’s statement for ‘Selected Drawings – Godwin Bradbeer’, Blacksphere Gallery, Melbourne, 2005
7. Godwin Bradbeer interviewed by Mark Pennings, 1999, op.cit.
8. Artist’s statement for ‘Human shield 1 and 2 – Godwin Bradbeer’, exhibitions at MOA Gallery, Heyri Art Valley, Paju, Korea and Byuk Kang Gallery, Kaywon Arts School, Seoul, Korea, 2004
9. Godwin Bradbeer in conversation with Irene Barberis, April 2007
10. Godwin Bradbeer, correspondence with Rose Stone, March 2008
11. Rawson, P., Drawing, London, 1969, p.1.
12. Godwin Bradbeer interviewed by Mark Pennings, 1999, op.cit.
13. Ibid

Dr Rose Stone, Art Historian
March 2008