Christopher Le Brun interview: ‘From the drama of the image in my earlier work, I’ve switched to this other drama where the image is erased or obscured’
Royal Academy president Christopher Le Brun has produced 33 new canvases for his solo show at Friedman Benda, his first in the US in 10 years. He talks about his move from mythological and symbolic imagery to abstraction, the source of his inspiration and his use of colours
Christopher Le Brun: New Paintings
Friedman Benda, New York
11 September – 18 October 2014
by JILL SPALDING
New Paintings, a major exhibition of Christopher Le Brun’s recent work, has just opened at Friedman Benda in NY and it’s a micro blockbuster. His first solo show here in 10 years, it consists of 33 radiant canvases, all painted in less than two years – a staggering output given the time the artist devotes to administration as the president of London’s prestigious Royal Academy. Le Brun is no stranger to academics, having served as trustee of the Tate, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Prince’s Drawing School Gallery, the National Gallery and now the National Portrait Gallery, but the attention he has to give to such mandatory exercises as the enormously demanding yearly Summer Exhibition belies the absorption and passion that overtakes his life as an artist.
I ask him how he reconciles the two activities.
Christopher Le Brun: In a way, both are about imagination, and utopias, and idealism. I haven’t taught since the 1980s – something had to go – and working alone in my studio, I find my own company insufficient. So the couple of days I spend at the academy every week is my time with other human beings. And there’s precedent. Joshua Reynolds was president of the Royal Academy, and Delacroix – imagine, Delacroix – was a member of the town council. As for the Summer Exhibition, one of the pleasures of being president is that I don’t curate and I don’t hang. I resolve differences of opinion, but I prefer to let my colleagues do the rest.
Jill Spalding: What about the effect on your work of being continually exposed to the output of so many other artists?
CLeB: Well, I’ve been painting for a very long time, so there’s no nourishment from that direction. If anything, quite the opposite: I defend myself against the onslaught.
JS: You came out of the gate running, instantly recognised for your drawing and painting. At what moment, after leaving the Slade, did you find your own voice as an artist?
CLeB: Actually, I knew long before college. I was obsessed with drawing and painting as a child – for many years I brooded over this idea of a secret masterpiece. Then I went to the Slade and tried to be a good student, and for four years the image was obscured to me – I lost myself to myself. But when I left, it came back to me, and I was able to paint it. I’m not sure it was very good!
JS: Gustave Moreau and the English Romantics have been seen, understandably, as directly informing your early work – a world of brooding mystery, which openly pulls its imagery from symbolism and archaic mythology. But what has led you to this new phase? Was there a moment of revelation or a dramatic event that caused you to exchange your field of dark knights mounted on white horses for one of fiery light and saturated abstraction?
CLeB: I know it feels like a new phase, but it’s not that far removed from my earlier work, and is just as essential. I’m still interested in the tension between covering and revealing, in the intuitively right response to a feeling. A fellow artist told me it’s as if my work has gone back into the gene pool of myself, less explicit but entirely present.
JS: Nonetheless, even those conversant with these paintings see them as a departure. They are less observational, more thoughtful. Your friend, the artist Edmund de Waal, observed of them: “There’s a lot of letting go.” Others, like myself, sense a conscious control, coming off years of incubated imagery and conversations with history that you have intuitively reworked with poetic licence and honed craftsmanship into a fresh pictorial language. The dark energy has become radiant. Image has become allusion. The canvases burn or they cool, but even as they cool, they rejoice, yearn and drip. And each move seems deliberate. Are you challenging us to see differently, to question, to spend more time, to work harder?
CLeB: No, it’s more a question that I put to myself: what is the underlying behaviour that I couldn’t take away and yet remain essential to myself? The surprise for me is that I can separate out the various elements of brushstroke and colour and line and, even as they split up or realign or seem to disappear, they say what I want to say.
JS: Which work best illustrates your meaning?
CLeB: [He singles out Swan, where cobalt blue brushstrokes fall free of each other on what seems to be raw canvas, but is actually slathers of white paint, which, as you approach, bring the background to the fore] You witness something appearing extremely mysteriously.
JS: In telling contrast, Neither White, Nor Warm, Nor Cold seems to owe its dreamlike evocation of a Monet water lily painting to a very different concern, one that addresses atmosphere over image with an almost indiscernible weaving of brushstrokes that build up to a sheen of seemingly translucent opalescence.
CLeB: The eye shifts between the drawn and the covering effect.
JS: The closest to a discernible image is in The Trial, which projects an emotive abstraction of fear, a sort of veiled Scream.
CLeB: The potency of buried content can be as psychologically powerful as narrative; every brushstroke throws off an association.
Asked to detail the imagery of his more intricate works, Le Brun responds elliptically, with an ambiguity that would suggest the same ramble into the subconscious as automatic writing, did one not know of the deep library of scholarly imagery that he has built up through years of researching the classics and developing ever subtler methods of veiling and revealing their meaning.
CLeB: I let the work speak for itself. I don’t push the image because I want to leave you with a sense of immanence. From the drama of the image in my earlier work, I’ve switched to this other drama where the image is erased or obscured. [He points to Painting as Sunrise, a massive, burnished flame of a painting that held an image of a blue horse, until he revisited it months later and painted it out]. The horse was there and now is not there, which is its content – both its implication and its meaning. I no longer need to manifest it; it is present.
Le Brun is more forthcoming when I ask about inspiration and process ….
JS: When you undertake a new painting, do you have a premeditated subject in mind?
CLeB: Not at all. At the most, a musical phrase, or the shape of a jar. If I approach the blank canvas thinking I know what I want to do, boredom sets in at once. I have to look at the canvas and just start, apply paint, one stroke, then another – until it looks back at me. I want it to be vivid and strong. One brushstroke leads to another, just as layering on paint with a knife may lead to scraping it off with a knife, or the mark of one brush might lead me to pick up another brush. Or I’ll use the same brush in different ways to achieve contrasting effects – the flat part for covering, the points for drawing.
JS: How do you approach colour? You have a wide palette; each colour seems to have a distinctive place in your emotional vocabulary, with a few standing out more prominently – red, for example.
CLeB: I think I do use red symbolically. I’m not sure what function it serves, but it seems to have become significant.
JS: Yellow, too.
CLeB: You must be referring to Enter the City. My mother used to wear a yellow dress, and that yellow came back to me recently, and a feeling came with it, an emotion. And I really wanted to paint the yellowest yellow. Then, of course, red had to follow. Colours are urgent that way. I’ll put green on the canvas, which means I have to add blue, then I’ll go back to my chair, and have to jump up immediately and add white. One step almost always leads to the next. The canvas talks back to you. One has to listen to an inner prompting.
JS:What about lighting? You seem to prefer diffused lighting to spotlights, and wall washers to LED.
CLeB: Yes, they’re much warmer. When my paintings are lit correctly, the light in them is always changing.
JS:I understand that you rarely paint a canvas start to finish, and that the colours and composition often change completely before you sign off on it. Even the titles may change. On the back of Walton, for example [inspired by Sir William Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida], you’ve scratched out five or more titles; it seems to have started out as Troilus and gone through several iterations.
CLeB: That’s right. I have a stack of paintings in my studio, and they all keep moving forward like a vast flotilla, and occasionally one comes to the front. Sometimes I get stuck, like doing a crossword puzzle, and have to put it away and then bring it out again, until I get it right. Some go on for six months, even more.
JS: What determines what you will be working on at any particular time?
CLeB: In a lifetime of working, you get into habits of thought. I tend to get into a rhythm. I’ll start on a watercolour and do watercolours for a stretch, or I’ll tackle a large canvas and stay with large paintings for a while. I’m never influenced by having to prepare for a show: when I have enough work that I feel is ready, then I’m ready. The key is to respond to intuition, to that inner prompting.
JS: You are also a sculptor. Timed with this show at Friedman Benda, one of your large sculptures, Maro, has just been installed at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire as part of Sotheby’s selling exhibition Beyond Limits [which continues until 26 October]. It’s a spectacular marble wing, very large, very white. The carving is incredibly intricate.
CLeB: Credit the craftsmen!
JS: You have another, Union, a large bronze horse flanked by discs, on permanent view at the Museum of London, and several more in various museums and collections. With painting having presented you with seemingly endless possibilities, what first drew you to sculpture?
CLeB: It happened by accident. Around 20 years ago, a friend saw a tiny wax model in my studio and took it to his foundry and cast it in bronze. I liked it; I found it very refreshing. It took the place of printmaking. I liked working with the craftsmen, and I liked working with wax; it’s soft to the touch, it takes colour. But over the past few years I’ve just been making paintings. Painting is a purely internal dynamic; I’m entirely focused on painting now.
JS: Where do you see painting going? And art for that matter? With the young generations veering to the digital realm – 3D printing, off-the-wall photography – and all it implies, do you think art as you understand it has a future?
CLeB: That’s a very difficult question. I’m not sure I know. But I’m gratified that a younger generation has discovered my work.
JS: Hopefully, they’ll distinguish these complex abstractions from the glittered, thinly washed acrylics that have largely driven abstract painting’s comeback.
CLeB: They’ll certainly be surprised once they research the past work; it was mysterious even then. The symbolism and romanticism of the images I introduced in the 70s and 80s were as challenging for that time as the veiled complexity of the current work is today. These paintings challenge the current irony and easy assumptions about abstraction. They are all about touch and presence and looking, which the art of the past was all about too, which is all I am really interested in, and which has become really important again. They represent the continuity from one artist to another. How I put my brush to the canvas is not enormously different from how Velázquez did – the same limits of canvas, the same colours, the same emotion. Very beautiful.
I don’t ask Le Brun for his definition of beauty: the work speaks for itself. I ask, instead, that he put on his academician’s hat for a moment …
JS: How confident are you about the future of art as we understand it?
CLeB: Considerably. As long as you don’t take pencil and paper away from the child.