Born in 1938, Peter Beard has that rare quality of someone who, according to Owen Edwards, has lived throughout three centuries. Having ‘roots in the 19th century… with insatiable curiosity and assumed privilege of such eminent Victorians as the adventurer Richard Burton’, his art echoes ‘the specters that stalked the 20th Century… into our current Age of Denial.’ While a student at Yale Beard decided to abandon plans of majoring in medicine in favor of travelling to East Africa in 1955, to ‘go to a place where the lessons in life were played out in black and white and blood red’.
Thanks to TASCHEN’s lavish 700 page retrospective of Beard’s work, a mosaic of diaries, collages, essays and photographs – as well as work from his contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Karen Blixen – we are now able to immerse ourselves in Beard’s take on the Miltonic lament of a ‘past who can recall, or done undo?’. Documenting and recalling his experiences in Africa, he outlines the tragic consequences of mankind’s actions on a landscape that, once deemed ‘too big to destroy’, would incrementally be turned into car parks and barren wilderness. To witness the density, breadth and beauty of Africa’s landscape by one man’s evocative recollection of it in such quick succession, page by page, places greater weight on the burden of our environmental ignorance.
By no means an illustrative afterthought, the emblematic golden elephant printed on the spine encapsulates what Beard believed to be the perfect metaphor for man’s interference in Africa; like the elephant, ‘eating all the trees… surviving on drift wood and weeds to get to the last tree’, mankind echoes the damage done, whether unconscious or not, ‘in a big blame game of politically correct spin’. The sight of an entire hoard of elephants moving from plain to plain, numbering in the hundreds, is just one of the many photographs that arrest the imagination with awe. Beard scribbles down for us his thoughts of such spectacles, alluding to literary parallels in the margins. Quoting from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s paradise, Beard reflects how, ‘for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.’
As well as holding all the abundant majesty of Africa’s wildlife throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, TASCHEN’s publication is also a shocking and upsetting read, with juxtaposed scenes of seemingly untouched nature against a mountain of burning ivory, flayed carcasses and jarred embryos. It’s a painful yet poignant reminder of the erosion of time and memory, conveyed in photographs such as ‘Elephants Memory’ from 1972. As Francis Bacon admitted in an interview with Beard, his struggle with the past as depicted through photography ‘is that you think “now they’re all dead”, those people who were walking about and never felt that death would come them… are quite suddenly gone… all those sepia-colored people walking in the streets of their time, and you think, “now they’re all dead”.’
Instead of omitting the diametric world of fashion, which was as much a part of Beards own past as his excursions in Africa, TASCHEN’s publication includes a large portion of his works with fashion publications such as Vogue. However, these are few and far between, Owen Edwards reflecting how Beard ‘found the world of sleek models and slick pages far too sanitized to provide what his art required: raw material in its rawest form.’
Despite seeking a purity of subject, Beard’s ambitions are complemented by his own modesty. In a conversation with Stephen Aronson, he brushes aside his own work, claiming that ‘a lot of it was just blind chance – sheer accident. Taking photos is like collecting stones. How much better they look when they’re just poured out – wet, multicolored and falling willy-nilly!’ In a similar vein, he debunks his celebrity social life. When asked about Salvador Dalí, he is refreshingly sober about his methods. ‘People used to think Dalí was crazy. Believe me, he was never crazy – he was just inspired.’ Like Dalí, TASCHEN’s publication of Peter Beard’s opulent oeuvre is a treasure trove of delight, sorrow and inspiration.
Peter Beard is available now from TASCHEN, priced £44.99
Head Image: Peter Beard – Elephant’s Memory, 1972 / 2006