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The Exploration of Suffering and the Celebration of Beauty: An Interview with Robert Priseman

Lucy Cox: Why are you a painter?

Robert Priseman: For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in painters and the work they produce. Early on this led me to a fascination with the way artists have an evolving conversation between themselves and their audience and how that changes over centuries. I’m really interested in the underlying concepts and principles of that conversation, which is why I initially studied aesthetics and art theory before taking up painting full time. 

LC:  What topics did you read during your aesthetics and art theory studies? 

RP: I studied under Michael Podro and we read a lot around language and metaphor, exploring philosophers like Max Black, Nelson Goodman and Donald Davidson. Then we looked at people like Gombrich, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Klein, Freud, Winnicott and Marion Milner, mostly investigating post-modernism and psychoanalytic theory.

The Cornfield by John Constable, 1826. Oil on canvas, 143 x 122 cm.

LC: Do you remember your first childhood encounter with art and, if so, did this experience have a lasting impact on you? 

RP: Yes, it was a print of John Constable’s painting ‘The Cornfield’ we had on our wall at home. Like many great paintings it can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Constable himself called it ‘The Drinking Boy’, because in the bottom left-hand side we see a youth lying on his stomach drinking from a brook. Behind him a dog herds a flock of sheep up a country lane. They are about to pass through an open gate in to a cornfield, which gives the painting its title. Beyond this we see a man walking, with two further workers in the distant background and behind them on the horizon is a church. The boy, the gate, the man in the field and the church are drawn along a straight axis which allows us to read the painting as a narrative of life which moves from childhood, to adulthood, and then ultimately to death and the final resting place of the graveyard. 

Many of Constable’s paintings are set in a small rural area just south of Ipswich close to where I live in Wivenhoe with my family today. We partly moved there because of this, and also because a number of other significant British painters have lived in the region in the past, including Michael Andrews, Cedric Morris and Francis Bacon. It is somehow reassuring to feel close to the geography of people whose work I admire.

Newton by William Blake, 1795–1805.

Still Life With Cherub by Paul Cézanne, 1895.

LC: When did you decide to become an artist? 

RP: Initially I never thought I’d be good enough to be an artist, so figured I’d try something practical. After university I worked as a book designer for Longman, which is where I met my wife. Then, when I was about 26, she encouraged me to take up painting full-time. 

Jets by Robert Priseman, 2011. © the artist. Oil on linen, 46 x 71 cm. Photo credit: Rugby Art Gallery and Museum Art Collections.

LC: What is the biggest mistake you have made within your career up to now? 

RP: I think in leaving it a little late to take up painting seriously, but I know others think it is in not establishing a commercial market for my work. I’m okay with that though, as many of my favourite painters, artists like Blake, Cézanne, Constable, van Gogh and Vermeer never made any money from their art. And I think in part this is because true creativity seems to lie beyond any financial consideration.

Body Storage by Robert Priseman, 2004–5. © the artist. Oil on linen, 153 x 153 cm.

LC: Have there been times when studio life has been difficult for you?

RP: Yes, often. It is usually to do with my own scepticism in my ability to paint or in uncertainties over the relevance of the subject, and I find I tend to oscillate between a strong self-belief and a crushing self-doubt.

LC: Who are your ‘go-to’ painters during times of doubt? 

RP: Michael Andrews, Francis Bacon, John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Pisanello; in fact many of the dead northern European artists. I am also drawn to the work of James Turrell and Dan Flavin whose use of light appeals to me in a similar way to how Joseph Wright exploited it in paint. I think it has a spiritual quality.

Crucifixion (detail) by Francis Bacon, 1933. Oil on canvas, 62 x 48.5 cm.
Untitled by Dan Flavin, 1976. Pink, blue and green fluorescent light, 244 cm (height).

LC: What are the essential ingredients of ‘good’ painting?

RP: When you look at art you realise that whenever people push whatever is at the core of what they’re doing to an extreme, then it becomes more interesting––both for the artist and the viewer.

LC: What do you find attractive or compelling about working with paint as opposed to other mediums? 

RP: The thing with paint is, it’s not intellectual. Painting requires an emotive approach that you rationalise afterwards. So, I’m interested in the idea that paint is a metaphor, which seeks to visualise an unseen world of sensitivities we hold inside ourselves. I think about paint being a kind of emotional gel that is locked in place by the structure and limits of the canvas. 

Electric Chair by Robert Priseman, 2007. © the artist. Oil on linen, 153.4 x 153.4 x 3.2 cm.

LC: What are your thoughts on beauty in relationship to contemporary art?

RP: I think beauty is really interesting now and feel it’s use in art has gained the potential to become a tool for political discourse. Beauty has become marginalised in the art world over the course of the past 20–30 years. To my mind beauty is fundamentally important as it forms a central component of the human experience. For example, if we gaze at the Milky Way during a clear night sky, or contemplate a sunset on a beach in Bali, most of us will instinctively sense some kind of wonder, and this sense of wonder is where I feel beauty is located. I get a similar sensation when I look at a work of art by Leonardo, Vermeer or Rothko, because I believe their paintings occupy a territory akin to this. Their work is somehow just beyond us, somehow magical and, for me at least, that inspires a sense of being small in the universe, which puts any problems or worries I might have into some sort of context. It also does something else; it creates a desire within me to attempt to touch the periphery of that world by creating paintings, which are close to it. It creates hope.

Untitled (Black on Gray) by Mark Rothko, 1969–70. Acrylic on canvas, 203.3 x 175.5 cm. Photograph: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.
The Milky Way stretches across the sky above the European Southern Observatory’s telescope in La Silla, Chile. Photograph: Serge Brunier / ESO via EPA.
The Last Judgement by Hans Memling, c. late 1460. National Museum, Gdańsk.

LC: How can painting remain relevant in this new decade? 

RP: Painting seems to find new ways to be relevant in every era it finds itself in and it usually does so in opposition to the dominant establishment. In the first two decades of the 21st century we find ourselves living in a society dominated by the celebration of celebrity and the cult of the self. Recently I became fascinated by anonymity. Over the past couple of years my wife and I have been visiting ‘The Last Judgement’ painting by Hans Memling in Gdańsk [Poland]––it is widely considered one of the world’s great masterpieces, yet is now believed to be by Rogier van der Weyden. This is a view I hold myself, yet feel it neither lessens nor enhances the painting. The same was true of ‘The Polish Rider’ in the Frick Collection which remained disputed for a number of years and ‘The Wilton Diptych’ at the National Gallery in London, which is also unattributed while being one of their great treasures. So, in essence, I really like the idea of art moving away from the cult of personality and towards allowing a purer engagement with painting itself. And I think this is because western society currently places the centre of focus on the individual, which in turn seems to stimulate a promotion of narcissism. In doing this we appear to be encouraging an idea that our personal issues are central to all life. However, an encounter with beauty in a broader sense seems to do the opposite, it humbles us and minimises our problems into a reassuring universal context. 

LC: Have you encountered problems with the art world? 

RP: I would say yes, as I don’t think the art world is a place for artists any longer. I think that the traditional role of the curator was to act as a bridge between the artist and the public, helping to interpret and present the conversations artists are having amongst themselves at any given time. Since the 1980s this has morphed into many curators advancing largely both their own and government agendas through the choices of art they display. This has led to many artists subjugating their creative output in order to follow the curatorial lead so they may gain a platform. I feel this has undermined a significant cohort of artists and think it is time for creatives to regain confidence in the integrity of their own ideas regardless of any ideologies cultural leaders may or may not wish to promote. In doing this I believe we can help evolve a new relationship with curators, which is based on mutual respect, built on an understanding and interpretation of the conversations artists themselves are having. 

The Third of May by Francisco Goya, 1814.

LC: What are the major challenges for artists today? 

RP: In the past few decades I believe we have witnessed a significant rise in intersectional politics and the dominance of identity hierarchies within the cultural arena. This belief system sees artists having to identify themselves as a member of a discriminated group first and speaking to that (and only that) second if they wish to see their work programmed. This is located in liberalism, which is formed on the identification of the suffering of the individual at the hands of the state. In art we see this expressed in historical works such as ‘The Execution of Emperor Maximilian’ by Édouard Manet, ‘The Third of May 1808’ by Francisco Goya and ‘The Terror of War’ by Nick Ut. In their suffering, the subjects gain a voice of moral authority, which echoes through the rest of society. I believe that in advancing ideas around the suffering of individuals (which has strangely been promoted by the establishment) we have had to pay a social price, and that price is the removal of hope and wonder. I think there is a place for both the exploration of suffering and the celebration of beauty. 

LC: What is the worst mistake you can make as an artist? 

RP: Thinking that you can make a “mistake”. One of the great advantages of being an artist is there really are no rules other than those we place upon ourselves; this leaves you free to experiment and explore.

LC: Should art galleries be ‘safe spaces’?

RP: Art is like play. It’s like a game that simulates the real world, yet as the artist you are the master of it and you can contain and control it. So in that sense I believe all art offers a “safe space” where we can explore complex and difficult emotions at a distance. Indeed, I would argue that some of the most interesting art locates it’s focus on the boundaries of what is taboo and in doing so helps us define and secure the limits of what is socially acceptable. 

LC: Is the censorship of art ever justified? 

RP: All I know is that I want to paint without any restriction. I don’t want to impose a rule or order on myself other than if I feel very strongly about something then I want to find a way to explore it. 

LC: Do the identity or gender of artists matter to you? 

Untitled #1 (detail) by Agnes Martin, 2003. Photograph: the Estate of Agnes Martin.

RP: I really love the work of Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Tracey Emin, David Hockney, Katsushika Hokusai, Frida Kahlo, Agnes Martin, Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, Paula Rego, Bridget Riley and Andy Warhol. Yet I would not describe them as gay, female or ‘BAME’ artists. What marks them out is the quality and integrity of their work; their identity is very much secondary to that. 

Robert Priseman, founder of Contemporary British Painting and co-founder the Priseman Seabrook art collection, is a British artist, collector, writer, curator and publisher who lives and works in Essex. Over 200 works by Priseman are held in art museum collections worldwide, including the V&A, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Honolulu Museum of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland.

Interview by Lucy Cox. You can follow her on Twitter @23Carousels.

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