Born in the stolidly conservative town of Harpenden, Hertfordshire in 1954 – his father a commuting stockbroker – John Keane was sent away to boarding school at an early age. But given that Keane has since made a name as an urgently iconoclastic painter whose works investigate harrowing quandaries and paradoxes of war and international conflict, it seems relevant to mention here that as a child he absorbed something by osmosis of his father’s experiences in Japanese Second World War prisoner-of-war camps, something too of the psychological scarrings endured by his mother after the death of her first husband in the Normandy fightings. Growing up in the 60s, Keane was strongly influenced by ‘the atmosphere of dissidence and counter-culture. Rebellion was in the air.’
From 1972-76 he studied at Camberwell School of Art – an unempathetic milieu for him with its largely geometrically co-ordinated approach to painting. After working as a clerk in a tax office, his confidence rebounded and in 1977 he set up his own painting studio. He has said recently that he finds ‘something of [his] early work a bit cartoony and obvious, even if the subject might still appeal to me’. In the preface to the book Troubles My Sight: The Art of John Keane (Flowers Gallery, 2015) by Mark Lawson, Brian Eno writes that ‘in a time of increasingly explicit detail, Keane realises that it’s the distillation of detail that catches the imagination, that makes us engaged. The power of the experience is predicated not on what is shown, or what is missing – but on what we, the audience, can’t resist imagining.’
It is this kind of distillation – and the audience’s ensuing inevitable and irresistible ominous imaginings – that distinguish Keane’s 2013 Self-Portrait. This small, intensively disquieting painting comes from his Fear series of 2012/13. Keane wrote to me in 2015: ‘There were a number of large scale portraits derived from NKVD* mug shots (which would have been quite small) which I had been profoundly struck by when first I encountered them. Of course these were individuals who, once arrested, would know pretty much what their fate would be, and in many cases this can almost be read in their images. The series was a meditation on Fear, and undertaking the representation of these people elicits a kind of intimacy or empathy in an (inevitably futile) effort to imagine their states of mind. In a presumptuous but I hope not disrespectful exercise I tried to imagine myself in their shoes. This resulted in a large self-portrait that would hang with the others as though I were another anonymous victim. Some smaller versions of these portraits were made using inkjet transfer on linen and one of these is the one acquired for the collection (which, of course, I am honoured to be amongst).’
*(The NKVD was a law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union closely associated with the secret police, and notorious for its repressive brutality under Stalin’s homicidally paranoid regime in the 1930s – for its purges of citizens and artists it denoted ‘dissident’ or ‘disloyal’, who were sent in their millions to the Gulags, many hundreds of thousands executed after show trials – a chilling subject Keane had encountered in a book on the subject.)
The inkjet process is notable for helping endow quite hard-edged photographic material with subtle painterly qualities – realised as the computer-printed image is transferred to the final material (in this case linen) by manually burnishing the waxed printed image onto it. The large monochrome self-portrait, Fear No. 1, that Keane made for this series shows him in white collarless shirt, with horizontal ridged gradations of blurry black paint running irregularly across the image. The same image is used in the smaller self-portrait in the Borchard Collection – but instead of flickering ridges of paint, swathes of heavily applied tarry black oil paint, as well as dark minatory shadowings, intervene in the picture frame, itself divided into diversely accentuated rectangular sections.
When set aside Keane’s oil and inkjet portraits of actual victims of Stalin’s purges – NKVD mugshots of arrestees eerily numbered (sometimes anonymous individuals, sometimes named below the image in the original crude, ghostly white hand-writing) as in Fear No. 59744 (2012) and Fear No. 9067 (2103) – the jolting sight of his own taut, morose self-image displaced (in different versions) in such an apocalyptically grim historical context is searing to contemplate.
He said recently, ‘Everything I do starts on a computer screen and has done so for the last 10, 15 years, probably. And to me it’s a very satisfying way of working… most of the time I am starting with an image and the creative tension is how I present it, manipulate it, work it into what in the end will be a picture. But there is still the mental blank canvas: what am I going to do now?’ Artists who have made a tremendous impact on him include, notably, Andy Warhol and Anselm Kiefer.
A striking contrast, an opposite pole, to Keane’s Fear series are his warmly humane, subtly colourful portraits of thoughtful, socially progressive figures such as the politician Mo Mowlam (1999-2001), the trade union leader Bill Morris (2005) and the broadcaster Jon Snow (2009).
Mark Lawson makes the valid point that ‘although Keane is sometimes seen as a partisan left-wing artist, his excursion-related work – in the Gulf [he was commissioned as an official war artist by the Imperial War Museum for the Gulf War in 1990, creating excoriating, sometimes deliberately scabrous images investigating notions of Western military aggressiveness and religious fundamentalism], Nottingham [where his subject was coal miners, portrayed with an evocatively dignified realism, several years after the Miners’ Strike], Belfast and even the Middle East – expresses far more nuance and confusion than, say, a Pinter political poem.’ Keane himself says, ‘I think I do…want to ask difficult questions. I don’t want to be a propagandist.’
 Except for this quotation from Keane, all other quotes here from the artist come from Mark Lawson’s interviews (in his 2015 book on the painter.)