Aug 31 2011: Zeitgeist & After: An Interview With Christopher Le Brun (Metro, 2008)

I interviewed the painter Christopher Le Brun on 19 November, 2008, in preparation for a piece in Metro to tie in with the launch of a career-spanning exhibition of his work in all mediums – painting, sculpture and prints – at New Art Gallery Walsall. Part of the generation that came to attention in the early 1980s, through exhibitions such as Zeitgeist, Le Brun is in some respects a British equivalent of the tendency seen to have emerged in Germany – particularly in the work of artists like Georg Baselitz, Markus Lupertz and Anselm Kiefer – and in the Italian Transavantguardia group, notably Franesco Clemente and Mimmo Paladino. Very little of the material made it into the very short piece that eventually appeared in Metro so it’s good to find somewhere to post the whole transcript, albeit three years after the event. A similar fate was shared by an in-depth talk with Cornelia Parker, which found itself reduced to a ‘five questions’ slot in the paper – the full transcript version of that appeared in Staple 71: The Art Issue back in 2009.

Wayne Burrows: The first thing I’d like to ask about is the new retrospective show you’re doing at New Art Gallery Walsall, which I gather offers an overview of your work to date.

Christopher Le Brun: I’m a bit wary of calling it a retrospective and prefer to see it as a survey – a fairly partial and selective survey at that.

WB: Is the emphasis on particular series of paintings rather than the full career?

CLB: Well, it does include things from all the different phases of my work, but the biggest room is the one showing new paintings, and the focus is on particular groups of paintings. The second room has a series of paintings I showed in New York in 2004 which have never been seen in the UK before, and then the remaining rooms show work from the 1980s, which is when most people who know my work would first have become aware of it, and two smaller rooms displaying sculpture, prints, etchings and drawings. It covers the whole span of what I’ve done since the late 70s, but isn’t really a comprehensive showing as I think a retrospective would be.

WB: I think one thing that becomes clear when you look at your paintings from the early 1980s right up to the most recent pieces is that the same motifs keep recurring – the wing, the forest, the horse, the knight, tower, castle and so on. Has that been a deliberate decision, a way of giving some unity to the body of work across the decades?

CLB: I’m glad you see that unity there, because sometimes I wonder if it’s clear that it is ­- perhaps I’m too close to the process of making the pictures, so wonder if these themes are as clear as I hope they will be for viewers. It’s reassuring that you do see that, and when putting together the selection for this Walsall show I realised that the very last painting in the exhibition is a variation on the same theme as that in the first picture you see when you enter. I’m certainly very aware that I tend to return to these symbols, so the six part Day Paintings series is similar in theme to some of the earliest works I made in the 1970s, for example. I’m not really calculating enough as a painter to say, yes, it is deliberate that I use the same motifs over and over again, but it’s fair to say my curiosity about these symbols and their potential meanings, my interest in what they suggest, has remained fairly constant.

WB: One thing that strikes me is that they share the same roots in Romanticism and Symbolism as the motifs that appeared in works by painters like Anselm Keifer and Georg Baselitz around the same time that interest in the Wagnerian subjects, the forests, the wanderers and so on. Were you aware of their work when you began making these paintings?

CLB: I began making the paintings in the mid to late 1970s, and at the time I felt fairly isolated, as the emphasis in the art being shown at that time was mainly on American themes, abstraction, minimalism and so on. So at first, no, I wasn’t aware that those artists in Germany, and others in Italy, were moving in a similar direction. It was only after my work was selected for A New Spirit In Painting at the Royal Academy, which was the first real showing of their work in the UK, I think, that I realised I had tapped into the Zeitgeist in some way, and wasn’t the only painter drawing on these ideas. Once I did become aware of them, of course, it became a very competitive, energised time, as we all went on to try and paint better, bigger, more powerful work. I think someone at the time said it was like a ‘battle of paintings’ had broken out, with everyone trying to match the achievements of everyone else. If Kiefer painted bigger, I’d increase the scale of my work, which is one reason why the paintings from the 1980s are on such an ambitious scale, I think.

WB: It’s interesting that this return to the symbols of Romanticism happened independently in several different places at the same time. Were you aware that you were using imagery that in some way had been declared off limits in art for many years?

CLB: For me it was less about a conscious decision to oppose a consensus about what was or wasn’t appropriate subject matter for painting and more a case of drawing on motifs that were familiar from my own background, as an English schoolboy of a certain generation. I was born in 1951 so had been brought up steeped in tales of knights, adventures, myths and so on, and I suppose it was natural that these things came out in the work. I did, though, understand very well that my interest in connecting painting and poetry – that tradition of ‘literary’ painting, which is a key to my own work – was not something that the art world approved of when I began.

WB: I suppose that’s a central tradition in British art, and the very literary approach of the Pre-Raphaelites, the way people like Paul Nash and John Piper had that strong relationship to late-Romanticism and Surrealism, marks out an approach that often passes out of fashion, but seems to keep returning in some way.

CLB: Yes, I think that may be true. It’s certainly the case that between the early 1960s and the later 1970s the general shift in painting here had been towards the US, as things like Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and the rest influenced most of the work being made. It seems that by the mid 1970s, when I began to draw on European literary traditions in my own work, certain artists in Italy and Germany were moving in similar directions, reasserting European references and traditions. It’s hard to remember now what an impact painters like Keifer and Baselitz made when they first emerged, how shocking they seemed, or what a mixed reception their work received at the time.

WB: And I suppose there’s a key difference in the meaning of those symbols in the work of German and English painters: for Keifer it was delving into territory made highly charged and taboo by the connection of Romanticism with the Nazi past, and something similar might be said of the way the Italian artists drew on Classicism, which had been linked to Mussolini’s regime there. Yet in England, the last great flowering of Romanticism in art had been during the second world war, with things like Dylan Thomas’ poetry and the New Apocalypse movement, so you could say the same imagery and motifs that were considered tainted by their association with fascism in Germany, say, had been used in England in opposition to it, so meant very different things?

CLB: It’s certainly true to say that when Keifer uses motifs such as the wing or the forest in his paintings they have very different connotations to those same motifs in my own work, which probably does have something to do with the very different histories and contexts in which we were working. But beyond that, I also think that what fascinates me about these symbols, and the reason I use them, is the way that different meanings and suggestions can be teased out of them. Each carries a vast hinterland of potential meaning with it,so precise meanings are difficult to pin down and the work becomes open to more intuitive readings.

WB: I suppose that move away from looking towards America, and the reassertion of a British and European sensibility was something that was happening in the critical work of someone like Peter Fuller at that time, too?

CLB: It was, but Peter Fuller was actually very critical of what I was doing. He only wrote one review of my work, and his verdict was that I needed to go away and look at the work of John Piper, which I knew well, of course. I suspect it was because he linked me with the Neo-Expressionism of the time, and was generally very suspicious of that. But I think there was a great deal in common between what we were doing, even though Fuller was reluctant to acknowledge or realise it. It’s a shame in a way that there wasn’t an opportunity to have more of a dialogue with him, as I think we were working to similar ends and it would have been interesting. I still slightly regret that it never happened.

WB: One of the things that seems evident when seeing your work as it developed over the years is the way it uses different painting styles, languages maybe, within which the motifs are used – I’m thinking of the way that the 1999 paintings like Fleet and Time as A Subject, for instance, seem to resemble Monet’s late Waterlilies, but with your own spin on them.

CLB: There are obviously many influences, but I picked up my own painting style quite early on, and even in works from the 1970s I think the manner of my painting is there, much as it remains in later work. The key thing is that I always work entirely from imagination, nothing is drawn from life, everything you see is invented or remade from memory. That includes the styles of the paintings as well as the subjects, so if I paint a forest, it’s an imaginary forest, and if I refer to Monet, it’s a Monet of my own invention, an idea of what Monet looks like, created in the studio without reference material of any kind.

WB: Would you say this explains the dream-like quality of much of the imagery? The landscapes and towers, the medieval knights, the forests. There can seem to be a sense in which these things are surfacing from a kind of collective unconscious.

CLB: I think what I’d say about that is, yes, I am very interested in the idea of a collective unconscious, and my work in many ways depends on it, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily understand it, or know how it works. What I’m trying to do is create paintings that are evocative, and I suppose I rely on viewers recognising these fairly universal mythological and psychological references, without having studied or understood why these particular images create the effects I’m interested in. What the ideas of people like Freud and Jung do for me, by and large, is offer a good way of thinking about meaning, using images, but it’s a loose framework, something that informs what I do at the margins, rather than a theory I set out to use in any more systematic way.

WB: Does this connect to the need to work from imagination rather than life? Are the images and motifs that recur in the work intended to catch an unconscious process?

CLB: It’s a way of gaining access to ideas, feelings and pictorial structures, and often the final image in a painting follows a long process of working. For me, the motifs I use are a way into the painting, so if I need to add a vertical shape, the form of the tree will enable me to do that, while having a logic and meaning that might be missing in a more abstract mark. And that tree might change, becoming a figure, or a tower, at different points in a painting’s evolution. A triangle might be what a particular composition demands, but if that form resembles a castle, or a horse and rider, it helps me immerse myself in the picture I’m making.

WB: Do you think this figurative element makes the paintings more accessible to viewers than purely abstract works would be?

CLB: If a spectator thinks the painting is telling a story, perhaps that’s true, but it’s important that any story has to function within the logic of painting itself. This is the key. No matter what the subject might seem to be, it has to be integrated within a formal arrangement. The compositions emerge over time as I work on them, so I never begin with a subject in mind at the start, the act of painting is what leads me to the final form any particular work takes. There might be a tower in the centre of the picture at the beginning of the process, which has become a figure of a horse and rider in the finished work, but whatever image emerges, it is the final form of the painting that has to be powerful.

WB: It sounds like the process of making the pictures echoes the journeys and adventures their imagery often implies?

CLB: Yes, I agree there’s something hugely suggestive in it, and I love all of that. The initial phases set up circumstances that then shape where the picture goes, but I don’t try to impose a fixed idea or shape onto the work. When I put it that way, perhaps it sounds like a closed, formal process, but it’s not – as with any journey, you come across many things along the way. The classic take on this idea of the creative process as a quest is the Robert Browning poem ‘Childe Rowland To The Dark Tower Came’, which is the best expression of that metaphor and process I know. The meaning is there, but always as a by-product of painting as an end in itself.

WB: You mentioned ‘literary painting’, and the symbols you use draw on material from sources such as folk-tales, Wagner’s operas, characters like Siegfried and so on. Do you begin with these sources in mind, or find these things seep in through that process of searching for a formal solution to a given work?

CLB: Well, I’m very interested in painting not being at the periphery of things, and I don’t mean in terms of orthodoxies of opinion, but in terms of painting being at the centre of the culture through links to music, writing and other imaginitive experiments. I don’t think it’s necessary for a viewer to ‘get’ the exact references, though. My hope is that a work evokes something, which might be different to what it evokes for me. In relation to the forest paintings, for example, many came from listening to Claude Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande, and the themes and moods of that music accompanied and shaped the atmosphere of the paintings. The same is true of the Tristan pictures, which I hope – and I agree it might seem strange to put it this way when speaking of a visual medium like painting – sound like the big chords of Wagner’s music when you look at them.

WB: Do you add notes or panels in the exhibition to explain these references for those who might not pick them up immediately?

CLB: I note the references, sometimes in the titles, and also in brief guides on the wall and in the catalogue that put you into the picture and show how I like to look at things. But I’m not interested in closing the possible meanings of the work down, or insisting that a viewer accept my own reading. I hope that with this kind of information it’s just enough to give a hint of what I intended, but shouldn’t impose too much on the viewer’s own interpretations and responses to the work on show.

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