GB The group may be bigger than you think. I’m now using artists that I’ve never used before. This is from Delacroix [indicating a nude]. I’ve never used Delacroix before. This is based on Courbet [indicating Burlesque]. I’ve never used Courbet before. This is Guido Reni [indicating a portrait]. I’ve never used Reni before. And that’s Adolf Menzel [indicating a painting leaning against the wall].
LM Your paintings seem to operate in different ways depending on the paintings they are based on. For example, I’m intrigued by your recent work based on Baselitz’s paintings of feet. It seems to me that in them you have gone a long way in exploring paintings as just stuff, lumps of stuff.
GB I always refer to them as my abstract paintings. The abstracts are not really abstracts, though. In fact, there are things going on in there, but often it won’t be obvious what you’re looking at. There may be multiple heads in there, for example. I used to use a lot of Auerbach, Baselitz and Fragonard; I was trying to restrict the subjects and I would sometimes make two or three or even four paintings all based on the same Baselitz or Fragonard painting, just to play a game with how many times you could repeat something in different ways. But lately that’s changed and now I tend to use a wider range of artists. Lately, there’s also been a slight push toward the more abstracted paintings. In every show I include two or three paintings that are very figurative, more kitsch, and I suppose more direct or recognizable. They are there almost to counteract the abstraction in the other work.
LM Are you actually bringing extra images into them? Some have little flowers painted on the surface and some have eyes.
GB For a long time I’ve used the computer to manipulate images before I start painting, so I do lots of drawings and then computer manipulation to stretch and pull things around. When I actually start painting them on the canvas I play around. If I’m painting in the studio, most of the time I don’t have the image of what the painting is based on. I’m just free-forming with what works. I will often bring in other paintings for color references or bring in elements like the flowers, or change the brush marks.
LM Other artists have remade work from the past, such as Picasso painting Velázquez’s Las Meninas over and over again. I’ve always thought of it as his way of trying to learn from that painting. And there was Francis Bacon, also with Velázquez, in his case altering the content of the original portrait of the Pope. I don’t think either of those examples is close to what you do. Would you comment on that?
GB When I use Soutine do I feel that I know Soutine better? No, I don’t. There is quite a lot of Soutine in my painting but that is not the actual subject. The real subject is me trying to make an abstract portrait or a self-portrait. I take a lump of meat from Soutine to make a portrait of myself.
LM That’s my impression—whatever you were doing, it was not in any way like Picasso analyzing Velázquez or Bacon making the Pope scream.
GB I think Bacon, like me, is far more interested in the reproduced image, which is why I have never used Bacon’s work in my own painting. This is one of the latest paintings I made [Nausea, 2008, based on a Velázquez Pope, but turned upside down and without a head]. This was me saying that if I want to appropriate a painting I need to appropriate the most famous painting. I was trying to come up with a version of the Mona Lisa, but I couldn’t get the Mona Lisa to work. I was trying to figure out a way to use the Velázquez to make it my own. By taking away the head and turning it upside down, it’s not about the Pope any longer. And also it’s not about the Francis Bacon painting, because by taking away the head, the thing that made the Francis Bacon painting great isn’t there anymore.
LM Your paintings tend either to be composed over the full space of the canvas or to have a highly worked central image against a plain background.
GB I was reading an interview with Maria Lassnig and she was asked why she didn’t paint anything on the background, which was just bare canvas. She said, “I’m not interested in the background, I’m interested in the figure, in trying to depict the human being. Why would I put anything in the background that is going to take attention away from the figure?” I think with an artist like Picasso, the background was just a foil for the figure. He never really painted landscapes: it’s all about the figure. I think I have a similar concern and that is why the backgrounds are one color, to offset the figure.
To that extent, they are quite formal and traditional portraits. They are abstracted portraits but not abstract in the way that Barnett Newman was trying to make the painting allover. It’s about a central image, even if the central image feels as if it’s falling to the right or to the left of the canvas. When I’m working out the initial composition, I often shift the image over to one side to give it an awkward feeling. I do pencil drawings, and I use a sketchbook. Sometimes if I’m in a museum I do little drawings for compositional reference. The ideas usually come when I’m looking at an actual painting rather than at a book. And then I’ll look through books to find paintings that will fulfill my idea of what the painting should be.
LM What’s the trigger?
GB It’s not the subject, but the shape, the way the brush marks work. For instance, a painting like Deep Throat , while referencing Soutine,was drawn from a Dubuffet painting. For another work, I hunted through the old favorites such as Auerbach and Baselitz, trying to find an image, and couldn’t find anything. Then I looked at Soutine and realized that within this clump of green trees there was the head that I wanted to find. I worked out the composition before I knew it would be a Soutine painting. And it was only after I had started the painting that I understood what the color would be. The background was painted several times before it ended up this green color.
LM It’s actually a very intuitive process, isn’t it? As you said in your Turner Prize statement, you work from “the contemporary landscape.” But your landscape is all of the history of art, within which you move around and make your sketches.
GB My field is the library; that’s where I go sketching.
LM One of the questions that springs to mind when considering an artist making work based on the work of other artists is development. You’re about to have a retrospective spanning 16 years. I can see ways in which your painting has changed, but I wonder what sense you have of your work’s development?
GB I don’t worry so much about it developing, more about it getting better. If I felt that the work had the appearance of some of the older paintings but was just a much-improved, more dynamic and interesting version, then I would be happy that I had got somewhere. This painting in front of us, for example [not photographed and still untitled], is based on an Auerbach, which I haven’t used for the past five years, maybe longer. It was a very conscious decision to go back to old ground. I want to reinvigorate some old ideas that I can improve on this time. I can make the color better, the composition more intriguing—even though to some extent it reminds me of a lot of work I made 15 years ago.
I like to be able to jump around and re-quote my old work, and not continually feel as if I were moving forward to this “promised land.” The Tate exhibition will not be hung chronologically. There will be paintings done 18 years apart in the same room, but hopefully they’ll have some playful information to exchange. There isn’t necessarily an overall stylistic development, more an increase in quality. The work I make now doesn’t look like the work I made 10 years ago, but there are similarities.
LM I think something is shifting. For example, let’s take your early choices of artists to work with, Salvador Dalí or sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss. These are the classic, teenage boys’ favorite paintings. There’s a kind of weird, queasy eroticism in those images, it seems to me. In Dalí, of course, there’s a huge erotic element, and I’ve always found the science fiction images erotic in a strange way. Now, in your more recent works, a sort of fleshiness seems to be actually manifesting itself, especially in the pieces you refer to as your “abstract” paintings.
GB Obviously with the works based on Dalí and the earlier ones based on Auerbach, there’s something directly erotic, and also with Foss, who, incidentally, illustrated The Joy of Sex. [A sex education manual written by Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex (1972) was illustrated with line drawings of a heterosexual couple by Foss. The images in the first edition have gained a reputation as classics of ’70s kitsch.]
All of these earlier paintings were far more direct copies of the source material; there was less of me in them. As I said, with the more recent paintings there’s generally a much greater adaptation of the source material, which I abandon quickly and just carry on with the painting. It’s often difficult to recognize what they were based on because so much of the original has been changed, or tiny parts of a particular painting have been used and then altered very dramatically. But whether that makes the painting more me or not, I’m not sure—because I love the notion of appropriation, and the fact that we can’t escape appropriation. All of the knowledge of all of the art we’ve ever seen is with us when we paint, or when I paint. Whether I choose to or not, I may appropriate artists’ styles and marks and color combinations.
Fleshy is a good word to use because these paintings are very much about the discrepancy between the brush mark and flesh, and often the relationship between living and dead flesh as well. A lot of the colors are quite repellent, and the rather tormented, irritating surface has a degree of unpleasantness about it. I suppose that’s my gothic, adolescent self still there, peering through Foss and Dalí! Even when I paint flowers, they always come out rather unpleasant and smelly looking.
LM The vase-of-flowers paintings are particularly good examples of what we are discussing, this fleshiness. There has always been something very powerful and disturbing in the way you paint. I was struck by it when I first saw your work in the show curated by Rear Window [a London-based arts organization that operated between 1992 and 1998], in Richard Salmon’s studio in 1994. For me, it’s becoming more manifest now, for example, in the vase-of-flowers paintings, which are much more about the physicality of the actual performance of painting, if I could describe it like that.
GB The painting On Hearing of the Death of My Mother , which is based on a Renoir vase of flowers, was painted at the same time as a work called Kill Yourself, based on the same Renoir. They were trying to be as deeply unpleasant as I could make them, and I don’t know why! I wasn’t fantastically unhappy at the time, I have to say. Art is theater and theater isn’t real life—it’s an exaggeration of real life; it’s what makes people engage with something. You don’t go to the opera because you want to see a supermarket; you go because you want to see grand themes played out, at a grand emotional level, heightened emotions, and that operatic sense is what I want in the work. The emotional level has gone up to near maximum.
LM And to use the word you used earlier, “appropriation,” I think that in your early days you kind of appropriated that theatricality, that operatic quality, from people like Chris Foss, or John Martin—surely the master of operatic painting. But now that desire to create a sort of spectacle, a sort of grandeur, seems to me to be coming from inside the paintings instead of being copied from outside, if that makes sense.
GB I think that does some of the early paintings a slight injustice, in that the Foss paintings never look like my versions of them. Mine are always played around with. The colors are altered, the cities were redrawn and I was always inventing things to increase their intensity right from the start. Even 16 years ago I was playing with the images to increase that sense of the gothic. It was partially there in Chris Foss’s work, but not in quite the same way. All the while I was sort of learning what you can do, learning different techniques from other people. But I never want to lose that notion of appropriation—people say to me, sooner or later you’ll stop copying other artists and you’ll make work of your own, but it’s never been my point to try to do that, because I never thought you ever could. The work is always going to be based on something, and I wanted to make the relationship with art history as obvious as possible. Again, I think it increases the intensity of the way that people look at things.
LM It also gives you permission to make paintings.
GB And it allows you to be more outrageous as well. If you present these paintings to people who’ve never looked at painting before, they might be rather puzzled. But to somebody who is acquainted with the National Gallery and all of the strange, dark and peculiar ways in which artists have chosen to represent the world, my paintings don’t appear as so much of a surprise. You can find all of the brooding adolescent angst in a Rubens painting that you can in any modern teenager’s bedroom—it’s an enduring theme. And the sexuality is probably more rampant in painting of the past than in today’s painting.
LM It’s true in historic paintings because sexuality, or horror, is always presented within the context of a familiar story. You can show Judith cutting Holofernes’s head off or whatever because it’s a story that the audience would know, and we don’t have those sorts of commonly recognized stories any longer. Artists have to make up their own stories: it’s another layer of the job an artist has to do in the 21st century, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Whereas before, the king would say to Titian, “Paint me a picture of Diana and Actaeon.”
GB The Renaissance was an extraordinary time, because the Catholic Church was commissioning paintings of these pagan acts that were quite outrageous and very anti-Christian in many ways.
LM It was like history painting in the 18th century—these subjects were considered to be serious and appropriate as themes for artists to address. In a sense you do history painting: you do history-of-art-history painting.
GB Which is a much smaller kind of history. I’m thinking of walking around Versailles looking at the huge history-based paintings there—the Delacroix, the Davids—they are actually quite dull. Whereas the depiction of myth and legend can be quite exciting. It’s not the real world and it may be less politically correct, but it makes for a better story!
LM You seem to be quite open about wanting there to be some kind of human connection, an emotional response to your work. One painting, for example, is titled I do not feel embarrassed at attempting to express sadness and loneliness. It’s another vase-of-flowers painting.
GB Yes, that’s based on a van Gogh.