The late artist Beryl Cook carved a successful and delightfully whimsical social commentary career based around her depictions of city life told through the eyes of her artworks ‘two fat ladies’.
True to form Cook used her ladies, as I believe, to be a firm statement that curvaceous ladies are indeed beautiful. Through suggestive imagery stating it is the chaos and mayhem of the city caricatured in many of her works that is, in fact, out of place.
A beautifully subtle hint to Cook’s wit can be seen in her 1991 composition ‘The Red Umbrella’. Uniquely no red umbrella in sight. Simply a red sign reading El Paraguas Roso (Spanish for Red Umbrella) marking the entrance to a night bar and a taxi in the foreground containing a stereotypical ‘fat cat’ businessman smoking a large cigar, with a subtle number 2570 printed on the door about to be opened by one such curvaceous lady, grinning happily to herself in her pigtails.
Now, far be it for me to pertain to be an art critic of any salt. That written, surely ‘The Red Umbrella’ encapsulates Cook’s satirical suggestion that the world is, shall we say, a little humorous in itself?
From Cook’s works surely then some solace and humour can be derived such as to reinforce our own inner strength during testing times? Whether the good lady herself intended this or not, it is a clearly plausible and fully valid summary to draw such as interpreting art is itself a uniquely personal experience.
It is in this vein her works, many varied and wide-ranging, all centre on a seemingly whimsical viewpoint of the world she is commenting on. Interestingly Cook herself is quoted as stating about her ladies: “They exist,but for the life of me I can’t explain them”. Was she being frank or, as I interpret, rhetorical?
Humble to the last, it seems to me at least, like any true artist the works speak for the artist.
Men do not escape in the vein of satirical, whimsical commentary. In her 1982 composition ‘Body Building’ three male models are depicted preening themselves upon a stage wearing nothing but leopard print pants Cook rejoices in the male form politely yet blatantly playing to a sterotype of men obsessing with their muscles. This painting sells at £20,000.
Cook herself became a showgirl having moved to London in 1948 touring in a production of ‘The Gypsy Princess’. Working in the fashion industry, visually inspired by fellow artist Stanley Spencer, Cook’s influences from these experiences alone present themselves in her depictions of flamboyant, large characters, fun-filled if quirky scenes depicted throughout her works. Always humorous, always tongue-in-cheek and, I suggest, always never afraid to poke fun at herself.
Actress Sue Johnston, famed for her roles in Waking The Dead, Coronation Street and famously as Barbara Royle in BBC’s The Royle Family, itself a Beryl Cook-esque caricatured take on a sterotypical working class family, happily recounts: “I love the characters she paints. It’s almost as if you know them. They're big, they're bold, they're colourful, and yet each one has an individuality and a life that’s real and identifiable.” Capturing the essence of Cook’s wit beautifully, Johnston, as do I, also firmly marks the personalisation of all Cook's works to the human psyche. They say a true artist endures time. I suggest most passionately it is this reason Cook's creative flare for social commentary delicately seeps into our hearts and minds fast becoming warmed and empowered by her works because we too can see ourselves in some shape or form resonating with Cook’s creations.
‘Jazz in the Winter’ composed in 1998, showcases a night-time bar with a trio of musicians playing directly to a man dancing on the floor being clapped and cheered on by a watching crowd. A predominantly male crowd as with Cook’s ‘Body Building’ piece all look larger than life. Johnston openly says of this piece “It makes me think of weddings where there’s always an uncle who gets up and he’s had rather a lot to drink…”
Now this is plainly just one view, however Johnston clearly sees Cook’s ability wittingly or unwittingly to appease our daily concerns, trials and tribulations by making light of life. Passionately, calmly, warmly imprinting a hopeful metaphorical light at the end of a tunnel to whosoever should care to take comfort in her works.
Cook herself states, “I am only motivated to paint by people enjoying themselves.” It seems very real to me to take what solace and peace I can from the Cook legacy. Her enduringly relevant works can, I admit, be viewed from many standpoints. Hence of course the delight of art as art, personal. That written, upon serious and whimsical contemplation, her creations of almost snapshot takes on the world around her lives in a pulsing vein of satire, ever present, ever jovial, always sought after. If a Cook exhibition pops up near you, just watch how suddenly the ‘talk of the town’ suddenly comes alive like a hot knife cutting through your mum’s Victoria sponge. Soft, moist sponge, sticky, warm, sweet jam all drizzled lovingly in white icing sugar. . . Here we have a Cook exhibition.
A beautiful mark of Cook’s prowess whilst your town is building up to ‘the exhibition’ is that every coffee shop, restaurant, bar, library, shop will have in even some small way embraced the forthcoming ‘curtain up’ on Cook’s works. I suggest most passionately she is ‘the talk of a town’. Crossing boundaries of art lovers, art critics, vaguely interested and totally averse to the pleasures, her beautiful body of works still gets a mention.
For those of you reading this who do take some solace and pleasure from art, from Cook, from simply escaping to a fun place for a few hours each week, as a humble non-art critic such as myself, I shall simply leave you for now, with this quote from the great lady herself.
“Ooh yes I like them huge.”