Saturday, 7 January 2012


Halcyon Gallery

This is a remarkably powerful and disturbing painting. I’ve seen it at the Halcyon twice but I haven’t yet been able to get an image which I can reproduce. When I called in at the gallery yesterday to check that it’s available for public view, I was told that it was but by appointment only.

It’s a large three-quarter length portrait of Bob Geldof painted with the skill and complexity of an the Old Master. Geldof looks like a Renaissance lord, rich, controversial, and much given to patronage and good works. His face is layered with meaning: confident, disdainful, alert, scary.  Whatever he’s feeling, he’s painted as if exercising superhuman self control. His arms and hands are stretched out towards us and they are covered with large rats. Some are climbing up his chest, others on his shoulders appear to be nuzzling the flesh of his neck. It’s a shocking image – like that of Aisha by Jodi Bieber (blog 129) - and not likely to be forgotten.

Think of Bob Geldof and you think of the musician and the man behind Band Aid and the millions raised for Africa famine relief and other charities.

Think of his band, the Boomtown Rats.

Just think about rats. Unlike squirrels and foxes, puppies and kittens, they have no cute ways. We hunt them down as vermin and we kill them. They have a criminal record as long as your arm: they infiltrate human settlements to spread famine and plague.  In mythology if you want to signal that someone is really, really wicked, you give them a rat as a pet or a familiar.  In fairy tales they are larger-than-life characters. Here’s the second verse of Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladle's,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

An itinerant Piper promises to lure the rats away with his magic pipe. With the rats all safely  sealed up inside a mountain, the citizenry refuses to pay him.  He turns his magic on their children, leading them (all except one lame child) to the same fate. It’s a morality tale: always pay what you owe, always keep your promises ...or else.

To find out more about Mitch Griffiths and to see some of his paintings visit his website  You may have already seen his work at the National Portrait Gallery as he was part of the BP Portrait Award Exhibition in 2001, 2003 and 2004. In 2001 his entry was widely distributed as the Exhibition poster.

As I understand it there is to be a new exhibition of his work   at the Halcyon. It will be called Iconostasis and feature portraits of such famous people as Ray Winstone  and Keira Knightley. An iconostasis is a screen of icons and religious paintings which divides the nave from the sanctuary in an Orthodox church.  

What I like about Griffiths’ work is that while being hugely influenced by the language and techniques of artists of the past, he tackles head on the issues of the twenty first century.  His ‘symbolism reflects a modern quest for redemption from the overriding self-obsession and consumerism of contemporary society, with its vanity and greed, addictions and needless suffering’. I can see and applaud how he does that.

But I have a niggling doubt. His work is bought and displayed by the privileged and wealthy. Do they feel more comfortable about inequalities because they can see the joke, the wit, the knowingness of it all? My daughter, when seeing the painting,  pointed out that when something unlikely happens in a Sci Fi drama, a character might well say, ‘Goodness me, this is just like being in a Sci Fi programme’. Does sharing the joke with the viewer invite them further into the fantasy world?

Part of the fun of looking at art is to see behind the scene. It’s not so long since many Victorians conjured up a cosy world of rosy-cheeked children, Shire horses, cottage gardens, blonde curls and velvet breeches, while reality included  children in factories and up chimneys, high infant mortality and low life expectancy.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I saw this painting of Bob Geldof with the rats at The Halcyon Gallery outpost, in Harrods in the Brompton Road, on a visit there yesterday afternoon with my partner. To be sure, a striking image, never to be forgotten...and with a huge price-tag , £350,000 I think it was.