In Darkness and Secure Baroque Exhibition
Artist Andrew Haslett explains the Baroque influences behind his new exhibition of paintings in Cregagh Library
Andrew Haslett lights a roll-up in his Belfast flat, charcoal sketches and intense oil paintings on the walls – one of a friend posing as St Peter with an expression that recalls the ecstasy of Bernini’s Teresa; studies of paintings by Caravaggio; oils on canvas of classical figures; books on Zurbaran and de Ribera next to tomes on anatomy.
It’s like stepping back into the art studio of one of the great Italian masters, if you ignore the proximity of the Lisburn Road, the instant coffee and the fact that Haslett is not the swaggering type likely to scandalise the clergy or challenge people to duels in Naples as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio himself was wont to do.
'I am so inspired by the chiaroscuro or use of dark and light in paintings by the greats of the Baroque movement,' says Haslett, 31, who grew up in Newtownards and graduated from the University of Ulster in fine and applied art in 2005. Long-haired, with striking features and a kind of otherworldly calm, he does seem like someone from another era, who, because of some strange confusion of fate, has ended up in Belfast, 2013.
'People like Caravaggio and Zurbaran really inspire me because of the drama in their paintings and the incredible technique,' he continues, exhaling smoke and turning down Nirvana’s Incesticide playing in the background. 'The way they painted saints and characters from the Bible and made them seem so human and yet divinely-inspired at the same time. And the way the figures in the paintings emerge from the darkness into light.'
Haslett knows his Baroque: 'Caravaggio is described as using a tenebrist technique that means you get light against darkness without a lot of gradual shades between. There was a really passionate focus in the paintings produced in the Baroque era. I’ve set out to follow the example of the greats, only giving it all a contemporary twist by painting people I know as St Peter, Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot and then classical characters too, like Medusa and Perseus.'
The Baroque period in art, which began in the mid-16th century, is difficult to define succinctly, but one strand was concerned with dramatic, visceral religious painting that could bring the biblical story to a wide audience, emphasising at once its spiritual and emotional import, the passion and the physicality.
Baroque painting was endorsed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-63) as a reaction to the Protestant reformation: it was an attempt to communicate religious themes through bold, direct painterly gestures, naturalistic style and often sensationalist imagery, to give the Christian story democratic reach.
Haslett isn’t concerned with converting people to Christianity, rather he is intrigued by the biblical story, and finds characters such as St Peter and Mary Magdalene compelling subjects to paint, subjects who raise important questions about faith and morality. Classical mythology – another rich source of inspiration for Caravaggio et al – is another sphere he has judiciously mined.
'In my new exhibition at Cregagh Library I’ve included oil paintings of saints and biblical figures beside mythical characters,' he explains. 'Medusa is one I was particularly drawn to paint. She was a priestess in Athena’s temple and Athena cursed her because she was jealous of her beauty, so that every man Medusa looked at turned to stone. She was reviled but it wasn’t Medusa’s fault that her gaze turned men to stone. That intrigued me.'
Haslett’s 'Medusa' is a particular triumph, and with his 'Mary Magdalene', is perhaps the focal point of In Darkness and Secure: Sketches and Paintings by Andrew Haslett, which runs in Cregagh Library, Belfast until October 26 – although 'St Peter denying Jesus', 'Perseus' (here with shaved head and nose piercing), and an oil of 'Judas' in deep remorse, are also fine moments of the collection now on display.
The terrifying beauty of Greek myth, Medusa, is here no underworld monster, but instead mortal, discovered in the pathos of her final repose. Mary Magdalene is also unquestionably another of Haslett’s masterpieces and a clear indicator that his is a major talent emerging on the Northern Irish art scene.
Here the biblical figure is serene and rapt in contemplation, enveloped in a halo-glow that seems to symbolise virtue or redemption. She sits with memento mori to hand pointing to a text we may assume to be the word of God.
'To me the Bible and mythology share some things in that they sum up so many aspects of human nature,' he theorises when asked about his twin-focus on the classical pantheon and the saintly. 'To me it makes sense to include Medusa and Mary Magdalene, for example, because they are both strong women whose stories tell us much about virtue and transgression.'
In this exhibition the biblical and classical mythology are brought into conversation through an exquisitely lit stylistic unity that is yet, to use the exhibition’s title and a line from a poem by the Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross, 'in darkness and secure'.
'I don’t want to be preachy or dictate what people take from these paintings,' Haslett concludes, now on his fourth cup of coffee and second roll-up. 'I suppose I want to bring Baroque techniques back into focus and make people think about some of the characters I’ve painted here. I don’t want to follow what’s popular in contemporary art at the moment, I want to do my own thing.'
Caravaggio would have approved of such defiant, individual resolve.
In Darkness and Secure: Sketches and Paintings by Andrew Haslett runs in Cregagh Library, Belfast, until October 26.