The studio is more than an impersonal space
Hundreds of rapturous devotees, including assorted celebrities, waited to worship at the altar of the artist. In her 2010 performance piece at MoMA, The artist is present, Marina Abramović sat in silence for almost three months, all day every day (except Sunday, her day of rest). The acolytes took turns to sit opposite the artist, to bask in the light of her beatific healing gaze, in the warmth of her unconditional love. Many of the 1500 sitters shed tears; one shed her tears and her clothes. As cultural critic Dubravka Ugresic commented, ‘Abramović turned MoMA into … Lourdes, herself into Our Lady, and thousands of visitors into believers and pilgrims.’1 The artist is present was emblematic of our contemporary moment: the collapse of boundaries between the public and the private; the individual’s desire to inscribe himself on the public stage; the cult of personality; and the celebrity artist (usually dead men rather than living women) as site of secular pilgrimage.
Abramović is one of that rare breed: a living celebrity artist. Most artists receive little recognition in their lifetime, and only a few attain posthumous fame. It’s the same with writers. For every J.K. Rowling, there are a million scribblers penning their works in obscurity, penury and hopeless hope. Perhaps, like Our Lady, having completed the course of her earthly life, Abramović will gain perpetual glory. But the odds are against it; only a select few enter the pantheon of all-time greats.
Some of these all-time greats bequeath their studios or houses to the nation. Boosted by the public’s interest in the private lives of the famous, local authorities with a keen eye for the tourist dollar have transformed these studios and houses into hallowed shrines of remembrance. Impelled—at least in part—by busybodyism, we get to snoop in his intimate private space (it’s nearly always ‘his’; historically, all too often, women have been cast in the role of model and muse rather than creative genius). Standing in the studio, we imagine that a little creative genius might be magically transmitted to us, that we, too, might be visited by the muse.
The double-chinned rotund little man with a lugubrious expression and a bulbous drinker’s nose had a daily routine, which included two visits to his drinking hole. His parents lived opposite Brown’s Hotel, and his mother, Florrie, sometimes spotted her bibulous son emerging after one of his drinking sessions. ‘Now, don’t think I’m interfering, dear, I just happened to be looking out of the window as you fell down Brown’s steps’.2
Dylan Thomas wrote in a faded green writing shed perched on a tumble of rock wall, a few steps from the boathouse where he lived with his family. Now a tourist site, the studio is a simulacrum of how it looked when the poet occupied it. A few original objects have been supplemented by fakery including stubbed-out cigarettes in an overflowing ashtray and crumpled writing paper strewn among the clutter of his desk and on the floor. The visitor imagines Thomas in his ‘word-splashed hut’, inking lyrics on thistledown pages, drawing inspiration from the view of the ‘full tilt river and switchback sea’. The boathouse website stokes this romantic narrative, declaring that the stability of a permanent home in the last four years of the poet’s life led to a creative renaissance. However, Thomas was having trouble writing in his ‘horribly cosy little nest … basking in the vituperation of my golden, loathing wife!’3
The poet was drinking heavily. His shambolic marriage was at breaking point. He was broke. As Thomas wrote to his publisher in a characteristic witty, shamefaced, ingratiating letter, ‘for a whole year I have been able to write nothing, nothing, nothing at all but one tangled, sentimental poem as preface to a collection of poems written years ago’.4 The book that the poet had promised to his publisher had not been—and never would be—written in his deep hell of a year, which turned out to be his last. Chronic alcoholic poisoning contributed to the poet’s death at age 39.
This fetishisation of artists’ and writers’ houses is indicative of a modern preoccupation with biography, of a culture that pays more attention to the life than the work (and the more louche the life, the greater the interest). And yet I confess to having made a number of these pilgrimages.
Sigmund Freud lived and practised his talking cure at an apartment in Berggasse 19, Vienna, which is where you’ll find his eponymous house museum. I went there in 2015 when I was visiting that city. I climbed the stairs, paid the entry fee. As I was about to step into the first room, I noticed a sign: ‘ADVICE: The display of nudity in the adjoining rooms can cause irritation. Please consider this before entering.’
The display most likely to cause ‘irritation’ was the sculpture Hängender by Brandt Junceau. Suspended upside down from the ceiling, it was a white plaster headless nude with an enormous phallus and balls. The oversized genitals didn’t trigger my penis envy but Hängender did disturb my impressions of the city, which hitherto consisted of Klimt kitsch, wedding-cake architecture, men decked out in breeches spruiking operetta at the Volksoper, and stolid Catholic matrons drinking coffee crowned with double cream.
But initial impressions of a place are usually displaced if we hang around long enough. On my last day in Vienna, I went to the Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK) where I saw an exhibition, My Body Is the Event: Vienna Actionism and International Performance. Housed in a basement gallery, it featured videos of performance art from the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition came with a trigger warning, and for once, a warning was warranted. Copious amounts of blood (human and animal), urine, vomit, shit and sex, and of course nudity, were the principal ingredients with whips, ropes, razor blades and a gun serving as props. Among the works were some by a young Abramović, including Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful (1975). In the video, the artist repeats the titular mantra while aggressively brushing and combing her mane of dark hair—and her face—until the hairbrush bristles score her scalp. Forty years after making the video, the artist is still striving to be beautiful. But these days, instead of masochism, Abramović uses more conventional beauty aids: breast enlargement and designer clothes.
There’s a magnet on my fridge, a tacky souvenir of my visit to the Casa-Museo Federico García Lorca in Granada, the former summer home of the Lorca family. The magnet depicts the desk where Lorca wrote when he stayed at the house. Its surface is bare except for an open book and a vase of flowers. The chair has been pushed back from the desk to give the impression that the writer has only just left the room. But when I visited the museum some years ago, Lorca’s aura had evanesced.
A few days after my visit to the house museum, I took a local bus out to the small town of Fuente Vaqueros in search of Lorca’s aura. There were no other tourists. The town—or at least the small part of it that I saw—looked like a postcard cliché of old Spain: ancient men were chatting and smoking and drinking coffee in the town square; washing was draped on wooden poles suspended over the pavement; and the panadería, where I bought a rustic loaf of bread, was selling its wares from the front room of a house. The panadería was in the same street as the double-storey, double-fronted whitewashed building where Lorca had been born and had spent his early childhood. The house had a pleasing symmetry with its central front door and three balconied French doors on the first level. It didn’t advertise itself as a place of pilgrimage; the tiled plaque attached to the facade on the upper storey was too high to notice unless you were looking for it.
I knocked on the door and was greeted by a man in a suit whom I took to be the official guide. I share Geoff Dyer’s opinion of guides: few words are as dispiriting as the word ‘guide’. I didn’t want to listen to the official spiel about Lorca and the house and Fuente Vaqueros. But I was in luck. The guide only spoke a few words of English; I spoke only a few words of Spanish. So, after showing me through a couple of rooms, he left me to look around on my own. I remember Lorca’s white iron cot and his baptism certificate. I don’t recall much more because I hadn’t gone there with the intention of writing about it, unlike Dyer when he visited Theodor Adorno’s house in Los Angeles (more of which shortly). Sitting in the courtyard out the back, I tried to call up the poetic spirit of Lorca but could only think of his terrible end. Although his body has never been found, it is thought that the writer was shot by Nationalist militia because of his political sympathies; his homosexuality may also have played a part. I bought a postcard—a headshot of Lorca as a handsome, albeit acne-scarred, 20-year-old—and a CD of his arrangements of traditional Spanish songs on which he plays the piano, accompanied by the singer La Argentinita, castanets, and a lot of stamping.
Geoff Dyer’s account of his pilgrimage to Adorno’s house appears in his essay collection White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (2016). As Dyer notes, Adorno is one of those badge writers: your enjoyment of his work is increased by your heightened perception of yourself as someone who reads Adorno—or in my case, someone who has read one of his books, Dyer’s favourite, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Many of Adorno’s punchy aphorisms—his grouses about slack conformism and admonitions to be happy; the subjugation of life to the process of production; ostentatious shows of hectic activity precluding reflection; and the commodification of private lives—read as if they were penned yesterday rather than half a century ago.
The writer is about to knock on the door of Adorno’s former house when the tenant, a young woman wearing a singlet and sweat pants, emerges carrying the rubbish. She invites Dyer and his wife inside. They take a look around. There’s no sign of a piano, no Adorno first editions or memorabilia. As they’re leaving, the young woman asks, ‘How do you spell “Adorno” again?’
Dyer has spawned a subgenre of travel writing: disappointing pilgrimages. He is often a disappointed traveller, but rather than faithfully recording tedious reality, he turns his discontent to witty effect, embellishing and inventing when reality falls short. Dyer admits that what he writes is one inch away from reality; the fun is in that one inch. Even if the main game doesn’t live up to expectations, he always finds pleasure in the incidentals. His appetite for pilgrimage is never diminished.
There’s always a gap between our expectations of travel and our actual experience. Standing in line outside the Vienna State Opera—a replica of the original, which was destroyed in the Second World War (the Viennese, being Viennese, voted for fake historicism rather than a new design)—I overheard two women talking about their travels. ‘There’s nothing to see in Korea and it smells,’ opined one. ‘The Sistine Chapel is so small and you can’t take photos,’ complained her friend.
Despite the crudity of the remarks, I understood the woman’s comment about size. How often is it that when you finally get to see a church, or a favourite painting that you’ve only seen in reproduction, you think, it’s so small! The woman was also right about the prohibition against taking photos in the Sistine Chapel, although when I was there a few years ago, the jostling herd took no notice of the stricture, or of the guide repeatedly yelling ‘No photos! No photos!’ They didn’t desist, even when a serial offender was escorted out of the chapel by the scruff of his neck. Why would you obey the prohibition when the whole point is not to look but to take a selfie? In an era in which high culture, along with every other aspect of life, has been commodified, to be prevented from taking a photo of the culture you are consuming leaves you short-changed. And like a dog lifting his leg to piss in the park, you haven’t really been there unless you’ve left a trace, a record of your presence.
Although it was a rather disappointing pilgrimage, Adorno’s house still retained some magic for Dyer. His visit was enhanced by the fact that most people driving past the house would have had no idea that Adorno had lived there—or even who Adorno was, or how his name was spelt. As Dyer puts it in his trademark acrobatic prose (paradoxes recur throughout his books like stylistic tics), 316 South Kenter Avenue remained Adorno’s house—even though it no longer was.
But however illustrious the writer, a visit to a writer’s house can’t compete with an artist’s studio, especially in the computer age in which, as Dyer observes, a writer’s study increasingly resembles the customer service desk of an ailing small business. Whereas in the popular imagination, the artist’s studio is an erotic space: a naked model languishes on a sofa waiting to be ravished by the artist hero after his bravura performance at the easel.
Reality sometimes matches the myth. Lucian Freud’s studio was both an erotic space and a place of hard labour: when he wasn’t painting, he was fucking his models. The artist applied himself to both activities with prodigious energy right up to the end of his long life. In one Olympian year, he fathered three children with three different women. The artist’s picture framer, Louise Liddell, who also sat for him, likened being in Freud’s company to putting your finger into an electric socket and being wired up to the national grid. Art, fame, an illustrious name and charisma: a powerful brew.
While you can’t visit Freud’s studio or snoop in his bedroom, you can visit the studio of that other titan of twentieth-century figurative painting, Freud’s rival and one-time close friend, Francis Bacon. However, there’s no sofa—Bacon didn’t need one as he didn’t work with models. He always worked alone, relying on memory and using photos as points of reference and triggers for ideas. Rather than a literal likeness, he tried to trap a living quality, ‘the pulsations’ of the person.
Although he was a legendary boozer and habitué of Soho’s pubs and clubs, Bacon was fiercely dedicated to his work. For three decades until his death in 1992, Bacon lived and worked at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, London. While he called it a dump, it proved to be an ideal place to work. You’ve probably seen a photo of the Reece Mews studio with its rash of blistered paint of many colours covering the walls, and its chaotic jumble of stuff strewn on the floor: hundreds of books (including some by Lorca, of whom Bacon was a fan), images ripped from books and magazines, news-paper cuttings, photos of lovers and friends along with notes, sketches, slashed canvases, empty cartons of Krug, paint-encrusted rags and painting paraphernalia, all reflected in a paint-splattered circular mirror. The chaotic mess was a breeding ground for images.
Born in Dublin, Bacon left Ireland when he was a teenager. He lived the rest of his life in London (save for a brief stay in Berlin when he was 18, four postwar years in Monte Carlo, and stints in Paris where he owned an apartment near the Place des Vosges), and was always referred to as a British artist. Apart from his Irish nanny with whom he had a lasting attachment, Bacon retained no ties to Ireland. And yet, after Bacon’s death, his heir and lover, John Edwards, donated the studio to the Dublin City Gallery. A team of archaeologists moved into the studio. They mapped the location of every item—all 7000 of them—and then everything, including the dust, was tagged and packed. After the walls, floor, ceiling and door had been removed, it was all transported to Dublin, where the studio was reconstructed. It was opened to the public in 2001.
Bacon always insisted that when he died, he wanted to be put in a body bag and thrown in the gutter, a reflection of his conviction that the life of the human animal is short, violent and transient, given meaning by our drives. Andrew Sinclair, one of Bacon’s biographers, thought that the artist would have hated his studio being preserved. A permanent monument—particularly one that had returned to a country from which Bacon had dissociated himself when still a teenager—does seem at odds with the artist’s convictions. However, John Edwards may have been closer to the mark when he said that the monument in the Dublin gallery would have caused the artist to roar with laughter. Bacon would have seen the irony in memorialising something that became obsolete the day he died, when the work of making something from nothing stopped. Without the artist’s creative presence, the studio became a static space, a nostalgic relic.
In his biography Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing (2016), Ashleigh Wilson writes that Whiteley had disparaged the idea of a studio museum as an ‘ego trip’ (but then the high-octane supernova wasn’t averse to ego trips). Turning his Surry Hills studio into a museum had only been proposed as a way of ensuring that the property didn’t go to his wife Wendy in the divorce settlement. Whiteley lived in the studio after his split from Wendy. They were chaotic years of stalking grand artistic gestures and a sensual line, of tripping out on whisky, young women and heroin. Like Dylan Thomas, Whiteley was a saboteur of his talent. Both men paid the price of their respective addictions with an early death.
After Whiteley died, the studio was purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW and opened to the public. In the process, the former boho studio metamorphosed into what Wilson describes as ‘a living museum, with personal effects strewn around: sunglasses, paints, brushes, records, photos, books’. According to the studio’s website, it’s also a ‘dynamic and exclusive’ venue for corporate functions, a ‘perfect platform to impress and inspire your guests or clients’ who ‘will be delighted by the art, decor and ambience’. There’s no trace of junkie paraphernalia among the memorabilia in the carefully styled museum.
Once the artist has died, his studio becomes whatever its administrators decide is the best way of honouring the memory of the artist, and of milking some money from the legacy. The studio is imbued not with potentiality and promise but with a posthumous reputation and the settled dust of the past. As the late Andrew Sayers, former director of Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery, once observed:
But although the studio may act as a portrait in its own right, it is the living presence of the artist that provides its specific meaning and dynamism. If the artist is not present we sense a powerful absence. When important artists die their studios are occasionally preserved intact, yet such acts of well-meaning posterity usually fail. Without the active presence of the artist such places are depressing.5
Depressing or not (and memorials often are), the legacy of an artist or writer is the work, the product of a long apprenticeship in the studio. It is in the work that we hear the singularity of the writer’s voice, see the unique imprint of the artist’s hand (or in the case of much contemporary art, the not-so-unique hands of a team of assistants, fabricators and computer technicians). Long after he has left the studio, the creator continues to inhabit his art, his living presence having been transmitted to the work. Viewing dusty relics is a poor substitute for a deep engagement with the life’s work. The work—the material evidence of instinct and imagination; accident and will; of an associative web of feelings, memories, affinities and resonances—is the only thing that endures. If it’s any good, it takes on a life of its own and ultimately is a more meaningful memorial than a dusty studio could ever be.
And yet. A studio is not just a container of relics, an inert impersonal space. It holds traces of a human presence, of the charged interiority that produced the body of work. When much of life is lived in the virtual world, to stand in the ‘word-splashed hut’ overlooking the ‘full tilt river and switchback sea’ is to feel a sense of connection with the work and its creator. Seeing the context in which it was created may lead to a richer appreciation of the work. As John Berger has written:
Having looked at a work of art, I leave the museum or gallery in which it is on display, and tentatively enter the studio in which it was made. And there I wait in the hope of learning something of the story of its making. Of the hopes, of the choices, of the mistakes, of the discoveries implicit in that story.6
So I’ll keep making these secular pilgrimages. While they are partly impelled by busybodyism, they are also driven by a desire to draw connections between the life and the work, to identify with the human dimension of the artist or writer. In an era in which the average ‘dwell time’ in front of the most famous painting in the world is 15 seconds (enough time to take a selfie), the secular pilgrimage may help to enlarge our understanding of the work by fostering a more intimate relationship with artists’ and writers’ legacies.
1 Dubravka Ugresic, Europe in Sepia, Open Letter, 2014, p. 209.
2 Andrew Lycett, Dylan Thomas: A New Life, Overlook Press, 2004, p. 268.
3 Paul Ferris (ed.), The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas, JM Dent & Sons, 1985, p. 788.
4 Ferris, The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas, p. 869.
5 Foreword to John McDonald and R. Ian Lloyd, Studio: Australian Painters on the Nature of Creativity, R. Ian Lloyd Productions, 2007.
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