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Ian Breakwell
In the episode of his 'Christmas Diary' in which Breakwell discusses Hengler's Circus, he compares the circus hierarchy – ringmaster, specialists, skilled artisans, troupes, clowns and animals respectively – to that of society at large.

In doing so, he makes no bones about his preference for the lower end of the pecking order, or, as he puts it, 'the world of he who gets slapped'.

Breakwell's interest in the marginal and the unnoticed embraces the socially marginalised too, which is his work's political dimension. The Diary is full of chance encounters with the homeless, and perhaps its most consistent theme is isolation - in The Walking Man Diary (1979) particularly, the twin impulses of curiosity and compassion towards those who confront us as strangers, present in all the Diary works, become particularly pronounced. There is often something uncomfortable and challenging about his encounters, the detached observer's alienation sometimes seeming as shocking as the subjects it depicts.

In the later 1970s, Breakwell, along with John Latham, Hugh Davies, Roger Coward and others, was part of the Artists' Placement Group: an initiative to place artists within government departments aimed at involving them in decision-making. Breakwell's placement was in the Department of Health, researching ways of treating the mentally ill outside of large-scale institutions; his work culminated in a report co-written with a group of architects about the high-security hospital Broadmoor, recommending reform of its management and day-to-day organisation. In the same period, Breakwell made The Institution with the performer Kevin Coyne, a portrait of a man seemingly just released, or escaped, from a sinister hospital, prowling the confines of a room and locked into a private dialogue of which we only seem to catch snatches.

Breakwell clearly sees an affinity between the socially marginalised and the artist. In Public Face, Private Eye (1988), a five part series made for Channel 4, he interweaves autobiography, art history and meditations on the nature of madness in a kind of television essay. With Goya as his model, he finally suggests that an artist must possess sharp, analytical self-knowledge and total candour, in order to confront their audience with the fissure between their public masks and the selves they dare not show. The risks of such candour, of such fluidity between inner and outer, Breakwell suggests, are evident in those we call mad. Not coincidentally, Public Face, Private Eye is perhaps Breakwell's most personal work, and it is a reminder that in some of the later Diaries, or in the film the Journey (1975), Breakwell has not been afraid to plough a more overtly autobiographical furrough.

Mike Sperlinger is a writer and the distribution manager for Lux.

Mike Sperlinger
Mike Sperlinger is a writer and the distribution manager for Lux.
Still from Mask to Mask, Act 5 of the public Face Private Eye series for Channel 4, 1988. Image courtesy: Annalogue Productions.
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