From the Horse's Mouth

Interviews with Artists 1966-2012  Michael Peppiatt
(416pp, £20.00, Yale University Press)


Sitting with the Slovenian painter Zoran Music in his studio at Rue Des Vignes not far from the River Seine in 1987, the art critic Michael Peppiatt becomes increasingly aware of the fading afternoon light.  Linking the artist's traumatic life experience to his work, Peppiatt is acutely sensitive to how Music, by 'taking a fugitive shape against a dark, troubled background' in each painting propped against the studio wall, has reflected the visual manner in which ideas and memories form.  After several of his opening questions about a barely sketched out new work fail to elicit much of a response, he decides to put his pencil down and switch the tape recorder off.  'What, indeed, is the truth' thinks Peppiatt, 'and would this exchange of imprecise query and faltering response stand any chance of revealing it?  And whatever truth there was, would it not be so much part of the painting as to be inextricable, incommunicable in any other form'.

It is this critical intelligence that runs through Peppiatt's anthology Interviews with Artists 1966-2012
where with great consistency he remains as equally unfazed by an artist's deflective eloquence as by their silence.  In total there are forty-four interviews with thirty-seven artists most of whom are painters, although there are some sculptors, plus a handful of photographers and architects.  The contents page reads as a cast-list of major art world figures from the second half of the twentieth century: Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Sonia Delaunay, Brassai, Jean Dubuffet, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Claes Oldenburg, Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Antoni Tapies, et al.  The slant is unapologetically towards both the European (Oldenburg is the only American) and the figurative (Delaunay, Hartung, Soulages, as well as Sean Scully, are the only abstract artists).

Despite being divided into five sections labelled 'School of London Artists', 'Three Architects', 'Studio Visits', 'Three Photographers' and 'European Artists', the conversations successfully cohere not only to provide a unique perspective on the visual arts from the sixties to the present day, but also to evoke something of the existential atmosphere of the European post-war experience that helped form many of these creative minds.  Due to Peppiatt's background as a former editor of Le Monde
and Art International, and as an art correspondent for the New York Times and the Financial Times, the aim for many of these pieces is towards a magazine or journal, although some of the most impressive (such as those with Music, Peter Blake, Tony Bevan and Hughie O'Donoghue) are written especially for exhibition catalogues.  Peppiatt also includes some new transcripts, such as the Bacon interview, that present previously omitted material.  Sometimes the pieces are part of an ongoing dialogue established over several studio visits with years in between them (for instance, those with Music and Tapies), while the two illuminating exchanges with Frank Auerbach of this type have not been published before.

Over the course of four books, Peppiatt's investigations into the life and work of Bacon have helped consolidate his stature as a critic.  Francis Bacon: the Anatomy of an Enigma
(1996) reflected a special degree of openness achieved by remaining friends over the three decades since Peppiatt had first interviewed him for a student magazine in 1963.  Bacon is featured here as a member of the 'School of London', a loose grouping that is a long-standing interest of the writer.  Recollecting the relaxed nature of their exchanges, Peppiatt explains in his new preface to the piece that their entire friendship was based on 'a kind if uninterrupted interview' and consequently 'since Bacon talked to me very freely, in all kinds of moods and situations, I learnt far more than I would have done from any number of more constrained, recorded conversations'. 

In this particular discussion, Bacon is confidently direct, yet mischievous, to say the least (but not as drunkenly so as during his infamous South Bank Show interview with Melvyn Bragg).  For example, in one response he claims that photography rarely gives him the shock of inspiration that poetry and drama does.  But as in many of the exchanges in this collection, Peppiatt brings his interviewee's thoughts back down to earth by focusing on the mechanics of making the work:

  MP   You've got to have the feedback from the paint.  It's a dialogue
              in a strange sense.

  FB      It is a dialogue, yes.

  MP     The paint is doing as much as you are.  It's suggesting things to
              you.  It's a constant exchange.

   FB      It is.  And one's always hoping that the paint will do more for
              you.  It's rather like painting a wall.  The very first brushstroke
              gives a sudden shock of reality, which is cancelled out when you
              paint the whole wall.

Peppiatt's grounded sensibility is also brilliantly disposed in the interviews with  Blake and O'Donoghue.  In suggesting the scrapbook-like nature of Blake's working process and his studio surroundings, he asks about all the different objects that are 'found things and bought things and collections, whole collections, whole curiosity cabinets', and so Blake wistfully replies with great understatement, 'Yes.  Some of it has settled down into being almost a museum'.  Exploring the nature of paint with O'Donoghue, he suggests to the artist that he takes pleasure in engaging with 'the actual medium' asking 'is it a voluptuous thing?'  O'Donoghue replies 'absolutely' before going on to describe his 'very intense response to the physicality of paint'.

There is a range of attitudes on display in these interviews, from subjects who are thoughtful, hesitant or evasive, through to those who are more blustering and narcissistic.  As an interviewee, Music is full of anguish and self-doubt when he states 'You can't say anything ... There it is.  There's nothing to say about painting', before Peppiatt leads him towards explaining his work in terms of his harrowing war-time incarceration.  Similarly, Peppiatt brings Auerbach to confess 'occasionally one feels one has totally forgotten how to paint ... and then a mark may happen at any time that reminds one of what it's like to paint, and one tries to do the thing with the energy at one's disposal before the feeling goes'.
Meanwhile Scully knows nothing of this anxiety: when Peppiatt asks 'you don't sit in front of the blank canvas quaking and thinking, oh my God, how am I going to start?', the painter replies 'It doesn't occur to me'.  Scully arrogantly sees himself as an equal of Bacon, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston and goes on to make the ludicrous statement 'In many ways I feel I'm taking on the whole history of painting'.  Tapies fluctuates between various degrees of confidence, but in the process, underlines his double role of both making and viewing: 'I am the first spectator of my paintings.  I strive to make them speak'.

In the Henry Moore piece, Peppiatt can't help showing his irritation with the artist's inflated reputation as he recalls his studio visit to Little Hadam in 1983, a time when Moore's large-scale sculptures were coming to dominate public art.  Not only does the critic have reservations about the work, he also resents Moore's approach to the interview, especially in his delivering of a series of ready-made answers.  However Peppiatt acknowledges his regret that this encounter did not take place earlier in the sculptor's career when Moore might have been less self-aggrandizing in his demeanour.

Although there are no reproductions of actual work (only a b/w studio photograph to commence each interview), this is a carefully arranged collection of explorative conversations about the making of images.  Many of them are revealing and captivating exchanges, with a candidness about studio practice that might add to the understanding and appreciation of an artist's work; and in so doing, can reveal the authenticity of a particular approach.  Not only would this book function as a suitable guide-book for those struggling to articulate themselves by way of the frequently superfluous 'artist statement', it also stands as an excellent introduction to a number of late 20th century European artists (Music, Hartung, Soulages, Piero Guccione, Jose-Maria Sicilia, Miguel Conde, etc), some of whom receive scant attention in the UK.  In most cases, getting to know them in Peppiatt's astute company makes for a most pleasurable reading experience.
         © Peter Gillies 2013