Abstracted but not Dehumanised – A look at Tony Bevan’s Heads



This writing is part of an essay written to a word count. Although it has been cut down, in comparison to other posts it is long and should not be attempted without a cup of tea.

‘Horizon’, an image painted in 2004, explores decontextualisation of form coupled with use of material to convey a human experience.  Bevan presents us with heads that have been extracted from their familiar context and are trapped in an abstract layout. Coupled with his use of severe cropping, this suggests decontextualisation of form and results in a distorted image. However, Bevan avoids complete dehumanisation through his use of material. Adopting a physical way of making which suggests constant physical contact with the work, Bevan encourages a human understanding of the process by which the work was made. Influenced by German Expressionism and Gestural Abstraction, Bevan’s choice of material is also important. Using a mix of charcoal and pigment, Bevan creates an emotional register that emphasizes the tactile and primitive elements within the work.

We are also encouraged to consider the heads as internal landscapes, where the whole self has been encompassed into one detached form. Through titling the work ‘Horizon’ Bevan directs our attention toward his use of perspective; we are offered the heads as ‘spaces to enter into’, where a conflation between mind and landscape is suggested. (Bevan, cited by Livingstone, 1998)

As Bird (2006) states, in Bevan’s work the basic signifiers of humanity are ‘almost’ (but not quite) lost. (p.7) Despite his use of abstraction, decontextualisation and severe cropping, Bevan prevents the work from becoming dehumanised through his use of material to convey a human experience, and the suggestion of the heads as being both autonomous forms and psychological spaces.


 Tony Bevan. ‘Horizon’ (2004). Charcoal, pigment & acrylic on canvas. Image from www.abbothallartgallery.com 

Bevan constructs more than he represents; ‘Horizon’ suggests an internal and architectural structure of the head where the heads have been extracted from their familiar context, and as Baranano (2006) describes, ‘imprisoned in an … abstract layout.’ (p.16) The use of ‘imprisoned’ is important, as it suggests the heads are confined to an unfamiliar space. Bevan explores the space of the canvas, and the figure in relation to the surface. The forms consume the space, seeming to extend beyond the frame, struggling to stay within the surface, or perhaps struggling to get out. This coupled with the unusual perspective of the images which dictates our point of viewing, commands our attention, and causes us to consider the forms as autonomous and powerful. They suggest a kind of metaphysical space, as well as a self-containment that encourages our imagination and draws us into discovering the knowledge they seemingly possess.

Bevan’s brutal use of cropping and abstraction would suggest complete unfamiliarity were it not for his use of materials to convey a human experience. One head exists only as a circular form of marks that rests tentatively on a blocked horizon, looking as though it could topple over at any minute. The other barely represents a head at all, demonstrating over accentuated nostrils as the only recognisable facial feature. However, the use of deep red pigment and charcoal creates a visceral quality within the work and emphasizes a unity that has occurred here, as body and mind are encompassed within one structure. This, coupled with the inner knowledge that the heads seem to posses, creates a bodily experience; one that resists total abstraction and leaves the work hanging on a careful balance between abstraction and representation. Evidencing this idea, Alberto Giacometti (2003) once stated in an interview with Auster, that the head is the ‘most familiar’ form with which ‘great liberties can be taken’. Bevan applies this notion to his work through the use of severe cropping and heavy gestural marks. Without the contextual structure of the head that Giacometti suggests, familiar features would be less easily identified, resulting in a confused form. In ‘Horizon’, we recognise a shape that suggests an upturned nose; this is enough to prevent complete dehumanisation.

Bevan’s use of material and the process by which the work is made, suggests that for him, painting is an act of discovery rather than invention. Bevan becomes completely involved in the process of making, laying the canvas on the ground and painting from all sides; there is a physical sense in the notion of using the whole body to create the work. Its large scale means that evidence of contact with the work is left behind; the print from his trousers as he has knelt and stretched across the surface, a handprint or smudge that has occurred as he has been working. In essence, Bevan is constantly in physical contact with the work, leaving traces of it’s making behind, and it is this which creates a human, or humane, experience for the viewer. There is a human understanding of the way the marks have been made, and the work becomes tactile as we acknowledge its sense of movement and contact; we recognise Bevan’s hand print and relate this to our own sense of touch. This means that no matter how abstracted or distorted the work becomes, there is recognition of the work as somehow being human; we identify with it on some level.

Bevan’s choice of material is also important. Using a mixture of charcoal, acrylic and pigment, Bevan draws with heavy, gestural lines. Black is consistently used, and initiates the process of figuration. Bird (2006) comments on the Cadium red, suggesting an ‘emotional register’ is created as ‘connotations of danger and [the] wounded body’ come to mind. (p.8) This emotional register is echoed in the use of charcoal, with its capacity for tonalities from dark to light and its material qualities. Similarly, colour is used for its surface qualities. Hubbard (no date) suggests that colour is used for its ‘intensity and consolidation of substance’. The qualities of the material in relation to its colour, and the way in which it can be used to express the experience of painting, is important to Bevan, and relates in some ways to both German expressionism and gestural abstraction, or ‘action painting’.

Dewey describes gestural abstraction as ‘painting that is action and result at the same time’. (Cited by Ottmann. 2005 p.22) This notion relates to Bevan and the process by which he works, taking from this the sense of gesture, whilst avoiding the theatrical elements that occur in Rauschenberg’s or Rothko’s work, for example. Distancing himself from Informalism and abstract expressionism, other than in terms of gesture, Bevan creates work that could be described as ‘action painting’. The surface for Bevan acts as both a metaphysical space where imagination and sense of existence can be explored, but also as a stimulative surface that allows a kind of stream of consciousness way of painting, where the hand flows in conjunction with the form that develops, almost automatically.

In ‘Horizon’ we see flecks or shards of broken and crumbled charcoal, which allude to the physical way of making. They suggest that a strong hand has snapped, crushed or squashed the material with force, causing it to spread and fling itself across the surface, away from the initial line. The smudges of red that creep into the blank spaces within the head structures, suggest looseness of material and freedom in the way of making. Thinking again in terms of human understanding of materials, this also has quite bodily connotations, suggesting blood; the softness perhaps also alludes to flesh. Finally, the consistency within the form and marks used to sculpt both heads suggests that for Bevan, this is an innate way of making that relies on instinct as opposed to planning. Evidencing this, Bevan states that for him, ‘there is no set pattern of working [and] a lot of things come through drawing and through … the process of painting’.  (Cited by Livingstone. 1998)

Bevan’s work also seems to suggest some influence from German expressionism; a movement that arose as a response to widespread anxiety about humanity’s lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. Peaking in the 1920s, art encouraged how to address the internal, psychological and emotional aspects of the figure. Art became about coming from within the artist as opposed to from a depiction of the external visual world. This meant that the work became about the character of the artist and the artist’s feelings, as opposed to the technicalities of composition. Techniques included heavily exaggerated brush marks that were used to convey the emotional state of the artist reacting to the anxieties of the modern world. (The Art Story: no date) Bevan’s work considers painting as a space or reality where imagination is released, and explores self analysis. In this sense, he shares the notion of German expressionism that suggests art as coming from within, also adopting the use of heavy and exaggerated marks to emphasize form and express emotion.


An example of a German expressionist whose work captures intense emotion is Kathe Kollwitz. Often using charcoal, she conveys emotional pain and extreme stress. In this image of ‘Death and the Mother’, we see a woman fighting against death for the needs of her child. What is important about this image in relation to Bevan, is Kollwitz’s use of charcoal. Like Bevan, the lines are heavily and boldly drawn, resulting in an emphasized focus on the woman’s form, where the muscles are exaggerated to represent her strength; both physical and emotional. Here, Kollwitz uses charcoal and overly exaggerated marks to convey anguish and struggle; this is reflective of her knowledge of the human condition during times of war and poverty.

Kollwitz’s and Bevan’s use of charcoal reflects a primitive way of making that is relevant to the ideas that both artists are exploring, suggesting an internal and human response. Kollwitz explores the human condition in its poorest form, translating inner emotions and experiences that are heightened by the use of charcoal as a primitive material. Bevan explores the heads as being a manifestation of the self, where entire bodily experiences are isolated to one internal structure. This notion of being inside of yourself and considering a sense of existence within the body, is again emphasized by the use of a primitive material, as it highlights exploration of being in its most basic form. Charcoal also suggests a fast and free way of working, relating back to the human presence within the work, created through the physical contact that charcoal requires.

Relating this to Bevan’s ‘Horizon’, the use of charcoal generates tactile and archaic qualities within the work. The granules accumulate across the surface and interrupt form, leaving a path of debris that become like a record of the event. We are drawn into the process of the works creation, and so even when abstraction and the unfamiliar are presented, the forms are humanly understood and the work is personalised.

Another comparison often mentioned when looking at Bevan’s work is his connection to Bacon. Bacon explores the interior notions of loneliness, dejection and existentialism. As with Bevan, Bacon uses photographs as the source material for his work, and focuses not on faces, but on the head as a complete form. Details of the face are left out and the exterior structure and being of the head is explored. Stressing temporality and the ‘nothingness of existence’, Bacon suggests a futile and inconsequential atmosphere. (Bacon, cited by Sylvester. 1966)


Wilson (2006) interprets Bevan’s use of photographs as a source for the work as being ‘X-rays of the soul’ that have been transformed into paintings. (p.46) He suggests that these paintings are motivated by Bevan’s own soul and are portrayed as melancholic; being(s) in a state of emotional stress. In this sense, his work could be described as similar to Bacon’s. Also like Bacon, Bevan explores emotional states within psychological spaces that suggest isolation and loneliness. Thus Bevan’s paintings can be described, as Livingstone (1998) does, as a ‘gaze into the architecture of the brain’ where the body is considered as an organism that is manifested in the head.

However, it can be limiting to view Bevan’s work in relation to Bacon, as there are elements of theatre within Bacon’s work, as well as a high degree of body distortion, that is not reflected in Bevan’s work, but is sometimes assumed. In an interview with Sylvester, Bacon (1966) expresses his desire to ‘distort the [form] far beyond [its] appearance’. In contrast, Bevan (1998) states that he ‘[doesn’t] distort the body in that way’ and finds the comparison to Bacon ‘misleading’. He states that ‘many painters are concerned about … how they exist in the world’ and supposes it’s because of the ‘isolated figure that Bacon’s work gets mentioned in relation to [his]’. Therefore, whilst there are similarities between Bevan and Bacon’s work, there are also significant differences; it is important to remember that this is only one interpretation.

Considering the title of Bevan’s work, we are drawn to noticing his use of horizon and perspective. Titling the work ‘Horizon’ draws our attention to the horizon within the image and encourages us to view the heads as internal architectural spaces that represent landscapes more than they do portraits. The horizon in this image exists as a block of red that sits at the bottom of the surface, acting as a flat area that the heads rest upon. The circular form that seems as though it is in rolling motion leans carefully on this line, whilst the head on the left, rather than resting, seems to emerge from this space; the smudge of colour that bleeds into the form emphasizing this.

Responding to the work as a kind of internal landscape, Wilson (2006) describes Bevan’s painting as a ‘philosophy of perception that informs and structures the image’. (p.41) In this sense, we are encouraged by Bevan’s title choice to consider this painting as a landscape, and to bring our perceptions and notions of a landscape to the work, informing the way we respond to it. We interact with the work as a kind of internal landscape that embodies our whole sense of being; Bevan presents the work as a landscape as opposed to a portrait perhaps to create a space that is less confined and so shifts our perception.

The title of the work also suggests an exploration of the relationship between the figure and the field; the block of red is used to emphasize the contrast between this surface and the background. We notice the empty spaces between the shapes that form the heads, and in relation to the red horizon which is flat and consistent in texture, these spaces appear three dimensional. The bold lines allude to connotations of building, leading us to consider the way the heads have been ‘built’ or structured by Bevan; they are formed as exoskeletal armatures, as though built from a kind of scaffolding, reinforcing the notion of the heads as constructed landscapes.

Finally, returning to the notion of the head as a manifestation of the self, Bevan’s work is about psychological and interior spaces that are represented as a kind of internal landscape, and are offered to the viewer as spaces to enter into. The conflation of mind and landscape suggests accessibility and considers viewer perception.

In his work, Bevan explores multiple concepts which explore the possibilities of the head within painting. Bevan extracts heads from their familiar contexts and places them in abstract layouts, resulting in decontextualised forms. Translating the heads as psychological spaces encourages our understanding of them as being human. Coupled with Bevan’s recognition of the contextual structure of the head as being familiar, and his use of primitive and tactile materials to convey human experience, Bevan prevents dehumanisation of form, resulting in work that rests on a careful balance between abstraction and representation. Despite Bevan’s severe deforming of the heads, his use of material to convey a personal experience supports Bird’s statement that, in his work, familiar traits of humanity are only ever ‘almost’ lost.

An Excerpt from an Essay by Marco Livingstone (1998) In the spirit beneath the skin [Online]. Available from: http://www.tonybevan.com/Tony_Bevan_Marco_Livingstone_essay.html [Accessed 28th October 2012].Bacon, F cited by Sylvester, D. (1966) Francis Bacon. In: Interviews with Francis Bacon. London, Thames and Hudson, pp. 199-203Baranano, K. (2006) Topographies of the Face. In: Watson, H. (ed.) Tony Bevan. Hampshire, Lund Humphries, pp. 9-32
Bird, J. (2006) Foreward. In: Watson, H. (ed.) Tony Bevan. Hampshire, Lund Humphries, pp. 6-8Ben Brown Fine Arts Catalogue (no date) Tony Bevan New Paintings [Online]. Available from: http://www.suehubbard.com [Accessed 20th October 2012].
Ottmann, K. (2005) Painting Heads. In: Watson, H. (ed.) Tony Bevan. Hampshire, Lund Humphries, pp. 33-40The Art Story (no date) Your Guide to Modern Art [Online]. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-expressionism.htm [Accessed 3rd December 2012]The Guardian (2003) My life is reduced to nothing [Online]. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2003/jun/21/art.artsfeatures1 [Accessed 3rd December 2012]Wilson, J. (2006) Painting Heads. In: Watson, H. (ed.) Tony Bevan. Hampshire, Lund Humphries, pp. 41 – 50

About Becca (73 Articles)
Founder of Art's the Word. Blogs for Art's the Word, Native Monster,The Shipping Forecast & Callaby Magazine.

1 Comment on Abstracted but not Dehumanised – A look at Tony Bevan’s Heads

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  1. Tony Bevan by Jon Bird, Kosme de Baranano, Klaus Ottmann and Jonathan Sinclair-Wilson, 2006 | A Contemporary Arts Platform

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