For fans of Peter Beard’s densely collaged and bloodied photographs, his new exhibition at Guild Hall is a blessing, a triumphant return and something to celebrate after 15 years without the artist having a museum solo show in this country. For those lucky enough to be discovering his work for the first time, Peter Beard: Last Word from Paradise will be a revelation, an exaltation—a moment to be remembered.
That’s the kind of power this artist wields. Beard delivers an alchemical mix of photography, diary, personal narrative and exegesis of broader world issues—all wrapped in heaps of ephemera and expressive swaths of ink and blood. The result is authentic and accessible but not unsophisticated.
Works like “PB in croc (I’ll Write Whenever I Can),” featuring an iconic, blood-smeared, 1964 image of Beard writing in his journal while lying thigh-deep in the carcass of a very large and menacing crocodile (illustrated at top of page), have elevated the artist’s legend in the eyes of his admirers. And Beard is more than happy to perpetuate his myth.
He’s been known to create these legendary moments, like covering himself head to toe in the cow’s blood he buys in large containers for use on his photographs, usually when another photographer happens to be hanging around. The man understands how to position himself as a masculine hero of Hemingway and Steinbeck’s ilk, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that he’s very much made of the stuff he so deftly portrays.
PHOTO GALLERY: Last Word from Paradise Opens at Guild Hall
For the last 50 years, Beard, 78, has split much of his time between Africa and Montauk, documenting his exceptional life in both places through photographs, writings and, of course, the artworks that put them together with other bits and pieces he’s collected along the way. Devilishly handsome, well bred and Yale educated, Beard has kept company with some of the world’s most beautiful women and rubbed elbows with celebrity friends and artists, including the Rolling Stones, Truman Capote, Lee Radziwill, Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon, to name a select few. He was a fixture at Studio 54 and is no stranger to decadent parties with drugs, booze and the aforementioned women and celebs. He’s traveled the world, was nearly killed by a charging elephant, and all the while he’s maintained the quality of his art and respect for the places he lives and works.
At his home, Hog Ranch, outside Nairobi, Kenya, Beard befriended the locals and had them contribute to his art. What Beard calls the “Hog Ranch Art Department” is a group of three Kenyans who add whimsical and childlike drawings to Beard’s photographs with watercolor and tempera paint. It’s one more tool in the artist’s oeuvre, and can be seen at Guild Hall in pieces such as “Children and Elephant at Dump, Lake Victoria,” a 1965 photograph printed and painted in 2003; and the large, 95-inch “Gardeners of Eden (Cow elephant herd under the snows of Kilimanjaro),” a 1984 photograph printed and painted in 2012.
In some works, like “Roping Rhinos with Ken Randall in Hunting Block 29,” Beard adds dozens of tiny pictures from his own contact sheets, historical images, newspapers and sundry other sources with the native drawings atop a larger photograph. Each piece tells its own story while adding depth and insight to the greater whole.
In keeping with Beard’s theme of recalling the misguided days of the great white hunter in Africa, for example, “Roping Rhinos” includes an old book cover and spine from 1935’s Danger Trails in Africa by explorer Martin Johnson, who wrote about his adventures on the continent, in Borneo and other faraway lands. The cover illustration shows a romantic, if stereotypical, pith-helmeted white explorer with rifle in hand and native baggage handlers in tow.
The Danger Trails in Africa cover is a small part of a much larger composition, but one can’t help zeroing in and considering the comparisons between Martin and Beard: Both men are reporting from far-flung locales and feeding their audiences’ vicarious desires with danger, mystery and adventure. But while Martin and his wife lived and wrote in the earliest years of the last century, Beard offers something of today. Instead of shooting with bullets and returning home to tour with pelts, tusks and taxidermy-d big game, the artist fires off pictures and makes the world he documents emotionally palpable through expressive flourishes. And rather than present Africa as a place to be survived and, perhaps, even conquered, Beard renders it as fragile and on the brink—a place to be cherished.
“When I first went to Kenya in August 1955, I could never have guessed what was going to happen. Kenya’s population was roughly five million, with about 100 tribes scattered throughout…it was authentic, unspoiled, teeming with big game—so enormous it appeared inexhaustible,” Beard wrote in the 1990s. “Now Kenya’s population of 30 million drains the country’s limited and diminishing resources at an amazing rate: surrounding, isolating and relentlessly pressuring the last pockets of wildlife in denatured Africa.”
With quotes like this posted alongside the art on view, Peter Beard: Last Word from Paradise delivers a clear message about Africa in crisis. But, like all Beard’s work, the show is also a diary—the artist’s life story told in two parts. One gallery room looks at Africa, while the other is a love letter to Montauk and Beard’s life there.
“We wanted to present Peter Beard’s body of work through a different lens, by exploring the artist’s visions of Kenya and Montauk as encampments/refuges where his art and life converge,” Guild Hall’s Museum Director and Chief Curator Christina Mossaides Strassfield says.
The Montauk works reflect Beard’s style, but they seem more personal and document a mix of his party-hard lifestyle with sweeter images of family time with his wife, Nejma, and their daughter, Zara, in their home atop the bluffs. Together with everything else, including photographs from Beard’s childhood, the exhibition offers a multifaceted picture of this inestimable artist who has made the East End a key part of his storied life.
Peter Beard: Last Word from Paradise is open through Sunday, July 31 at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Admission is free. Call 631-324-0806 or visit guildhall.org for more info.