“Heather Betts’ work is best regarded as figurative expressionism. She uses vivid pigments and gestures to depict personal, historical and musically related material. Her sense of poetry and drama in the medium of paint creates an emotional arena with both poise and spontaneity. Figures sometimes float in a dream-like manner, embryonic in their innocence, while others arrest the onlooker, suggestive of one’s own mortality. Sometimes the compositions virtually erupt with a radiance of abstract movement.” - Jacqueline Rugo, Art historian, Vienna.
Heather Betts’ work is widely recognised among European and Australian collectors.
Betts has a very strong affinity to music and has returned to themes and stories described in music repeatedly over the course of her career as a source of inspiration and as a vehicle to paint the dynamics of human association.
She gained her degree in Fine Arts in Sydney before completing her Masters degree in Berlin in 1989. She currently lives in Berlin and Melbourne, and exhibits primarily in Germany, Australia and Denmark, as well as having representation at major international Art Fairs.
Interview with the German theatre director, Alexander Paeffgen, on the nature of inspiration, music, symbolism and creativity in the works of Heather Betts
A: If somebody is coming into contact with your work for the first time they see vivid colours, they see figures floating, some of them upside down, they see a very textural and visual approach to paint, but also drawing. Can you tell me what you would say to a person who is seeing your work for the first time, who wants to know in essence what your work is about?
H: I would probably encourage them just to be in the space and be alert and aware of the effect of the colours and firstly not to think too much about anything else; the combination of the colours with the energy or movement within the paint itself, within the painted structure, the painted surface as a whole, before one starts to look into details, you know, what does it mean or whatever those associations may be. Just to have a very pure visceral experience of what it´s like being in the space of these sometimes vivid large surfaces of coloured oil paint.
A: Ok, but the paintings are about things, you work in cycles, they all have titles, sometimes it seems that they belong together in groups of subject matter, so it´s not just abstract, is it?
H: No, it´s not entirely abstract. I think first and foremost, as I said, it´s the energy and the mood and the drama of paint that is going to grab the attention. But then one moves onto what it is starting to tell you and although I create works that are often based on specific narratives, I nevertheless like the work to be open to such an extent that one can see a drama, one can see some kind of event happening, if you like, but that there is a sense of intrigue as well. I like to suggest, but not dictate, ways to explore a work so that there’s space for the onlooker to find their own personal events in there as well. So yes, these cycles of paintings are based on specific themes or stories or they are even connected to a very particular text; for example, the librettos of operas such as “Salome” and “Electra” by Richard Strauss or “Bluebeard’s Castle” by Bela Bartok or even Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. But then often I choose concepts such as “Facescapes” or “Joy and Disturbance”, because they might be a broader platform where an onlooker can find their own relation to it as well.
A: So, does that perhaps explain why certain symbols and elements that emerge in one particular series may reappear in another series as well? Do these particularly strong symbols of birds and beasts for example, or floating bodies, etc, hold a particular place in your subconscious? What is the significance of some of those very potent symbols that seem to reappear across different series of paintings, be it about Socrates, Electra or Wagner’s Parsifal?
H: Well, while these symbols may come to me when working with one particular theme, they hold for me a purpose and a language that does stay with me deeply in my subconscious. It gives an abstract feeling or intention a shape and a form. Freedom, for example, is typically symbolised by a bird and I am doing the same. But then birds also might be very destructive or threatening, so depending on the mood carried by a symbol, the motif stays there in my subconscious as the picture for that. A small floating figure upside down invariably brings the notion of innocence into a work for me, which originally related to pregnancy. Beasts are fears. When that particular mood or sentiment comes back again and again through other themes, and as all of the themes that I choose in some way are dealing with the human condition which is full of similar sentiments and predicaments, these symbols then put a face on that.
A: An observer will also notice found objects within the painting, sand and X-rays, hair and fabric and also collage and assemblage. What symbolic purpose do they play?
H: They play an important role. Not all of the paintings have these objects incorporated but one has automatic associations with particular objects. I know I'm a gleaner; I like to collect what others throw away because I think they can have a new life, or can throw light on another context. Apart from that, these pieces, these found objects, often have their own very particular colours and textures and I like to utilize that as well. So when they are embedded in a painting, one suddenly has this huge world open up by association. For example, fabric can evoke different periods of history, whether it’s lace or gauze or a curtain. X-rays suggest what we all know is there but is hidden, and it has this very smooth, shiny surface as well as being a very eerie kind of blue. Hair is of course something very personal. It grew once on someone’s head and carries their DNA, their history, their genes, it will even outlive them; there is so much personal material in such a very beautiful item. And so these found objects become very important ways of adding association and context into the painted surface itself, not only for the colour or the texture that it offers, but also for what that particular item may conjure.
A: Given that you work often in cycles that follow a particular theme, a story, something that particularly interests you, how does the series of paintings emerge? Do you start with the story or do you start with certain images in your mind, or colours or themes?
H: It happens in different ways. I might just have an overwhelming sense of a colour and go for it; I might stumble across an article in a newspaper or a magazine, or a poem or story, and be very moved by that. Often I'm inspired by music directly, particularly opera. I process all of these subjects in a very visual way, as moving forms and symbols. It is the interpersonal drama of whatever it is that I am listening to or reading or understanding that affects me and I want to investigate it in a visual form in the safety of an artist’s atelier to discover something of the grit of it. For example, I could listen to Bach choral music and find it so painfully beautiful that I might have a pure gut reaction to it; an automatic emotional and visual response that I see in my mind’s eye. I might see complete works, or maybe I just begin with a predominant colour and gesture. So these series of paintings start to collect automatically, it´s a matter of painting them out.
A: A lot of artists will paint as a response to the world around them whereas for you they are often very old stories or the librettos of operas that get your juices flowing. Does your work have less relationship to the current world because it is not about the latest political drama? How do you see that?
H: That’s a very interesting question. I do respond to the day-to-day socio-political drama of the world we are in here and now, yet I find it transient and find myself more drawn to what’s being reported in a larger sense; the kinds of dramas that always are and have always been. I suppose they are more the stories, as I said before, of human life that literary sources and musical themes have drawn from as well. So they are the larger dimensions, I suppose, of the kinds of emotions and situations that mankind has always found itself in: ones of conflict, of course, but also of intrigue or jealousy or love and lost love, greed, redemption; emotions that no matter what time or place you are from, you are going to understand them and recognise them. They express a far deeper universal or timeless message and it´s that universality that interests me the most.
A: So you’ve mentioned operas and Bach. Music plays a particularly large role in your creative life. You studied music as well and you are married to the musician, Brett Dean. Do you always listen to music when you are painting and if so, can you tell me more about the role it plays in the creative process?
H: Music plays a really major role. To start with, there is something in the transference of energy through music that is the spirit I need when I paint. When I´m in my atelier, it almost feels like I can ride music, a bit like a surfer rides a wave. I am familiar with a lot of music and I have experience as a performing musician, but also in living with a musician, one is just constantly exposed to music in all sorts of ways. The way that music is built, and the way that it expresses what we are feeling and how it transfers stories and emotions into a different medium is something that is, for me, exactly the same as what visual art can do, what the action of painting does. Realities of life can be transformed through art and music to a state whereby, in taking a new and abstract form, it becomes purer or even clearer to understand. So in a way they are providing the same platform, as different genres. I love the way that both painting and music share the same terminologies as well; one talks about the composition of a painting and it’s the same for a piece of music. One refers to colours in music where of course that terminology obviously comes from the painter’s palette.. or line or textures or layers or balance. Yes, all of these terminologies are absolutely shared by art and music, so music is very, very vital to how I approach my painting and listening to music when I work is absolutely integral as well.
A: Music is ephemeral, it passes through time and is gone, whereas what you are trying to do is capture something of that moment. I can see how it is similar, but how is it different?
H: Yes, as you say, when you listen to music you are passing through time onto the next minute and the next phrase. So if one particular note were to be caught in time, in painting a picture, that note might constitute a gesture and even the speed of that gesture held in the paint. Like holding a note. Of course what is different to music is that the note or chord or phrase can be revisited, as you said it is captured more permanently. Unlike music, the context of the whole can be experienced at once. When I’m painting though, the actual execution of the paintings and the application of the paint is a process by which I want to be able to show something of a speed and a spontaneity or even a musical flow in the charcoal line or the painted brush stroke, finger stroke, whatever it is. I want that movement in time to be seen in the speed of the gesture. So, to liken it to music, it´s like holding a moving phrase or creating harmonies on a tactile surface.
A: Your husband is not only a musician, but also a composer. Are your working processes similar?
H: Yes, I would say they are. Fortuitously we are interested in very similar topics so we like to immerse ourselves in those particular themes. We discuss this a lot and we´re often hunting for similar ideas that might be of interest. We share them too, whereby a cycle of paintings may give rise to a new piece of music and vice versa. In his approach, the way that he starts to formulate a piece of music is very similar to mine I think. I mean, one has an idea of what sort of an energy, what sort of a theme, what sort of an overall mood the piece is going to have, but one doesn't know too much about it yet. Then as it starts to come together you find the parts that are the big bones, if you like, and they go in as structure and you build around those. So yes, I think our approaches are similar. We´ve each learned over the years to understand how the other is actually going about this, how we are applying the various techniques of transferring an intention into our work.
A: You studied in Sydney and then you completed your Masters in Germany, where you remained for fifteen years, living and working in Berlin and exhibiting in Germany and Denmark in particular, but also many other places in Europe. Then you returned to Australia for ten years and in the last few years you’ve returned increasingly to Europe and are now living back in Berlin. What has this sort of odyssey between these two parts of the world taught you about the art scene in both places, and also about yourself as an artist in those places?
H: Well, one has to readdress the whole sense of home, I think, and that´s what it´s taught me. One can come from a certain place, but energetically one perhaps belongs somewhere else and sometimes one has to shift around to find that out. Of course there are different art audiences all around the world, but in the end, the audience that you want to know well is your own, is yourself. In that sense, in having returned to Europe, I certainly feel that I am now where I need to be for my voice to be its clearest, and the truest to who I am. So, my return to Berlin is most probably about the acknowledgement of that but I welcome all of the chapters of my life because they help me to get perspective, to get closer to the point.