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'Heart Attack City' is the most remarkable collage work by Peter Beard to have appeared on the market for many years. Ambitious in scale, with its high-impact principal image of Marilyn Monroe, this is an exceptionally dense work that repays detailed reading. It is enhanced with collage elements and hand interventions, further embellished with a variety of ephemera and objects trouvés, among them a snakeskin and an infant’s shoe.
This spectacular work is a richly interwoven pictorial tapestry that reveals a great deal about Beard's life and way of looking at the world. We know the key elements of his story: the young American who experiences his life-changing epiphany when he visits Africa in 1955; the first meeting with Keren Blixen, author of Out of Africa, in 1961; the setting up of his base, Hog Ranch, close by Blixen’s farm; his extended study in 1964 of the fate of the elephants at Tsavo; and the publication in 1865 of End of the Game. With his free spirit and appetite for adventure, Beard made Kenya his second home, and made it his mission to record with his camera and make known with his images and words the unfolding tragedy of the conflict between the animals whose habitat was under threat and the remorseless, destructive advance of man into this Garden of Eden.
Beard's appetite for life, love of beautiful women, and fascination with artists variously shaped a life in which he acquired a glamorous reputation as a unique mix of playboy, philosopher, artist, and writer. Beard’s is a fatalistic view of the world, and the drama of the destruction of wildlife that he records is his poignant, pessimistic metaphor for his view of mankind's ultimate destiny.
Life and death, love and loss, Eros and Thanatos are the subject matter of 'Heart Attack City'. We find images of beautiful girls, both Caucasian and native African. Marilyn Monroe, the doomed beauty, dominates the left half of the open diary pages than constitute the central area of the work, while on the right-hand page we find multiple images from Beard’s 1972 ‘Dead Elephant Diary’. To the right is a New York Times cutting with a feature 'The final curtain', telling of the death of Frank Sinatra.
Jacky Kennedy Onassis, herself a witness to a great tragedy, poins her camera back at us. Andy Warhol appears more than once; in one image his face is caught on a TV screen. Here is the desiccated head of Rameses II, pharaoh of Egypt; a portrait of Truman Capote at Montauk in 1972; and Mick Jagger. We also find Beard himself, one photo-portrait made in Nairobi in 1979, another showing his features distorted in the brush strokes of his painted portrait by Francis Bacon.
Beard started making his large collages in 1992. The present spectacular work was executed in 1998, when Beard was riding high after his major Paris exhibition two years before at the Centre National de la Photographie. Beard worked intensively and spontaneously, building the elements of this huge composition, making his mark in written additions and in smeared blood. ‘Heart Attack City’ is a powerful testament to the story of a remarkable life and to a unique perspective.