by Geoffrey MacLean
MacLean Publishing Ltd, Port of
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.)
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.
November 27-28, 2004
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