The subject of the studio seems to have generated a lot of attention recently. Even the mildly informed has garnered that one of Bridget Riley’s studios is in her house whose interior is painted entirely white to enable her to assess colour more accurately; that Rose Wylie’s is a room in her cottage in Kent where huge canvases are piled up without supports to save space or that Tracy Emin’s occupies over 4 floors in an East London industrial building. If all of this information entered the public domain over the last 12 months, it was part of a wider fascination with the artist’s studio which was manifested in different forms and from different perspectives. In November, Barry McGlashan’s exhibition The Burning Heart and Other Artists’ Studios at the John Martin Gallery consisted of paintings of 25 (re)imagined artists’ studios including those of Monet, Hieronymus Bosch, Georgia O’Keefe and Cezanne painstakingly rendered and including recreations of artworks leaning against the walls, or of the artist themselves at work.
In June last year German photographer, Matthias Schaller held a photographic exhibition of over 70 artists’ palettes at the monastery of San Giorgio in Venice. Each image was 2 metres high to emphasise a relationship between the palette and the artist’s paintings which Schaller proposes echoes that between the conscious and the unconscious – the frantic scrabblings behind the pristine, finished works. Cy Twombly’s consisted of scratch marks where he had applied paint with his fingers; Miro’s of separate blobs of red, yellow and black circles; Kandinsky’s of overlapping harmonies of blues, oranges and whites; Yves Klein’s of shades of ultramarine on a broken white plate. They suggested an evolution from that well used trope of the studio – the floor – the mess left behind which inadvertently becomes a work in itself, a mirror image of that which ultimately is seen outside but in controlled conditions. What has become an accepted norm of the image of ‘the studio’ emanates an internal frenzy through the spattered paint, filthy rags, newspapers and piled up shelves. In fact a need for order reigns over (and rein in) frustration, anxiety, disappointment, fear, anticipation, desire and ambition.
Atelier by Gautier Deblonde is a book of panoramic photographs of 60 artists’ studios published by SteidlDangin in 2014. These images, it is claimed are ‘portraits’ of space without people. They have no captions and the reader is forced to guess which studio is that of Gerhard Richter, Callum Innes or Pina Bausch, etc. by visual clues which inevitably become props, including the marks on the walls, items on the shelves, the type of furniture or, in the case of Zang Dali, the stuffed animals.
Lucien Freud’s former assistant, David Dawson made detailed descriptions (and photographs) of his studio in A Painter’s Progress published in 2014, a place where Dawson felt he ‘could (metaphysically)find everything’ and no longer had any need to go anywhere else. One photograph depicts a corner of the room with Freud’s unlaced boots, bare floor and paint clotted walls. There is an attempt to re-create the space through the book even though Freud’s studio itself has not moved or been moved, but has, according to Dawson, been sealed up in its location at the top of his house. Behind the words and images there is an underlying recognition and poignancy that the studio no longer exists.
In July, Barbara Dawson, the director of the Hugh Lane Gallery gave a talk at the Whitechapel Gallery in London about moving Francis Bacon’s studio from London to Dublin, a process which took place over three years between 1998 and 2001. Involving archaeologists, conservators and curators this transpired to be a forensic exercise and the removal of the original walls, doors, floor and ceiling, tagging dust and cataloguing over 7,000 items. A digital database including 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 2,000 materials and 1,300 pages torn from books as well as letters, newspapers and vinyl records has been created and made available as an archive. The relocation it is claimed, has changed the focus of exhibitions of Bacon’s work ever since: presumably, now that we can see what lay behind the work, it can inform how we see the work itself?
In December 2014 Walead Beshty’s exhibition at the Barbican, A Partial Dissembling… consisted of 12,000 photogram cyanotypes made over a year from items lying around in his studio. Tools, objects, bottles, wire, boxes, tapes appeared as silhouettes, absences or inverted shadows in the painterly washed-out surfaces of bits of cardboard, newspapers or rolls of paper. The emphasis was on the discarded, the leavings or what normally would be used for making or supporting something else and exhibited en mass in close proximity reminiscent of a nineteenth-century Royal Academy salon.
If these examples represent a widespread fascination with working methods, the detritus and evidence of the creative process and of the tortured process of making, the black and white photograph of Frank Auerbach in his studio by Jorge Lewinski taken in 1963 must be one of the few images which comes close to successfully communicating something in this vein. Sitting on a stool in the cramped space and striking the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker, with his back to a paint-encrusted canvas indistinguishable from its spattered surroundings including Auerbach’s overalls, the only untouched, pristine surfaces are the skin on his face and arms. Tightly cropped and posed, the image has a claustrophobic intensity which emphasises the human, rational figure set against the chaos: separate from it yet bound up within it.
‘Writers’ Rooms’ was a series in The Guardian newspaper published intermittently from 2006 whose unstated aim was to enlighten on the relationships between space and creative thought. Photographs by Eamonn McCabe of the writer’s workspace (normally a desk and chair in a room) were accompanied by a short text by the writer describing in about 300 words an aspect of the space or the significance of the objects. Some described the necessary attributes needed in order to write – stacks of notebooks (Clive James), a view of the garden (AS Byatt), just getting hold of the right kind of chair or inspirational object (Wendy Cope), or the need to have separate offices (Justin Cartwright). The images themselves were a kind of mise-en-scene where props – books, objects, chair, desk, window, bookshelves all came together or signaled something just out of frame, to indicate a kind of ironic theatre of thinking. Will Self describes ‘the council block through the greasy windowpane, the map stapled to the blind.’ JG Ballard talks about the copy of a painting The Violation by Surrealist Paul Delvaux which dominates the room he has written in for 47 years and ‘the Paolozzi screenprint which acts as a cat barrier…They come into the room and churn up my papers and are my fiercest critics’. Martin Amis mentions the clock on his desk in his study at the end of a concrete garden that he is afraid of breaking, belonging to his father and left unwound; and Frances Spalding reflects on her bench, previously owned by the artist Elisabeth Vellacott and once ‘thick with oil paint and the grime of charcoal.’
One could argue that the idea of The Studio represents a form of supplement – where creativity and its understanding represents both excess and lack. The thing these examples have in common is that although fascinating they rarely offer any insights whatsoever into the working process or of the works themselves. There has recently been proposed a history of The Office in four objects, perhaps there should be one for the studio?