Brushes with the soldiery of the canvas
VISUAL ART:Conversations with the Irish artists Sean Scully and the late Louis le Brocquy are among the most illuminating in a new collection by a leading English critic
Interviews with Artists 1966-2012 By Michael Peppiatt, Yale University Press, 256pp £20.
READING THROUGH these 40-odd interviews conducted over more than 45 years by the English critic and biographer Michael Peppiatt, one cannot help wondering at times if artists, like Victorian children, should be seen and not heard. True, some of the interviews are wonderful, the questions penetrating and the responses generous, but all too often they are no more than self-advertisements or, at the other extreme, evasive to the point of opacity. As Peppiatt concedes, several of the artists he interviewed “are at pains to hide or gloss over their sources and even their motives as they work”. Certainly, none of them breaks under interrogation, although the jacket photograph of the Montenegrin artist Dado’s studio, with a seemingly bloodstained chair set in front of images of desperation and horror, suggests an extended and agonising torture session.
Peppiatt is the author of a very well-received biography of Francis Bacon, yet in the interview presented here, which was conducted in 1982 at Bacon’s South Kensington studio – the same one that is now housed in the Hugh Lane Gallery – the artist employs many words to say approximately nothing. “I feel talking about painting is always superficial,” he remarks, and certainly, on the evidence of this exchange, he is right. On the other hand, the two long interviews conducted over two successive days with Sean Scully are thrilling in their directness and passionate self-assertiveness.
Peppiatt, who has been writing on art since the mid-1960s, including in the London Observer and Le Monde, is perfectly well aware of the pitfalls that await any journalist venturing into an artist’s studio with pen and notebook at the ready. He is right, of course, when, in his introduction, he asks: “Who would not . . . give all Vasari for a short, searching conversation with Michelangelo?” Yet one baulks somewhat at his claim that artists, even if they are not “the most objective judges of their own achievement . . . are the greatest experts on what happened, both imaginatively and technically, in the studio”. Most artists, if they are honest, will confess that they work in confusion and fear and at the end stumble out into the light like exhausted soldiery. Hence the accuracy of Sean Scully’s description of his paintings as “luminous battlefields”.
Each of the interviews “belongs to its own period”, Peppiatt writes, and none was conducted with the idea “that it would one day be hauled out of the past and republished as a book”. So he has avoided cutting or revising the pieces, preferring to “keep them dans leur jus”, that is, in their original form, however rough or provisional they might sound – spontaneity is all. He seems to have had a very good time travelling the world and talking to artists in places “as different as Copenhagen and Copacabana beach, a Venetian palazzo on the Grand Canal and a studio overlooking the southernmost tip of Sicily”.
Chronologically, the first interview in the collection took place in 1966 in the “splendidly vaulted, frescoed rooms” of the Villa Medici in Rome, where Balthus was director at the time. Balthus was at once a fabulously gifted painter and a social charlatan, claiming a largely bogus aristocratic lineage that included Lord Byron. Young as Peppiatt was at the time, he spotted the fantasy yet good-naturedly joined in, speculating as to which tartan the Byronic connection would permit the artist to wear: “With his love of dressing up, Balthus warmed visibly to the idea of kilt and sporran.”
Others of his subjects provided not so much fun. Peppiatt plainly found Henry Moore – “Moore is less” – a boring old buffer and poseur, an establishment man with a tendency to “make barely disguised, self-aggrandizing claims”, such as a kinship with Michelangelo and Rodin, while in his work he endlessly repeated himself with “those vast outdoor commissions that seem to follow one another over the globe like a line of elephants”. Yet for all his tartness Peppiatt gives credit where it is due, and when he rereads the Moore interview 30 years later he declares that “it has now allowed me quite unexpectedly to discover the inner Moore. The rawer, more tortured and troubling Moore I would otherwise never have known.”
Irish readers will be particularly interested in the conversations here not only with Bacon and Scully but also with the late Louis le Brocquy. As we would expect, le Brocquy is smooth and unemphatic, although he gives a fascinating account of how at the end of 1963, after “a very bad year, a blind year”, he came across a number of primitive head cults, from Polynesia and the south of France, which “acted as a confirmatory revelation for me of the image of the head as a kind of magic box that holds the spirit prisoner”.
Yet one returns with most interest and excitement to the pair of interviews with Sean Scully conducted at his home in Bavaria in 2004, in which the artist speaks of being driven in his work “to build a kind of emotional classicism”, which is surely an accurate definition of Scully’s peculiarly vivid yet magisterial style. He is one of the most painterly painters at work now – “I feel that I am fighting for painting” – and frankly declares himself out of sympathy with much that is going on in contemporary art. When it comes to art, he insists, he is not a liberal:
I’m an absolutely, implacably hard-line painter, against what I would describe as ironic, concept-based art. I am the enemy of that art. And there is nothing equivocal, conciliatory or diplomatic about that position at all.
That is the kind of fighting talk one would wish to have heard more of in this fascinating collection.