The third generation Bloomsbury painter Julian Bell, presents a major new exhibition titled, ‘Genesis’, at St Anne’s Galleries, Lewes this summer. The exhibition, opening on 20 June and presents an extraordinary series of 36 panel paintings in oils that represent a bold new interpretation of the first 33 chapters of the Bible.
Julian Bell started working on his Genesis project some 18 months ago after re-reading the Bible’s opening book for the first time since his youth. The initial series of drawings were burnt in a catastrophic fire in March 2014 that destroyed his studio and all its contents. This is Bell’s first major project since the fire. He describes what initially drew him to the subject:
“Genesis is about stories that are steeped in a great weight of human experience. They’re about what there was in the world, back in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, and in fact about what there very largely still is – the relationships that humans have with each other and the relationships that they have with God and the environment. So to me, Genesis is absolutely full of substance. It points me to things that are enduring and strongly typical in many, many human lives. That’s why to me it is the best of subjects.”
God as portrayed in Genesis is not a comfortable presence. He is great and terrifying. He makes a world, then repents of making it and drowns it in floodwaters. He is a master from whom Adam and Eve hide and who condemns them to lives of hard labour. He topples towers and burns down cities. He is a voice telling Abraham to kill his son. Bell’s picture sequence addresses these hard narratives with fiercely felt images. And yet at the same time, the magnificent ancient text generates paintings rich in light and lyricism.
Genesis zooms in scale from the creation of the cosmos to the most intimate human sensations – for instance those of a blind old man, reaching out his hand to feel who’s there. These paintings take on that panoramic range. At times Bell responds to the book’s way of naming and proclaiming great human themes – love, murder, forgiveness – as if for the very first time. At other times he warms to the text’s tenderness and humour – the banter between God and Abraham’s wife Sarah, or the tricks Jacob plays only himself to be tricked in turn.
Bell’s coverage of Genesis takes us to the time of Israel’s forefathers, ‘the patriarchs’ – but remark ably, it is often women who take the lead in this story. Adam, reduced to blaming Eve when accused of eating forbidden fruit, cuts a contemptible figure, while Sarah and her daughter- and granddaughter-in-law, Rebecca and Rachel, stage-manage the action in scenes of sharp family comedy. Bell, not bound to any doctrinal interpretation, brings out these subtleties in the storytelling. He is also alert to the deep, archaic strangenesses that the text opens the door to – the tale of the giants who bestride the earth before the Flood, or the bizarre dream sequence in which Abraham must walk by night between split animal carcasses.
Julian Bell’s paintings have long been renowned for their thought and seriousness, for their lucidly drawn scenarios with dazzling light effects, and for a brilliant painterly feel for colour. The Genesis project is set both to exceed the expectations of his fans and to bring a whole new audience to his work.
Julian Bell (b. 1952) is the son of art historian and author Quentin Bell, the grandson of artist Vanessa Bell and the great-nephew of author Virginia Woolf. His sister Cressida is a notable textile designer. Julian Bell grew up in Newcastle and Leeds, spending summers at the historic Bloomsbury house Charleston in Sussex, and then read English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. He has worked as a self-employed painter since his twenties. His work, often exhibited in London and New York, is held in collections including the Museum of London and Hove Museum and Art Gallery. As well as an artist, Julian is a successful art writer and historian. 2015 sees the publication of two new books, Vincent Van Gogh: A Power Seething (already out in the States, where it has received highly positive reviews) and a Lund Humphries volume about artist Tom Hammick. He is also working with the BBC on a big art history series int ended as a 21st-century rethink of Kenneth Clark’s famous Civilisation. Julian Bell lives and works in Lewes, East Sussex.
Genesis: Julian Bell will be on show 20 June – 5 July 2015 at St Anne’s Galleries, 111 High Street, Lewes East Sussex BN7 1XY