John Tusa interviews Howard Hodgkin, by Howard Hodgkin and John Tusa

BBC Radio 3, 7th May 2000

John Tusa interviews Howard Hodgkin

Howard Hodgkin has described his paintings in apparently very simple terms. “My subject matter”, he has written, “is simple and straightforward. It ranges from views through windows, landscapes, occasional still life’s, to memories of holidays, encounters with interiors and art collections, other people, other bodies, love affairs, sexual encounters and emotional situations of all kinds even, including eating”. Well, the simplicity of that statement is only an apparent one. Using strong colours in bold sweeps, dots, curves, hooks, his pictures have very direct titles, things like Girl By a Window, Mrs Acton in Delhi, Coming Up From the Beach, and many more like that. Memory, the recapture of memory, is his subject, and he paints it with energy and passion and single-mindedness.

Howard Hodgkin was born in 1932, represented Britain at the 1984 Venice Biennale, was knighted in 1992 and has had major retrospective exhibitions in London, New York and around the world. Howard Hodgkin, in his own definition, paints representational pictures of emotional situations.

Here you are, I hope, I’m sure, committing some of these thoughts and ideas to words. In fact, you’ve been very generous in talking about your work with many people. Do you find that useful? Do you find it easy? 

I don’t find it easy, as probably you will discover. I think that words are often extraneous, perhaps, to what I do, but I work in a country where words seem to be paramount as a form of communication and I think that if I didn’t talk about my work at all, people might not even bother to look at it.


I think it’s as serious as that. In other countries, in New York for example, when I had a very large exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum , there was no need for verbal communication, as far as I could make out. People would come and talk to me about my pictures, but they understood exactly what they were all about.

They would almost tell you about what they saw in them? 

Yes, they would. They would tell me about the feelings that they evoked in them.

And you wouldn’t get the equivalent response, for example, at the great Hayward retrospective? The British audience wouldn’t come up to you and say, “Mr Hodgkin , what I see in that, is this”. 

Yes by that time they did but I felt that it was because of all the things that had been said previously. I may be completely wrong about this.

But you’d be much happier, and indeed why not, in having what you put on wood – not canvas – [laughs] speak for itself and that you’d want us to take a risk with saying, “What I feel from this picture is such and such”? 

Yes, in fact you’re quite right to pull me up about the Hayward exhibition because I asked that the labels should be put as far away from the pictures as possible so they were put on the edge of the floor and several people said to me they always knew exactly what the picture was about and then they’d look at the title to check. Nevertheless, I think that words in this country are paramount, where the visual arts are concerned.

Is that why conceptual art is so popular? 

I think it might well be. And most successful and most visible artists at the moment – and this is of course a crude generalisation – are artists whose work, in many cases, depends considerably on words.

And we should, well you would rather, clearly, that having committed your emotions and your feelings to the picture, that we look at it and describe our feelings as we look at them. Right or wrong? I mean, it’s not that if I come to you and say what I see in this picture is such and such and you say no, you’ve totally missed the point. Or would you say, “My emotion when I painted it was something different, but if that’s what you see in it, that’s all right by me”? 

I would feel that that was perfectly all right, because the feeling, I think in any work of art, if the work of art succeeds, gets through and the label on it is perhaps not terribly important.

Just sticking with words for a moment more, you have kept diaries, I know at certain times of your life. Do you keep a diary the whole time? 

No, I don’t. I hope one day I will write something about my life simply because the older I get, I’m appalled at the inaccuracy in biographies of friends and people I know, or knew.

But I think you’ve said that you actually find keeping the dates of your own life and what happened when, as something that doesn’t greatly bother you and that you almost find rather difficult. I mean, critics say such and such a thing happened in such and such a year and you say, “Well, if that’s what you tell me, that’s all right but I don’t terribly remember myself.” 

No, I don’t terribly remember but I do remember events, I don’t remember chronology.

Would you remember, say, a love affair or even a dinner party over 30 or 40 years, one that had been strong enough to make you paint about it? 

Yes, I would. And almost the only skill I have, sort of measurable skill I would say is a strong visual memory, and I can remember what things looked like from very long ago.

How many of your pictures can you recall? 

The pictures themselves yes, certainly I can recall most of them and I think the source material for nearly all of them as well.

So if you wrote, that would be the basis from which you would write. That is your own personal mental card index, reference library. 

Indeed. I could look at the list of my paintings and that I suppose would be a kind of chronology.

I’m going to try to draw you a bit, because I’m interested in it and I’m sure the listeners are, on the business of painting and how you go about it. Tell me a little bit about your studio routine. Are you a regular worker in the studio? 

Yes, I am a very regular worker in the studio. But, I often sit in my studio, apparently doing nothing at all because sitting with what I’m working on, is how and – particularly with age – I find is one of the few things that’s really changed, that by sitting looking at a painting for a very long time rather than keeping it away from me and then returning to it, I can work on it more quickly.

How many paintings do you work on at the same time? 

It varies. It varies considerably. At the moment in my studio I should think I’ve got about 12 unfinished paintings. But sometimes I’ve had as many as twice that number.

And when you go into the studio in the morning you never know, or do you have some idea, which is the one that is going to call out to you and say, “I know how to move onto the next stage with this particular painting”? 

It is more disciplined than that. I’ve decided as I walk to my studio… or no, I probably decided beforehand, which picture I’m going to look at and which picture I’ll work on.

Is it physically hard? 

Yes, well, it varies again. It’s physically very difficult with very large pictures because the necessity of making the kinds of marks I do and the necessary technique for making them, requires considerable stamina.

You say marks, not brush strokes. 

I say marks, deliberately.


Because a brush stroke suggests something that is sort of free fall, and of course it’s not. It’s made with a lot of deliberation, which I cannot describe. They’re made to look like a very free gesture, but it very rarely is.

And of course you work layer upon layer, on any particular painting, until you have got the necessary results. The process of painting is just to add layers until you have the right surface, texture or whatever.

That’s absolutely right. I work and work and work until the picture’s finished, but I always work on top of what went before. When I began, I used to occasionally wipe it all off, but I don’t do that anymore.

Mm. Is it an important part of what the finished painting is, the fact that there’s a lot underneath the surface? 

No, not particularly. I mean, some of my pictures are very thinly painted, some are very thickly painted. I don’t think it affects the physical object very much but for me, emotionally or even intellectually, one thing leads to another, so that if I – as I did once or twice, many years ago – try obliterating it by removing it, one thing doesn’t lead to another. You have to start totally afresh.

You said, some years ago in an interview, that I think you began with a sketch on – and I don’t know whether at that stage you were working on canvas or on wood – but a quasi-realistic sketch, and then started to paint. Now, do you still do that or have you moved way beyond that? 

I’ve moved far beyond that. Though, where I moved beyond that is still related to it in that I always begin with a very firm – or rather very exact – visual memory. But I wouldn’t now feel it necessary to put it all down. I might put down just a part of it.

Visual memory or emotional memory or both at the same time? 

Both at the same time. But of course, it has to be visual, somehow.

And I know in a correspondence that you had with an art critic, he raised the question as to whether what you are doing is the deliberate veiling of the objects and the emotion, i.e. that you start with something fairly explicit in your own mind and then you make it – not more obscure – but veiling was the word that was used. Or whether in fact, as you paint, you reveal the full nature of the memory, even to yourself. 

I think the second. I think I reveal it to myself… well, I’m quite certain about that. The picture is finished when, as I have said and it sounds very glib but I can’t think of any other way of putting it, that when the memory comes back in another form. So, it’s becoming more and more intense as the picture gets finished.

But suddenly at the moment when, perhaps you come into the studio in the morning and you think that you’re going to work on a particular painting and it looks at you and you look at it, and you think no, that’s right, that’s the only way in which you can judge when the process of painting is finished. 

It isn’t quite as random as that sounds. It’s when a great many things are being taken into account and settled. So, the moment a picture is finished is very precise and usually anticipated. I wish it was as you describe, how life would be simpler and better if it was. [Laughs].

Let me just try a quote from one of the painters you most admire, Matisse , quoting Chardin, who said, “I apply colour until there is a resemblance”. Does that strike a chord? 


Wonderfully simple sounding, isn’t it? 

Yes. [Laughs].

And just go on and on painting until it’s right. 

And it’s so straightforward.

Let us move on to a very different part of your life and not just your life, but the art scene in which you live. How strong is the British art scene today? 

I think it’s very strong indeed, but the reasons for that are quite complex. When I began as an artist, there was hardly any art world, as we know it now. There were very few dealers and for living artists, it was very difficult to – I choose the word deliberately – get a hearing. Now of course, that’s completely changed. But it hasn’t changed abruptly. It’s changed gradually over the last 20 years. But, at the moment I would think that to be a young artist in this country, there has never been a more hopeful moment.

Does that mean – and I don’t know how one judges these things – that the art scene has – I’ll risk it – never been better, or at least the potential for achievement, has never been richer than today? 

The opportunities, as I was trying to say, have never been greater. Whether everything will work out remains to be seen. The first great movement – and it was at the time a great movement that I as ever, was not actually involved in – was Pop Art. I have always been an outsider. I appeared once in a book on Pop Art. In the index it just said, “He was not one”. [Laughs]. It came and it went, very quickly. All art movements, I should say, quickly throw up a lot of people, a lot of artists at once who seem to be working in harmony, and then out of them come the one or two that remain.

Who go their own way? 

Who go their own way and are not sort of washed up on the shore. But they begin as being part of a group. And Pop Art was of course a very powerful group and there were some remarkable artists among them. But it faded very quickly and I remember wondering whether in any other country it would have faded quite so fast. And the reason I’m suggesting it’s never been better here now, though I personally – and it’s probably through old age and perhaps seeing a different kind of art – can’t see a coherent movement exactly. It’s obviously never been a better time.

In terms of public response? 

Public response, and public support.

Yes. Because the days when people said, “I don’t know what all this modern art stuff is about”, when you look at the attendances for contemporary art of all kinds and in many respects, the more avant-garde, the more unexpected the better, I mean this is a quite extraordinary reversal, isn’t it? 

It’s a complete change and the reason that it’s such an extraordinary moment, now, is mainly because museums and public institutions, take a much more active role than they ever did before. The pattern – this is very crudely put – but the pattern needs to be that artist’s work would appear, it was promoted in all sorts of different ways, in as far as it could be, by dealers. This has changed to such an extent that it’s often promoted by museums and this is of course, very much a world-wide phenomenon, but in England, it’s been perhaps more powerfully the case because there weren’t many great promoting dealers. But now, we have three or four dealers of international class. This is quite new in London. We have Charles Saatchi, whose role in the English art world could never be over-rated, who is immensely important, and then we have Nick Serota, whose passion for contemporary art is like that of some… the founder of a new religion. I mean, it is so total, dedicated, selfless, and successful.

And audiences follow. We’re ready to look afresh at things that we wouldn’t have looked at a couple of years ago, or that our first reaction might be shock, puzzlement or whatever. That’s the extraordinary thing, that we have followed that lead. 

Well I think it’s because when there is great passion about anything, it does draw an audience, it does pull an audience, and Charles Saatchi started it with his extraordinary personal museum and people went to it. But one shouldn’t forget the artists themselves, who have made their own careers in the way that never existed before, when there was a sort of passivity among artists who sort of wait to be chosen, wait to be promoted, wait for people to come and sell their work. Now, all those things are done by the artists themselves, far more successfully perhaps than any dealer could.

But presumably that starts with the art schools and the quality of art education of opening up young artists to the possibility of expressing themselves in a whole range of ways, which changes and develops every five years? 

Well I wouldn’t agree entirely with the changing every five years. I think now, as always, with any situation of this sort, it begins to sort of academicise, if I can invent a horrible word. Arteries harden very, very quickly.

And then it will be time for a new… 

Yes, of course.

A rush of ideas. 

Of course. But the other name I should have mentioned is Michael Craig-Martin , whose work at Goldsmiths was extraordinary, in that it broke the mould of teaching in English art schools, which was almost non-existent. But it was particularly almost non-existent because nobody was taught anything about being a professional artist.

What were you supposed to do? I mean, you were just expressing yourself on canvas or on paper… 

Yes, exactly, or not even doing that, just looking in a lackadaisical way at a model and then sort of doing a little copy of what you thought you saw.

But when you say the business of being an artist, you mean that they weren’t taught about what the rough world of making your living as an artist is. 

Or being in the rough world. In the days when I was a teacher – which is a very long time ago – I remember trying desperately to tell my students that working alone in a room by yourself with the world outside was quite different – in fact totally different – from working in the entirely protected confines of an art school, or of any academic institution, and they just didn’t want to know, naturally enough. But Michael did manage – and some other people as well, of course, these things always seem to happen by some curious osmosis, if that’s the right word, that lots of people think the same thing at the same time and without communicating with each other – but, he particularly, it’s not just that he was a teacher of stars, he simply had an attitude, which was totally different.

Mm, and that’s showing through now. 

Well we’ve almost come to the other side of what he did.

Yes. You mentioned loneliness, the loneliness of painting, of any creative work. What are your own props against the necessary loneliness of your essential work? What sort of support mechanisms, or support stratagems, do you have to break out of that essential loneliness? 

Very few, I’m afraid. And the older I get and the longer I work, I sometimes think I’m dragging behind me an enormous weight, a sort of bag full of all the loneliness I’d felt in the past. It can become very oppressive and I envy, quite literally, the kind of artists who do not do their work themselves. There are many. They have assistants who do their work and they talk to them and they say no, do it like this, do it like that. And actually I only have when I’m making prints. But, I do have assistants, because I work on wood and there’s a lot of work like that to be done. I mean, lots of carpentry and woodwork to do, but I don’t really have a proper support system. I try and see people in the evening. I go out and have endless cups of coffee in cafes, and look at the people walking past and read too many newspapers. But, there’s no cure.

But, music, I mean, I see you a lot at concerts and opera… 

Indeed, but I never listen to music when I’m working.

No, but the fact that you can take part in something as gregarious as going to a concert, listening to an opera, did you ever find yourself in the course of a day thinking, “My God, this is really, really hard work but don’t worry, at seven this evening I’m going to be at the Coliseum, or whatever it is, hearing an opera”, and when you think about that, that is a release. 

Oh, I often try and think about what I’m going to do in the evening, but it doesn’t really work like that. It sounds appallingly self-pitying to say so, but the pain of working is incurable.

Do you ever take a long rest? I mean, apart from holidays, because you travel and that, but do you ever say, “I’m now not going to do anything for two weeks, three weeks”, or is that actually impossible, that the pressure of re-creating your memories in your paintings, is so great, that you are constantly having to do it? 

I find it almost impossible to stop working. My friend Patrick Caulfield said, “Artists”, no he actually said, “Painters, are always working”. And in a curious way, it’s true. When I was very young, I thought one year I will take off, a complete year, but I never have. And I suppose, now that I’ve grown so old, I think there’s no time, because there is a moment when one thinks there’s endless time and then of course there isn’t.

It just occurred to me, as we were mentioning music, I don’t think you have ever – or at least not looking through the catalogues – done a painting which is based on a night at the opera or a night listening to music. Have you? 

No, not yet.

Why is that? 

I said not yet. [Laughs].

Yes. Given what you say about the necessity of capturing the intensity of your memories, on paintings, the glib conclusion would be to say that suggests that the memories that you get from music and opera are not so strong that you have to capture them in a painting. 

I don’t think that’s completely wrong. I have painted pictures about – well very few – one or two pictures, which are meant to evoke the work of other painters, but I think to simply paint a picture about a work of art as such, which you’d be like, I can’t imagine painting a concert unless something happened at it.

Ah, yes. Somebody you went to the concert with. 

With, or several people, or something.

Well, we’ll look forward to that when you do. Just going back to the political side of things, what do you feel about the role of government in supporting the visual arts, apart from supporting museums, which I suppose one takes as a given? 

Well it certainly isn’t a given. There was a period in my life when I was a trustee of the Tate, and the National Gallery, the National Gallery for sort of two terms, and also was involved briefly with the National Art Collection’s Fund and the Arts Council, it’s a period which seems to be very distant now. One thing however, was very clear then and is unfortunately still true, the government provides less and less and less support. It doesn’t look like it, at the moment, but the purchase grants are cut and cut and cut and cut. Nobody knows anymore because it’s not a sexy subject to get talked about.

Well we’re all told to stop whinging, aren’t we? 

Yes, yes. And I think that what has happened is in many ways tragic. I mean the extraordinary enterprise of the two Tates, in fact conceals what has happened and the tremendous fight there was to get money to pay for the running costs. And even then, it’s not quite enough. And to me it’s terrible. I must be very old fashioned in my view of government, but when, under Mrs Thatcher – which I once said to her, but of course she didn’t understand the source of what I was saying – I said that it seemed to me terrible that the National Gallery should depend on the kindness of strangers, a quotation she naturally didn’t recognise – perhaps fortunately – in order to mend the roof.

I have a feeling that the government now would say that the combination of sources of funding, that the Tate has found to do what it has done, actually represents a stronger position, a more vital one, because it’s drawn in private money, it’s drawn in lottery money, it’s drawn in individuals, and that collectively, this is a more secure base, because it’s a more complex, rich one, than if the government had just said, “This is the kind of modern museum we want, here is the money”. I think they would say that, wouldn’t they, and isn’t there something in it? 

Well I’m not quite sure I know what they would say, but I imagine that they would say, “Well, we’re giving you as little money as possible, but this is the kind of museum we want, this is the sort of museum you should make”. They become more and more dictatorial.

It must be a relief, to you, that you have never had this sort of dictatorship applied to you, you’ve never had a penny from government in any sorts? 

No. Well, I haven’t except for the British Council helping out with foreign exhibitions. But I would like to go on for a moment, with the question of government support for the arts, because it’s marvellous what is happening, but the fragility is something that is kept completely secret. Like, you must make money from your shop, your café and so on, in order to keep open. I don’t – myself – think that’s very healthy. I don’t think it’s healthy at all. And great museums as we know, like the V and A have been virtually smashed to pieces through a variety of circumstances but they do not include having enough money from the government.

Do you have any hope that that might change and can you imagine that that might change, or are we just way past that period? I mean, that was a post-war period, still a rather collectivist period, and that we are way, way past it. We’re never going to see that sort of attitude to funding again, at least not probably until the cycle comes back in another 50 year’s time? 

I don’t think even then we’ll ever see it again because museums increasingly, are meant to be not places where you go to be surprised, delighted and pleased by something you don’t know about. It’s supposed to be pushed further and further within a familiar experience, before you even get there.

Let me switch back, now having been in the public arena, back to something more personal to you. The question of the artists that you admire, but I think you’ve always been very careful to say they’re not necessarily influences. Matisse, who we mentioned briefly earlier, Vuillard and the Intimists, and a lot of people have written about – I think you have said as well – how close you feel to his concern with interiors, with patterns and with figures, as it were, emerge from these patterns in – sometimes often – quite a veiled way. Does he still matter to you? Do you still admire him? 

Are you talking about Vuillard?


Yes, I enormously admire him. But, it’s become academic to say it because nobody ever sees his paintings.

I saw a wonderful retrospective in Washington about 10 years ago. 

Exactly, 10 years ago. [Laughs]. There’s been talk of a huge Vuillard retrospective in England, ever since I can remember, but it never happened.

Mm. Do you think there should be? 

I think there certainly should be, partly because people are becoming interested in painting again. Very slightly, but they seem to be.

I mean what – I was going to say unites you, and that’s not the right word – but the concern with interiors and with the experience of people sitting – they’re often working – in those interiors, is that what draws you to him? 

Yes, certainly in part. But I think what really draws me to him is his extraordinarily radical ideas of representation, which of course people have from time to time pointed out are extraordinarily radical. It didn’t last long. He became a much more conventional painter quite quickly, as so many radical artists do. But, he absolutely exemplified, when he was very young, he painted three haunting self-portraits where he is just – and this was a Nabi doctrine – before a picture is a battlefield or a landscape or a bunch of flowers, I can’t remember the exact words, it is a series of coloured marks on a flat surface. And he painted himself like that. And he painted the world he knew, like that. And he painted his emotions like that. They owe nothing to light coming from one side on a three-dimensional object. They were simply marks, of different colours, on a flat surface. They’re far more radical than anything that Matisse ever painted. It doesn’t mean they’re better, but they were far more radical. And it’s a direction which somehow disappeared, and painting has never followed that line since, even though the Nabis were – and this is Nabi doctrine – they were wonderful for a little while, but it soon turned into decoration and triviality and so on.

But that sense also that you’re not concerned in what the light source is and all those other… 

No, not at all.

No, so… 

But one can use them. I would not anymore. I don’t use the Nabi doctrine when I am painting. No, I think that one can use anything.

And what about Seurat because, in a way, I was very surprised when somebody mentioned Seurat, because I thought, yes, there are dots, points in Seurat, in your case they are rather bigger and bolder marks, but clearly you’re using them for a very different purpose and you’re not – unless I’m mistaken – concerned about the sort of theories of light behind Seurat. So, isn’t the connection with Seurat a rather superficial one? 

Well, I’ve just finished painting a life-size picture of Seurat’s Bathers, for the exhibition which is going to be put on in the National Gallery in the summer. No, I’ve always felt a tremendous affinity with Seurat, not because of his theories, which I was in fact taught about, Chevraux’s colour theory, which he adopted absolutely sort of hook, line and sinker, but Seurat is a great classical painter and someone who represented life in the way that he did. Seurat’s drawings, I think, are among the most extraordinary – it’s very difficult not to sound pompous – they’re the most extraordinary sort of depictions of humanity that exists in the history of art. I think they’re amazing. His paintings are more variable in their success. I don’t think he’s a truly great painter, but they don’t have the total authority that his drawings have.

The word classical, which comes up a number of times in what you say about yourself. I think you were talking about Degas at one stage and you say he’s classical and that is what I aspire to be. Now, help me there because I don’t quite understand what the classical element in your paintings is. 

Well, I try to make pictures, which are sort of inviolable physical objects. They stand up by themselves, they absolutely… they can’t be changed, they’re unambiguous. Few people would agree with that. And they are containers for very strong emotions. When I look at a painting by Poussin, for example, I see just that. When I look at a painting by Seurat, I see just that. They’re monuments, which defy time.

And part of that process of defying, is that they are captured in this space, and sometimes a space within a space within a space, and at the heart of it, is the object, the emotion, that you are releasing. 

I think that’s brilliantly put, yes.

A word about your own periods of development. Again, I know you hate talking about chronology, but nevertheless, like it or not, art critics put your life into a number of periods. Do you recognise that some time in the 1970s, whatever date is put upon it, there was a sort of resolution, in whatever tensions there were, and that from the mid 1970s onwards, you painted with a more complete sense of yourself. I mean do you recognised there was some great change in the 1970s? 

No, I don’t, and I think one of the reasons perhaps that this has been suggested is because the only retrospective exhibitions I’ve ever had, started about then. And I have always had mixed feelings about retrospectives because they are, in a way for many artists, a kind of death. And what do you do afterwards?

More. [Laughs]. 

More, one hopes. But, I do now begin to want to have a real retrospective because I know if I have had one, I think it would be possible to see quite clearly that, that catalogue for example, does not go back very early. And it is all a very continuous process.

This is the catalogue of the Dallas Fort Worth and then the Hayward exhibition in 1995? 

Yes, and that was meant to be the last 20 years.

Which goes back to the very beginning. But what sort of process do you think we would see, if we saw your paintings over 50 years? 

I think you’d see not much change and as a friend of mine once said, who bought one of my earliest pictures which would have fitted in perfectly happily into my last exhibition, at Anthony D’Offay, he said, “Just one damn thing after another and not much change”. [Laughs]. But I like people to be able to see that.

Now, was that accurate, did you mind? Because after all, we’re also brought up to expect development, evolution, changes of style, you know, Beethoven’s last quartets, that sort of thing, and with you, it’s not here. 

Not yet.

No. Might there be a Hodgkin late period? 

I hope so.

Do you sense any change? Because, people noted with your last exhibition, at the D’Offay Gallery, they said, apart from anything else, Hodgkin is now painting much more quickly. Well, is that true? 


It’s not true? 

It’s not true, but I got so fed up with all the problems of doubly, trebly dating pictures and sometimes they’d taken so long, and they didn’t look as if they’d taken a long time, I thought to hell with it and I just put… So I lied about their age from time to time, sometimes making it much shorter. This time I thought I’d just start. And for the new millennium, I’m just going to put the year. [Laughs].

So hence everybody said this is wonderful, Hodgkin’s’ painting much more quickly and you’d just changed the dating on the paintings, yes. [Laughs]. Is there any lessening of your need to paint? 

No, it’s increasing, and when I finished this Seurat copy, which after all is,…. the cataloguer of this exhibition at the National Gallery, very kindly, he’s a man who’s very exact about all things that I’m not. Richard Morfid, who used to work for The Tate said, “This is the largest picture you’ve ever painted”, because it’s the same size approximately as the original. And that surprised me, I thought, “No, no, no, I’ve painted other pictures as big as this”. But that shows, I think, that my pictures are organically getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

But otherwise, the drive behind them, the need to recapture in memory, emotion – not always emotion recollected in tranquillity, either, I mean there are a lot of very painful paintings. 

Oh indeed. Painful and angry and so on. No, and the need becomes greater, but I think that’s age.

Do they provide a reconciliation for you, when there was something which was painful or which made you angry, and you have to turn it into a painting? At the end of that, has that purged the anger and the pain of what you are recollecting? 

No, I don’t think it has. But I think it’s put it in another place. It’s as if it was now in a cupboard and you could open the door and look at it. But then it all comes back.

So it’s not a sort of obvious release, the release of talking about something, of coming into a reconciliation, realising that anger is something useless to carry around. You’ve displaced it, you’ve removed it but not altogether got rid of it? 

Unfortunately not.

It’s a terrible burden. 

Yes, I suppose it is, but the fruit is the picture.

But again also seems unfair that having produced the fruit you should be able to get rid of the emotion? [Laughs]. 

Yes, I agree, I think it is unfair, but then I think being an artist is a rather unfair situation to be in.

Yes. What advice would you give to a young would-be artist starting out today? 


Come on. 

No, I would. I’m not being flippant when I say that. The reason I’d say don’t is because the strains of being an artist are not something I would wish on anybody.

But the satisfactions? 

They are always sort of just around the corner. They’re like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps don’t is being much too negative. Nevertheless, if you say that to somebody and then they pay no attention, well then that’s a good sign already.

And if somebody had said that to you 50 years ago, you would have paid no attention to them… 

Oh and they did say it. Oh yes. And the sort of background I came from, it was probably… I don’t say this with any retrospective self-pity at all, but it was probably about the least fertile or useful background for any kind of artist to come from.

So you really had to kick against it. 

Oh, sort of, desperately. I had a great friend at the first art school I went to, who came from an extremely impoverished background. I mean, the kind that no longer exists, it was so bad, but who had been saved by being an evacuee with two spinster ladies, and he’d come out the other end and he became an art student. But it was he who said to me how wonderful his life was because he was given the front room at home to paint in and nobody cared a damn what he did. Nobody was interested

But despite everything, despite the pain, despite the loneliness and all that, and I know you’ve said painting is the only thing I can do, if you had followed the advice of people 50 years ago and not gone into painting, I imagine now you would be a very, very frustrated and probably bitter person, wouldn’t you? Certainly unfulfilled? 

Yes, yes. Probably much bitterer than I am. I don’t really feel bitter at all. But I saw the other day an old friend who, we’d been at school together, and he had had a hard time. He didn’t escape…

And he didn’t do what he wanted to do? 

He’s been painting patiently for years and years and years, but he had nobody like… he needed a Michael Craig-Martin.

Mm. Thank you very much.