In Malcolm Morley’s recent solo show History Painting at Xavier Hufkens (Brussels, 18 Nov – 17 Dec 2016), the artist presents a series of diverse but interrelated canvases where he plunges the viewer into a colourful historical universe in which the traditional concepts of time and space no longer exist, and where past and present merge. In these large-scale and visually surprising compositions, Morley fuses a wealth of anachronistic elements into a unified whole, as in the World War I biplane and Spanish galleon that co-exist in Medieval Divided Self, or he evokes pivotal battles from vastly different epochs of British and American history, such as Agincourt and the Battle of the Alamo.
At the occasion of show, the legendary curator and art historian Sir Norman Rosenthal spoke with Malcolm Morley on the subject of History Painting at an artists’ talk hosted by Xavier Hufkens. CoBo is delighted to publish the inspiring talk here with courtesy of the gallery.
NR: Are you ready, Malcolm?
NR: You’re not. Never ready.
NR: You’re ready, that’s good. Malcolm, you call this exhibition ‘History Painting’. It is an ambitious title. Curiously enough, I was looking at a famous renaissance book recently by the great architect Alberti, who is the man who probably more than anybody else, a man probably as much as anybody defined the idea of history painting. For him, history painting was the highest form of painting and painting was the highest form of art, even greater than architecture for him. The reason history painting was so important was that when it was successful it made the past come alive for people, which is important, and if it was painting the present, would preserve the present for the future. So, do you think that’s what you’re trying to do?
No. Although all of that happens.
NR: Of course.
So, whether or not…
NR: What do you mean by history painting?
Well, I was really searching for a title. The new development of the naval knights came out of a pictorial interest in so much that what I’m looking for always is a colour. I came across these little figures, these knights, they were little push out cut outs and they represented pictorially where I could go to make a new thing. The colour was very primal, very primary, and it was symbolic colour. The knights wore their colour that represented themselves. What seems to construct the image itself is through pictorial judgements about what things fit where. The image emerges from fitting things together.
NR: So, in the old days, not the old days, but until relatively recently, you used to paint according to a grid based on an image that somehow you had constructed. How do these images come about? How do you decide where to place your figures?
Well, they start off as very detailed drawings of the figures.
NR: Onto the canvas?
Onto the canvas, which is transferred through transfer paper. They are very, very thin lines that define the whole image. So, the grid now is the drawing of the object. It comes starting from the inside to the outside, starting from the mass to the contour. So, essentially what has happened is in the changing of the way I’m painting them is how these images are emerging.
NR: If I said that when I first saw images of these paintings, they slightly reminded me of the early work of Chagall, which is meant to be a compliment, by the way. Chagall, of course, is talking in his emblematic paintings about a mythical Jewish past in Eastern Europe, and you seem to be talking about a mythical British past. Here we have the great battle in this rather ghastly world we appear to be living in. What do you think of the ghastly new world that we are living in and which somehow you were living in when you were a kid? I won’t say it’s coming back, but there is a danger of it coming back, do you think or not? Are you aware of what’s going on in the big wide world? I’m sure you are.
I listen to the news every day.
NR: So, what do you think of the new world? Let’s not mention names. Do you think these are political paintings?
You can read politics into anything.
NR: Even into an abstract painting?
Yes, if you want to. I don’t have any thoughts about that when I’m doing these paintings. There is no conscious thinking about the political. Although I do think about a parallel, like what I am doing.
NR: A parallel universe that you are constructing.
Yes, it is parallel to the military activities going on in the world in relation to those images, but the paintings are very independent and they are very much things in of themselves.
NR: Realism, where does that come in? You started, if you like, your first impact was as an artist of sublime realism, intense realism. Do you think that survives in these paintings?
It has come back.
NR: It has come back?
Yes. The intensity of the illusion.
NR: The illusion? The illusion of the knights, but also it is the illusion of the fresco, of the tapestry.
Right, it covers a lot of ground.
NR: Tell me about your relationship to abstraction and realism and so on, do you still think about these issues when you’re painting?
Yes, I do, because I feel really cursed by the need to make paintings that are images that people have experienced.
NR: Say that once again.
I feel cursed by the need to make images that people would experience.
NR: You think that subject can never be eliminated from painting, from your perspective?
Not from my perspective, no.
NR: You do it so beautifully. You do it so beautifully with such finesse. I almost want to know how you achieve this amazing smoothness. It is very special. You went through an expressionistic phase and then you had your grid, and now these things are almost, they are not hyperrealist, they are different. Obviously the hyperrealist paintings were by definition amazingly immaculate. These seem to be immaculate in a rather different way, but they are definitely very immaculate and perfect.
The paint is very opaque. There is no transparency, only the illusion of transparency by eternal contrast, but they are all opaque.
NR: I can see. The colour is opaque, but it does feel very painterly as well. You’ve managed to combine a sense of realism and a sense of…
Well, it is all to do with the surface. That’s where I am working, on the surface. The emphasis is always for me the sensation, the classic Cezanne idea of sensation. Cezanne changed the way we experience images and showed the abstract quality of images.
NR: Cezanne made you very aware of the brush stroke, didn’t he?
Very much so.
NR: I don’t think you do that quite so much perhaps.
Not now. The brushstroke is no longer visible. It is sublimated into the image. So, that’s where I think of the idea of compression because there are brushstrokes to get the actual paint on the surface.
Then I smooth it out and I get a lot of pleasure from smoothing it out.
NR: Does the smoothing out involve taking away as well?
Well, it is taking away an actuality on the surface, of paint strokes. So, you don’t see any paint strokes. What you see are a lot of colour tones against each other. That’s it.
NR: The blue against the yellow against the red. All the different gradations. The gold, the grey, the black. There are many colours.
Right, and having it as a sensation.
NR: There is lots of action going on in these paintings too, as well as sensation, and action. It is all happening there. There is fighting going on. There is rowing going on. There is lots of movement in these paintings, but they are also images and to that extent they are sensations.
A lot of it has got to do with the level of consciousness of the viewer in relation to the quality of the sensations. A good metaphor is in music. We experience music as a sensation in our ears and we never question that we are receiving music in a certain way, but not everybody is equal in terms of their experience. People who are very uptight will have a lower level of experience in terms of sensations.
NR: The great thing about living with a painting and living with an image in your mind is that it changes every day and gives you new thoughts every time. It is all encapsulated into one image. A novel goes on forever, a novel takes place in time, music takes place in time, but pictures take place either in a split second or for eternity. That’s what makes them so beautiful and that’s what makes these paintings so beautiful.
About the artist:
Malcolm Morley (b. 1931, London), who has lived in America since 1958, was the inaugural winner of the Turner Prize in 1984. Recent solo exhibitions include: Malcolm Morley at the Ashmolean: Paintings and Drawings from the Hall Collection, curated by Sir Norman Rosenthal, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK (2013); Malcolm Morley: Painting, Paper, Process, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, USA (2012) and Malcolm Morley in a nutshell: The Fine Art of Painting 1954-2012, Yale School of Art, 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery, New Haven, CT, USA (2012).