Portraits of terrible people: Lee Harvey Oswald, Bloody Mary, Robespierre. Interview with Michael Bell

Portraits of terrible people: Lee Harvey Oswald, Bloody Mary, Robespierre. Interview with Michael Bell

Portraits of terrible people: Lee Harvey Oswald, Bloody Mary, Robespierre. Interview with Michael Bell on his weekly section on Yareah. Merry Christmas.

Interview with artist Michael Bell in his weekly section MBELLART on Yareah Magazine. Every Wednesday! Today, Portraits of Terrible People in Art History.

I.R.- Hi Michael, in our last interview, among other things, we spoke about your celebrated gangsters series paintings. Today, I’d like to know your expert point of view on other portraits of terrible people (painting, engraving and photo.)

M.B.- Hi Isabel. First, I’d like to say that’s quite the loaded interview…Terrible People. Interesting. My own work, as you know, has been quite controversial due to my dangerous portrait clientele, but in my world — some of those who have been labeled “America’s most infamous” have also been terribly good to me, personally, and I don’t see them in that light. They’re just complicated people, like me. Throughout my life, I’ve seen sinners become saints and the people who you imagine are supposed to be your saviors turn out to be the ones who’ve betrayed you the most. So, “Terrible People” definitely is a hot topic, but one I’m comfortable with, being that I’m labeled one of the bad boys of the art world. So, let’s do this…

I.R.- 1st: Mary Tudor of England by Antonio Moro (1516-1558), remembered as “the Bloody Mary” on account of the religious persecutions which prevailed during her dreadful reign.


Mary Tudor of England by Antonio Moro. Bloody Mary

M.B.- Well, from what I’ve learned of Queen Mary she was a king’s daughter; a king’s sister; a king’s wife and a the first woman to successfully claim the throne of England, thanks to her support from the Roman Catholic population. She married Prince Phillip of Spain, which stirred controversy at the time and her reign was short, yet viciously bloody.

There’s also some folklore that she is said to appear in a mirror when her name is called multiple times. The evil spirit unleashed in the form of Bloody Mary might perform any number of terrifying acts. In actual fact Queen Mary Tudor Bloody Mary executed 287 Protestants during her reign which was far less than her father King Henry VIII who executed 57,000 people during his reign. As far as the portrait goes however, it was highly popular in England. To me, her pose says it all. Shoulders back, pose is stern and commanding. She looks more like a King than a Queen. The attention to detail, pattern and foreboding darkness in the background, contrasted by the red flower in hand symbolize the power and carnage.

I.R.- 2nd: How about this caricature of Robespierre (You know, I love caricatures!) Here, the unidentified artist depicts Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France.


Robespierre. Caricature

M.B.- Robespierre was another interesting character. I actually love the idea behind this work too. After all, if you don’t execute the executioner who does your bidding you’re leaving someone around who could potentially kill you. As you know, I appreciate very narrative works, since much of mine is narrative and serial in nature.

I think Machiavelli put it best, “Crush your enemy totally.”

Did you know just a few days ago there was an article in the Huffington Post about a pair of researchers who gave the French revolutionary a 3D makeover, which raised the possibility last Friday that he may have been a man suffering from a rare autoimmune disorder. The pock-marked, bagged-eyed re-creation from his death mask is quite intriguing. It certainly doesn’t cast him in the powerful likeness shown above. This was a man that formally instituted “terror” as a legal policy in 1793, with a proclamation that read, “It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty.”

Picasso once said, “The revolutionary artist understands that there is no such thing as art for art’s sake; all art must serve a revolutionary purpose.”

I believe our country is in a potential state of total revolution as we speak.

Here’s my contribution to the conversation. We’ll see what controversy it stirs up one day. I mounted 30 different speed drawings in various media of a single hollow-point bullet mounted to the actual wood planks President Obama walked across at his first 2008 historic Inauguration.

Don’t ask me how I got the President’s “inaugural wood” or what made me decide to mount these drawings to them, I just thought it would be an interesting display and historic back-story that would provide some extra-value to the work.

I do think the works are revolutionary in their own way, and the way they are anchored by small chains in six strands, five works per strand and if held loose or suspended in the air they can all spin like a bullet would.


“Inaugural Wood” by Michael Bell 

I.R.- 3rd: The iconic photo of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby.

Photo of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby

Photo of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby

M.B.- Bob Jackson was a 29 year old reporter for the Dallas Evening Newspaper who snapped the shot seen ‘round the world. His image “beat the News.” For everything else every other photographer captured either just before or just after the gunshot, Jackson’s painted the entire drama in one single shot that won him the Pulitzer: “Oswald, eyes shut and mouth in a tortured O; Leavelle in a tan suit leaning away from his contorting prisoner; and a hunched Ruby firing his pistol.”

No one produced an image like Jackson’s. His shot crystalizes the command that photojournalism always has and still does — the capability of telling a full story by freezing time.

“It’s one of those rare occasions where you have that sharp moment that you see the reaction, the impact and the instance of recognition,” said Keith Greenwood, assistant professor of photojournalism at the University of Missouri.

M.B.- Isabel, since you found me those three I have one to also share with you…since we’re on the topic of “the terrible.” This one’s probably even more unsettling than the rest. At least it is for me, in my opinion.

Myra: 1995 depiction of the child killer Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey.

M.B.- At first glance, it’s just another Chuck Close-like ripoff. A larger-than-life sized pixelated painting of child killer Myra Hindley. The work was first shown in London as part of the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition in 1997. The show was picketed and the picture itself vandalized due to the hostility it evoked.

The controversy is that, at closer inspection – the portrait of this child killer is created entirely out of a sea of child’s handprints.

After the ’97 exhibition, its owner Charles Saatchi displayed it in his gallery and then sold it in 2004 to a New York commodities broker. Whether Harvey’s intention was to gain easy publicity, or to ask troubling questions about the nature of evil, I don’t know. But I think this one takes the cake as one of the most “terrible” of all.

Merry Christmas Isabel! And here’s a quick 15 second glimpse from my Studio into my latest creation – the final large 48” X 96” work in my Carnevale Italiano painting series, due for completion early 2014. This series is actually a prequel to my “Ticket to Ride” painting series you previously reviewed by Martin Cid, which is currently on exhibit in Williamsport, Pennsylvania at the Lycoming College President Trachte’s Mansion.

I.R.- Merry Christmas!

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  • Rochelle

    I comment еach time I especially enjoy a articlеe
    on a site or I haave somеthing to add to the conversation.

    It’s caused by the passsion commuոіcаted iin the article I
    looked at. And on thiѕ artihle Portraits of terriblle people:
    Lee Harvey Oswald, Bloody Mary, RoƄespierre. Interrνiew with Michael Bell


is renowned American painter and muralist, famous for his larger-than-life sized narrative series paintings and for his infamous portrait clientele, which includes the late Mob Boss John Gotti, best friend Dominic Capone III (Al Capone’s great nephew) and numerous actors from The Sopranos, Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale and more. Yes, his works are the mirror of a tragic world, but they deepen our human psychology with strong brush strokes and vivid colors, from personal memories and silent echoes, with courage and creativity. Bell was naturally gifted in art and won 1st Place in his first juried art exhibition at age 5. As an emerging artist he spent a lot of his time in and around New York City, studying art with his maternal grandmother, Violet Vallery, a self-taught artist from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Then, after the still-born death of his sister Amanda and the sudden passing of his Grandfather, a former professional boxer, Bell began to explore life's personal and psychological issues through his paintings. In addition, Bell has written his first screenplay based on the real-life events surrounding his famous "TICKET TO RIDE™" painting series and has won three national awards in 2013. Bell exhibits his large, narrative series paintings in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

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