“Before there was any earth or sea, before the canopy of heaven stretched overhead, Nature presented the same aspect the world over, that to which men have given the name of Chaos”. So begins Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with its mythical tales of the magical transformations of gods and men into animal, vegetable and mineral forms. No classical text has had greater influence on the Western literary and artistic imagination than this collection of sometimes savage stories exposing the existential chaos beneath the surface of civilisation. The fact that we no longer read them could mean one of two things: either we’re too civilised to need them, or we’re in denial. The Greeks had an answer to both in the story of Pentheus, the priggish King of Thebes who doubted the power of the God of Wine, Dionysus, and was torn apart by the God’s frenzied followers, led by his mother.
Appropriately, this story is the subject of a painting by Paul Reid, the young Scottish artist described four years ago by Guy Peploe as “one of the most exciting painters to emerge from the primordial broth of postmodernism”. For the past eight years, Reid has been painting mythological subjects left untouched for more than a century. While his contemporaries, crushed by the weight of art history, have chosen the postmodern way out, Reid has opted to play Atlas and shoulder the burden – a decision which, in art critical terms, makes him as much a freak of nature as the prodigies he depicts.
Paul Reid was born in 1975 on the industrial estate of North Muirton, Perth, moving in his early teens to Scone. There were no artists in his family, although his mother could draw and used to amuse him with pictures of Superman. As a boy, he learned his first lessons in anatomy from the musculature of comic book superheroes: “When it came to life drawing,” he recalls, “I knew where everything went”. At Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee he painted still lifes and portraits, without quite knowing where they were taking him. It was while looking at Rubens and Titian that he became curious about the names of the characters in their paintings, and decided to investigate. He began with Ovid. “It was amazing,” he says. I opened the pages, and there were hundreds of paintings waiting to be painted.”
The fact that none of his tutors knew the myths was of course a problem and, in the current conceptual climate, he was given a hard time. But he persevered, and for his graduation work painted his first ambitious mythological set piece of The Death of Actaeon. He graduated with a First Class Honours in 1998, won a John Kinross Travel Scholarship and left for Madrid and Florence to continue his mythological art education. Other classical subjects followed – Pentheus, Marsyas, The Heliades, Hermes and Argus, Orion, Endymion, Theseus and the Minotaur – touching on themes of intellectual pride, overreaching ambition, the quest for eternal youth, the monstrous consequences of unbridled desire. He has not been tempted by more modern sources: “There’s plenty enough in classical myth,” he says.
Reid is a classical painter not simply in his choice of subjects: he is also a picture maker in the old-fashioned sense. Picture-making, for him, isn’t just about composition; it’s a process that begins from the ground up. Since his student days, when he discovered Max Doerner’s classic manual on old master techniques and read it “from cover to cover, like a Bible”, he has made his own grounds and mixed his own colours. When I visited his studio during the painting of Odysseus on the Isle of Circe, figures in traditional black and white grisaille were taking shape on a deep red ground, with a thicket of green trees growing up around them. “I tend to fit the landscape around the figures,” he told me. At this stage in a picture’s development the iconography has been plotted but the painting process remains fluid.
In the case of Odysseus, Reid had decided to depart from Homer’s version of the story, which has the hero land on the enchantress’ island to find that earlier mariners have been turned into swine. He preferred a version on an Attic black-figure cup showing Circe’s captives as men with different animal heads. Returning to original sources can suggest new ways of treating old stories: his unusual idea of a resting minotaur was based on Apollodorus’ account of Theseus discovering the monster asleep (although the composition owes m ore to Velasquez’s painting of a groggy Mars the morning after the night before with Vulcan’s wife). Ancient sources are fleshed out with contemporary visual references: the gorilla-head of one captive mariner is modelled on a live example in Edinburgh Zoo, the goat horns of another on a stuffed specimen in the museum of Natural History. For the human figures, Reid draws on his friends: “I trade on their vanity,” he says. (He doesn’t include his enemies: ”They wouldn’t pose”.)
The figures start semi-naked and are gradually clothed as items of their wardrobes are pieced together. Props are improvised from odds and sods – Odysseus’ sword was cobbled together from a pepper grinder and a wok handle, wound around with leather: a domestic exercise in metamorphosis. “I only need to see where the reflections hit,” Reid explains. “There’s a lot of stage setting involved; it can take the best part of a day to get the fall of the drapery right. Sometimes it can be incredibly frustrating building a painting, because you can’t just go into the studio and say: “I feel inspired today’. But problem-solving is what I enjoy.”
The process is fascinating, the results are extraordinary, but some viewers will still ask the question: why? Does the world Reid recreates in his studio have any relevance at all to the one we live in? The answer has to be yes, or he wouldn’t paint it: every artist necessarily belongs to his age. But although Reid is conscious of the topical relevance of some of his subjects – the genetic experiments of Circe, to take an obvious example – he has no inclination to spell it out. “Painting is a pictorial art,” he says. “If I have a picture I want to paint, I don’t feel I have to justify it with a conceptual blurb”. Sometimes the physical challenge of the subject is enough; he’s tempted by the idea of painting Sisyphus, “because that would be a great thing for the pushing and the exertion”.
It would also be a potent metaphor for the uphill struggle of a solitary artist against the prevailing trend. But it would be a mistake to represent Reid as a fogey, a reactionary on a neoclassical mission. To neoclassical tastes, he’s not classical enough. His refusal to idealise the human figure, leaving features and physiques so identifiable that you recognise the same model in different pictures, is irredeemably naturalistic. His compositions may conform to classic models – the frieze-like design of a picture like Odysseus on the Isle of Circe goes back, via Velasquez, to Roman sarcophagi – but his protagonists are contemporaries in classical dress.
The all-over lighting of his interiors, so obviously electric, heightens the feeling that the action is a tableau staged for our benefit, and that as soon as we’re gone the director will cry ‘Cut!’ and the actors will slip back into trainers and jeans. To a neoclassical sensibility, this slippage between the real and the ideal may grate like a grinding of aesthetic gears, but for the rest of us, the conflict lends the work interest. “I’m too much of a Northern artist to be a classical painter,” says Reid. “I’m too interested in the faces. If you’re an arch-classicist and you try to make each person an everyman, it becomes very boring.” To Reid’s eye, physical truth is too compelling: “I’m honest when I’m painting. I don’t like to lie too much.”
Reid’s reluctance to lie has tied him to his native landscape, which forms an unlikely backdrop to classical scenes normally set on the sun-kissed slopes of the Mediterranean. It’s a surprise to see the blinded giant Orion striding towards the rising sun across Scottish scenery that might have been painted by Peter Graham, Alexander Fraser or any of the 19th century landscapists in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland. Reid has never consciously studied these paintings but, as he points out, he has studied the same landscapes. Again one senses a tension between the demands of truth and the demands of picture-making; while he loves the stage set quality of Poussain’s landscapes, he knows it would be “utterly unrealistic” to go looking for it in the real world. Nor is he tempted to incorporate into his pictures the genuinely dramatic landscapes he sketched at Petra and Wadi Rum while travelling in Jordan with the Prince of Wales in 2004. “ The Wadi Rum landscapes were too ‘Wow!’. What I lik about the Scottish landscape is that real wildness, and the colour.”
Reid’s honesty and his insistence on keeping it real have made him suspicious of the moral claims sometimes made for art. A review of the recent Velazquez show in London which compared the painter’s surface effects with his ‘inner truth’ made him bristle. To Reid, the business of painting is about appearances; what an audience sees beyond them is their own affair. If there’s an inner truth to his work, he’s not letting on. The myths of antiquity have retained their power over us because their meanings are open-ended; Reid’s pictures operate on the same principle. It augers well for their longevity.
Laura Gascoigne (2007)