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On Emotion: An Interview with Robert Priseman

LC: What is your earliest memory of being emotionally affected by a work of art? 

RP: Encountering Picasso’s 1937 painting The Weeping Woman in the Tate Gallery sometime in the mid-1980s. It’s quite a small artwork, measuring 60x49cm and shows the face of Dora Maar, Picasso’s then lover and muse. It’s fascinating. Western art hardly includes paintings of people crying, yet this one seems to capture it so well.

The Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Image: Tate Gallery.

Picasso depicts Dora’s face fractured like broken glass that appears to express a sense of her subconscious spilling uncontrollably into the outside world. He partly achieves this by drawing on his cubist technique to present the subject. His use of saturated colour (another cubist approach) amplifies tension across the canvas, further enhanced by the small central area below Dora’s eyes to her monochrome wrists. This central motif appears shaped like a heart and contains her tears, and also resembles a handkerchief while revealing her mouth, chin and right hand. Then there’s more contrasting elements: the monochrome area represents her interior emotional world, while the exterior is shown in colour.

We notice other things in the painting, such as Dora’s eyes facing forward compared to her nose and mouth painted in profile, a technique reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian art, which perhaps shows The Weeping Woman as both a primitive and a highly evolved artwork. In addition, the usage of black, white, yellow, green and blue seem deliberately suggestive of death, as demonstrated by her tears; as we know, death relates to grief and loss. Crying, a common expression in movies, novels and theatre, correlates with happiness as well as grief and loss but is rarely depicted in paintings because heightened emotion is considered sentimental in fine art. Instead, fine art seeks to move from sentimentality towards an elevated sensibility. 

Stela of a man called Aafenmut (detail), ca. 924–889 B.C. From Egypt. Wood, paint, gesso 23 x 18.2 x 3.5 cm. Image: MoMA/Rogers Fund.

Aside from renaissance lamentation paintings that depict the Virgin Mary crying over the death of Christ, serious painting contains very little on the subject, with Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963–64 print Crying Girl and Ary Scheffer’s 1865 painting Paolo and Francesca amongst the few exceptions. Paolo and Francesca presents a scene from Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1308). Dante and Virgil encounter Francesca and her lover Paolo in the second circle of hell, reserved for the lustful. Scheffer paints the couple wrapped in each other’s arms, trapped in an eternal whirlwind, doomed to be forever swept through the air, just as they had allowed themselves to be swept away by passion. A tear flows from Francesca’s left eye, yet we hardly notice it. Dante calls out to the couple, which compels them to pause, albeit briefly. Francesca reveals a few details of her life and death to Dante, through which he realises that she and Paolo were married to other people when they fell in love and that this illicit desire has resulted in their tragedy.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl, 1963. Offset lithograph on wove paper. Image: Artsy.
Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil, also known as ‘Francesca and Paolo’ and other titles, by Ary Scheffer, 1835. Image: Wikipedia.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is joy. Just as there are very few paintings of crying in Western art, displays of laughter and happiness are equally rare. The obvious one, Rembrandt’s 1637 oil painting The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, depicts the painter himself in the foreground alongside his wife, Saskia. Husband and wife turn towards the background but also look over their shoulders, facing outwards in our direction. Rembrandt, smiling broadly, raises a glass of beer in celebration and invites us to join him in his happiness.

What Picasso, Scheffer and Rembrandt evoke is the idea that emotion is a feeling––something that stimulates a response deep within us––be it fight or flight, laughter or tears. These paintings remind us that sometimes life events can disturb and undo our emotional equilibrium, causing pain, stress and anxiety. Extreme emotions often need to be mediated and soothed, but occasionally we want to wallow in and enjoy them. Music, film and literature reflect relatable feelings, allowing us an opportunity to examine extreme emotions at a safe distance. This externalisation of our sensitivities enables us to safely sense emotions, especially if they appear overwhelming.

LC: Are there any non-emotional painters?

RP: The most non-emotional painters that immediately come to mind are Ad Reinhardt and Chuck Close, who utilise and pursue the plasticity of paint. I’ve seen the original artworks and noticed that both artists display a great deal of sensitivity in handling and applying paint, which is interesting considering they claim to work like machines. Reinhardt famously said he was against ‘the disreputable practices of artists-as-artists.’[1] By the time Reinhardt arrived at the Black paintings, he had come as close as possible to removing the artist’s hand. Reinhardt applied paint flatly and painted not quite perfect squares alongside one another in subtle harmonies, which at first glance are hardly noticeable. He viewed these works as the ultimate paintings or the final word in an old-fashioned medium. The Black paintings are beyond reproduction because all one sees at a distance or in print is a dark canvas, but, with the naked eye, up close to the artwork in the flesh, one detects the painted imperfect and slightly-off black squares next to each other. So, while I argue that this is far from unemotional and automatic, I also see his works as the result of a heightened sensibility. 

Ad Reinhardt in his studio, mid-1960s. Image: Medium.

One of Ad Reinhardt’s Black paintings, 1957. Image: White Hot Magazine.

The same is true of Chuck Close, perhaps most famous for painting large scale photo-realist style portraits. Close treats each canvas like a photograph and he the printing machine. He divides the canvas into squares, and then applies paint in successive layers of individual colour until completion. Yet when you stand in front of his canvases, they possess a palpable presence of Close himself and are, in fact, very painterly paintings.

To better understand emotional and unemotional painting, it might be better to compare and contrast two other American 20th-century artists, Grant Wood and Edward Hopper, and analyse how they used the medium. Both artists lived during the same period and made similar scale figurative paintings about modern American life. However, Wood used paint flatly and illustratively, whereas Hopper applied his paint thickly with a distinctive lack of detailed description. Wood, I would argue, did not use paint as a painter per se but does so as an illustrator. He aimed to use his significant skill as an image-maker to create iconic pictures, so while the paint itself seems to lack emotion, the power of the picture carries meaning. Artist Andrew Wyeth worked in similar ways. However, Hopper, compared to Wyeth and Wood, engaged with iconic imagery and the plasticity of the paint.

Bacon’s second Version of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of Crucifixion triptych (1944), 1988. Image: Tate Gallery.

Regarding the plasticity of paint, I also find Francis Bacon interesting. Early on in his career, Bacon wasn’t a very good painter; he didn’t possess technical skills like Wood or Wyeth. However, he was a genius at transforming paint into raw emotion, which took many years of practice. The second version of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of Crucifixion, made in 1988––over forty years after the original––shows his late acquired technical skill in handling paint had somehow transplanted his ability to create emotional metaphor from the paint itself. 

LC: Your previous series concentrates on the dark side of human nature, particularly The Francis Bacon InteriorsNo Human Way to Killand Nazi Gas Chambers: From Memory to History. What is it about these poignant subjects that grips you? 

RP: It seems funny to admit, but I spend a lot of time watching movies and documentaries and reading books. Emotional subjects draw me in, and occasionally I find something that makes me want to cry; when it does, I delve deeper. Then if I continue to feel moved and disturbed, I figure the subject matter must be a good theme for a painting series because if it moves me, it will likely affect others. Art designed to mediate our emotions is more interesting than art made as a purely intellectual exercise. 

Bernburg by Robert Priseman, oil on linen, 183 x 274 cm, 2008-09. Image: Courtesy of the artist.
Dachau by Robert Priseman, oil on linen, 183 x 274 cm, 2008. Image: Courtesy of the artist.

Emotions are immediate and primitive responses, often stimulated by external events outside our control, which, in the extreme, becomes overwhelming. But––and this is one of my core interests––we can control our reactions to emotions. One of the most extraordinary artistic examples of this I have ever seen, particularly in painting, is Slovenian born painter Zoran Mušič’s responses to the Holocaust. Mušič’s images depict various twisted and emaciated human figures that often appear as a sort of knotted undergrowth. The artist gained international importance during his lifetime; in 1956, he won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale. In 1943 he moved to Venice and later, in November 1944, was arrested by the Nazis and deported to the Dachau concentration camp. While imprisoned in Dachau, Mušič produced over one hundred sketches revealing camp life, of which only around seventy survive. Decades later, he based his 1970s series We Are Not The Last upon those drawings.  

Mušič’s We Are Not the Last, 1974. Image: Lah Contemporary, Slovenia/ Nada Žgank; Leopold Museum.
Mušič’s We Are Not the Last, 1970. Image: E. P. Prokop; Leopold Museum.

Mušič’s drawings offer an authentic response to the horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Perhaps the most genuine of all artistic voices on this subject, Mušič actually treated his sketches as reportage rather than art. His responses began as recordings of the sights he observed and were only synthesised years later into a more nuanced and metaphorical format regarded as art rather than reportage. Therefore, great art may not necessarily be born of out an immediate reaction to trauma but instead grows gradually as a measured reply to the subject it examines. 

In this context, we see how art acts as a reflection, rather than a description, of emotional responses to events, enabling us in some small way to gain an alternative angle on our sensitivities to experiences. 

LC: What are your thoughts on Romanticism? 

RP: Romanticism is very interesting. It aimed to celebrate nature and emphasised the importance of emotion and individualism in reaction to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. In this way, Romanticism placed the feelings of the individual above rational thinking and rejected capitalism and industrialisation. Artists associated with the Romantic Movement like Caspar David Friedrich, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable were primarily concerned with the sublime and the emotional response to the natural world. In contrast, we regard many modern and contemporary artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Deborah Kass and Jenny Saville, to be motivated primarily by body and identity issues. I don’t think it’s so clear-cut. All artists see themselves as social outsiders, compelled to create by a deep-rooted internal motivation––an impulse driven by emotion. They produce work in response to inner feelings; society then labels them after the event. Naturally, many artists choose to work within a prevailing movement or ideology. Still, I believe that great art ultimately transcends fashion and individual political concerns and speaks instead to universal human experience.

Self Portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1988. In 1989, Mapplethorpe died at the age of 42 due to complications from HIV/AIDS. Image: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Stare by Jenny Saville, 2004-05, oil on canvas, 304.8 x 250.19 cm. Image: The Broad.
Everybody by Deborah Kass, acrylic and neon on canvas, 254 × 274.3 × 5.1 cm. Image: Artsy.

Understanding the physicality of our being and the knowledge that we eventually die is universal to us all. While alive, humans desire to belong to something, be it to a person, a family, a country, an organisation or an idea. We encounter events beyond our control––events that cause various emotions––and sometimes those emotions lead to both destruction and creation. We externalise emotions in an attempt to make sense of and control them. When emotion leads to creation, we become engaged in processes that lead to something positive. Positivity frames creativity as a hopeful act whereby the outcome speaks of inner emotions and hints at something that exists beyond ourselves. Perhaps this is where ideas of beauty lie: not in any one given thing, but as something malleable and adaptable to each one of us, through which we find our place in the world and our unique sense of peace and acceptance. Emotion is the driver of creativity; beauty, the destination.


[1] Tate, Ad Reinhardt 1913–1967 (No date).


Robert Priseman, founder of Contemporary British Painting and co-founder of 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, the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, the Honolulu Museum of Art, and the National Galleries of Scotland.

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