A Very English Visionary: Simon Wilson Draws Attention to the Singular Gifts of Jim Leon

Article excerpt

An extraordinary but little-known British artist is being commemorated this spring in a retrospective at the town of Morestel, near Lyons, in France. Born in Wolverhampton in 1938, Jim Leon was the first of 13 children. The family soon moved to Birmingham, where he attended Handsworth Grammar School. At 16, he went on to Birmingham School of Art from which, three years later, he was expelled for indiscipline. In 1959, he married Monique Verchere, a French au pair, and in 1960 they returned to her native Lyons, which became Leon's adopted city and where he died of cancer in 2002.

Leon had outstanding talent as both a draughtsman and a painter. He was equally possessed of extraordinary, indeed visionary, imaginative powers. It was the combination of these gifts that gave rise to the startling, entirely unique and personal works of art that flowed from his brush and pen from the moment he arrived in Lyons.

His early work blended influences from Francis Bacon, surrealism and the baroque. Lurking there is also the English visionary William Blake, together with the obsessive Romanticism of the pre-Raphaelites. A number of his early paintings and drawings refer to William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (first published in Paris in 1959). These were just some of the ingredients of an amazing, semi-abstract, spatially complex, ritualistic, orgiastic flesh-painting, expressing highly wrought morbidity, eroticism, transcendence and ecstasy; astonishing explorations of the murkier depths of the human mind.

Tuning in to another part of the 1960s zeitgeist, Leon began a parallel series of pop paintings--fantastic celebrations of food, sex and flesh, brilliantly coloured in fairground and seaside-rock hues. These two groups of work alone should allow him a niche in history. The first may be said to constitute a late flowering of surrealism, while the second is a highly individual contribution to pop at its most intense moment.

Leon's painting was subversive, but he was still operating, just, within the traditional fine-art world. In the October following the turbulent end of the Sixties, however, he left his family and the city of Lyons, and spent the next four years in London and the United States. During this period, he became part of the underground or counter-culture that, among other things, was founding its own newspapers and magazines as a platform for its calls for radical social change.

Leon had already been to the US in 1969, when he went to California. While there, he created a cover for the underground journal the Berkeley Barb and participated in the creation of the People's Park at Berkeley. In London, he contributed to International Times, Rolling Stone, Friends/Frendz and, most importantly, Oz. This magazine became a cause celebre for the underground when, in 1971, its three editors were prosecuted for obscenity in the now famous "Schoolkids" issue and were sent to prison. The 26-day Old Bailey trial became a locus classicus in the story of the clash of the 1960s generation with the old establishment. Oz in fact continued publication until the end of 1973, its circulation greatly enhanced by the notoriety, and Leon became its most important contributor of art. He provided 13 works for the last 18 issues, including one cover and several centre spreads. …