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According to Jack Bilbo’s own, rather immodest description of himself, he was ‘an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity’. And that’s actually a pretty good summary of his restless and wayward creativity, with the added proviso that Bilbo (1907-’67) was also an inveterate teller of tales – many of decidedly dubious plausibility – such as his account of serving as a bodyguard to Al Capone during the 1930s.
This exhibition, though, is essentially about Bilbo as a visual artist. And what a strange sort of art it is. He was self-taught, so although he may have run a gallery in London that showed the likes of Picasso, his own drawings and paintings are technically naive and clunky, with the sort of straight-on or sideways views, segmented bodies and scribbled-in backgrounds you tend to see in children’s art. There’s something childlike, too, in the feeling of inventiveness and unselfconsciousness, with scenes that feature fantastic amalgams of monsters, robots, and other magical elements. Yet for all that, there’s also a sense of sophistication, as well as carnivalesque and absurdist humour – from in-jokes about cubism to his fetishistic obsession with women’s buttocks, which become weirdly transformed into all sorts of freaky faces and patterns.
The main theme, though, is systems of power and exploitation, and the violence committed by states – hardly surprising, given Bilbo’s own experience as a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany, only to find himself interred in a British prisoner-of-war camp. Torturers, executioners, grotesque and ogre-like creatures: these are the sorts of emblematic characters that populate his drawings, and is the reason they’re ultimately more successful than his more whimsical, wistful paintings. As Bilbo put it, in one of the texts that often accompany his illustrations, ‘the state itself has neither heart, nor conscience, nor sense of humour’ – in other words, the complete opposite of Bilbo’s own quirky, yet deeply moral view of life.