Milligan's mind

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The Independent Culture
"What what what what what? Eccles an artist?" (Screams of anguish, people running away.)

He was the original Goon: Eccles, the endearing simpleton and the alter- ego of his creator, Spike Milligan. Over the years Milligan, still best- known for his part in The Goon Show has been many things - poet, comedian, eccentric historian. But there is a more serious side to this enigmatic man and the show of his paintings which opens next week in London is a testimony to the extraordinary versatility of his unique talent. Following hard on the heels of a three-part television biography of fellow Goon, Peter Sellers, it also serves to highlight the essential difference between the two funny men. While Sellers was the man of a thousand voices, it was Milligan who was the chief creator, to the point of mental exhaustion.

Obsessed with the absurdity of life as he had encountered it as a pre- war jazzman and in his life in the army, he determined to caricature the people he had met. In the Goons they became Seagoon, the "true-blue British idiot", and Bluebottle, the "liquorice and string hero". They also populate his early visual forays from the late 1940s, of "types" who seem related to the vast reservoir of eccentrics that Milligan was to establish on paper in the early Goon Shows. "Herr Hotz, German Boarding House Owner, Munich 1949" might easily be one of Seagoon's radio adversaries. Looked at more simply however, this is a powerful pen-and-ink drawing with a presence which conjures up Hockney out of Otto Dix.

The overwhelming impression, though, of Milligan's work is of art as therapy. Milligan is famously prone to depression and it would seem logical to conclude that most of the works on show might be evidence of a form of catharsis. A large Rubensian nude wearing a carnival mask suggests Freudian explorations of sensuality, while an expressive abstract dating from 1969, redolent of Hans Hofmann or Post-Painterly Abstraction, might signal a release of primal anger. If this is so then, judging by the almost Chinese clarity and stillness in a recent watercolour of a nude girl, the artist's mood is improving.

Perhaps the most characteristic image here though is an untitled, shrieking head with flaming halo (right), which, for all its overstated comicality, reveals much of the inner turmoil of its author. In effect this is Munch's The Scream - remade by a Goon. Ying-tong iddle-i-po.

The Agency, 112 St Martin's Lane, WC2 (071-379 1717). Viewing strictly by appointment from 6-31 Mar