Julian Opie on the Old Masters

March 15 2015

Image of Julian Opie on the Old Masters

Pictures: NPG, self-portrait by Julian Opie, 'Julian with T-shirt'. Below, Philip Mould Ltd.

There was a fascinating article in the Sunday Times recently by Julian Opie, talking about his love of Old Masters, why he collects them, and how they inform his own art. It's rare to hear contemporary artists talking about their predecessors with such flair and insight.

Here, with his permission, is the full piece, which is well worth reading:

I am not a historian, a critic or a writer. I am a fan, an artist myself and I suppose a collector. I collect a lot of different kinds of art, contemporary, ancient, Japanese and 17th and 18th century European. I get interested in things because they seem to jump out at me. It can be because the thing relates to what I am making or  because it shows me what I could make. The object can be from anywhere and from any time, I recently bought a painting on buffalo hide by mid 19th C Pawnee Native Americans.

Having noticed British painting some years back I moved from the early 17th Century forwards and eventually arrived at Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney and Ramsay. They were the giants of the late 18th Century each with their own style and particular brilliance. All artists learn from previous art and refer to previous art. I may be high up on that particular scale. 

Walking down Dover street in Mayfair my wife and I spotted a small, dark painting leaning against the wall in my favourite Old Master gallery. Sometimes I see an art work and the day seems to stop. Other things, normal things are forgotten and there is only the fact of looking at the thing. I love the feeling, of being totally focused and engaged and enthusiastic. Other paintings remain paintings but I seem to enter the space of some works. I don't care really when the work was made or by whom. I don't care what or who it is of. Well, I do read about the period and learn all I can finding out about other artists in the process. I want to stare at the artwork and if possible to have it. After some negotiations ( the painting was reserved by someone else) I bought Mr Bradyll [above] and have looked at it almost every day since then. It is particularly vivid as it’s painted thickly and fast on a wooden board and thus has faded less than much of Reynold’s work.

I had always admired Reynolds even as a student when I only knew of him in a general sense as an old master. There is a melancholic and gentle quality to his work. The slightly deathly mood ( enhanced by the tendency of his skin colours to fade to pale) is offset by a vivid, powerful sense of presence. Like many 18th Century works the compositions are elegant and balanced and there is a piercing sincerity and fresh energy and optimism to the paintings. 

These days we usually see good paintings in museums and museums tend to focus on the interesting and the grand. It's hard for them to write about yet another portrait of an aristocrat done in oil paint. There are thousands of them, all the same set size and although I can tell a lot of them apart they look remarkably similar on the surface. In the case of Reynolds this bias is a shame. His best works are the workaday portraits commissioned to be hung in people's homes. There is an energetic modesty and sense of sureness and purpose to these works. Reynolds helped to set up and then directed the first public English gallery where artists could exhibit their work, the Royal Academy. This was part of a whole move away from artist as commissioned portraitist, the end of a golden age and the end of my interest in English painting really. The mythological later works of Reynolds are pompous and stiff and dated but a huge number of his hundreds of commissioned portraits are still glowingly intense and alive. 

Like most British portrait painters Reynolds came from the tradition of Dutch portraiture introduced by Van Dyke, Cornelius Johnson and others in the early 17th Century. Reynolds travelled to Italy to learn from earlier Italian late Renaissance painters like Raphael and Titian. He then applied the techniques and compositions to his busy London studio practice. Daily sessions of portrait sittings undertaken to order. Paintings then often sent by cart to drapery painters such as the brilliant Van Aken who did all the top artist’s drapery. For a set price and at a set size you could have a head or a three quarter length or a fabulous full length portrait. You could get more than one copy. It was a service and artists knew what their job was. 

Reynolds experimented and borrowed and imitated. He played with props and poses and above all lighting and painting technique. Dappled light and shadows falling across complicated drapery gave glamour and depth and life. He often used gracious garden settings or exciting wild skies as backdrops as did his contemporaries, to add a sense of depth, place, narrative and an almost cinematic realism. Towards the end of his career these became somewhat overblown or sentimental with young girls hugging smiling sheep and young men dashing through arcadian woods with bows and arrows - by this stage I have lost interest.

A lot of emphasis is often put on the fame or glamour of the sitter and although there can be amusing stories to be told and although the whole complex system of portraiture, wealth, propaganda, society and patronage is important it’s not really what interests me.I do like to know about the role of art and artists and understand the changing way in which artists can work and exhibit but in the end I love to gaze at paintings and see what they do to my eyes and mind. Art can open up the past and bring you directly into the minds and views of other periods almost like time travel. 

The amazing sense of presence in the best of the artists of this time was a pinnacle of a shared purpose and set of techniques. Now we have no idea what we are supposed to be doing as artists, which is a freedom and of course confusing. Reynolds holds all this richness at the end of the golden Age of Enlightenment in late 18th Century London just before most British art fell into the sentimentality, corruption and slick academic tedium of the 19th C.

Disclaimer: I sold Julian the Reynolds he refers to, when I used to work for Philip Mould. And I'm lucky enough to own something of Julian's too, a French landscape. It is one of my favourite pictures.

Update - I meant to say that, as Julian hints above, the reason the Reynolds portrait works so well is because it is in really excellent condition. Just imagine how different our perception of Reynolds would be if all his pictures had survived in such good state.

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