Anthony Whishaw was born in London in 1930. This self-portrait was painted when he was around thirty years old. Around 1968, Ruth Borchard wrote that
‘English painters still have the courage to paint from the heart’
but went on to say:
‘I would, however, like to see one barrier broken through in English painting. This is the careful avoidance of human drama as a subject matter. The drama, the excitement is confined to the surface of the canvas, to the handling of form, to intensity within the medium. Why cannot we have paintings, also, like Goya’s? Why not the ‘cri de coeur’, also, in what is being painted? This I find in Anthony Whishaw, Kenneth Brazier, and a very few others only. Perhaps the present re-emergence of figurative painting will bring this in its train.’
This reference to Goya is curiously apt in relation to Anthony Whishaw who, since his first visit to Spain in 1951, developed a lifelong love for that country and its culture. He was joyfully overwhelmed first seeing Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’ years ago. As a teenager he reacted with fury to reproductions of Picasso’s work, later realising that his response came as a result of having youthful assumptions overturned; he went on to ‘develop an enormous rapport with Cubist work’.
Whishaw’s close-up, semi-profile view of his slightly downward-looking head may indeed be interpreted as an authentic ‘cri de coeur’. It is a heart-rendingly wistful study of a vulnerable human presence, one imbued with a vivid quietness of spirit.
Much of Whishaw’s early upbringing took place in South America, and this may help explain his keen, early gravitation to Spain, where he was a student from 1955-6.
‘What attracted me to Spain was the brownness, the ruggedness, the sense of hidden drama… the openness of the people… I got very involved with Spanish painting.’
Such qualities seem to characterise his self-portrait. His lean features, realised with swift, supple brushwork, outlined with black, appear to take on the features of an arid, blue-shadowed terrain, radiant now and then as it catches the sun, all set against a cool, blue background, an expanse perhaps of sea or sky.
His acrylic paintings from the 1970s onwards often utilise collage to obtain what he has called ‘unexpected configurations’ exploring ‘the play between the real and the unreal, between two and three dimensions’.