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June 09, 2005

Beryl Cook as sociologist of religion

Posted by Roger Homan

Beryl Cook is undoubtedly one of Britain's most popular artists. The humour of her work, however, usually overshadows its other qualities. Prof. Roger Homan considers the social commentary in Beryl Cook's work - he finds a sociologist of religion lurking behind the images of ample bosoms and plump thighs.

Anthropologists will look back to the latter quarter of this century and try to read into her art some deep significance or social comment. To hell with that.
So wrote Clement Freud in 1981. Coming from a Freud, the curse upon analysts has a special appeal, so here in defiance of it are some reflections on Beryl Cook's world view.

It may be the levity in the work of Beryl Cook that inclines sniffy connoisseurs to distance themselves from it. It could also rankle that she had no formal training: her talent went unnoticed in her youth and remained dormant until middle life. But for all the humour, there is in her work a perceptive commentary on the dismantling of conventional morality. The tension in a secular society between a moralizing minority and a carefree majority in all its infinite variety is richly displayed in Beryl Cook's work.

At times the amusement of a Beryl Cook painting comes close to that of a seaside postcard. There are invariably round buttocks and abundant cleavages. The unselfconsciousness of those who are away from home or fortified by a drink or supported by like-minded and like-bodied peers is displayed. It is because these images are liberating that they have for twenty-five years connected so with the British public in a series of books, in Gallery Five greetings cards, on the cover of the Sunday Times colour supplement, in the South Bank Show and in exhibitions in London, Glasgow and the provinces. That plump ladies are seen enjoying themselves playing bowls, on sunbathing on Plymouth Hoe or riding motor-bikes celebrates the precept of being true to self and marks the demise of a collective morality.

Her subjects are found on the fringes of moral responsibility, not quite offending but at least behaving provocatively. They drink and smoke and flaunt themselves. Indeed, she prefers models who have much to flaunt. She depicts strippers and prostitutes, exhibitionists and naturists. And she does not draw the line at plump thighs: in Dykes Party and in the S&M images Next! and Anyone for a Whipping?, for example, we are given access to more esoteric transactions. She looks upon them with fascination. Neither in her vivid colours nor in the mood she conveys is there anything dark about the world she publishes: she sanitizes sleaze. Beryl Cook may be an ex-showgirl and a onetime pub landlady but her self-portraits barely suggest that she is of the world she celebrates. Her art is not naïve but she affects naïveté in innocent explanations and in titles that make no reference to the themes that intrigue the viewer.

The engaging principle of Beryl Cook's work is voyeurism. We are for ever catching her subjects unaware or seeing what we should not. One of her books is called Private View. The habit of peeping is most explicit in a glimpse Through the Keyhole: what we see is not quite clear because it is partial, nor can the artist tell us, but it involves fully dressed adults with feet in the air; a companion painting shows a plump nude woman looking through the keyhole from the other side and has the caption And this is the butler. The dark suit is used with the accessories of bowler hat and rolled umbrella as symbols of outward respectability in the painting My Fur Coat: this shows the rear view of a woman opening her coat to compel the attention of a gentleman passer-by who bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the evangelists who appears on the artist’s doorstep in Divine Visitation. Thus the tables are turned on the moralizers. Beryl Cook’s own perspective on post-modern morality is tolerant but she invites representatives of moral rectitude and shows how they too are susceptible to worldly temptations. She looks to those who might disapprove and tests their limits. The juxtaposition of the religious presence and lost souls is affectionately portrayed in Salvation Army and The War Cry. But other images are more confrontationary: in Ladies of the Watchtower we stand with Beryl Cook as she opens her front door and we find ourselves eyeball to eyeball with a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses. Of this work the artist explains:

I don't often paint from sheer malice, but this was an exception. I grew to hate these two Jehovah's Witness campaigners who were always coming to the door and pestering me. After several reasonably polite requests to them not to call on me, I once again opened the door and found them there - side by side, leaflets extended. Slamming he door, I vowed "I'll get you"… and I did.

Her vignettes of human behaviour in pubs and parks represent those very activities upon which world-rejecting sects issue their taboos. Accordingly, religion is featured in its more censorious, conversionist and intrusive forms. These stereotypes are, of course, a caricature of Christian faith and practice but the notion that religion is about condemnation is by no means confined to Beryl Cook. She paints in the intellectual tradition of Nietzsche who protested against religions for their suppression of the exercise of human instincts: their ideal, he alleged, was the eunuch.

The melodrama that Beryl Cook glimpses is rehearsed in the Gospel narratives. The Pharisees are vigilant and reactive as hawks when Jesus keeps the company of publicans and sinners. In the western tradition, Mary Magdalene has belonged to the class of those whom Beryl Cook observes but the tendency has been to value rather than condemn her.

And in art Beryl Cook's perspective is anticipated by Brueghel's The Battle between Carnival and Lent in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It shows emaciated grey churchgoers leaving their place of worship and entering a town square where the unchurched eat, drink and make merry. It is proposed to dwell upon Brueghel's image in a later article in this series.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).

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Her art may be excellent, but that doesn't mean that what it says is true. The Marxists knew all about art as propaganda.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 12, 2005 10:12 PM
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