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Anthony Christian – A Passion for Drapery
August 15, 2018 - September 30, 2018
“Damn him! He is so various!” was what Gainsborough said of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the same (with perhaps a more colourful expletive than “damn”) must have been said of Anthony Christian by many an envious fellow artist. But mere variety is nothing without invention, without imagination, without inspiration and without a brilliant mastery of technique, and Christian has them all. I have known Anthony Christian for well over fifty years now. I can hardly believe it myself, but throughout that time I have seen him, yes, journey from an extraordinarily precocious talent to a mature master artist of prodigious reach, but more importantly, pass through so many phases and subject matters and achieve enduring excellence in all. Given Christian’s quite “lively” – shall we say – relationship with Picasso and his work, I am taking a considerable risk in comparing the two. Nevertheless, I know of no contemporary artists other than these two, who have been through such a variety of phases in their lifetimes while achieving success in all of them. Both began their careers as brilliant draughtsmen, and while Picasso may have divagated from his roots onto all kinds of modernist by-roads, his extraordinary facility as a draughtsman remained somehow at the heart of his work. With Christian, the brilliance in the drawing has matured even more strongly than Picasso’s and remained more clearly the foundation of his work. But what variety it has produced! The visionary symbolist; the penetrating student of nature, the profound analyst of the human form and face, the surrealist jester: Christian has been all of these and more. And he keeps on finding new styles, new subjects, new media. To give just one example: his new drapery works are not revivals of his old technically brilliant studies, but something quite novel and original: light, airy, full of animation, mystery, and meaning. They have the vitality of youth and the insight of old age. They are the work of a new Old Master, or perhaps an old New Master. You decide. Where next? I have no idea, but I wait with some impatience and total confidence.
Ever since I was a child sitting on my bed looking at the crumpled sheets and seeing all sorts of figures and monsters racing around in the intricate folds of the cloth, I was fascinated by drapery. I then encountered Leonardo da Vinci’s work when I was ten years old and working in the National Gallery. Of all the amazing drawings by Leonardo I saw, it was to his drapery studies that I was most drawn. Much later, in my early twenties, I was living in Rome, where amongst other things I invented a technique of tinting paper which I then worked on with charcoal pencil and white chalk for highlights. My first major drawings on this paper were two drapery studies of a black cloak with a white satin lining made by my then wife. I loved those drawings, my first original masterpieces, made in 1966, and although sad to lose them I was happy that they entered a wonderful art collection in San Francisco a year later. While I was established as a master draftsman from that time, I still found several aspects of painting that, no matter how much praise was lavished on those early works, I felt were far short of what I was demanding of myself…..what I felt Leonardo would have demanded of me, or Rembrandt, my painting master as Leonardo had been master of my drawing. In 1975, while living in Paris, I found and acquired a wonderful two-hundred-and-fifty-year- old life size mannequin, who would be perfect to model for the white drapery studies I was desperate to do, as I had found white drapery the most difficult subject of all to conquer, indeed, as difficult as painting flesh, for which I always considered Rubens the greatest master and so studied him for several years too. Using this mannequin, and later a female one to accompany him – I named them Mister and Mrs. Frank as they had cost me so much of that currency – I made various “studies” that were really more than just studies as I gave both the mannequins and cloth life through the excitement of my brushes. These paintings launched me into a hugely successful career, they sold all over the U.S., where I was living by then, and later all over Europe. Drapery had become “my” subject.
But over the years, I became so deeply immersed in other subjects, especially Trees, I did less work with drapery for a long while, until in Bali in the 80’s and later, living in Ireland, I was inspired to do my greatest series up until then. My wife, a formidable artist in her own right, has an understanding of what I require for inspiration to an almost eerie degree. And by selecting not only costumes but coloured sheets for our bed and a myriad of coloured shoes, she presented herself as my muse for a series called “Fanny Sleeping.” Although she appeared as a small face mostly covered by a magnificent duvet whose drapery was a challenge beyond belief, the works are all about the drapery and include several of my best paintings up to that time. Of course, part of that was the love I have for my muse, but also it was about the madness of the drapery and the challenge to really express it in movement of the ballets it seemed to perform just for me, and trying to transfer that excitement to my audience.
I “rested” for a year, a year filled with unbelievably beautiful trees in a private Irish park, then I became obsessed with the drapery involved in Turbans, and created a series of them, my wife modelling for them again. That was last year, in 2017. After returning to the U.K. at the beginning of this year, as most of my life’s work I had done with the intention of bringing it back and sharing it with the city of my birth, London, I spent the first two or three months searching for a gallery and working on some portraits in New York. Just as I found what for me was the dream gallery – as it was in one of my few favourite parts of London, where I’d “hung out” as a kid, and was run by the first people I had met in U.K. or even Europe, with whom I felt I shared an instant rapport and identical aspirations: To serve art and to make London dance with delight!
At exactly this time, or within a few days, I was showing the gallery some drawings my wife and I had made in collaboration, and I happened to see one of them – a drapery of course – that so excited me – I hadn’t seen it since we had done it several years before – I decided I would love to do a few more in the same vein. And so taking my paint rag, I stuffed it into a hole in a drawer of my painting cabinet, and could not believe the forms it seemed to suggest to me. Men walking around, running jumping, yes even being crucified, or praying, women nursing their baby as in a Pieta, a rooster, an elephant, a Prince of Darkness and a Queen of Light, oh you name it and within a few hours I had made sketches that became the source for the new and most exciting series of my life thus far.
In this series there are so many possibilities, as I want to mix the drapery with my other favourite subject, the human – female – form, I anticipate it being my work for the next two or three years. Who knows where it might lead? Picasso and I once had something of a row about “inventing a new art.” He had said that to do so was the only thing that could really make an artist great, and I had strongly disagreed. But now I find I have, with no intention of doing so at all really, done exactly that. A friend in L.A. to whom I sent a few photos of this recent work wrote back in the greatest excitement saying “You are painting the ultimate classical subject, drapery, with the hand only you have of the Old Masters, but you are doing so in a completely new and modern way. You have finally really found your voice as an artist and I believe everybody will love and want these works, and they will establish you the place you merit in art history.”
Well, perhaps my friend was being a little over enthusiastic, but I do doff my cap to Picasso as I can see what he meant, as I have never been quite so excited by seeing the things appearing from the end of my brushes as I am right now, painting things as they might be rather than as they are (as I see them) which I have spent my life doing up until now. I also hope he was right about people really enjoying the work, certainly one of its main purposes after all.