Peter Beard Gives Us a Clear View of Paradise
Francis Bacon was mightily impressed by Beard.
At the ocean end of Peter Beard’s Montauk property a cliff drops so steeply down to the beach that walking it is like walking the edge of a sliced cake. Beard was trotting along energetically on two malfunctioning ankles, the legacy of a trampling by a grouchy she-elephant, then halted and flung out an arm in the direction of neighbors. “In saving their cliffs they have destroyed ours,” he said. He explained that boulders had been taken from his beach to build their bulkheads. He is fiercely focused on threats to the beach, the cliff, indeed to Montauk generally, and not just from grabby neighbors and rising sea-levels but from something as aggravating as the first, as unstoppable as the second. “It’s the Galloping Rot,” he said. (The words demanded capitals.)
Some of which influx, of course, will be certainly attending “Peter Beard: Last Word from Paradise,” which is now on view at the Guild Hall in East Hampton. What he has up is an aggregate of images taken from decades of his photography, embellished with colored inks, animal blood, handwritten passages, collaged elements like documents and letters, and sometimes with drawings by other hands. The pieces sweep us into a world of which inhabitants include his family—several feature his daughter, Zara—and some more public faces, like Andy Warhol, a former Montauk neighbor, who is seen holding a skull, as also Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in images repurposed from a shoot of a Stones tour for Rolling Stone magazine in 1972.
Nobody familiar with Beard’s handiwork will be surprised that half of the images up at the Guild Hall derive from his involvement with Africa. This began in 1960, when he first went to Kenya. That, he says, is when he began to focus on the impact of mankind’s “ghastly presence” – his phrase regarding the natural world. In his twenties he bought the Hog Ranch, a spread in Kenya, and this has been both a home and source material ever since. In one Guild Hall picture we see him scribbling in a huge diary, his lower half swallowed by a dead but formidable crocodile, in another, a rhino charges the camera and in a third, five elephants tramp through drawings made by itinerant workmen, whose narrative skills delight him.
Beard shot these photographs in the mid-60s before “The End of the Game,” his suite showing the massive elephant die-off on the Tsavo National Park established him as an early and hauntingly effective documentarian of species’ extinctions. So his outburst on the Montauk cliff was not the tantrum of a property owner but instead channeled his own past and spoke to our future.
We walked back to the house, passing what is left of Beard’s windmill, which burned down in 1977, along with his diaries from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s—irreplaceable books of Africana and paintings by Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso, a loss upon which he has never indulged in commentary.
Within the house, Nejma, Beard’s resolutely protective wife, got the coffee together. At his elbow in the main room was a sheaf of clippings of stories from the Times, the Post, the News, most vehemently underlined in blue ballpoint, some sporadically annotated, that being a project he pursues as zealously as he shoots images off the TV screen. This raw material wires him to the present, but other images connect with the past, such as that of another rhino which nailed a hunter, a friend of Beard’s, who survived. And many connect with “The End of the Game.” And hence to “Last Word from Paradise,” the current show.
Beard told me once that he had never seen photography as a career, his attitude being that of the compulsive amateur, but the pictures of the elephant die-off were to be his bridge to the art world. Francis Bacon was mightily impressed, for one, seeing in the skeletal remains in “The End of the Game”—pure organic sculpture. The two became close. Bacon painted Beard several times and Beard taped Bacon and put together what he calls “The Dead Elephant Interviews.” On one occasion the two were lunching at the Café Royale in Piccadilly when they got a note from another table. The Grand Old Man of the Brit art world, Henry Moore, was suggesting they have a word.
Bacon was a bit disparaging about the great artist, Beard says, as was his manner. But they did go over to Moore’s table for a conversation, which resulted in Beard having a rhino skull shipped to Moore from Kenya. He has since seen the image of sculpture which is sure shows the influence.
Bacon so trusted Beard that they remained in touch during the time that the artist, a compulsive gambler, was allegedly on the run from gangsters to who he owed money. “He hid out in an apartment in the Natural History Museum for a month,” Beard says, and showed me images of some of the paintings Bacon had been working on there. The artist had handled the situation with aplomb. “He liked the gangster vibe,” Beard says. He also showed me an image of what he calls “Francis Bacon’s best painting.”
“But then I left,” he says. “He came back drunk. He decided to do something here.” He indicated the upper left of the canvas. “And he ruined it.”
Beard has the huge good cheer often found in those who believe we are in a fairly desperate situation. The title of a book project expresses this well: Twilight of the Planet of the Apes. It’s a work in progress.
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