The main figure in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting Gilles (c.1719) portrays a character from the late-16th-century Commedia dell’Arte: Pedrolino or ‘little Pietro’. In Italian this name translates as ‘stone’. This is the first case of inverse transubstantiation (i.e. the substance of an object transposed into a man — the opposite of what happens in the Catholic tradition). Watteau’s Pierrot seems to be possessed by the demon of the inorganic; he’s a stone that coincides with a portrait. The painting is suspended at the point where the Renaissance and its opposite current, the Counter-Renaissance, neutralize each other. A genetic mutation takes place in this bog: the lesser pictorial genre, the still life, devours the slightly greater genre, the life-size portrait. The pictorial consequences of this still remain obscure.
I regularly visit Edgar Degas’ painting La Coiffure (Combing the Hair, 1895) in London’s National Gallery. It’s a reminder of everything there is to think about in painting. I try to take lessons from it. The composition is built on a central diagonal line, from the girl’s knees to the hairdresser’s topknot, the line bisected by a wave from the tip of the girl’s elbow to the hand clutching her hair. The table extends the width of the wave. But the table is flat, wrong somehow — a shape rather than an object, as if it exists only to provide a second diagonal, to underscore the rhythm of the action at the centre of the painting. Drawing is important in this painting. Objects are sketched, skeletal, just enough information is provided. Two simple lines describe the girl’s right thigh, another the strange, implausible curve of her stomach.
La Coiffure teaches an important lesson about economy: don’t use ten marks where three will do. I’ve also learnt about red from this painting: how to make it work. And that it is possible to lay scarlet next to orange, next to deep cadmium red, next to pink, next to black and bring the whole thing to life with a few patches of bare canvas and white. La Coiffure is a reminder that it is possible to achieve movement, elegance, heat and brutality with very little and that it doesn’t need to look real to feel it. Feeling rather than knowing. Feeling as believing. Painting as sensuality.
When I saw Triphammer Bridge, the huge painting of a horse made by Susan Rothenberg in 1974, I was stunned. I had been in New York for about five years, and had been earnestly making work that came out of the culture of a severe Minimalist Marxist critique. No image, no narrative, no psychology or any kind of biography, no mythology. My hero was Donald Judd.
But things have changed. I am a huge fan of alternative, outsider vision, which often leads me to contemplating a mystical narrative coupled with a spinning non-verbal logic. Everything flies into my thinking. The way Rothenberg combines many logics in her work is something that I love. And she was a pioneer!
I would like to bookend this thought with my favourite piece from her last show, Raven (2009-10). Almost 40 years after Triphammer Bridge, she is on the same track with a huge black bird hanging all alone on the high white wall, dwarfing the people and devouring our sense of scale, architecture and identity.
Edvard Munch’s graphic works, prints and, in particular, his woodcuts have always been more compelling to me than his paintings. Many years ago I cut a full-page reproduction of his coloured woodcut Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair (1896) from a 1978 Sotheby’s catalogue. Since that day, the page has remained on the wall behind my desk. I have very few images in my studio so I find myself looking at it daily. It is not perhaps the most influential picture from the past for me but it gives me a strange kind of comfort, like a song you’ve played over and over. It’s a gentle reminder of the power of simplicity both in composition and palette.
I will always remember Sandro Botticelli’s The Annunciation (c.1493) in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. We used to go there a lot when we were kids and we had the same image on a religious calendar at home. What I remember most is the impression the architecture and the perspective in the painting had on me. I remember being fascinated by the idea of buildings without walls, being amazed that you could almost see through the building, and that the people depicted seemed to live outside, almost as if the house had been turned inside out. The openness and the sense of space that was created really fascinated me. I used to play at home sitting in the doorway as if I was trying to live in this space in between, as if it was my own secret door or portal to another dimension. I suppose that idea is reflected in the theme of the painting. I don’t think I would have been aware of that as a child, but I do remember it having a profound effect on me.
In his Lives of the Artists (1550), Giorgio Vasari wrote: ‘It is said that when Giotto was only a boy with Cimabue, he once painted a fly on the nose of a face that Cimabue had drawn, so naturally that the master, returning to his work, tried more than once to drive it away with his hand, thinking it was real. And I might tell you of many other jests played by Giotto, but of this enough.’ Giotto’s detached and witty irreverence also enabled him to depict accurately the world’s first recorded air kiss in his fresco Kiss of Judas (1306) at the Scrovegni Chapel, near Padua, in Italy.
Commentators often piously interpret Christ’s expression in Giotto’s painting as perfect forgiveness. It is, in fact, perfect indifference. By looking straight at, and therefore through, Judas’s upwardly averted gaze to the spiritual and psychological vacancy behind it, Christ perceives that there is nobody home, braces himself against Judas’s cloying grasp even as it envelops him, and inwardly removes himself. Giotto makes Judas look like a Morlock, one of the humanoid creatures that inhabit the future in H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine (1895). But he portrays Judas’s pucker as though he were disingenuously whistling Dixie — a more biologically sophisticated achievement. To one who saw him clearly, Judas’s hypocrisy was unpersuasive. As always, the creative challenge is to see clearly. Christ did, and Giotto did — and couldn’t stop laughing.
Apparently an attractive and vulnerable picture, only the title makes me think twice. I know who Orpheus is (I can see the lyre), but who is this Orpheus? That, I don’t know. In the context of Odilon Redon’s work, this painting interests me.
I can see Orpheus’s head surrounded by an undefined space, full of ambiguity and enigma, inviting joy and perhaps unease at being there. Above the head, there is a blurry, coloured cloud. The picture appears calm and gentle on the one hand, and secretive and enigmatic on the other; it actually reveals very little.
After a moment the picture traps me. I am inside it, without making any decision to do so. The head doesn’t really matter any more; the picture is a big cloud of colour that starts floating and moving in front of me, almost detached from the canvas. It gives me a sense of freedom, of an ending left open.
For Redon, it isn’t the visible that is essential, but the invisible; he presents an irrational truth rather than depicting reality, as he explains in his posthumously published book, To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists (1986). Floating heads can be found in many of his paintings, drawings and prints. The head represents the soul, while the absent body belongs to the earth, to reality. Redon was interested in signification rather than depiction. Close to non-representational languages, his work relates to Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems and Claude Debussy’s compositions. He was excited about his contemporaries’ ideas about science (especially Charles Darwin’s), and the new theories around the psyche and the unconscious (such as those of Sigmund Freud). As for many Romantic artists before him, painting was a metaphor, tracing the invisible.
Matisse Cries, Madeleine Dances
In a small corner of the world
There is a work that fascinates me.
Madeleine, with her rough skin
With a feminine way of being
Reveals the sculptor,
who paints with his fingers
The magnitude of time,
which from afar dances with her.
We feel a bit awkward, we feel lost,
She shows us
Is not already contained
In the whole of the body she veils.
Naked skin dressed with skin,
Hiding in the arms what she offers
in the womb,
Madeleine dances with the mind
of blind eyes
licking our fingers, wetting our lips
With her we become calm, excited,
While she, oblivious to all,
with her balancing atmosphere
Sculpts a line of folds over air molecules
So that our ‘sweet river’* of salt tears
Can find a rhythm to relax our plaster skin.
Translated from Portuguese by Renato Rezende.
*Refers to Lygia Clark’s Meu Doce Rio (My Sweet River, 1984).
I first saw this photograph in 1989 on the cover of Parkett in the library at Goldsmiths College in London. It struck me that something so seemingly banal could function as art. But it was obvious that it was more than just a photograph of a cat; it had a lightness to it. I don’t mean that it was weak, but rather that it had a sort of airiness; it was ambivalent, open-ended. For me, it provided a way into understanding the idea of what was permissible; of having the freedom to explore a different territory, beyond the conceptual/minimal academy of the day. Years later Peter Fischli told me that he and David Weiss had been walking around Zurich trying not to do very much, and had happened upon this strangely bored cat in some kind of zoo. Desperate for their attention, it had performed this trick of sitting up.
‘The lover is thus an artist; and his world is in fact a world reversed, since in it each image is its own end (nothing beyond the image).’
Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (1977)
It was never my intention to make a landscape painting. It just sort of happened because the things that were and are on my mind are so intangible that they only exist as allegory. My interest in Marcel Duchamp goes a long way back and became solidified when I saw Étant donnés (1946-66). Duchamp represented a difficult and intellectual way of looking at art. In some ways, his approach had more in common with poetry or the kind of theory handed out willy-nilly in the 1980s that appealed precisely because of its opaque beauty more than what it informed. Étant donnés and other works by Duchamp shocked me because of their odd visual richness, figuration, explicit sexual content and my own ability to understand them without a guidebook. Together with A Lover’s Discourse and the first few Smiths singles, Duchamp’s work became a universe of frustrated longing into which my late-teenage frame was content to linger.
When I first saw Duchamp’s Paysage fautif (Faulty, or Wayward, Landscape, 1946) I thought it was by Francis Bacon; a fleshy human form isolated within a black rectangle. How strange to find that Duchamp made it with his own spunk and gave it to his lover Maria Martins as a gift in 1946. It’s a curiously adolescent and perverse offering on a piece of transparent plastic, backed with a kind of kinky black satin. I often think of art as pathology, the residue of thought rubbing up against action. In Paysage fautif, Duchamp offers up his own forensic evidence of the distance between the lover and the loved; it’s solitude solidified. We can read it as a figure in a landscape, something that is formed out of the history of art but it is also Duchamp working through his own history and, in his own words, may well be ‘an allegory on forgetting’. It’s strange to think that around about the same time as Duchamp was creating this, Graham Sutherland was knocking out his own harrowed and seedless landscapes in Pembrokeshire. I’m instantly intrigued by the simultaneous act of revealing and concealing.
The woods in the place I grew up were a wonderland of erotic discovery, filled as they were with ripped-up pornography, discarded underwear, condoms and unseen strangers. It was a world between worlds and exists in my imagination as pure sensation. I’m not sure whether I’m involved in an act of covering or uncovering but I am the heir to Peeping Tom’s poked-out eyes. ‘Let me get my hands on your mammary glands’ The Smiths, ‘Handsome Devil’ (1983)
In January 1967, the Polish artist, set designer and theatre director Tadeusz Kantor performed his renowned action, The Letter. It involved seven postmen carrying a 14-metre-long and two-metre-high envelope from the post office at Ordynacka Street in Warsaw to the Foksal Gallery near Nowy Swiat. The audience waited for its delivery before attacking and destroying the letter with collective power, aggression and joy. The scale of the letter, which is documented in numerous black and white photographs, appears more like a mobile wall or a long curtain rather then an actual envelope. Its monumental size brings to mind political banners. Its destruction pre-staged the fall of the Iron Curtain and the actual destruction of the Berlin Wall 22 years later.
The art of Kantor is forever inspirational to me. Looking at the photographs of Kantor’s performance, I automatically focus on specific details, which are not immediately concerned with its political or ideological context. An avalanche of images flickers through my mind reminding me of my personal, endless explorations of Warsaw in the 1980s. Animating daily life, which was restricted in so many different ways by the communist regime, became for many a form of artistic practice. Kantor is one of the most remarkable conceptual artists of the 20th century: he successfully translated the brutal nature of reality in post-war Poland into the unique and sophisticated language of artistic expression.
The before and after salutes the single moment. Actaeon, the pebble on the pond sending ripples of reactions across the canvas. Crusty white depicts crystal clear. Water like music.
The private moments of painting laid bare, naked indecision slips behind a transparent pillar. Time and memory chase and dance up the distant hill as aching feet are massaged from heel to toe, painted wet-on-wet with sable strokes.
Lounging, lustful, lids at bull’s-eye, butt-naked blusher vanishes behind. Crescent moon and white pearls shadowed by Crocale’s near-manly embrace.
Curiosity and heated desire melt as Diana’s loveless gaze conducts the Pied Piper’s last symphony.
I have long felt an affinity with William Hogarth — with his humour, his social observation and his Englishness. If Hogarth were working today I think he might have directed soap operas. In his ‘modern moral subjects’ (as he described them), I think he set out to influence the views of society. I hope that I may dare to do the same.
When I considered making a series of tapestries about taste and the British class system I immediately went to Hogarth’s series of eight paintings that follow the decline and fall of a young heir, ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (1733), for inspiration. Each picture frames a set piece filled with telling detail from a different section of 18th-century society. My work follows the rise and fall of a young software geek through the classes. I even called the hero of my narrative Tim Rakewell, a combination of Tim Berners-Lee, father of the Internet, and Hogarth’s rake, Tom Rakewell. A proud moment for me came recently when illustrations from ‘A Rake’s Progress’ were used to accompany a piece I wrote about my tapestries in The Sun newspaper. I hope Hogarth, a man of the people, would have been pleased.
At the art academy where I taught in the Netherlands in the 1980s, there was a girl who painted fairies and witches. I agreed with the other teachers that this was bad, even for kitsch! Yet none of us could explain to the student what the essence of her problem was. In the end, we all came to the same conclusion: it’s impossible to make a good painting with this kind of subject matter. Yet if this was true, it implied that certain subject matter was un-paintable. This bothered me a lot, but I lacked evidence to prove otherwise. Then I discovered a tradition not mentioned in my art history books and unique to Victorian Britain: fairy painting. The artist who really did it for me was Richard Dadd. Years later my excitement about my discovery had cooled off a bit; almost none of these pictures would make my list of top 100 art works. One, however, does: Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855-64). It’s a fantastic painting, on every level. It’s wonderfully composed; it’s layered, intense, intricate, complicated, decorative, elegant and mean. The moral of this story is: the problem of what is or is not a good painting doesn’t lie in the subject matter.
Haji Muhammad Sharif (1889-1978) was my first inspiration when I was studying miniature painting in early 1990s at the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore. Haji Sharif — who was the miniature painter at the court of Maharaja of Patiala — taught Miniature painting at the nca from 1945-68. In general, Haji Sharif’s miniature paintings look like reproduction of historic miniatures but he personalized the traditional vocabulary, which strengthened his work.
This portrait, from 1959, of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, has always been very inspirational for me. Haji Sharif demonstrated an outstanding level of skill in this work, in translating a contemporary subject matter into a traditional art form. This extraordinary execution of a very simple idea and its level of sophistication has always been a source of inspiration for my own art practice.
I believe that this work is one of the first — and most important — examples of the movement of revival of miniature painting in Pakistan as a contemporary art form. The painting is an important part of the art collection of nca and has always been displayed on one of the major walls of the college library but, interestingly, as far as I know, it has never been mentioned by any of the art historians or researcher who have written on the subject.
When I was hungry, I looked for food at the cheapest places I could find. Walking down lonely roads, on the way to these dhabas, I fell under the spell of billboards. I was attracted to them and arrested by them. I’d look up, still hungry, trying to understand their language. I learnt how to speak to them. I went to art school but I knew that this experience — the experience of being transfixed by these irresistible objects that had lodged themselves in my horizon — was the beginning of my journey into the study of art.
I communicate with objects of desire because I know little enough to acknowledge that they haunt me. I felt something of this in Europe on my first trip there. Never mind that I was checked and cross-checked; every time I was let go, I only felt the wide-eyed and astonished gratitude of one who is allowed to indulge in the pleasure of seeing.
Billboards litter the path of my journey. Even now, I look up every so often and sigh with relief, on knowing that my journey is lit by looming signs that guide my way.
An artist who has had a profound influence on my work is the 19th-century Japanese artist, Denchū Hiragushi (1872-1979). He introduced a new approach to wooden sculpture by combining traditional Japanese carving techniques with a realistic Rodin-esque European style, which was brought to Japan in the late 19th century. Hiragushi often carved realistic portraits of ordinary models; their details are painted with acute precision. I am particularly interested in his obsession with the notion of everyday life and his keen observation of the trifling occurrences that take place on the street. The attires of his sculptures delineate how his models wore their layered kimonos. In particular, the patterned inside sleeves reveal a fashion of gentlemen’s clothing at that particular moment of Japanese history. The old Japanese word Iki, which translates as ‘cool’, resonates throughout his body of work. I would like to summon his vision and virtuosity back to contemporary art. I love figurative sculptures and wood carving with traditional tools. I sharpen chisels every morning with several different types of sharpening stones until the chisels are shiny. My approach is not very common in contemporary art; it’s the antithesis of new media.