Oh Misery[ enlarge ]

‘Oh Misery!’

Mixed media on board

48 x 48 inches

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Heindel's work can often be full of contradiction with dark images and evocative shadows in juxtaposition with relatively figurative ballet work. His works thrive on ambiguity and layers of meaning. Fathoming 'Oh Misery!' however is perhaps an impossible task. As this short review shows it's a deeply personal picture with a lot of emotional investment. So, for the benefit of future owners and Heindel lovers, I've tried to record the circumstances and discussions at the time of its purchase; my conversations with Robert and Rose; and my own personal take on what it might mean. It is in no way intended to be prescriptive or definitive. As Robert said to me: 'it's whatever you want it to mean'. Hopefully this will assist anyone on their own journey trying to fathom a meaning for themselves. A literal starting point for the work is the following dark old English verse, 'Oh Misery!'
Detail gallery 'Oh Misery!' The lake was once my home
and once I was beautiful -
when I was a swan.
Oh, misery!
how black I am
and thoroughly roasted!

The boy turns and turns the spit
the fire cooks me through
the butler bastes me.
Oh, misery!
how black I am
and thoroughly roasted!

Now I lie in the plate,
and will never fly again;
I see munching teeth!
Oh, misery!
how black I am
and thoroughly roasted!

First impressions

I had no difficulty in accepting an invitation to the Birmingham Royal Ballet – David Bentley’s Penguin Café on the 10th of October in 1998 in the company of the artist Robert Heindel. The Halcyon Gallery had arranged the evening to coincide with a new exhibition of work covering 'Binley's Ballets' and Robert's new direction – the ‘Painted Wall’ series. 'Oh Misery!' was part of the 'Carmina Burana' series.

I went down to the gallery before lunch to have a good look and I could sense immediately that there was a new direction in a lot of this work. The pictures seemed darker, different and more abstract. 'Oh Misery!' struck you immediately when you entered the gallery, but did you avoid it or linger?… a huge painting of a woman being roasted over a fire is not to everyone's taste! I was attracted immediately by the power and almost raw emotion… and thought I saw some echoes in this piece of previous works relating to the tragic death of Robert's son Toby from cancer.

There is no doubt that Robert Heindel is a master of handling paint and textures and 'Oh Misery!' uses textures developed from his 'Painted Walls' series (1995/96). Looking at 'Painted Wall No 4' it could be some sort of study for the backdrop of 'Oh Misery!'. After lunch, and a couple of glasses of wine, I decided to buy the painting and was introduced to Robert for a chat.

Starting to unlock the meaning

Robert was extremely reticent to say anything directly about 'Oh Misery!' when I tried to engage him in conversation about it. I wanted to know if the figure on the spit was anyone specific… and who the strange faces rising in the flames were.

It is well reported that Robert’s son Toby’s death though cancer in 1990 had sent him into deep despair. There followed a series of very dark Baconesque, cancer paintings (1991) in mixed media which bear some resemblance to 'Oh Misery!'. I tentatively mentioned the cancer paintings but he was evasive, saying only: 'it [Oh Misery!] means whatever you want it to mean and different things to different people'. Yet he is reported as having 'raw emotions' after Toby’s death and said: 'if I was true to myself as an artist and to my son, I had to find some way to make that function in my life and work'. This is cathartic channelling, like Bacon, of the emotion onto the canvas.

I was starting to suspect one of the faces rising out of the fire and ashes to be Robert (the central figure is a strong, if cadaverous, resemblance) and another his son which, taken in context with the underlying source-poem, was beginning to make some sense. In Art Review 1996 talking about his ballet figures and how 'identifiable' they were he says: 'my figures are a device I would use to convey something that I feel or have experienced or want a reaction to'. Could this also apply to 'Oh Misery!'?

The intense personal nature and importance of 'Oh Misery!'

Then, out of the blue and early in the evening, I was given an insight into the intense personal nature of the picture… the woman on the spit was his wife Rose!

Before the Ballet myself and my wife Mandy got the opportunity to talk with Rose at the Gallery and cheekily had a photo taken of us in front of the picture. It turned out that Rose had first seen the picture only after it was pretty much complete and was shocked. Rose was more revealing than Robert… she told me: 'I immediately knew it was me, not only because of the physical likeness, but also because I am painted in the exact position I often sleep in'. She told my wife Mandy 'I didn't want to sell it'. When asked why? she simply replied… 'it's quite personal'. Sadly there were no further revelations about the faces rising from the fire or any deeper meaning and it didn't feel polite to ask. But the image now had a deeper resonance.

There seemed an extra dimension of personal investment in this picture from the Heindels some how. Just before we went to the ballet a few drinks had made the atmosphere more relaxed and Robert admitted that he had inscribed on the back of the painting 'This picture is very special for me' ! I didn't know that when I had bought it!

So, we know that Robert's wife Rose is the central figure being roasted and it seems very likely that it has images of his family in the flames. This is intensely personal – almost a macabre family portrait.

Much later back in the hotel bar that evening, Robert said he was 'genuinely surprised' that I had bought the painting and he 'didn't think it would sell' because of its 'dark undertones' and was 'happy to take it back'. Rose had also said that she was happy if it didn't sell.

I think, because of this importance, it's legitimate to try to delve deeper into the symbolism. So, for any future owner I've set out my own personal ideas based on the encounters with Robert and Rose and an understanding of Robert's style and influences.

David Bintley described Robert Heindel as 'the best painter of ballet since Degas'. The influences may not be readily apparent in his paintings but are there in the sketches quite clearly. The critical factor is movement… as Degas corrected when asked why he painted dancers: 'I paint movement'. Heindel's achievement of movement of the human figure was, like Degas, achieved through incredible hard work, endless sketching and study. 'Oh Misery!' is not painting of dancers or much movement but I'm still tempted to draw parallels with Degas. In the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk Virginia hangs a Degas painting (large by his standards) called 'Dancer with Bouquets' (1890-1900). It is the final curtain and bouquets, possibly red roses, have been thrown. The backdrop is a mountain scenery with a large lake… probably from the tragic ballet Swan Lake. At the top of the canvass the eye is drawn to a small triangle of blue sky with some pink tinted clouds. In 'Oh Misery!', seen through the smoke and desolation of the black roasted swan (Rose) in the foreground as one looks skyward the same small triangle appears.

The diabolic, apocalyptic and nicotine addiction

It is not taking too much of liberty to describe 'Oh Misery!' as classically apocalyptic with the underlying motif is a classic evocation of hellish torment . In Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus the fatalistic artistic hero Leverkuhn is in league with the devil and describes his torment: 'I am basted properly, like a roast, a hell roast; it is worth seeing… and you are invited'. In Mann's Faustus the narrator observes his artistic friend as follows: 'Was I not right to say that all the depressive and exalted states of the artist, illness and health, are by no means sharply divided from each other? That rather in illness, as it were under the lee of it, elements of health are at work, and elements of illness, working geniuslike, are carried over into health?… genius is a form of vital power deeply experienced in illness, creating out of illness, through illness creative'.

I'm not at all saying that Heindel was in league with the devil but his addiction to smoking was a form of fatal trade… and crucially one that involved suffering. It is hard to imagine how much suffering Rose was subjected to by the tragic early death of her son Toby from lung cancer and Robert's own death a few years after this meeting. Robert knew full well that the free trade of this smoking addiction added fuel to the hellish flames and was apologetic when smoking saying that he was cutting down. Smoking lends itself perfectly to the apocalyptic vision of fire, burning and ultimate destruction.

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