Jim Perrin tells the story of Welsh artist Bernard Barnes, artist of the art on the hill Sistine Chapel Project in Barmouth.
In his peerless 1930s travel narrative, A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor tells of how his companion Annamaria “acted as Open Sesame to a private house [in Budapest] with a long room which was empty except for half-a-dozen tremendous El Grecos.” Twenty-five years ago, in a side-room upstairs at Pest’s Museum of Fine Arts, unexpectedly I came across three luminous, ethereal El Grecos which must surely have been among the ones Leigh Fermor encountered in 1934. Something of the same overwhelming sense of astonishment and delight I felt then thrilled through me recently in the unlikely setting of a former church hall in Old Barmouth, on the craggy hillside above the candy-floss, chip-shops and dodgem-rides of Brummagem-on-Sea.
This church hall – listed and distinguished, Tudorbethan-style, tucked into a rock ledge below the vast II* St. John’s Church which is the nearest thing the Cardigan Bay coast possesses to a cathedral – seven years ago was a dilapidated and neglected shell, roof and windows deteriorating, poised on the cusp of terminal decline, and in the care of an ecclesiastical authority with neither use for nor idea of what to do with it. As with the equally fine Coleg Harlech ten miles up the coast, now also suffering malignant neglect, entropy looked set to take its course.
Happy chance intervened. Seven years ago two gifted artists, working far outside the fashions of their time, uncommitted to any school or –ism, began to rent the church hall as studio space. Reyna Rushton was born at Lamorna of Romany stock; her partner Bernard Barnes is a former itinerant Methodist preacher, brought up in that lunar, post-industrial landscape of Flintshire’s Halkyn Mountain, and trained as Religious Knowledge teacher in Dudley College of Education. Enter a third agency, in the form of Harold Gassner, from the early 1980s a collector of Barnes’s work, and a Schwabian psychotherapist with family connections to Ardudwy. He’d picked up Barnes when he was hitch-hiking one day, and they became firm friends.
Years later Gassner interested himself in the church hall, saw its dilapidated state, and bought it. Roof and windows were repaired; some restoration work undertaken; a light and roomy exhibition venue was the result. Though not as yet widely known, and still basic in its essential facilities, it’s now a remarkable focus for the area’s cultural activity: music, readings, exhibitions, lecture-series. It also had sufficient space for the ambitious syncretism of Barnes’s artistic project. The north wall is vast, illuminated by diffused light from high, latticed windows. On it are mounted 24 panels of a major painting, Captives of the Cosmic Web. You enter through one mounted on a door, take a few steps forward, turn round, and are confronted by an entire cosmology – by an artistic view of the creation of the universe and our place and history within it.
It is almost too large, almost too ambitious, to talk of in painterly terms. Certainly you can trace influences. The deconstructive lessons of Pointillism, Cubism, Impressionism, Fauvism, have left their marks on the imagination at work here, and on the grids which contain it and link themes like synaptic impulses in the brain. There are throbbing reminders of Picasso, Braque, Cezanne, Monet. One ascending swirl of portraits in a right-hand panel prompts recollection of El Greco’s cynical patrons-piece in Toledo’s Church of Santo Tome, El Entierro del Conde de Organ – except that the figures painted here are Crick, Rutherford, Hubble haloed in a red shift, Watson, Pasteur, Mendel, Max Planck – scientists at their verifications, grouped below a loft where Bach plays the organ. Climbing again, your eye enters the landscape of Kubla Khan, inhabited by Copernicus and Galileo, Plato orchestrating his academy, Socrates pondering the fatal hemlock.
The light play of wit, the link-motifs of rays and steps, the bell-tower, the distant hills, the muted exuberance of palette all impress and contribute to the richness of the whole. Each panel demands scrupulous attention; each adds to the bewildering density of the painting’s narrative. In one are the Agia Sophia and a glimpse of the golden death-mask supposedly of Agamemnon discovered by Schliemann at Mycenae but only glimpsed here: “himself behind/Was left unseen, save to the eye of the mind.” (Shakespeare, “The Rape of Lucrece”, describing the Fall of Troy and giving a clue to Barnes’s artistic intent and design.) The responsibility is unequivocally placed upon the viewer, when exploring these depictions of historicity, discovery, mystery, to complete the narrative through intellectual inference. In this panel, as Barnes writes in his concordance (“the book of the painting”), “the connecting lines between objects are loose, like dust laden webs, not straight and electrical as everywhere else in the picture”. So even the structural web is nuanced.
The fecundity of imagination, wealth of allusion, graphic intertextualities, subtleties of juxtaposition, and contrasted moods are of overpowering abundance. Here is a work of art adequate to our time, that reads us, relies on the knowledge, openness, and frames of reference we bring to its interpretation and appraisal. There is just so much here, and all created by a quiet, informed, widely-talented man meditating on cosmic order and its shadow. The history of the physical universe is envisaged on these panels, and of human response to it, from abject dark superstition to verified and peer-judged scientific enquiry into its nature and origin. Blake’s “Ancient of Days” is transformed into matter as hunched darkness at the centre of quantum flux. He crouches dividerless alongside Archaeopteryx, the first feathered reptile, in the light of supernovas, red giants, and the Great Singularity. Who else has ever painted astrophysics.
The detailed work is painstaking, exquisite, but its framing is vast. You think of poor, crazy John Martin, who burnt York Minster and ended up in Bedlam (on the site of which the War Department now stands), and his powerful visions of chaos. Barnes’s rigorous intellect and painterly technique bring order. I’m reminded of other painters who worked large: in Wales, Clyde Holmes’ barren, empty, sombre, textural moorscapes enlivened only by suggestions of riffling wind; Elsi Eldridge’s lovely, fey triptych, once in Gobowen Hospital, now at Glyndwr University; Vincent Evans’s allegory A Welsh Family Idyll.
I think of Lichtenstein’s powerful, crude cartoons, enormous, vibrant with primary colour. And of Olafur Eliassen’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall sun installation of 2003 that held London enthralled for months. All fade in comparison, none approach the craft-mastery, the absorbing imaginative power, the physical and intellectual scale of Barnes’s achievement. A short review can’t begin to appraise it. And there is so much of his other work in this gallery (the mythos series, for example, or “The City of Light”, or the death-mask of Agamemnon powerfully re-imagined as portrait of the warrior). Bermo’s a long way from most places, but go see for yourselves: “Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones..?”
More writing by Jim Perrin is available through the Wales Arts Review‘s website.