An interview with Andrea Rose, 'the last house in the world', Marlborough Fine Art, 2016

Jan. 25, 2017

AR: Let’s talk about Harry.

CG: I first met Harry when he came to the Drawing School. It was very soon after he was up on his prosthetics and able to walk again after his injuries. He’d been to Falmouth Art School before going into the army, and I think he just wanted to do some drawing classes at the School. I went to meet him at the entrance, and as we were going up to the drawing studios in the lift, I had this extraordinary feeling of being in the presence of someone tremendously alive—full of vitality and creativity. I suppose it was partly anger too—there’s anger in all of us—but he deals with it so well, if it’s there at all any more. There’s no sense of victimhood about him.

AR: When did you start painting him?

CG: I’ve been painting him for two years. He came to sit for me every Monday night, and we became great friends. We talked—we still talk—about writing, poetry, painting. But he didn’t sit for this recent painting. I wanted to paint a much bigger image of him, with greater fluidity and freedom; an expression of the extraordinary life that’s pulsating through him.

AR: What’s the difference between having him sitting for you, and painting him without his being there?

CG: I couldn’t have painted this picture if he’d been there. I’d seen this early drawing by Baselitz of a wounded artist who, instead of having arrows sticking into the back of him, had a sheaf of paintbrushes. Savaged by paintbrushes! Somehow that drawing made me think of Harry—about heroism of a sort, though the last thing Harry would want is to be thought of as a hero. Not having him there in front of me gave me the freedom to paint an image of a person rather than the person himself. Sometimes you feel constrained by the need for a certain literalness when someone is sitting there. You want to get the life under the skin, but in order to do it, you also need the skin. 

AR: Did you use any of your earlier drawings to create the image of Harry—or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it an after-image?

CG: After-image is right in a way. I had this weird sensation, after drawing and painting him for a couple of years, of seeing him on the back of my retina. There was an imprint of him in me that has become the image I’ve made of him. I used to paint my sister Sophie often—not many have survived—but as a result I carry an image of her within me. It was rather the same with Harry. I did use my drawings of him, but as I was painting him, of course, the image changed: it almost seemed to be beyond my control. He grew—scale becomes an important indicator of feeling—and the space he inhabits becomes increasingly ambiguous, as the paint flows between ground and surface. It’s as if he is there and not there, moving in and out of perception, constantly evolving. Like painting itself you could say.

Wayfarer

Wayfarer, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 208 x 169cm

AR: Spatial ambiguity is a feature in a number of your works in this exhibition. In the Mood, for example, is an extraordinary image of a mirror reflecting the interior of the room to you, while on either side there are snowy landscapes. It’s both inside and outside, mirror and glass, appearance and disappearance.

CG: Hot and cold, too. And the warmth of the gold inside the room against the whiteness of the snow outside. I sometimes think of these paintings like tapestries, with their warp and weft. You see the landscape though the French windows on either side of the wall with the ornate Dutch mirror on it, and the sky’s blueness seems to become part of the mirroring of the room. It’s in the far north—in Scotland—in a house I know very well

AR: Does it matter to you to know a place well when you begin painting it?

CG: To paint, yes. I always draw when I’m somewhere I don’t know well, or haven’t visited before, like the two drawings of Caledonian pines in Mallorca in the show. It’s a way of getting to know a place, of feeling your way around the unfamiliar. And drawings are about feeling at their most elemental: you pour your feelings into drawings, while the act of painting requires greater detachment. But I’ve been visiting the house in Scotland for twenty years. It’s somewhere that gives me time to think, and resolve things. Its familiarity, I suppose, breeds new freedoms. And it’s full of old things in the way that the house I grew up in was, although most of the things in our house were broken or chipped, which they’re not in Scotland.

In the Mood

In the Mood, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 171 x 204cm

AR: It shares something with the paintings of your parents' flat that you showed in your last exhibition, doesn’t it, paintings about intimacy, the meaning of objects?

CG: Yes, images hold meanings. Scale becomes ambiguous because memory is fluid, so takes on different aspects and shapes.

AR: The majority of the paintings in this show are of another place you know well, aren’t they?

CG: Yes, the other landscapes are of Pignano, in Tuscany. I’ve been going there for ten years. For a couple of years I didn’t feel I could paint it at all, I just did drawings, but it was a wonderful prompt for my work. I suppose I feel that I’ve a northern spirit—my mother is Russian and there was always an imaginative Russian life going on at home. Maybe it was a sense of things lost but also a sense that one day they might be found—a strange sense of both belonging and not belonging. I was reminded of Rilke’s poem about a northern spirit being drawn to the south—the heat, the exoticism, and the slow unfolding of Italy’s art and culture—and then in Pignano, I was drawn to particular places.

AR: What do you think characterises those places? They mostly seem to have temporary structures in them—for example the hammock stretched across trees in a dense part of the woods. Do you feel with the hammock that it’s a portrait of someone not there—a physical presence denied, as it is with the portrait of Harry?

CG: There is a figure in it actually, a small figure, a child in the lower right corner. 

AR: Is that you?

CG: Maybe. I’ve tried to paint narrative before, but the figures seem to get in the way. They become too prominent, too central. Maybe this is a way of painting a story that isn’t yet told. But then, as Lucian Freud said: ‘All paintings are portraits, aren’t they, whatever the subject.’ 

Brothers in the South

Brothers in the South, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 160 x 170cm

AR: Another of your large Pignano paintings The Last House in the World is also of woods, this time with a small building in it. The colour appears bleached out, as if you are seeing the image on a photographic negative, and only the red remains. And the scale is disorientating. The trees tower over the building, which nestles among them as if it’s in hiding, as if it’s a secret place.

CG: It’s not so much a secret, as somewhere that no longer exists. It was a children’s playhouse when I first came to it, and built to a curious scale. It was almost big enough for children to get into, but not quite. And it was dilapidated. In fact, it’s been cleared away since then, so it’s more like an afterimage. Someone said to me that it reminded them of the burned out remains of a house I once lived in—and maybe it has that sense of somewhere that no longer physically exists but remains in your memory. It’s a springboard into memory—perhaps not even an exact memory, but somewhere that exists between past and present, an invented interval.

AR: It’s that ambiguity that’s also going on in your other works, isn’t it?

CG: Possibly. I was incredibly influenced by Tarkovsky when I was a student. I actually went to see him giving a talk when I was in my first year at Camberwell. I was 18, and he would have been quite old (in fact, he was only in his fifties, but he seemed old, and was to die not long after). The images in his films, Mirror, in particular, have always been important to me. Maybe it’s a sense of Russianness, of otherness, even though I was born here. I’ve always been conscious of the life journey of my grandmother—losing the closest members of her family during the war, a desire to hold onto the hope that things might be different and they could return some day, and her humour and warmth. Maybe the mirror is mirroring something that is there only as a reflection. That’s why scale is so important in my work—when I draw I draw to scale, but in paintings, the scale shifts, grows, changes of its own volition, as if I am no longer in control of it.

 AR: There’s another temporary structure in Pignano that you’ve painted, Morning Palapa.

CG: When I first saw it, I was drawn to the animal-like quality of the straw roofing. It was like fur—organic, with a life and a will of its own. It’s a shelter put up for children against the glare of the sun. They used to have lessons there during the day. I was drawn to it because it’s like a pause in this particular place; a sort of shrine in the woods, a place to stop and contemplate. The furry roof seems to have become all-enveloping in this painting.

AR: Is the pink chair at the bottom of the painting another portrait—of you?

CG: It’s a pink plastic chair, gone now as has the palapa, but it’s a memory, a shadow, a shadow-play, if you like, of what was there.

AR: Shadow-play is a good term for the two paintings you are showing made from films. They’re odd and surprising—one of a child with a bow and arrow shooting directly at us; the other of a monkey in a blue robe, tethered by a rope. Why do you paint from films, and how do you do it?

CG: I don’t work from photographs—they’re too static—but I do like the speed and fluency of film. Somehow you become part of the action, part of the film when you’re watching it, and I like to watch and then stop the film and draw quickly from it. I get my students to do it too. They can call out at a particular scene, and we stop the action, and they have six minutes to produce a drawing.

Apu's Son

Apu's Son, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 100 x 100cm

AR: The image of the little boy is from Satyajit Ray, isn’t it?

CG: Yes, it’s from Pather Panchali, the first film in his World of Apu trilogy. I liked this particular image because it reminds me of when I was a child and had a bow and arrow and used to go shooting in the woods. And it also reminds me of India, where I’ve been going to paint twice a year for 25 years, though I’m not showing any Indian work in this exhibition. But Apu is a coming-of-age film, when Apu is seen as a young boy wandering around west Bengal after his father has fallen on hard times. The west Bengal countryside is quite amazing—so vast, so unfathomable—and it gives the young child an unparalleled freedom. It’s the enormous freedom for a child that I loved about it. Maybe that’s what painting allows you to do—to roam around within limitless imaginative spaces and finally to find your target and take aim at it.

AR: And what draws you to particular targets?

CG: I don’t feel it’s something external, which I suddenly light on and think, goodness, that’s what I want to draw. It’s a vocabulary that comes from within. It’s rather like Henry Moore talking about natural forms and why he was drawn to them. It wasn’t the stone itself, he said, but how the stone reflected something that was already in his mind, and which he would then add onto in some way. He used a nice phrase to describe it: ‘The eye sees something that is in the mind already.’ Painting for me is the same. The monkey is from Pasolini’s Arabian Nights. It’s a painting about containment, and reminds me of my mother—that’s just how it is. And among the drawings I’m showing, there’s a brightly coloured parrot in the branches of a tree, pecking away at a mango while a lamb walks underneath. It’s after a Deccani painting that I saw in India—a vibrant connection between the world of 400 years ago and today, a reminder that the past is always with us, but the way we see it is always new. That’s what painting can do—it’s a magical slipway linking what we see with what we know, and each individual artist has to find his or her way of re-making it.


Andrea Rose, former Director of Visual Arts at the British Council, is currently working on the catalogue raisonné of Leon Kossoff's paintings.