This 1958 self-portrait by the painter Ben Levene is actually signed Gerald Levene. The explanation is that, born Gerald Levene in 1938 to a London Jewish family, his school nickname of Ben followed him informally to the Slade School of Art in London (where he studied between 1956-61), eventually dictating his professional name. Ruth Borchard has recorded that she had first seen his work in the ‘Young Contemporaries 1959’ exhibition.
Levene’s poignant expression here is beautifully wrought. The slightly down-turned dark eyes denote languorous introspection, a visionary look. The mature evocation of such a subtle state of mind – painted without a trace of bombast or histrionics – is indeed rare in a young artist. His long face inclines almost imperceptibly downwards, adding to the feeling of weighty sadness. The face’s somewhat sandy pallor stands out against the reddish black hair and the even deeper background black (itself suffused with an earlier layer of red). It is hard to say exactly what he is wearing.
The painting shows the strong contemporary influence of David Bomberg and his followers, notably Dorothy Mead who attended the Slade as ‘a mature student and practised disciple of Bomberg’s’, Andrew Forge, himself a painter of richly impastoed portraits in the early 60s and senior lecturer at the Slade from 1950-4, and fellow students Dennis Creffield, Mario Dubsky and Patrick Procktor.
Though for many years now Ben Levene has (in Mervyn Levy’s words) painted ‘slowly, with concentration and independence’, and (in the artist’s own words) ‘work[s] with glazes, very thinly applied’, as a student at the Slade and soon afterwards, he tended to paint thickly, prolifically and quite expressionistically in oils.
Levene’s paintings of people, and self-portraits, have been few and far between. A 1975 self-portrait shows him seated in a red armchair, in semi-profile, a rather quizzical, diminutive figure within a coolly luminous room setting apparently composed of distinct yet melodiously integrated still-life components: a large mirror, a vase of flowers, a landscape painting on the white wall.
His still-lifes and landscapes over many years show what how what he calls ‘one foot in reality’ is counterbalanced by a rare gift for decorative abstraction, an almost Oriental sense of how charged and eloquent the spaces between objects can be; a restrained sumptuousness of colour is his hallmark.