INTERVIEW: Susan Wilson at McAtamney Gallery
A STILL LIFE IS A THEATRE: Susan Wilson in conversation with Michael Peppiatt
What led you to paint, Susan, and why do you still paint?
I began to paint as a child, and was often painting the mountains in the South Island of New Zealand which are very high and very bright, purply blue most of the time and often snow- covered. I used to sit up behind the school and make drawings of them and try and get them right. And then as a teenager I used to try and paint the sea and obsess about how I could get the multiplicity of colour in the sea that I saw. I used to walk around Orewa beach north of Auckland for hours - I was quite a loner - and make mental notes about the colour of the sky, the light, the type of sea, the type of wave, the type of motion on the surface.
They had an art, of course.
Absolutely. An incredible carving history, architectural history, design history.
But you see yourself as part of a Western tradition, Western painting.
Yes, I do. I feel part of that history. It comes out of my religious upbringing - Calvinist, non-conformist.
You hadn’t had much exposure to that in New Zealand?
No. I knew paintings only through the books that were in the house.
How would you describe your own evolution as a painter?
As a child I was passionate about recording what I saw. The South Island is a beautiful place. Hills shaped like those around Siena, golden soft rolling hills strange rock formations, marvellous large braided shingle rivers like the Po, up at the headwaters, rivers as they appear in Giovanni Bellini. So I never wanted to paint anything other than what I saw. But I didn’t do that in New Zealand. I went to Peru as a 24 year old. As I travelled I was confronted with several large religious processions which lasted for hours . This was the reverse of my childhood Presbyterian world. All this knocked me sideways. It was powerful. I found I questioned it, but I kept going back to look .
I have these diaries full of descriptions of the polychrome sculpture paintings, interiors of the churches, the gilding, but I disapproved. I look at it now and I can see I was completely blown away.
Do you have those tussles any more – those contradictions?
Not at all. I went to Camberwell – when it was a Kossoff -Freud –Auerbach- influenced place. There was a workerist attitude. Why did I pick Camberwell rather than another school? Probably because it had this atmosphere - a kind of English left-wing Puritanism, very Coldstream and Euston Road School. The kind of atmosphere where you thought you should be painting gasometers.
And fed by Kossoff and Auerbach who went in for gritty, grimy, down-trodden, rather defeated subjects - a kind of drab realism.
Yes, very post-war - no colour, no theatricality. When I was there I painted a portrait of myself as a nurse; referring to Chardin’s self portrait – where he wears an eye shade and a scarf tied in a bow holding it in place. I dressed myself in an apron. I had been an intensive care nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital and had worn a nightingale hat, apron, striped dress designed by Norman Hartnell, theatrical, curious English nursing clothes. I wanted to show this regalia and my four nursing medals. This was viewed with perplexity at Camberwell, There were several tutors who were Jewish and spoke of Soutine, for example, who did understand the desire for narrative but I did destroy the work.
Do you still do a great deal of landscape?
There are landscapes I like to paint, not in England but in Italy, on mountain tops. I tend to just paint on my hands and knees with a canvas or a board on the ground. That make things easily transportable. I would never take an easel into a landscape. Also I like to be near the earth, dug down in the landscape and I want to be able to get home in one walk with any equipment.
That’s on holiday?
Yes. When I’m not on holiday I work in the studio on a stretched canvas on an easel. Although holiday is probably a misnomer. My holidays tend to be hard work.
So you plot your still lifes deliberately? You construct them?
I have a group of objects that I keep using time after time.
A bit like Morandi?
I understand why he did that. The objects are like characters in a theatre. A still life is its own theatre. That’s how I see it. I like the idea of reassembling the cast, just like John Ford or Almodóvar do in their films, using the same actors over and over again. Painting still lifes is like having a little theatre. I’ve been very influenced by the opera and I go regularly. I like looking at the stage, and I’m interested in set design. That in itself is like a still life. I wanted to live in Spain, I still do. The Spanish still life paintings certainly contain that longing.
Are these “Adiós” paintings part of a series as well?
All the still lives are slightly different. There are some recent works where I have used big images of Patinir. And written Adiós over these images. The basic structure is consistent with the 1986 of “Back to Spain” with the little table. The table I did get from a Freud where there’s a nude with a wonderfully painted stool in the foreground and I remember seeing this as a student and thinking I’d put things on this little plain but paint-encrusted table... I had an interview at Chelsea School of Art for their MA. They wanted to know why the works weren’t more transgressive or groundbreaking but every night there were drug dealers smashing things outside the flat where we lived by the All Saints Road, Notting Hill when we were just married and I remember thinking the last thing I wanted to do was break anything. The bottles looked as though they might break at any point, or even explode.
You think that commotion drove you to still life - you wanted something silent and dependable?
Berger has written really well about Zurburán and the extreme, extraordinary stillness he communicates in his pictures. I don’t have it, but I’d like to.
These are yours, not Zurbaran’s. And yours are not that still. There’s a lot going on. I wonder, for instance, what those four images at the top are.
They are a beautiful San Sebastian by Crivelli - a tiny strip of a predella panel with a fading green sky from one of the little galleries at the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, and then there’s an Ensor. I’m a huge admirer of Ensor. And then the other two are the ceiling of an extraordinary church in Switzerland. There’s also a Hodler self-portrait on the left. When I made this painting, we had driven back from Italy over the Swiss Alps – we made these long drives each summer - and the ceiling painting in this church is dense and wonderful. Myriad tiny squared of images of saints and biblical stories across a flat ceiling. The church is called St. Martin, in Zillis, Graubunden, and it was frescoed in 1130 with values of piety, mercy, sacrifice. The thinking soldiers in WW2 bought "The Magic of Italy" by Fattorusso. It was a big thick book with tiny sepia photos of all the paintings, sculpture and architecture in Italy. If you had this book you went and looked at all these things when you had R&R in Italian towns. I have set out at different times to see every Titian altarpiece, or every Zurbaran in Andalusia. I used to stay in youth hostels and ride on trains and I would draw most of what I saw. Camberwell taught me to draw work I was affected by. Perhaps I have been trying to find all those sepia images I looked at as a child in my father’s study in Waikari, in “The Magic of Italy”... I remember in the sixties coming home from school to find my father upset. “There’s been a terrible flood in Florence,” he said. He couldn’t bear to think of it. He’d been with the New Zealanders when they’d captured Florence.
Warriors partaking of great culture. You don’t think of that. Were they trying to recall a sense of civilization?
The destruction certainly did trouble them. In going to Europe lot of New Zealanders go through this process of trying to understand what it is that their fathers and mothers lived through.
You said something nice about a writer always thinking how can I turn this into writing. Are you always thinking how can I turn this or that experience into a painting?
At a very deep level, yes.
Colour or form? Mostly colour?
It would always be both. How things look and how they are shaped. I have a spatial mind - about how things look – pictures, the layout of galleries, where things are. I try to remember exactly the quality of Bonnard’s green, or the gleam of a yellow in a Goya trouser leg, or Velázquez’s greys which are light and shimmery. I go back to galleries where I haven’t been for years and remember where things are on the wall.
You live through your eyes.
Yes, very much, but I didn’t go to art school in New Zealand. I
got very involved in left-wing political movements at the time - Vietnam War demos and Maori rights. What has been described as the Maori renaissance, the complete reassessment of Maori language history and culture.
Was your sense of imagery very marked by that religious upbringing?
In a mystical way. Not by pictures but by having the bible read to me constantly. There were images evoked by the stories which make me able to read European art historical narrative. My head is full of those revelatory images created by the stories. I felt very much at home when I first went to the National Gallery or the Prado. After being in the Prado, I grew to love the history of Spanish colonial art and architecture - polychrome wood sculpture and figures made from paste and straw - deeply religious Images of martyred saints with estofado (gilded, layered paint) robes, painted, real and shiny in ecstasy at the point of martyrdom, all emotionally charged and full of narrative impact. Some were wounded, bleeding Christs which reminded me of the young men I had cared for in the emergency unit in Auckland. These objects still elicit deep devotion from the people who live in the cities of Cuzco and Quito.
Are you reusing a particular cast of objects in this picture “Tu”?
Yes, but there are new things – like the book by the Maori writer Patricia Grace. It’s called “Tu” – a fictional story about a fifteen year old Maori Battalion soldier at Monte Cassino. A story about the effects of the brutality of the battle. Patricia Grace’s father was at Cassino, and all the men in my family with one exception were at Cassino, and all survived. I was taken and shown Cassino. That affected me a lot, and I think it helped me understand why I demonstrated against the Vietnam war. i think we were aware, deep down, of the damage the war had done to some of the returning men.
How do the still lifes differ from other series you’ve done. Is this the first series?
No, they’ve gone on. The picture on the card I sent you was a very early one. It was about going back to Spain, just after I left art school.
This was part of a series? There were other variations on this theme?
Yes, I’d won the Richard Ford Award, a scholarship to Spain and to the Prado, and I was going to Spain that day. I scrawled that across the wall. I was painting those objects, and I had to take the flight that afternoon, and since I’d written it on the wall, I put “I’m going back to Spain” into the picture. I had spent time living among writers in Barcelona in 1980’s immediately after the collapse of “La Dictadura”. Earlier I had hitch-hiked right around Spain for several months.
And full of autobiographical references…
They all are, all my pictures. I don’t want to be a derivative Uglow or a Freud. That’s an easy strategy...
Easy maybe, but not a good strategy long-term.
Well, it’s easy because people think it’s just like a Freud so it must be good...
They are very personal, which is what give them their strength, their interest.
I’ve always been fascinated by the two heads you’ve done of my children. They’re bursting with some sort of unspoken life. You’re not quite sure what it is, as if they’d bottled up some kind of secret identity that’s become almost painful. They’re very arresting portraits.
On the one hand there’s a constructed still life, and on the other a completely imaginary sphere where you introduce images which have struck you from different parts of your life.
Ed has said to me ‘you’re La Fille du Régiment’. I was brought up as a boy, in the mountains in New Zealand. There was no option to be a girl. I suppose that’s why I was quite content to keep my own company. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the war and what it did to the men who came back from it. I was brought up by old soldiers.
How does that relate to these pictures?
Ondaatje says in the "English Patient" the art seen in Italy during the war was like map for the soldiers, speaking of wisdom, kindness and humanity.
But in fact it includes what you think and what you remember and what goes through your mind and what you want to explore.
And what I read.
Which gives it many more dimensions, more depth. So your paintings are a mixture of trying to capture a certain reality in front of you but also a conduit for all kinds of other sensations, memories, and influences.
So in this still life “Tu” the images are things which struck you visually. Is there a connection with your father?
Through the young Maori soldier on the cover of the book. And I like the word Grace. I like words in pictures. The author is Patricia Grace. It’s a really good cover.
“Tiene mucha gracia”, as the Spanish say. She has grace - elegance and amiability. The bottles are just still life objects?
The bottles are quite watery. And I like the way that you see through them. As St Paul says: now we see as through a glass darkly. It underlines how hard it is actually to see anything.
We don’t – we’re standing in our own light much of the time.
When you teach people to draw from observation it becomes apparent they are drawing from a memory store of objects or places or how things look.
So we never get the direct confrontation. We are influenced hugely by what we’ve seen in the past.
When I first talked about my work in art schools, I would show images of my New Zealand childhood. We were brought up to believe it was just like Surrey or Sussex. I would show these slides of huge mountains and rivers a mile wide. They would all laugh. I would say this is a common post colonial perceptual problem: to grow up thinking it’s like England and then find it wasn’t. I like to get students to really think about perception. At Christie’s I exhibited “To The Gardeners”– the National Trust asked artists to paint pictures for a commemoration of their 50th year. I wanted to commemorate the gardeners. My family were gardeners at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire. I put things in that disrupt what the viewer might think is a still life.
Do you do sketches? Do you have a long run up or invent things as you go along?
I spend ages setting up.
I move the objects around a lot.
It’s a bit like a doll’s house, arranging it, changing it. When you paint it, it’s at another remove. You edit, you include and exclude.
I don’t tend to change them but I might do if they don’t work, some you'd destroy because they don’t work. Afterwards you see it on a wall or outside the studio and you think it’s got to go. One of the opera sets I liked very much was Jonathan Miller’s ROH “Don Pasquale” which he set in a giant doll’s house. At the end the characters all together took up an enormous key and shut the door. The scale was clever, with four floors and action taking place on each floor at all times. Miller stole dress and imagery from paintings, he always does.
When you go from still life to portraits it’s a huge step, a huge difference – you are dealing there in actual givens. You can’t rearrange a face – or perhaps you do? You can’t include all these objects. When you do self-portraits or portraits of other people what’s the essential difference?
I do structure the environment, and I am very particular about what people wear. I am very interested in clothing - how my subjects look and what they wear. If I were painting someone apart from myself we might have a long discussion about what to wear.
You yourself dress up. You put on some still life. So you incorporate the still life into the portrait.
I do draw angels. I do a huge amount of drawing in my sketchbooks. I like to dress myself and the models up- maybe as an angel!
Do you have a mirror when you do a self-portrait?
A big mirror. And I’m always looking at everything.
There is a lot of theatre here.
The theatricality was in my family. My grandmother was very musical and interested in the theatre and in art. And my father went to the opera during the war and said how spell-binding it was to get out of what were trenches at Cassino and go down to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples and see something like the “Marriage of Figaro”, how enchanting it was and you’d come out and there was a bomber overhead dropping bombs. Then you’d be back in the truck and in the trenches.
From heaven to hell.
From heaven to hell. Very fast.
You managed to break free. And you came out with issues to paint about.
Understanding your parents’ past?
My father proposed to my mother from Italy. I am beginning to feel quite Italian! He got the money for the ring from the mess. A lot of the men were fighting and a lot were buried in Italy. There are Maoris who lie there.
So your painting incorporates a lot of memory - images from memory.
Painting shouldn’t just be copying objects.
You began by saying what you wanted to do was to reproduce what you saw….
I know, I know.
(This interview is an abridged version and was recorded in London in December 2008).
Michael Pepiatt has recently published a revised, updated edition of his classic biography, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (Constable), and a collection of essays and interviews, Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait (Yale). He is currently working on a 'Caravaggio/Bacon' exhibition for the Galleria Borghese in Rome and a show of Giacometti drawings for New York.