David Veltman 1947-2009

David Veltman 1947-2009

January 24, 2010

Don’t be frightened by what you see.

Stay away from ‘likeness’.

These two edicts were scrawled on the wall of Dave’s studio – messages to himself.

In his work you can see the influences of Goya, Rembrandt, Elsheimer. But he was in no way conservative, not trying to reproduce the art of the past (“as if I could anyway!” he would have said, always in awe of their craftsmanship and brilliance).

Nor was he trying to reproduce received ideas of colour, or of reality – he would never work from photographs, and was critical of the work of those who did. He said the camera constructed its own reality – he wanted to look at what was there, and try to display the fleetingness of form, and light.

Dave started out drawing, much encouraged by his stepfather, ‘Big Dave’ Veltman, and his uncle, Kurt Levy. He drew with such ease, more fluently than he wrote (talking was quite another matter, then his words flowed).

At art school he studied sculpture and made huge, abstract pieces, which he didn’t keep. For many years after that he painted, etched and drew as an almost full-time artist – much of that work is represented in this show: wonderful portraits, self-portraits, still-lifes and allegorical subjects.

He stopped altogether in his early forties, but in 2001 he started again, intensely, working every late afternoon and evening after finishing his day job as a builder. It was very important to him that his painting was work – not fun, not therapy or a hobby – work. But not work for money – he didn’t want to sell any of these later paintings. He said he wanted to keep them for his own reference, to see where they were going, and that anyway the hours, months, even years he put into them could never be reflected in a price.

He said, ‘If you work like this, you don’t have control over the image – you don’t have a plan, and no imagined outcome. But that doesn’t mean you’re not aware of the fact that you are locked into habitual behaviour that creates cliché. But you try and change that.’

He focussed mainly on his own face – not out of vanity, far from it, but, he would say, because he was always available to sit: it was convenient. Of course it wasn’t just that. But he would say that, like Morandi with his bottles, he painted what was there, and in a sense it didn’t matter what that was.He also said, ‘It’s a way of thinking carefully about something which is often overlooked. The fact that it is yourself is particularly pertinent at times. It’s about knowing that the familiar is not at all familiar. If you were a landscape painter and painted a landscape that you had lived in all your life, you would be examining it in the same way as I do my head.’

As the years passed, the self-portraits became increasingly abstract. He painted his reflection in a mirror, and the mirror and the question of reflection became more and more part of the painting. The last one, with which he was still tussling before he died, is a study of himself reflected in a mirror, gazing straight at himself, with a postcard of a Rembrandt portrait perched on the mirror’s edge – he was struggling to make sense of the distance between the two.

Dave had a way of looking at pictures which he urged others to emulate. Make a loose fist of your hand and look through the tunnel you have made. It cuts out extraneous light and makes the eye look hard at what is before it.

Don’t be frightened by what you see.

Jill Nicholls 2009


Obituary of David Veltman by John Breuilly, The Guardian 14 October 2009