‘Works of art in themselves’: artists and their studios
Manifest Arts is many things: a feast of regional contemporary art; a forging of connections between artists; a celebration of creative community. The festival arts trail also offers, of course, a fascinating glimpse into numerous artists’ studios. To mark this, the programme this year included a talk at Saul Hay Gallery from art historian Sara Riccardi of Art Across on the history of the artists’ studio.
Space, as Riccardi acknowledges, gets little attention from art historians, who are generally focused on artists’ biographies. But the underlying philosophy of Art Across - and what Riccardi does so brilliantly - is to define the contemporary through the lens of the historical. Her talk, ‘Artists’ Studios: Myths, Stories, Lives’, presents the results of her survey of artists’ perspectives on their working spaces, weaving an interconnected thread between contemporary practices and the history of the studio since the Middle Ages. In so doing, it foregrounds how the past and the present reflect and refract off each other.
Riccardi selects her images carefully to demonstrate the history she explores. She homes in, for example, on Rembrandt’s ‘The Artist in his Studio’ (1628) and Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Michaelangelo in His Studio’ (1850). She discusses the origins of the myth that emerged through the Romantic period of the artist as solitary genius. This is at odds with the reality of the studio as a place of practical production that would have been populated with apprentices and visitors. An issue in both Delacriox’s and Rembrandt’s paintings, Riccardi says, is that they show artists thinking rather than working, reflecting the studio as a space of intellectual activity that has evolved since Medieval times.
For one artist in the survey, the studio is a ‘physical and contemplative space in which to work through ideas.’ Another feels it is a ‘a room to dream’, a place to be alone. Of the respondents to Riccardi’s survey, 70% work in a space that also has some communal aspect. ‘The studio connects me to an organisation or group’, one artist commented, words that echo Leonardo da Vinci’s statement that ‘if you must have companionship, you must find it in your studio’. Here, then, is the essential paradox for an artist working in a studio: the interplay between self and other(s), between the solitary activity of making work and an identity within a community. For some, it might be that being part of a collective gets in the way of work. As one artist says, ‘studio politics can affect artistic concerns.’ Opening the studio to visitors can be a point of contention, with some finding it a rich source of dialogue that feeds back into the work, while others may not be keen on the idea of having their workspace invaded. For visitors following the studio trail during Manifest, it is possible to see repeated patterns between artists in the same studio, rich crossovers in thematic concerns and preoccupations.
There have been challenges, over the years, to the notion of the studio – by some of the Impressionists, for example, who would paint in ‘studio boats.’
‘Post –studio’, avant-garde artists like Constantin Branusci or Louise Bourgeois actively subvert the studio system. Atelier Branusci, which is now preserved in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, is an example of this. Branusci used his studio as a backdrop for his art, creating new works that he called ‘mobile groups’ that stress the importance of the connections between the works themselves. For such artists, the space becomes completely and intimately connected to the art. Because, as one survey respondent put it, ‘studios can be works of art in themselves.’
We visit artists’ studios for insights into their creative processes. There are always pointers and clues along the way: the objects an artist has on their desk, the postcards or images that inspire them, the books they have on their shelves. It is common for artists to tidy up before an open studio, obscuring the mess or the reality of their process. In the end, perhaps, we can never glimpse the full truth of what goes on, the relationship between the space of the studio and its symbolic expression from the creative mind of the artist. Perhaps, in the end, we might have a peep into the artist’s studio but we can never fully inhabit their world.