Painter and writer, author of essays on Pierre Bonnard and What is painting? and of the acclaimed history of art titled Mirror of the world (“thought-provoking and cogent” according to The Times), Julian Bell is heir to an illustrious lineage of British intellectuals – son of the illustrator Quentin Bell, nephew of the poet Julian Bell, his grandparents were art critic and painter Clive and Vanessa Bell, his great-aunt the novelist Virginia Woolf. The author Michel Faber has recently praised the “aqueous luminescence” and the “quiet aplomb” of his art. We have the privilege of discussing with him about his art and his writing just before the opening of his London show at the Francis Kyle Gallery in Mayfair (running from 21st April until 13th May).
Looking at your paintings, it appears that light is a major preoccupation in your work. How do you approach light?
The most difficult question first! In fact, when I’m at work painting, the thought of ‘light’ as such never enters my head. There are just different pigments which I put on the canvas to make the figures and the environment in my image look the way they need to look – that’s how I approach it – and some of those combinations of pigments happen to be lighter, some darker. (I wonder if this is the kind of Cezanne meant when he said ‘For the painter, there is no such thing as light.’) And yet of course when I stand back and look at what I’ve done, what stays in the mind is the light. I realize that I’m typically drawn to scenes where low-angled sunlight jangles against strong artificial light, and for that very reason I try to break my own habit, avoid my own clichés – do scenes where the light is very muted; where it’s all artificial; or where it’s high in the sky and purely natural. One canvas just has sunlight falling from a window in the ceiling into a room where four men sit with their eyes closed. And thinking of that, the best way I can express my sense of how this theme operates in painting is to get paradoxical and to say that light is natural metaphysics. It is a physical load of pigment with certain optical properties, and equally it is nothing less than understanding and grace.
In terms of light, you have written an essay on Pierre Bonnard – has his representation of light (and light on the human skin) influenced you?
I first got a job to write about Bonnard in 1994, when I knew very little about him except that I liked him – I’d never seen a big show of his work. I’d already been painting for twenty years plus, so I guess my mindset was already basically formed. I think the things that Bonnard is trying to represent – the things he is trying to get an equivalent for – are chords or resonances within his own memory, he is two steps removed from the physical hue of the object. Whereas I’m the kind of painter who is always naively trying to match the pigment to the object’s immediate colour, you see me holding up a loaded brush or palette knife before a scene to check the correspondence and ‘get it right’. ‘Get it right’ in quotes of course, because the end results are not factual, they’re imaginative, even as Bonnard’s are. But the approach does remain fundamentally different.
Human beings, the interaction with the crowd and the surroundings, the human figure – these also appear to be important in your work
Yes, that is what I am mostly thinking about when I’m making the pictures – rather than ‘light’, per se. My general theme is how human beings occupy environments, occupy different types of space. Or I could turn that upside down by saying, what concerns me is that a rectangular picture has got to have something in it, something that’s not simply coextensive with it, and that entity is generally going to be an analogue for myself or things of a similar nature, i.e. a figure, one way or another. Many of the present collection of pictures have become crowd-filled, as you say. Partly because I had the use of a big studio and thought I’d take the chance to try painting some big canvases – but more deeply because the artist I’ve always looked up to most is Bruegel, and I’ve always longed to imitate his panoramic sociological approach to humanity.
In terms of figurative art, can you comment the following statement by Richard Wollheim: “When the Impressionists tried to teach us to look at paintings as though we were looking at nature [...] this was because they themselves had first looked at nature in a way they had learnt from looking at paintings”?
That would apply to all attempts at naturalistic painting. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Here’s Fan Kuan worrying over the same issue a thousand years ago: ‘My predecessors [in landscape painting] always found their own methods in natural phenomena. So for me to take those other artists as my teachers cannot compare with learning from natural phenomena. And it would be better still, if I were to learn from my inner self rather than from natural phenomena.’ – And in fact that’s what the Impressionists thought, that they were injecting inner self – sensation, the flux of immediate passing experience – into the representation of landscape scenes. But there was an extra party in the dialogue by the time they were working – the camera. They were trying to supersede photography or at least to distinguish its remit from painting’s. For me, inevitably, photographs are a fundamental given of the situation. But I use them chiefly thus: I search through other people’s photographs for suggestions or cues or reminders, telling me about the various configurations in which people and their environments appear in the world. I then draw and draw and draw on the basis of those photographically supplied cues, until I have a picture that represents what’s out there in the world in my own expressive language.
Your grandparents were art critic Clive Bell and painter Vanessa Bell: how much are you influenced by your family’s legacy in your painting and writing?
For the most part, very indirectly, I think. Because my father Quentin Bell – their son – reacted against their English versions of modernist art with a personal artistic stance you could almost call post-modernist (except that this was in the 1940s) – he explored a fascination with pre-modern craft traditions, at the same time he explicitly admitted there was something absurd and anachronistic in doing so. He mostly did pottery and illustration, but I’ve taken that attitude of his over into painting. My painting is interested in things I think of as pre-modern, like narrative and naturalistic values. But maybe those are mad concerns for a contemporary painter to have? And so the paintings mock themselves a bit. Many in the current exhibition have clown-like protagonists. I’m very fond of Vanessa Bell’s and Duncan Grant’s art, but I don’t identify with it at all. One thing, though, that maybe runs through the generations of the family is a belief that paintings are largely to do with pleasure, and if a painting gives pleasure, that is an entirely satisfying reason for it to exist.
Is it correct to say that your approach to art history in Mirror of the world is based more on seeing art as the tangible product of the human creative process rather than an abstract aesthetic concept?
Well, I’m only interested in the concept of ‘art’ in a very peripheral way, as a theme that occasionally stimulates people to make interesting objects. Fascinating objects and how people made them and what those people were like and what they felt the world was like, those are the things that matter to me. I do tend to think of aesthetics as a thin, dodgy, not very convincing branch of philosophy, even when it’s got the intellectual weight of Hegel behind it, or the elegance of Croce.
Art and innovation (and this constant idea of seeing something “new”, making something “new”): but is it possible to reinvent the wheel in art?
This is what I’ve been saying about my own painting earlier, that it is trying to reinvent the cart-wheels of narrative and naturalism long after transport has moved on to… air travel, or something. It’s crazy. Yet painting is a business where being naive does make sense, I believe. In one sense you’re always bound to be doing something new, for better or worse, in another you are in the same position as every other artist in history, and ‘We have learnt nothing’, as Picasso said when he visited Lascaux.
As an artist, how do you relate to the art market, its changes and the idea of art as a commodity?
I have no problem at all with the idea of my pictures as commodities – I want them to be bought and to hang in other people’s rooms. It’s true that I don’t want them to be bought and get stacked in a storeroom as investments – but is that much worse than them lying stacked and unseen in my studio? The art market is a crazy system, sure, but also a very big and complex one. The fact that some mega-wheeler-dealer like Hirst dominates the media image of it doesn’t mean there aren’t all kinds of niches and corridors available for completely different acts, such as mine, to operate commercially also. One might wish that the media representation of what artists are up to wasn’t so monopolistic and narrow – but that’s where something like The Tamarind comes in, isn’t it?
Francis Kyle Gallery
9 Maddox Street
W1S 2QE London