01 Oct, 2009

A rare glimpse into the artist’s studio

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

From the knee-deep litter of Francis Bacon to the artful order of Lucian Freud, a new exhibition explores how artists’ workspaces reveal more than their occupants expect

Between them the beautiful boy huddled over a small fire in his icy garret, and the beautiful naked girl stooping in front of window overlooking a tumble of Parisian rooftops, combine almost every popular cliche about what artists get up to behind the closed doors of their studios.

One is a little painting from 1845, by the otherwise almost entirely forgotten 19th-century artist Octave Tassaert, and the other Christopher Nevinson’s 1926 A Studio in Montparnasse. They hang among centuries of artists’ studios captured in paint, film and photographs, in a unique exhibition opening this week at Compton Verney, the country mansion gallery in Warwickshire. Both show us wonderfully plausible lies: the viewer assumes immediately that the poverty and romance of one studio, the glamour and hint of exotic pleasures in the other, must relate to the artists’ own lives. Which just proves how dangerous it is to take what artists say about themselves as the truth.

The Nevinson, for instance, doesn’t show his own studio but one borrowed from a friend – who was outraged by the painting and the suggestion that his handsome room was the kind of place you might find a naked woman hanging around the window seat.

Over a century ago the Strand magazine nailed the voyeuristic seduction of such images: “The sacred place … a laboratory in which ideas are melted down and boiled up and turned out on canvas by magic.” Art historian, curator and deviser of the exhibition Giles Waterfield feels the seductive power of many of the images, but warns that the exhibition throws up more questions than it answers. “For centuries people have taken the studio as a faithful reflection of the soul of the artist, but my question is – and it is one which this exhibition finally cannot answer: is it really?” Artists, after all, are by definition creatures of artifice, and they are exhibitionists. Many of these interiors are as carefully constructed as stage sets.

Waterfield and his co-curator Antonia Harrison spoke to Lucian Freud, whose studio is represented not only by his own paintings but in dazzling photographs by his assistant David Dawson, and by Bruce Bernard. Freud insisted there was nothing interesting or revelatory about his studio; it was just the place where he worked – but everything in the photographs suggests otherwise: a meticulously constructed space with almost surreal features including walls layered in impasto where he wiped his brushes. The paint is an inch thick in places – it must surely be easier to wipe a brush on a rag than risk damaging the voluptuous sculptural effect.

Another photograph, by Perry Ogden, shows the legendary litter of Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, precisely matching the image of a haunted genius, which has now been reconstructed like the shrine of a saint in a Dublin gallery. It is shown beside the site drawing by the team of archaeologists who were sent in to record the stratigraphy of each individual object, before the move began. But there are also two more images of Bacon studios, which suggest the great man may have been playing to the cameras as he shuffled through the drifts of paper and rags; one dates from the period when he was still designing furniture, and it is as obsessively neat as a showroom window. Another little sketch by Michael Clark, from 1982, only two years before Ogden’s photograph, shows a cluttered interior – but with a perfectly clear working space in the centre.

Many of the earlier paintings in the show, such as Peter Tillemans’s handsome interior of 1716, depict not tormented souls starving, but elegantly dressed gentlemen entertaining connoisseurs and potential clients, in interiors groaning with oriental carpets, leatherbound volumes and classical statues; these are artists marketing themselves as clubbable equals rather than social outcasts. Women artists, on the other hand, have their own very small section of the show, and if they’re not quite working on a corner of the kitchen table, very few have managed a room of their own – artist Gwen John has one but it’s as bare as a nun’s cell, and clearly no society clients will be calling.

It may be that the only truly honest images in the show – and that includes the immaculate working studio constructed in a corner of a beautiful Georgian room overlooking a lake, for the artist Sigrid Holmwood – are from Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller and the self-destructive 18th-century painter George Morland.

Deller ruefully admits that the “studio” – no jugs of brushes, no turpentine-steeped rags, just a room where he works hunched over a laptop – is really quite boring. Morland’s little painting, meanwhile, shows him at work on an idyllic landscape in a truly grim room. His assistant is cooking four sausages in a pan over the fire – and there are two men and two hopeful-looking large dogs, so there can’t be much lunch for anyone. There’s an empty gin bottle on the floor, and presumably, one suspects, a half-full one nearby. Morland had at this point fatally discovered that pub landlords would trade him drink for a new inn sign. He would be dead within two years of the painting, at the age of 39.

As for the beautiful boy painter starving in his garret, the artist Tassaert was 45 when he painted it. But if he was never quite so picturesquely young and poor, his own fate was tragic enough for the libretto of any opera. The painting is owned by the Louvre, and the image is now a bestseller worldwide on prints, greeting cards and even fridge magnets, but in life Tassaert was bitterly disappointed that he never achieved the success or recognition he felt he deserved. He became an alcoholic, sold everything left in his studio to a dealer at a knockdown price and gave up painting. He died in 1874 by gassing himself.

The show ended up much larger than the curators originally expected: there are hundreds of images, spanning more than three centuries. Some of the painters, including A-list celebrities of their day such as William Powell “The Derby Day” Frith, were rich and famous. While the view of one of the studios of GF Watts, a giant of his Victorian heyday whose reputation went into freefall after his death, shows that he worked in a space as luxurious as the lounge of a grand hotel. Others, like poor Morland, were barely scraping a living.

Still, surprising similarities show up across the years: from Tillemans in 1716 to the spaces of Damien Hirst and Tom Phillips that have been photographed in the last 10 years, there’s usually a skull around somewhere, and often the artist is not working in splendid isolation but with a rabble of assistants, women, children, cats and dogs hanging about. Time after time, although the feeling of trespassing in a sacred space endures, we as visitors are clearly expected: there’s usually an artful still life in the foreground, or drawings, maps, bits of costumes and props – laid out to impress.

It’s the Morland I’d take home with me, for its shabby frankness, and as a spur to work harder myself. I’m pretty sure he’d have swapped it for an extra sausage all round for the men and the dogs.

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