2003-10-29 04:10:42 UTC
Painter in whose work vastness and solitude gave way to intimacy of scale
29 October 2003
Brian Walter McMinn, artist: born Bloemfontein, South Africa 6
December 1937; married 1965 Anita van de Vliet (one daughter; marriage
dissolved 1972); died Palma, Majorca 27 September 2003.
It was typical of the artist Brian McMinn that he never learned to say "I am
a painter" in Spanish. When asked what he did by people in Majorca, where he
spent the last 20 years of his life, he would answer "Yo soy el pintor" - "I
am the painter", as if no other existed. Although a grammatical slip, this
self-description was oddly apt. McMinn was that rare thing: an artist who
took his work seriously, and a man with an ability to laugh at his own
This was all the more remarkable because art really was everything to him:
in a life filled with inconstancy, it was his constant. His father, a
reformed alcoholic who had become a Baptist lay-preacher and emigrated to
South Africa from Ireland, raised his family with a strictness that verged
on the brutal. Brian's childhood was spent under the hard eye of a Baptist
God, attending prayer meetings and running Sunday School groups. It was an
upbringing that left him with two things: a deep religious urge that, while
no longer orthodox, never diminished; and a drive to break rules which led,
in the end, to the alcoholism his father had escaped.
It is an easy reading, though probably the right one, to say that art
replaced religion in Brian McMinn's life. There was something Pauline in the
fervour that led him - in the teeth of huge paternal disapproval - to art
school in east London and then, as a disciple of the teacher David Brink, to
Port Elizabeth. All of this he paid for himself. His fellow students in
their turn remember him as messianic: tall, strong, beautiful, but above all
driven; a brilliant teacher.
Like artists (and apostles) of old, McMinn suffered for his art, slopping
his way in shoes lined with cardboard to the Cape Town school where he
taught. Money he earned labouring in London paid for a year at the Ecole des
Beaux Arts in Paris, where he fell under the spell of Nicolas de Staël. Back
in Cape Town and poor as ever, he opened a not-for-profit showing space
called the Artists' Gallery. At art school, McMinn had befriended ANC
activists such as Harry Strachan and Govan Mbeki. In 1967, like other
right-minded white South Africans, he left for London.
It is tempting to think of him as a figure from Ibsen or Hardy, a giant in a
time without giants. Raised as he was in a Romantic tradition that ran back
through de Staël to Turner, McMinn's subject was the sublime. Born in a
place where this expressed itself most obviously in the land, he painted
landscapes: earthy lateral colour-fields as impressive, in their way, as
Sidney Nolan's. Like McMinn, it was easy see these works as big. Like
McMinn, they were serious, disciplined and painterly.
What they were not was fashionable. The Sixties art scene was already in
thrall to concept and irony and McMinn's work contained neither. Although he
was unfailingly generous about other artists' work, the compliment wasn't
returned. McMinn laughed when he told the story of hearing a close woman
friend, a painter, looking around his first show at the Roundhouse and
mouthing, "God, this is awful." One of death's little ironies is that there
is at least one successful young artist painting today whose style is very
like Brian McMinn's. Maybe 2007 will see his work in a way that 1967
What happened next was predictable enough. Let down by seriousness, McMinn
took to excess. His marriage ended in divorce. Still handsome, he had a
series of affairs with fashionable women: the Beatles' clothes designer Thea
Porter; the novelist Bernice Rubens, who included a caricature of him - the
artist who wore C&A suits - in one of her books. He threw parties, he hung
out with Francis Bacon in the Colony Room. He held sell-out shows in Caracas
and, much later, in Zurich, though few in London. And he drank.
For people who knew him, McMinn's alcoholism was a terrible thing to see. In
the last years it left him semi-invalid, increasingly unable to leave the
terrace above the garden he had made in Majorca. An artist to the end, he
stopped working from the easel and began to paint on small canvases he could
balance on his knee. These last works were the most powerful of his career.
The intimacy of their scale and making lend them a new order. They make
sense of the tectonic vastness and solitude of his earlier work, sonnets to
his epic mode. They suggest a kind of peace.
Brian McMinn is buried in the churchyard of the village of Deyá, near its
most famous resident, Robert Graves. Graves's resting-place, famously, is
marked with the simple epitaph, "Robert Graves, poeta". Mcminn's will bear
the words "Brian McMinn, el pintor".