Greeting you at the door of this modest, courageously strange and heartening exhibition of Jack Bilbo’s drawings, illustrations and paintings was a self-portrait of the artist from 1948. Like an emissary for all the curious creatures to come, Bilbo appears as a spooky faun, bearded and cheerful as a vagabond from a folktale but a far more girlish proposition than he might first appear: magpie eyes circled by starlet lashes and matched with the dark mouth of a young witch. This was but one of the transformations to be seen, with Bilbo elsewhere assuming such forms as a hulking sea-monster with a beard of weeds, a furious captain stuck on a storm-tossed ship and a dopey, blushing devil.
How this shape-shifting artist has stayed hidden for so long is baffling, not least because the chequered tale of his life should have assured him a certain shadowy reputation, even if his work were half as brave and crazed as it is. A fearsome autodidact and wild storyteller who cultivated a rich personal mythology, Bilbo was born under the name Hugo Baruch into a German Jewish family of renowned theatrical costumiers in 1907. (Sinister masks are everywhere in his work and seem to have remained a lifelong fascination.) Fleeing to Spain upon Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, he became a legendarily intemperate publican, subsequently hightailing it for New York where he supposedly served as Al Capone’s henchman before drifting to Britain and starting to paint and sculpt. Following a spell of internment as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man during World War II, he reached London, exhibiting Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters at the gallery he founded during the darkest years of World War II. He carved looming concrete mermaids in the wilderness surrounding his Surrey home, then returned to Berlin where he died in 1967.
Only in the small assortment of his paintings, such as Island of Rainbow Light (1944), where things turn Technicolor, kitsch and clumsy is there any sense of his manic energies slackening. Whatever his medium, he maintained what mock psychoanalysis would call a serious ‘thing’ – a shameless fetish – for the electric unruliness of human hair. It grows over everything in a frenzy of ink or pencil scratches – including the moon, which appears crooked and cool, its surface etched with the drowsy face of a silent film minx, in the sketch Moon Flapper. (Like much else on show, this piece is undated, but it presumably emerged from Bilbo’s prolific output of the 1940s.) The fact that this fuzzy compulsion isn’t his work’s most peculiar feature is a testament to its heroic eccentricity.
His freakish daydream Woman Expecting Triplets Returning Home From The Cinema (c. 1948) contains the leering faces of conjoined twins, mangled Constructivist graphics, an erumpent breast and what might be a debonair salamander playing a piano, which distends into a trumpet and concludes as a collection of pulsating radio waves. Every frantic little page brims with disquieting excitement, suggesting some apocalyptic version of the crowded cabin sketch from the Marx Brothers’ comedy A Night at the Opera (1935). Some of them show unreadable symbols dancing around the heads of lost girls from 19th-century fairytale illustrations, others reveal animals hiding in scribbled undergrowth or looking skywards to find plump erotic apparitions. (Few artists are as happily perverted as Bilbo – even his trees are ribald.) Captions explain these cryptic contents with sly one-liners or degenerate into screeds concealing rage in caustic irony: The Hangman is a Respectable Citizen …
Bilbo’s spleen against capitalist society courses through plenty of these scenes, though they’re not as obviously war-haunted as you might think, scrolling out the vision of a more mysterious and dreamily allegorical combat against state repression with a cast of orphans, cackling, rubber-nosed men and a mighty lion, its paws exchanged for horse hooves.
The exhibition smartly rejected the urge to cast Bilbo as a ‘lost’ outsider artist, capturing instead how canny and versatile he was. But something about Bilbo conspires to resist even the delirious sweep of his biography – a sui generis loner, he often seems to have climbed out of a murky region of his own imagination, emerging as equal parts seafaring rascal and wild-eyed visionary, a man animated by innermost obsessions who filled his work with anarchic life. He belongs in the company of figures like Leonora Carrington and Unica Zürn, enigmatic misfits who maintained a similar belief in drawing as the medium for a private mission, a route into (out of?) the deepest recesses of the mind, which is at once playful and macabre, thorny and haunting. His return should be celebrated with all the wicked glee of the works themselves.