Angus McBean (1904–1990) was a singular talent whose work straddled fine art and popular culture. His oeuvre has remained something of a best-kept secret, only recently coming to public attention in the form of a biography by Adrian Woodhouse (Alma Books, 2006) and a stunning exhibit by the National Portrait Gallery in London (curated by Terrence Pepper, 2006). Perhaps his homosexuality or his genre-defying style kept him from enjoying a greater public awareness, though a generation of photographers, including Robert Mapplethorpe, have found great inspiration in his work.
McBean had a penchant for surreal, over-the-top studio set-ups that often incorporated plaster casts (the making of which was a McBean specialty), masks, elaborate stages with weird shifts of scale, as well as double-exposure, dramatic lighting and collage. He particularly enjoyed putting his skills to use in the annual Christmas greetings he sent out to his own social circle, each year yielding a new, surprising result. In one of these (now-rare) images, we see the artist cast himself (pardon the pun) as the Greek god Zeus; in another, he fits his seemingly disembodied head into a scene that includes his own charlady’s wash bucket. With their whimsy and strong sense of artistic freedom, these photographs probably represent the best and truest expression of McBean’s wacky, yet highly exacting, aesthetic sensibility. Good examples of his work are hard to come by, and some choice and highly personal examples are represented here.
Harvard University is in possession of McBean’s entire archive (legend has it, weighing in at more than 4 tons of glass-plate negatives) and is planning a major show of his work.