Celia Scott, In Conversation
at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery, London
Wednesday 16 May 2012
by Ellis Woodman: As executive editor of Building Design I have an architectural background, and Carrie has a Classics and Fine Art background, we’ll be lobbing questions at Celia. Some of you were sitters, and I hope you will be pitching in too.
Ellis Woodman: Celia, to what extent are your heads portraits of individuals, or are they emblematic of types?
Celia Scott: I gave them titles so that people wouldn’t say: “You didn’t put the wart on his nose.” In some case the title related to the bust form like Man in the Scarf, in others, it’s true, they relate to their public persona.
Caroline Vout: That may be true, but I still heard new arrivals saying: “I recognise these people.” Is that a mark of success for you?
CS: (pause) Yes, but it’s a question of the degree of likeness. I’m trying to get at the truth of a person rather than a similitude.
David Rowe: That’s a very tricky question! (Laughter)
Rita Wolff: I think there’s a spiritual quality about them, that’s different for each one. I wouldn’t talk about ‘likeness’ at all. I mean Leo (Krier, the Polemicist) thought I looked very bourgeoise. Well, I can’t look like a Roman Emperor, can I? (Laughter)
CV: Yes, to me as a classicist the one on the left (The Critic), is very Julius Caesar-esque. The one on the right (the Polemicist) is almost, dare I say it, fascist in style. It’s a head that would be at home in Rome’s Borghese Gardens. They’re very different from one another-- classicizing in different ways.
CS: I would say the one on the right is more stylized. The one on the left, take away the toga, just look at the face; I would say it’s more sensitively modern.
CV: I’ll come back to the bourgeois reference in a minute, but I’d like to pursue the Roman Emperor comment. Thinking in terms of likeness and presence, in antiquity the Emperor was his image. Most of his subjects across the length and breadth of the Empire had no idea what the real ruler looked like: h e looked like his portrait. So his portrait had a real kind of charisma, it actually ‘stood in’ for him. There are stories about not taking one’s clothes in front of his image . Doing so would have been like stripping in front of the Emperor.
Robert Maxwell: The modern arose out of the French revolution, out of the egalitarian democracy of One man, one vote. I don’t think you can make any art without being discriminating. But how can you discriminate in anything without being to a degree élitist.
CV: It’s a question particularly fore-grounded in the genre of portraits. We are here with all these heads on herm-like plinths. I was talking to Celia on email yesterday, discussing whether the portrait bust has a place in the 21st century? Because of its 18th- century baggage, because we’re used to seeing it in the corridors of museums or in English country houses, it has an elitist, ‘bourgeois’, if you like, ‘dead, white male’ mentality. These herm-like shafts, like herms in the Greek world, could be called phallic, male objects, and be seen as sort of threatening. It’s very odd to have Celia, in a tradition of Lysippos, Bernini and Nollekens making these very strong male images.
The discussion moves from rear courtyard to front room.
William Pye: I am surprised you haven’t talked about the sheer sensuality and pleasure of modeling. Is it because, as an architect, you are detached? To take a lump of clay and start modeling it is an extremely satisfying experience.
CV: Coming to the sensuality of working in clay brings us back to the sensuality of the three- dimensional form. I once curated a show with the Henry Moore Institute. We unpacked the crates and found one of the marble heads on loan from the Louvre had lipstick marks all over it! The three dimensional form has presence in an extremely strong way … Does this complicate your relationship with the sitter?
CS: It does, it does! It makes it a weighty thing to be doing. I have been continuing in the tradition of getting things cast in bronze, but it does make one wonder about different materials. But then one doesn’t want to go down the route of being very realistic. It doesn’t leave enough to the imagination.
CV: There’s very little sensuality in a photo-realistic canvas. There’s comparatively more sensuality in a three-dimensional form, but I think you’re right – we were talking about truth, weren’t we?
CS: Yes, I do want to avoid literalness, it’s quite a delicate balance. The more literal they get, the less presence they have quite often.
EW: I think its obvious from this show that you’re very interested in how your pieces are displayed. There’s obviously a culture we have lost of sculpture being integrated into architecture. Maybe Charles Holden was one of the last. Or someone like Peter Merkli working with Hans Josephson today, trying to suggest a way that these can be brought together again.
CS: At one time I did become very interested in this. There was a potential commission for the Chicago City Library, with architect Tom Beebe. They wanted some large roundels of worthies from Chicago, but in the end they couldn’t decide which ones, so they did pigs and ears of corn. (Laughter)
CV: I think it’s bizarre that we live in a world with the 1% initiative, so that art has to be a fundamental part of any new build, and that town councils see public sculpture as key to our happiness, yet the sort of stuff that’s going up is often crass, and insufficiently sensitive to its environment. How do you feel about that?
CS: Well there is another thing whereby architecture has become itself the sculpture, with people like Zaha Hadid and Danny Libeskind.
Adrian Forty: Can we just go back to the gender question? In the western tradition portraits and sculptures of women personify general qualities, such as faith, hope, charity, chastity. Whereas busts of men portray the person. I wonder if that was something you were conscious of?
CS: No, I wasn’t actually. One of the things I have been thinking of doing was imaginary heads, more towards Messerschmidt, or something, I’m not sure what, because it is such a problem. But it’s an interesting point, I wasn’t conscious of it.
CV: It’s true that if you go back to antiquity, the bulk of personifications are female.
EW: I think Summerson writes about Zimbabwe House, the Holden building, and Mackintosh’s art school, the sculpture, the niches in the façades, but the sculpture is latent … One feels in a building like that a possibility of how you might begin to make modern architecture … engaged once again with sculpture. One waits.
BM: In Mies’ minimalist Barcelona Pavilion he had a classical sculpture in the pond.
CS: Penelope Curtis has written about that. She points out that the figure (I think by Kolbe) is in fact contemporaneous. To us it seems quite incongruous to have this classical figure in this abstract space. She points out that it is actually in a way a marker. That’s the way Antony Gormley has gone. He has taken casts, he doesn’t want to be figurative. But he places his figures as markers.
CV: He doesn’t want to be figurative but at the same time uses his own body as a basis for his casts. It’s a sort of writing oneself across the landscape.
David Rock: Have you ever thought of doing heads that are abstract?
CS: Yes I have, well, if it’s completely abstract it wouldn’t be a head. I remember Rem Koolhaas talking about the design of a building: “Yes, we wanted to make it that shape so that it definitely wasn’t a head, so that it couldn’t be seen as representing anything like a head.” Because the building was head-shaped, almost. I have thought about doing heads that are more abstract. I’ve thought about it a lot.
EW: The book rather suggests that those ideas are guided by precedence.
CV: Those precedents made very interesting reading for me. For example in one of the busts you were talking about the precedent being Alexander the Great, and for another it was Cleopatra, and for another Aphrodite. Most of Alexander’s portraits are posthumous. Cleopatra? Identification of her sculpted portraits is very contentious! Aphrodite? She’s not of this world! So your precedents are really interesting in terms of portraiture and its relation to the real. All of them allow for this gap, for the imagination.
CS: I didn’t know any of that, I was brought up on modernism. A very striking exhibition at MOMA was Primitivism and Modern Art. It showed the artefacts that stimulated these ideas among the modernists. It also told about the purpose of those artefacts, which were completely and utterly different. The modernists had just plundered them. In a way I think that’s similar to what I am doing. Going back to the classical was discovering the strange, but not in the way originally intended.
CV: Are they all self-portraits? Some are (gesturing towards The Artist).
CS: There must be an element of that in all of them. I’ve often thought it an unhealthy habit, too compulsive. Some of them like Vulcan came from outside.
CV: For me, coming here as an art historian, Vulcan stands out immediately as being a different species from the bulk of the others.
EW: Because they are people with a strong visual sense, presumably one of the attractions is that you are entering into a conversation with them?
CS: After I had done it he asked me to give him a cast, and said “do you mind if I cut it up”. By then I was living in America, every year I’d come back and see that he hadn’t dared to cut his own head up. But eventually he did cut it up. I think it might have been him that told me: “A mediocre artist borrows, a good artist steals”.
CV: I love that!
Chris Dyson: Could you say something about the craft of drawing and its importance in the manifestation of your sculpture?
CS: Well I usually start off by drawing and I think the sense of line is very important to me, it’s probably what connects all the things I’ve ever done, architecture and painting as well. The little drawings were done at the time I was doing the heads, using literal dimensions on calipers; after that I didn’t necessarily go back and use them again. It was a sort of ritual, a way of looking closely. I love the tilted-up space of cubism. For me doing the heads in classical mode was completely new and rather shocking and a naughty thing to do. To me it is enormously realistic to do it according to its proportions; there was a real thrill in doing it.