23 June — 25 September 2006
In the Sir Hugh Casson Room for Friends of the Royal Academy
'Ben has been my closest friend for 50 years. He’s painted hundreds and hundreds of pictures – most of them in private collections. Occasionally they appear at auction only to disappear again into people’s homes.
Ben Levene RA, Self-Portrait with Mirror and Turkey Rug, c.1974 Carel Weight met him a long time ago whilst teaching an evening class at the Hammersmith School of Art; ‘I shall never forget being very surprised when a small young schoolboy, carrying a portfolio as large as he was, came into class and gave me a note from his art master. It said that this boy was the most promising young artist he had ever come across, and could he come to my class because he was so confident of his gifts. Seeing the contents of the portfolio I could see what prodigious talent this little boy had.’
Ben attended those Monday evening classes, won a scholarship to the Slade and, in 1975, was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. In his first Slade year, he spent the holiday painting a large picture of musicians. The brooding bruised colour and expressive drawing made a great impression on Bill Coldstream – and the assembled students and staff. It shared first prize in The Summer Composition, 1967.
Interiors, figure compositions, townscapes and still-lives flowed from Ben’s brushes. The Euston Roaders and Bomberg acolytes took him very seriously – but sceptical by nature he mistrusted trends and would always make his independent way in the world. He met Kokoschka, and was friendly with Leon Kossoff. Titian, Rembrandt, Goya and Degas are his constant reference points. He makes colour work compositionally; his figuration is an editing process. To misquote; ‘less is more’ in a Levene image.
After The Great Japan Exhibition, gold and silver leaf laid on toned gesso grounds augmented his pictorial armoury. One of Ben’s distant relatives on his mother’s side was a gilder to the Tsar; today, one of his daughters is a gilder too. Even his landscapes can sparkle with gold and silver skies. The still lives frequently incorporate mirror reflections, taking the viewer to the edges of infinity – but never forget the flatness of the picture plane. His plant paintings might have been fashioned by an icon painter – but weren’t. They are simply Ben Levene celebrating his craft in a singular and original manner.
This young boy found his unique voice early and walked in the right company of artists. Today he is irritatingly unfashionable. Tomorrow, the Ben Levenes in all those private collections will spill out into our museums and art galleries.
A sceptic he may be – but he paints uncommonly optimistic pictures.'
Anthony Green RA, 2006
4-6pm Saturday to Thursday