Photo Feature: Peter Bell

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A profile of our most important arts critic

Yes, "most important" is a big statement. But that's my opinion of Peter Bell curator, artist and arts critic at a seminal time in the development of the province's arts scene.

I took this photo as a cover shot for The Newfoundland Signal, a weekly entertainment TV guide that was inserted in all Robinson-Blackmore newspapers in the province, including The Sunday Express. The Signal was the first local publication to feature only local people on the cover every week, in full colour. I was big on local content back then, and still am.

I won't tell you much more about the Peter Bell article (which I wrote in 1990) except that I think it is historically significant because very little has been written about the artist/critic, perhaps because he was reviled by so many. As far as I know, Bell is still living (in Scotland) and must be close to 90 years old.

As for the photo, it was taken at the MUN Botanical Garden, one of Bell's favorite places. I like the shot it nicely captures Bell's impish nature but don't look too closely. I'm afraid that time has decayed the emulsion in the film, creating a random pattern that is quite obvious if you look for it. (Which is a lesson to all film photographers be sure to make back-ups of those priceless old slides and negatives.)

Enfant terrible at 72: the outrageous Mr. Bell

Peter Bell was always an outcast.

During the Second World War, he was blacklisted by the British armed forces for his pacifist beliefs.

In South Africa, his anti-apartheid stance put him at odds with the authorities, and resulted in his arrest.

As a columnist with The Evening Telegram, he became Newfoundland's most influential and reviled art critic ever.

Artist David Blackwood took such exception to Bell's assertion that his work had become "degenerate and commercial" that he retorted with a letter from his lawyer. Photographer Mannie Buchheit was so offended by Bell's dismissal of this province's "silly little trees" (in the book This Marvelous Terrible Place) that he countered with a photographic show about trees in all shapes and sizes.

"I think Peter applied too stringent a standard to reviews of aritsts' work here in the province," Buchheit said, claiming Bell didn't differentiate between young, developing artists and established professionals. "I would say that Peter over his career damaged a fair number of artists."

Visual artist Gerry Squires said some of Bell's criticisms of his work have been both crude and abrupt.

"But I don't think he meant it personally," Squires added. "Peter was not a man who would say something (about) you because he didn't like you. If he didn't like the work, then he would try to be as honest as he could I thought he was a very good art critic. He wanted excellence from the artists in Newfoundland. It's just the way he sometimes phrased his criticism."

Former cultural affairs director (with the province) John Perlin had a tempestuous working relationship with Bell, who was curator of the MUN Art Gallery and later fired shots at Perlin from the pages of The Telegram. In a March 1989 interview with The Sunday Express, Perlin said Bell "behaved outrageously" toward him, both in print and as an artist, and he would consequently never buy one of Bell's paintings.

"Though I may admire some of his work, there is no goddam way I'd put a nickel in his pocket," Perlin said.

But Bell gives as good as he gets.

"John is an incredible fellow," he said, in an interview with The Signal. "I think what a sad thing he was. He was not an unpersonable sort of creature he had very likeable qualities. He wasn't unintelligent, but at the same time he was stupid He cast a sort of pall over the cultural scene in Newfoundland. On his own, he suppressed the development of theatre in Newfoundland."

Bell was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire in England in 1918, and doesn't look on his childhood with complete fondness: "I actually hated my mother she as an evil person. I liked my father but he was weak and always caved in"

The British public school he attended was more akin to a penitentiary, Bell said, where he learned "absolutely nothing' about the ways of the world.

"I think that's why I'm so much younger than I really am," said Bell, whose unlined face and energetic step belie his 72 years. "I didn't begin to grow up for years and years and years."

His first job as a young adult was with an insurance firm, but Bell hated the exploitative wages and dreary working conditions. He served with both the British army and navy during the Second World War, though as he tells it, his most significant contribution to the war effort was probably in the Nazis' favour.

His regiment was camped in an orchard in France next to a tree that housed a nest of short-tempered wasps. The task of evicting them fell to Bell, who cloaked himself in several layers of clothing and attempted to deposit a flaming oil-soaked rag into an orifice in the tree. The respirator he was wearing to protect his face soon steamed over, rendering it nearly impossible to locate the nest entrance.

"By this time, I had thoroughly alarmed all these wasps, who were flying around all over the place."

Finally, mission accomplished, Bell went to bed, only to be awakened several hours later to be told that all links to the front were down the communication lines had apparently been attached to that same wasp-infested tree, which by now was ablaze and threatening to take the forest with it. Field Marshall Montgomery was without communications for "quite a few hours" while Bell and several others climbed the tree to repair the lines, suffering the stinging admonishments of a squad of wingless wasps.

"They didn't give me any medals for that," Bell laughed.

In the navy, the captain was aware of Bell's pacifist stance, and constantly singled him out to man the guns an order Bell steadfastly refused to obey. He was eventually taken out of active duty, though was still considered enlisted and unable to work for anyone else. During this period of inactivity, Bell made his first contact with artists and came to know and admire their free-thinking lifestyle.

At the conclusion of the war, Bell emigrated to South Africa, a country he admired from a distance but actually knew little about. True to form, he soon found himself at odds with the establishment (which employed him as an art instructor). Although apartheid was legally and politically entrenched in that country, Bell said many effective voices were raised in protest. His was among them, though Bell's approach was characteristically off-centre.

In addition to criticizing apartheid in letters to newspapers and joining an underground' movement (which met in large arenas, calling itself a horticultural group), Bell took more direct action. In the newspaper, he advertised for sale the entire farm of the local leader of the Nationalist Party. The politician was not amused and ordered the culprit found. Six months later, the ad was traced back to Bell's typewriter through a letter he had circulated appealing for school funding.

Bell was charged with fraud and tried by an "extremely unpleasant" magistrate who verbally abused him on the stand before finding him guilty. Bell appealed the conviction and won, but knew that his welcome had worn thin in South Africa. "My days (there) were numbered. I could see we weren't going to be free people very long."

In 1963, after living in South Africa for 18 years, Bell moved to Newfoundland to work as an art instructor at Memorial University, where he was required to run the fledgling MUN Art Gallery as well.

"I had no mandate at all Nobody told me what I should or shouldn't do I did what I felt was the right thing to do I built that gallery up. That gallery became one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Canada."

In 1967, the gallery was moved from the old library building on the MUN campus into the Arts and Culture Centre, which was run by cultural affairs director John Perlin. Rather than help the arts centre along, Bell said Perlin was a "nigger in the woodpile" at the facility.

"The whole arts centre was a personal kind of edifice on which he sat, a little sort of pedestal on which he could present himself. He needn't have done that I think that's the sad thing. If he'd only cooperated a little bit, and recognized the problems, the needs and the virtues of an art gallery, he could have made a much bigger name for himself. He didn't make a name for himself at all, except as a sort of cultural shyster. Which is sad, because he could have given a lot."

(For his part, Perlin said in a March 1989 interview that his conscience is clear: "I have done the best possible job, given the parameters I was given to work in, for the government and for the artistic community. If everybody loved me, I don't think I could have done my job properly.")

Bell said Perlin was vexed that he had no control over the running of a gallery that was, after all, located in his building. Perlin, Bell said, was a "mischievous" sort who was constantly manoeuvring behind the scenes.

"I tried to get along with John Perlin I gave him his room but he never gave me any space at all. You can't cooperate with a man like John Perlin; you either do as he tells you or you fight. I used to fight"

During the interview, Bell confessed he was an accessory to the infamous pie-throwing incident in Toronto in 1978, in which a person was hired to lob a pie into Perlin's face during a ceremony investing him as an honorary member in the Royal Canadian Academy. It is the first time anyone has publicly admitted involvement in the prank.

"It wasn't my idea, and I'm sorry it wasn't," said Bell, who fingered Mummers Troupe founder Chris Brookes as the man who devised the scheme. (In an April 1989 interview with The Sunday Express, Brookes would neither confirm nor deny involvement in the incident.) Bell said they had hired a Toronto agency that offered a pie-throwing service, but things did not go as planned. The professional pie thrower was away on vacation, so the conspirators hired an actor to carry out the deed. And because one of the dignitaries present had received death threats, the hotel was overrun with police officers. Perhaps rattled by all the security, the actor threw the pie it was not a direct hit before the ceremony started and scrambled over a wall into the street.

"The police were terribly worried about this. They wondered how, with all that security, someone had managed to do such a thing," Bell said.

One of Bell's better known acts of protest was The Black Exposition, compiled in the early 1970s in response to then provincial affairs minister Tom Hickey's plans to bring the MUN gallery under government control a move that, in Bell's view, would severely imperil the artistic integrity of the gallery. To make his point, he invited artists to submit works with a dominant black theme, to symbolize the future of artistic expression under government aegis. And it "very materially" contributed to government's decision not to interfere in the gallery operation, Bell said.

"Everything in that exposition had been done especially for it," Bell said. "It wasn't a ratty sort of show at all. We didn't edit it in any way we took everything that came in, and there was not a single rubbishy piece there. There was a dignity and seriousness about every single exhibit... It was an extraordinary, impressive, remarkable exposition."

In 1972, after repeated conflicts with John Perlin and Lord Taylor of Harlow, then president of MUN, Bell was removed from his curator post at the MUN Gallery and made artist in residence.

He had been stripped of his power, but Bell said there were no regrets since he was longing to resume his career as a painter.

"It was certainly a most tremendous relief. I ran that art gallery under incredible pressure from all sorts of sides and I did my damnedest to make it a good gallery, but my work went down the drain So it was a wonderful relief to get out of it all."

A year later, an invigorating new chapter opened in Bell's career; in addition to his own painting, for which Bell was earning some renown, he became an art critic with The Evening Telegram and proceeded to entertain, inform but mostly enrage the local arts community.

Buoyed by artistic knowledge and a brutally frank style, Bell waded into the insular arts circle of 70s, generating controversy on a weekly basis. He eventually withdrew his column in 1979, complaining that The Telegram was censoring much of his material.

Art critic Peter Gard has done extensive research on Bell's art criticism, which he describes as the best this province has seen. "He was kind of working as a lone wolf He was one of the first to confront the problem that all critics have in a small community, of how to criticize your friends There certainly weren't very many critics around who were using criticism very creatively and Bell's comments make a pretty entertaining read even now."

Some of his columns inevitably offended his colleagues, and Bell admits this was troublesome: "Yes, it was difficult. But you make up your mind that you're going to be honest, and somehow you do."

Even when being sharply critical of his friends, Bell said it was with one intent: that they become better painters.

Bell said he spent his life working in the visual arts, and was able to make "intuitive judgments" in his writing that were "absolutely bang-on. I'm not saying that I never made a mistake, but I can't recall when I've made a mistake. I don't say that arrogantly I actually cannot recall when I've made a mistake."

Peter Gard said Bell had little patience for artists with talent who went the commercial route.

"He once cornered me and said, Who do you think are good artists?' and when I mentioned a couple of names he practically took my head off, because he thought they weren't (good) at all. He felt there were a lot (of artists) out there who were just going for the bucks and he was always willing to say it. And because of that, he slammed into some pretty big egos, and he was willing to do battle. Of all the critics who have worked in this province, he probably remains the most courageous."

In an interview, visual artist Christopher Pratt had nothing but praise for Bell's turbulent style. "We haven't had many people like Peter Bell around at any time essentially calling a spade a spade. I think Peter was frank to a fault.

"Peter had a particular view of the role of the arts especially the visual arts in society, and he had something of a success is failure' point of view. Peter was always very suspicious of success; always felt that success in the marketplace was symptomatic of some kind of failure in your work, or your approach to your work. The difficulty with that is that, if you wish to be a democrat, then you can't cite the popularity of an individual artist's work as evidence that that artist has somehow or other excessively broadened his base or somehow or other sold out."

"He was not really liked all that much inside the (arts) community," said Mannie Buchheit. "The feeling among the arts community as I remember it in the 70s was that you might as well not bother reading the review or ignore it because very few times were you given a review that was positive or at least constructive Sometimes it was mean-spirited."

But as provocative as they may have been, Bell said his criticisms were never malicious in intent. "I said some pretty harsh things, yes. But they were never said out of any sense of meanness I was all the time anxious to try to maintain some standards. I thought my chief responsibility was to the public, and if I thought something was rubbish, I'd say so. It wasn't to cut them down. Anyone is free to paint rubbish if they want to."

Gard said that Bell often fired remarks off the cuff, knowing they would hurt and prompt a reaction.

"He's made all these remarks and people quote them as if they're things he believes," Gard said. "Well, he's always making provocative remarks. He said this thing about the silly little trees. It's ridiculous Peter moved to Scotland where there's even fewer trees. He always said he hated this place, this environment, but he's always lived in this kind of environment. He loved being provocative and getting people's goats as soon as they walked in the door."

In defending his trees comment, Bell slipped into a typically sarcastic tone at once playful and provocative: "Anybody who's seen a half-decent tree would have to agree with me. I saw trees in Goose Bay when I was up there, but they're not silly trees oh yeah, they looked sort of silly in a funny way but they are surviving against the odds with some sort of majesty. Our trees are silly they grow in a density that strangles each other. Now what could be more stupid than that?"

In 1987, Bell left Newfoundland to retire to Scotland with his wife, Charlotte Macnee.

He is presently writing his memoirs, a work that he feels should be published in Canada since he spent 24 years here. Bell said he is most comfortable writing his views, rather than speaking them.

"I am not at my best when I'm talking. I usually say the most ridiculous things and get myself in terrible trouble."

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Recent comments

  • Bob
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Critical honesty is never well rewarded in a small town. Bell sounds like a laugh. We need more like him.

    There are still people out there who hate me because I said the band name 'Newfie Pride' was a poor one.