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Boscoe Holder book cover

 

Review of

Boscoe Holder

by Geoffrey MacLean

MacLean Publishing Ltd, Port of Spain

1994

110 pages

 

From his very first exhibition in his late teens Boscoe Holder was recognized as a significant talent by the art critics in the Trinidad press. And although his main occupation and source of income up to the age of about 50 was entertaining audiences with music and dance, he never stopped painting and has an almost unbroken record of exhibitions to his name. This book chronicles his artistic career and makes 52 of his paintings accessible to the public.

Overview

The book begins with a Foreword by Boscoe's brother Geoffrey which conveys the affectionate atmosphere in the Holder family. It is followed by an introduction and an account of Boscoe's life, illustrated with amazing vintage photographs, and providing a wealth of little-known and enlightening information. There's an "Appreciation" and a Chronology, and then comes the heart of the book, the 52 colour plates. The book closes with excerpts from reviews, which highlight the contrast between then and now in our art criticism scene. There is also an index and a short bibliography.

Scattered throughout are some terrific full page portrait photos expressing different aspects of the artist's personality. Among these Adrian Flowers shows him in a thoughtful mood while Martin Chaffer captures his infectious joie de vivre.

Unbroken record

In the gracefully-written biography it was a surprise to learn that the Holders spent 19 years in England, returning to Trinidad only when Boscoe was in his fifties. (I thought he had been here all his life.) For whatever reason, he chose not to go to art school while he was away. Could it have been related to his having been expelled from school in his teens for "distracting the boys with his drawings"? (p. 11), There is no record in this book of any further formal education after that apart from three days at the Art Students League in New York. He did get lessons in piano, though, because of showing spectacular talent at an early age, and he was helped in his early painting by Amy Leong Pang who lived across the road.

But Boscoe was so naturally gifted as a painter and draughtsman that art school might have seemed like a waste of time, as has occasionally been the case for exceptionally gifted artists. Geoffrey MacLean writes (p. 8):

Boscoe painted from the day, when he was five, that he asked his mother to show him how to draw a lady. He describes his first lesson: Her drawing was like a Picasso . . . whap, whap, whap . . . strong. "That's a lady", she had said. 

After many years of traveling and performing around England, Europe, Canada and America, exhibiting wherever he went, the Holders resettled in Trinidad in 1973 and painting finally became Boscoe's main occupation. He went from strength to strength, with an unbroken record of annual solo shows from 1979 onwards, sometimes two, three or four in a year, including shows in other Caribbean islands and in the U.S. and Europe. In 1988 the Venezuelan Cultural Centre held a retrospective of his work. If the exhibition record is the acid test of an artist's mettle, Boscoe passed it with flying colours.

Masterpiece or near miss?

The Plates show that Boscoe's gift for expressing character through drawing has remained essentially unchanged over the fifty-odd years covered by the book. The pictures are arranged chronologically into decades with exceptions at the beginning and the end. The first two, on facing pages, are a portrait of his father (1974) and his mother (1938). These are both wonderful pieces immortalizing the two people who look out from the pages. Both have life, it hardly needs to be said. The later one, of his father, shows the trademark blue highlights, while the earlier one is more traditionally brown-toned. Both of these paintings would look good in any major art museum anywhere in the world.

Over the years you can see Boscoe growing in confidence and skill. The pictures get bigger, the colour gets more daring, the brushwork gets more free and strong; and the work always somehow looks contemporary though he follows no fashion, only his own star.

With this kind of painting each piece is a new beginning, a new problem, a new person; and for this reason, each must be taken on its merits.

There are some masterpieces and some near misses. Among the masterpieces I would put the Portrait of Christian Holder (1956), aged about seven, p 57. The boy looks sideways out of the picture, hand on hip, with trademark Holder aplomb. My Postman (1971) gives an impression of haste. It is wonderfully though sketchily brushed in and evokes the classic impassive Trini policeman in his gray and navy uniform. The piece was stopped (perhaps perforce) before it got killed by overworking. Negro Girl (1970) is a poignant piece, simple and eloquent beyond words. Lady in Red (1977) is Boscoe at his virtuoso best. Lady with Straw Hat (1987) expresses an incredibly Trinidadian woman of a certain nonchalant type; the character seems to be alive on the canvas. The bravura Baptist Woman (1981) is brilliantly drawn and painted. The painter takes sensuous pleasure in the paint itself, in the white headgear and clothing and in the commanding pose of the woman. Portrait of Carmen de Lavallade (1983) is a dramatically successful piece: a feathered black hat cuts diagonally across a red background and frames a wistful and beautiful face. In Cocoa-Panyol (1983), the artist captures yet another typically Trini woman, using a touch of exaggeration and humour to make his point. Sheila in the Doorway (1977) shows Boscoe's lyrical side, with the light coming from behind.  On the negative side I would cautiously categorize as a near miss No. 40, Man in Red Headtie, because of the awkwardly drawn muscle between the shoulder and the neck; and in one or two other pieces the gaze is not quite right.

Impulse

All this work belongs in the Western tradition of character study from life. This is the tradition of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, and early Picasso. The pre-requisite is a high level of drawing skill. Contemporary practitioners are David Hockney and Lucien Freud, and the late Alice Neel (1900--1988), all with their own distinctive styles. None of them are/were influenced by anyone to do what they do, it's a sort of natural impulse. So too, I believe, with Boscoe Holder; he does what he does because he can and he must. He too has his own distinctive style which comes in part from the black and brown Trinidadians who are his subjects. 

Rescued

I was struck by how many of the pictures are owned by the artist or close family or friends. This has to mean that these were the only pictures that Geoffrey MacLean and his team were able to locate and track down for the publication. It means that dozens, maybe hundreds of even better paintings are out there, hidden away in unknown private homes. Which is the fate of most paintings, since the best ones tend to be snapped up at exhibitions. Very few are rescued from oblivion by books like this. Which means that this book, so lovingly put together, is a service both to the artist and to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

The reviews

All sorts of interesting little facts emerge from the reviews. The first Trinidad Art Society exhibition in 1944 had no less than 270 exhibits, a huge show by today's standards (and at that time the population of Trinidad was only about a third of what it is now). We learn that in 1945 and 1946 the Art Society produced picture catalogues! So much for progress.

But these are side issues. More to the point, in his early years Boscoe benefited from a high standard of reviewing -- knowledgeable, perceptive and well-written -- which with some exceptions is lacking in Trinidad's art scene today. Both positive and negative comments are reproduced, a sign of the book's overall integrity.

In a review of the April 1946 Art Society exhibition Desmond Constable, the grandnephew of the great painter, mentions a Seated Figure which "dominates the exhibition", and "three superb pastel portrait heads . . . In the latter medium he shows complete assurance" [where are these heads now?]. He predicts that Boscoe's name "will be known far beyond Trinidad." These remarks have stood the test of time.

Pierre Lelong writing about the same show mentions a Great Nude (? the same Seated Figure as above) and an earlier Little Nude framed in pale green. Wayne Baxter cautions that Boscoe might be spreading his talents too thin.

It was 1961 and Derek Walcott was writing for the Guardian. His review of Boscoe's one-man show at the Art Centre on French Street shows positively that writers, i.e. literary specialists, make the best art critics. Walcott's impression was that Boscoe "is one of the finest artists we have produced" but he also noted "instances of padding" and "some sketchily executed heads". He commented on "impeccable drawing" (critics knew in those days what is meant by drawing) but he also observed "weakly rendered passages" especially in the hands. His general impression was of "a gifted painter who might have been a master craftsman if he had set his mind to it." These comments continue to be relevant to understanding and appreciating Boscoe's art, the bulk of which was produced in the 40 years after the review was written.

1990 brings a more modern (or post-modern) review of an exhibition at Art Creators in the Sunday Guardian, by Christopher Cozier, who says, "There are no Nikes and flat-tops in [Boscoe's] world" -- which Boscoe answers masterfully in paint in a 1992 piece called Liming.

Also reproduced are Carlisle Chang's comments on the Holder brothers in "The Painter in Trinidad" (1962), some ecstatic remarks by a reviewer in Martinique (1982) and a report of an exhibition in Curacao (1985); plus reviews from shows in Guyana (1991) and Jamaica (1993).

Of the Retrospective put on by the Venezuelan Cultural Centre in 1988 there is only a brief passage from the exhibition catalogue. Were there no reviews in the press of such a major event? If so, it shows how the press had fallen down on the job. Even today neither the Guardian nor the Express has a regular art critic, a downright shame considering that new exhibitions open almost every week and that there are qualified writers who would surely be glad for the work. (This is not to overlook Sonja Sinaswee's regular reporting of exhibition openings for the Guardian, but these are reports of society events, not critical reviews.)

Documented record

In conclusion, this is a valuable introduction to Boscoe Holder's work, well researched, well written, and well produced. It is a pity more of the landmark pieces could not have been traced. We need this kind of record, particularly in the field of painting, because the best works tend to disappear from public view into private collections. Nowadays the Internet is a popular way for artists to document their work, but in the long run and for my money books are best.

 

M.A.
November 27-28, 2004

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