Peter Beard Returns with the “Last Word from Paradise”
Photo: Peter Beard Time waits for no one…(Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), 1972/2015 Gelatin silver print with archival digital print collage, paper ephemera, ink 13 3/4 x 18 3/4 inches (34.9 x 47.6 cm).
American artist Peter Beard (b. 1938) is the classic golden haired boy who uses art to cast his views upon the world. A descendant of James Jerome Hill, the founder of the Great Northern Railway in the United States, Beard was raised in New York, Alabama, and Islip, Long Island. At the age of ten, he received his first camera from his maternal grandmother and began making photographs and keeping diaries. While at Yale University studying pre-med, he switched his major to art history and never looked back again.
After graduation, he traveled to Kenya, where he lived on land adjoining the farm of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and began working at Tsavo National Park, documenting the elephant-habitat crisis raging as a result of radical human population expansion. He observes, “I made a life for myself in Africa that was as far as you could possibly get from art school at Yale.”
In 1965, Beard published The End of the Game, his first book, showcasing the tale of enterprisers, explorers, missionaries, and big-game hunters who exploited Africa to their own ends. The book was then updated in 1977 to include his work in the Uganda national parks, studying the impact of so-called “civilization” on the rhino population. Beard concluded, “The deeper the white man went into Africa, the faster the life flowed out of it, off the plains and out of the bush…vanishing in acres of trophies and hides and carcasses.”
Over half a century since the book was first released, Beard has become a luminary, bridging the worlds of art, environmentalism, and high society. Now, at the age of 78, he returns with his first museum show in 15 years: Peter Beard: Last Word from Paradise at Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY, now through July 31, 2016. The exhibition presents more than 50 multi-layered collages, drawings, photographs, and diaries from the 1960s through the present, some of which are being shown publicly for the first time.
Divided into two sections in separate galleries, the exhibition is organized around the two places Beard calls home: Africa and Long Island, where he bought the last house on the East End in 1974. As the Warhol crowd began to make the Hamptons a scene of its own, Beard contributed his distinctive style to the mélange. Seeing these two worlds together, yet apart, one can consider the natural habitats of big game, whether walking the land of elephants, rhinos, and crocodiles, or crossing paths with Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Onassis , and Truman Capote.
Beard understood, “Conservation is for guilty people on Park Avenue with poodles and Pekingeses.” It is perhaps because of his ability to navigate between these two worlds that Beard has created a deeply revered body of work, one that speaks to the passion that we have for self determination and respect for life, in whatever form it may take. His work serves as a warning of the threat of human encroachment, not just on the land but on our imagination itself, quietly commenting on our inability to find a solution without creating a new problem. As Beard observed, “I’m for conservation, but it’s mostly a con. That’s the trouble. It’s sentimental. Buy an elephant a drink, a lion an acre.”
All photos: ©Peter Beard, Courtesy of Peter Beard Studio, www.peterbeard.com
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.