Syd Barrett: Art and Letters is a new exhibition running at the Idea Generation Gallery in Shoreditch until April 10th 2011. Barrett died in 2006, 38 years after dropping out of Pink Floyd, a group he founded and was the main songwriter for, and 32 years after giving up on music altogether after two patchy but fascinating solo albums and a handful of half-hearted career relaunches. He spent the second half of his life living reclusively in Cambridge, devoting himself to drawing and painting, disciplines he’d had formal training in before taking up music. An intensely private man, Barrett painted more for the pleasure and insight he derived from the act of creation than for the aim of producing something for posterity, and would indeed often destroy his artworks shortly after completion (although he was in the habit of taking photographs of them as a record). He would surely never have countenanced the possibility of exhibiting his work.
This exhibition offers a rare chance to see Barrett’s art from both his formative pre-Pink Floyd years and his later, post-fame, period. Also on display are many previously unseen photographs of Barrett and Pink Floyd from the late 60s and early 70s, and a collection of the young Barrett’s letters to his friends and girlfriends. The exhibition has been sensitively curated with the aid of Barrett’s family and friends, and you get the sense that it represents a reclaiming of this famously troubled man as a real human being as opposed to a cautionary tale about the potentially devastating effects of sudden fame. Barrett’s early artwork is often quite charming, if sometimes surprisingly conventional, and his imaginative doodling on the early letters betrays an active and inquiring mind, informed by a particularly English strain of whimsy. The letters themselves are touching, funny and honest, and it’s not surprising that both of his steady girlfriends from this time have retained their affection and respect for him (both were present at the private view I attended). The later work is much more experimental and expressive, with bold layers of paint often thickly applied to achieve abstract and impenetrable results, alongside a few simply rendered landscapes. There’s an undeniable frisson from seeing work that was never meant to be exhibited, or even preserved, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic – the sense you get from reading the various testimonials in the gallery is that once a work was completed Barrett simply stopped being interested in it, in the same way that he was never remotely interested in talking about Pink Floyd once he had left the band.
This exhibition has been put together in support of a new book Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion edited by Russell Beecher and Will Shutes, which rounds up all of Barrett’s still existing artwork. If you’re interested in Barrett and can’t make the exhibition the book is well worth seeking out.