Yo would assume Brad Pitt has a pretty enviable life, even in the throes of his messy divorce from Angelina Jolie. And dropping into a museum in Finland to exhibit his sculptures by him alongside works by his pals Nick Cave and Thomas Houseago sounds like another cool extension of it. So it would only be fair to the rest of us if he fell flat on his face like other celebrities who dabble in art. But from what I can see of his exhibition of him online, that is not the case at all.
The involvement of Houseago is a clue that Pitt is up to something substantial rather than self-indulgent. This idiosyncratic and excellent British artist hews savage, deliberately awkward sculptural forms that teem with monsters and myths. He has recently taken to painting, however, with a bright visionary intensity partly inspired by Edvard Munch – hence the choice of northern Europe for this Nordic noir exhibition. And as an art world mag reported recently, he “counts celebrities like Brad Pitt among his closest friends of him.” But there’s more to it than that. Houseago, who suffered abuse in a tough childhood in 1980s Leeds, has turned to painting in the last couple of years as therapy, while recovering from a mental breakdown. And while Pitt may not, as far as I know, have similar levels of trauma to deal with, it seems he too escapes into his art in order to enhance his health and happiness.
When he and Leonardo DiCaprio were filming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with Quentin Tarantino, he invited his co-star to relax making ceramics together in his home studio. You can imagine that it helps him forget rows over the French vineyard he co-owned with Jolie to just exult in the sensuous creation of mysterious objects.
Therapy is all very well. But what about the results? Are Pitt’s sculptures as pointlessly derivative as the abstract paintings of Ed Sheeran, or as soporific as the watercolors of King Charles III? On the contrary they appear – from photos – to be pungent and memorable images of pain and violence.
Aiming At You I Saw Me But It Was Too Late This Time is a frieze of broken bodies as men shoot each other to bits in a Mexican standoff sculpted like a scene on some ancient sarcophagus. The gunslingers are crafted well: their faces and bodies, some in shirts and jeans, others bare-chested, are skilfully done. Yet the artist isn’t the prisoner of pedantic realism. He fragments and fades out these raging fighters, expressively conveying the way violence literally destroys the self. This could easily be a monument to the gun-toting US, where no one wins. Or perhaps he was dealing with the on-screen violence of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when he created it in 2020. But the title suggests a more inward pain.
The theme of brutal fragmentation continues in a bronze coffin-like box covered with bits of bodies. Here the violence of his neoclassical frieze has gone a stage further. Do not complete standing people remain, just pieces of them. The coffin is a fairly stark image. But far from just being deathly, there is something redemptive about its golden glow and funereal dignity. It reminds me of Gauguin’s symbolic sculptures. This is a healing box, a coffin from which you could rise again, like someone in recovery.
Pinch me – I must be dreaming. Brad Pitt is an extremely impressive artist. I certainly didn’t expect to be saying that when I got up this morning. He has sidestepped the embarrassment of celebrity art to reveal what by any standard are powerful, worthwhile works.