FREE SHIPPING IN THE U.S.

Uniquely cool. Shop our new patterned styles.

Episode 3
Author Barnaby Phillips and Artist Hughie O'Donoghue RA

  • 2 min read

Episode Description

01:21 - Journalist and author Barnaby Phillips discusses his new book “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes” which details events in 1897 that led to the British looting of Benin Empire treasures and the complicated status of these objects that have since been distributed worldwide.

33:01 - Artist Hughie O’Donoghue talks about his body of work and his most recent exhibit titled Night Cargo. O’Donoghue, a member of Britain’s Royal Academy, is widely collected by museums in the United Kingdom and Ireland, including the British Museum and the National Gallery, where he previously served as the artist in residence.

66:09 - The week’s top art headlines

Transcript

Craig: [00:00:11] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. First up this week is my conversation with journalist and author Barnaby Phillips regarding his new book "Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes", which details events in 1897 that led to the British looting of Benin Empire Treasures and the complicated status of these objects that have since been distributed worldwide. In segment two, I speak to contemporary artists Hughie O'Donoghue about his body of work in his most recent exhibit, titled "Night Cargo". O'Donoghue, a member of Britain's Royal Academy, is widely collected by museums in the United Kingdom and Ireland, including the British Museum and the National Gallery, where he previously served as the artist in residence. At the end of the episode. I'll be wrapping things up with some of the week's top art headlines. But first up, the scattered treasures of the Benin Empire.

Craig: [00:01:21] You for joining us to talk about  what is a lively topic today, Barnaby, you have recently published a book called Loot Britain in the Benin Bronzes. I find the subject fascinating. Can you give us a little bit of a background about your book?

Show More >
Barnaby: [00:01:37] Absolutely, yes. The Benin Bronzes are treasures which come from the West African kingdom of Benin, an ancient kingdom which is today in modern, modern southern Nigeria. It was a kingdom which flourished for hundreds of years. Perhaps it reached the height of its power around the 15th and 16th century, which is when Portuguese traders and explorers who were working their way down the West African coast first came into contact with it. The followed hundreds of years of interactions with various European powers the Portuguese principally but also the Dutch, the French and then the British, who were the the leading imperial power on that part of the West African coast by the late 19th century, at which point relations between the Benin Kingdom and the British, which had been rather good, started to go sour. Britain was increasingly looking for more sources of palm oil, which lubricated the machines of the industrial revolution. It was also interested in rubber, and it came to see the Kingdom of Benin and its its king, who was known as the Oba as an obstacle to trade. To cut a long story short, in early 1897, a British delegation was on its way to Benin and it was stopped by soldiers of the Oba and a handful of British officials and traders were killed, and in response, the British launched a punitive expedition. Over 1000 soldiers and sailors were mobilized very quickly from different parts of the British Empire, and they took over the the Benin kingdom and incorporated it into the British Empire and exiled the Oba. And then, rather incidentally, they stumbled across these great artistic treasures, which are bronze and brass castings, but also ivory carvings which were looted en masse and taken back to Britain in early 1897. And these are the objects that we today call the Benin Bronzes. And this is the story I tell in my book who made them, how they were made, how and why the British came to take them, what had happened to them over the 120 odd years since. And then culminating, of course, in the very current debate of whether we should give these objects back.

Speaker2: [00:04:25] So really, it's it's a story in three parts. One The rich cultural history of the Edo people over five hundred year period where what created so much interest in this artwork, once it was revealed to the Western world, was how exceptional the work was. And so it seemed like it was a bit of a cultural surprise in face of traditional narrative that the people of this continent were savage, less refined people. But here they are, creating this highly refined art. For example, the pendant mask that's on the cover of your book is just exceptional. It's from from the fifteen hundreds. The carved ivory, you know, there was a period of 500 years where they're trading peacefully with the Portuguese. Then there is this period in 1897, where everything sort of comes to a head with the British, and then there's the plundering for lack of a better word.

Barnaby: [00:05:26] That's that's absolutely right, Craig, yes.

Speaker2: [00:05:28] Yes. Going back to the massacre in January of eighteen ninety seven, I've seen reports where what may have been exploratory party of porters and assistants with these couple of British officers may have actually been the disguise for a party that was actually intending on ousting the Oba. And it may not have been as much of a massacre as a preemptive protection on the part of the Edo people. Have you explored that whether that party that was massacred was actually intending on attacking the Edo people?

Barnaby: [00:06:07] Yes, I explored the context of what happened in in 1897. It's complicated and there's still an element of mystery to it, I think, to understand what happened during what the British came to call the Bénin massacre you need to go back a few years to 1892. That is when an earlier British delegation convince the the the Oba of Benin - or maybe they coerce him, maybe they trick him, it's not entirely clear - to sign a treaty which effectively gives away his sovereignty, and if you like that, gives the British the pretext to then take further measures against the Oba. By 1897 as well, I think the Oba has seen that the British deal pretty ruthlessly with other kings in the Niger Delta coastal region who do not well, I suppose effectively bow down to the British, who get in the way of British sovereignty and British commercial interests. So they've seen that the British have maxim guns, they have artillery and they're prepared to use it. So there is a heightened atmosphere of fear and anticipation within the Edo Kingdom, the specific motives of the vice consul who is called James Phillips (who I'm not related to) when he sets off for Benin City in January 1897, I believe still a mystery. He's not armed but he is an ambitious colonial official, and in my mind, I think he's hoping one of two things will happen to him. The first is that he'll perhaps be turned away peacefully. He's already been warned not to attend because as a sacred festival going on in Benin City, and that will then give him the pretext and the justification for a subsequent armed invasion which he has already been pushing for.

Barnaby: [00:08:14] But his masters here in Whitehall in London are reluctant because of the expense and also the risks of fever. If you send a large number of white men into that part of West Africa at a time when people still don't know the origins and the causes of malaria. The second possibility, of course, is that he will be accepted by the Oba and the other will, if you like, bow down to the 1892 treaty. In either case, Phillips's career would have been done no harm. In fact, the third alternative, which he had not anticipated, was that he is intercepted by soldiers of the Oba, who incidentally may not have been operating under the other's orders. There is considerable confusion and fear in the Benin Kingdom, and there are several powerful chiefs with different agendas at that time. But the third alternative occurs, which is that Phillips and several of his companions and many of the African porters are massacred, at which point a British government, which has hitherto been reluctant to go to the expense and trouble of sending a punitive expedition, feels that such has been the affront to its sovereignty. Not least, of course, at a time of intense jealousy with other European powers France and Germany jostling for positions on the West African coast, they feel compelled to act. So I hope that clarifies a rather tangled situation.

Speaker2: [00:09:41] Well, it is tangled and it is complex, but regardless it leads to this this boiling point, which is the punitive expedition, and that expedition culminates in these British forces reaching the Oba's palace. Maybe you can kind of paint the scene for what they find and what culminates from there.

Barnaby: [00:10:05] Yes. So the British march in they are the imperial superpower of the age. They're able to assemble a force very quickly in only, it's only five weeks after James Phillips and his companions are killed that the British takeover Benin City, they're armed with the maxim gun, which is a weapon that no African army of the time can hope to compete against a rapid firing machine gun more than 10 bullets a second. And they fight their way in. There has been a panicked atmosphere in Benin City during those weeks. As I was saying, the atmosphere had already been tense before the attack on James Phillips, but after the killing of Phillips and his companions, it is inevitable. The Edo people fear and know that a serious British attack is coming at, and this leads to a spate of human sacrifice in Benin City during those weeks. So the British encounter a grisly scene, basically. It seems that many of these sacrifices are panicked attempts to keep the invaders away, and they don't they don't succeed, in fact, they enable the British to justify the invasion of Benin if in if you like civilizational terms that they are, you know, bringing Christianity, that they are putting an end to barbaric practices, that they are ending slavery. Of course, in the 18th century, the British had been great proponents of slavery from West Africa. By the early mid-19th century, there zealously opposed to it. And so this is the context in which the British forced their way into Benin City. And this is when they come across the Benin Bronzes, which are mainly treasures which have been used to decorate the palace of the Oba himself. The bronze casters of Benin are an exclusive guild who works solely for the Oba, and they have worked for the Obour and his ancestors for many hundreds of years. But in 1897, the obit is deposed. He is sent into exile. He dies in exile in 1914. He never sees his kingdom again

Speaker2: [00:12:34] When they get to the palace. The palace is it's held up by a number of pillars in covering the pillars were what I think is the most popular of the Benin Bronzes, which are these brass plaques that depict different scenes from Edo life. They remove all the plaques. There are figures, busts, masks, bronze and ivory. All of that collective work is basically sent back to the British Museum. Do I have that right, give or take?

Barnaby: [00:13:06] Well, to be to be precise, the British takeover Benin City on February  18th, they burned down a series of chieftain houses and minor palaces in subsequent days. But the great fire of Benin, which sweeps through a lot of the palace is a couple of days later. It's on February the 21st, and there's fairly strong evidence that the British did not start that fire, but I mean that that's a mere detail that historians quibble over. You're absolutely right that the plaques roughly the size of an A3 sheet of paper, if you know what that means, each containing superb detail, these are amongst the prized possessions. It is thought that traditionally they would have decorated the pillars, although it seems that at the time that the British arrived, they were not on the pillars. But you're absolutely right the palace is looted willy nilly of these hundreds of plaques of these hundreds of ceremonial altars for previous, for deceased Obas. So that involves lots of magnificent brass and bronze heads, carved ivory tusks and all the rest of it. There is something of a perhaps not a free fall might be going too far, but the loot is carved up primarily amongst the senior officers that they get the best bits, the best pick. But there is a sense as well that some parts should be kept. Some prized parts are kept as gifts for Queen Victoria herself, and some parts are given to the Foreign Office - the British government department. And  it is largely out of those that a couple of hundred blacks are given to the British Museum and they go on, they go on display in the British Museum in autumn of 1897.

Barnaby: [00:15:06] And you're right, what you were alluding to earlier when they go on display, there's a special exhibition and it causes a sensation because many of these objects are so wonderful, they're so splendid. People are saying, "Oh my God, this is like ancient Greece. This is like Renaissance Italy. And yet these people were meant to be barbarians. How can this be?" And these people are meant to have no history, but here they are in some of these plaques depicting Portuguese soldiers in in medieval armor from the 15th century in great detail. So it seems self-evident that some of the plaques are several hundred years old. So that is a challenge, I suppose, for people who come to the museum and for curators. But the majority of of Benin bronzes have been carted off, as I'd said, as private property, typically of senior soldiers and sailors. Some of them keep retain their collections for many, many decades. And indeed, there are families in Britain who are direct descendants who still have Benin loot from 1897. Many of them go on auction and in fact, some of them go on auction very, very quickly. In the summer of 1897, Benin Bronzes are going on auction in in London as officers. Seek to make a quick buck, if you like, out of out of their booty.

Craig: [00:16:25] So I guess we can fast forward to today in the question of what is right and what is the temperature for restoring and instituting these works to the Edo people within the nation of Nigeria?

Barnaby: [00:16:41] Well, it's an enormously complex issue, but I think what would be fair to say is that the Benin Bronzes have become emblematic of this what has become a very highly charged debate over colonial looted art. And I think there is a couple of reasons for that. I think it's because in part because the best of them are are so magnificent and there are so many of them, and they're so prominent in many of the great museums of the western world. From the British Museum here in London, which has the largest collection to the Met to the Chicago Field, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Berlin, the Musee Quai Branly in Paris, in Amsterdam and Stockholm. All of these cities have fabulous collections of of Benin bronzes. And I think the other reason why they seem to be at the centre of the debate is because, you know, 1897 is just not that long ago. It's right at the very end of the period of imperial expansion expansion. And I think many people feel that the circumstances in which they're taken were particularly egregious and very well documented from the British side, in in letters, in journals and indeed in photographs. And all of that seems to contribute to the the emotive power, I suppose that the Benin Bronzes have, if you throw in as well, the fact that the Benin Kingdom, although of course it's been, you know, it's part of the sovereign, modern sovereign state of Nigeria, but in some ways the Benin Kingdom is pretty intact. The ownership was restored by the British in 1914. He's much more of a figurehead from then on, but there is still an Oba of Benin today. In fact, he is the great great grandson of Oba Ovonramwen who was overthrown in 1897, and he sits in a palace on the same more or less on on the same spot. And the Edo people as an ethnicity, as a language, as a culture notwithstanding the damage that was done to their material culture in 1897 are still there. So I think that all has contributed to the, I suppose, the strength of their case. You know,

Speaker2: [00:19:01] I feel like this is a topic that has really bubbled up in the last year, and it seems like there's been a groundswell. And I don't know if that relates to the debate regarding other problematic statuaries, just a shifting cultural opinion on these types of topics. But we're seeing governments in other countries beginning to consider and start the process of restitution. But what is the temperature like in Britain?

Barnaby: [00:19:31] Well, so I think if you go back a couple of years to 2017, the French President Emmanuel Macron went to West Africa and he made a pretty extraordinary speech in which he said it was no longer acceptable that so much African heritage was in was in European museums, and that had to change. And he commissioned a report which came out a year later, which was much more radical than people had expected. And although it only pertained or it specifically pertained to French museums, it put other European museums, including in Britain, under great pressure. I think then you have to jump forward to 2020 and the explosion of feeling around Black Lives Matters, which of course started over there in the United States, but which took different forms in different parts of the world. And I think whereas perhaps in America, you know, inevitably it was particularly focused on on police brutality and a history of slavery in Europe and indeed in Britain, it tended to focus particularly on the legacy of the colonial period and the legacy of the imperial period, and that put institutions like the British Museum under great pressure. You ask what the temperature is in Britain? I think it's difficult to generalize about British, about different British museums because they each one has their own guidelines, their own constitution, if you like. So there have already been some smaller museums, local authority museums, university museums, which have indicated that they're willing that they want to return their Benin bronzes.

Barnaby: [00:21:13] But then if we talk about the British Museum itself, whether it with a Capital B and a capital m the huge institution in the middle of London, you might be familiar with which is a national collection, and that that is more constrained where it's politically constrained in a way that smaller museums aren't because we have something in the UK called the the British Museum Act of 1963. And to put it simply, the government would have to change the law for the British Museum to permanently return objects in its collection. It's indicated that it wishes to. It's ready to lend back Benin bronzes, but to permanently return parts of its collection. And just to put it in context, it has almost 1000 Benin bronzes, the biggest collection in the world. And what, you know, museum curators don't like it when one talks in these terms. But what laypeople such as you and I may consider the finest and most beautiful of many of the finest and most beautiful objects for them to to for there to be restitution from the British Museum, the law would have to change. And then you look at the political context. We have a conservative government with a Capital C in the UK, and there's no indication with its majority in parliament that this is part of its current political agenda to change that law.

Craig: [00:22:37] Right. Well, I was reading about that law last night. I saw that in 2005, a High Court ruled that the British Museum could not return Nazi looted work of Old Masters to their original homes in continental Europe.

Barnaby: [00:22:52] Right. So so the law has been changed now in the UK for Nazi, for for Nazi, for loot taken during the Nazi period, and the law has been changed as well for human body remains and body parts which are in the British Museum. So proponents of restitution would argue, "look, the law can change. Laws aren't stuck there forever." You know, as morality and ethics change laws have to change with them. And what is the difference between, you know, what was looted in the Nazi period and what was looted in 1897? You know, they're fairly close to it. Well, of course, there are differences in specifics, but they're fairly close to each other in terms of time. And that's where you find institutions like the British Museum on rather on the back foot.

Craig: [00:23:41] So I guess another counter that I hear some people that are are for keeping the work in Britain is that more people can see them in London and they would not be as safe if they returned to Nigeria. What would you say about that?

Barnaby: [00:23:57] Well, the well, the first part is definitely true. There are six million visitors a year to the British Museum, or at least there were before this terrible pandemic, which we hope will all emerge from. And no Nigerian museum could hope to attract that many visitors? There's no doubt about that, but I suppose this is also an argument about morality and ethics and a people's culture. And also, I think we we have to appreciate that the the Oba of Benin, indeed his father, many prominent elder people are asking effectively for it for a historical wrong to be recognised for the principle that these objects belong to them, to be acknowledged for many of them to come home. But I don't think anyone is actually thinking that every Benin bronze in the world should go back to Nigeria or or indeed that they should. I think we all want to live in a world where we are enriched by other cultures that we can enjoy and see other cultures. And one of the great things about the Benin Bronzes, in fact, is that, as I was saying, there are thousands of them, so we ought to be able to reach a situation in which the wrongs of the past are acknowledged there can be substantial restitution, and yet the great collections of the world can still display parts of our great global shared heritage. I would say as well, actually, the situation is fairly complex now. If you talk to some of the people who are trying to set up a new museum in in Nigeria to host returning Benin bronzes, you know, there are quite a few museums in the German Museum say in principle, they're ready to return theirs.

Barnaby: [00:26:02] There are museums in Britain which say they're ready to return theirs. There's starting to be some museums in the United States which are saying they're they're willing to return theirs or they're ready to consider and talk about that. I'm not so sure that the issue will necessarily be a shortage of Benin Bronzes as they go back. I think we need to look more and more, in fact, at Nigerian politics and not so much indeed at what's happening in Britain and in Berlin. Because in Nigeria, there are different groups that have vested interest in this return process. You have the Oba who still there, who says, you know, these objects were stolen from him, that they should, they should. He's agreed in principle to the idea of a museum. But ultimately, you know, he has to give consent morally to to any process of return. You have a local state government, the Edo State. And there are jealousies and rivalries between the Oba and the governor in Edo State. And then you have a federal government of Nigeria, which you know at times has difficult relationships with state governments. And so the Nigerians have an amazing opportunity. I really feel they're pushing against an open door. But I was a BBC correspondent in Nigeria for several years. I know Nigeria well. The Nigerians themselves know that there are unfortunately no shortage of missed opportunities in their country's post-independence history. There is a golden opportunity to get it right. There is an enormous amount of international goodwill. But I would say watch Nigerian politics as much as you watch British or German politics as to what will happen next.

Craig: [00:27:49] Well, it's it's certainly a complex issue. It appears you have written a book that is enlightening on all fronts and appears to try to present the facts in China light on what's a very complex and murky issue. Certain things just can't be denied, which are the quality and beauty of the work and its appeal around the world. How how we resolve this issue, I guess is is yet to be seen.

Barnaby: [00:28:19] Right? Absolutely. And it is a story full of full of complexity and I try and tell it in in all its nuance and its all its complexity. There are, you know, some quite counterintuitive parts to this story. You know, the fact that one of the principal looters, a man called Neville, was also an outspoken advocate of racial equality in Nigeria in the 1890s. The fact that British colonial British colonial officials in the 1950s went to great lengths to try and buy back Benin Bronzes in auctions in London and bring them back to Nigeria's nascent museum, the National Museum System, at the time. The fact that if you spend time in Benin City, different people have very different perspectives. People don't always speak with one voice and I try and do justice to all these different, all these different points of view and hopefully let the reader themselves decide. I don't I don't want to preach to them, but I do feel if I can quote the words of the current governor of Edo State, a man called Godwin Obaseki. This is a this can be a win-win situation. This can be something which can end in a positive way and with a reaffirmed sense of our of of common humanity coming out of the very, very dark episode in in history.

Craig: [00:29:43] Well, Barnaby, I really appreciate you joining us today. Again, Barnaby Phillips the book "Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes". I really appreciate your time today.

Barnaby: [00:29:52] Thank you. It was a great pleasure speaking with you, Craig. Thank you. Thank you.

Craig: [00:29:58] So on weekends, some families like to go to baseball games, some families like to go to the lake, but our family likes to go to museums. Surprise, right? And so this past Friday night, the family went out to dinner and then went to an art museum. Really spectacular art museum. There were Corbets, Bonnard, Monet, Picasso, Mondrian, Kaiba, Luke and I was the family's docent. And so we kind of split up and my son and I went in one direction, and my wife and my daughter went another. A couple of minutes later, my daughter comes and taps me on the arm and said, Dad, you have to come see this painting. I love it. And so I went around the corner and there was this painting called "The Geography Lesson" by Louis-Léopold Boilly. And she adored it. It was a scene of a father and a daughter in his study along with the family dog, and he's giving her a geography lesson. And I asked my daughter, you know why she found it so special? She really couldn't put her finger on it, but I think it had something to do with her seeing some of herself in the painting. The daughter in the painting is roughly her age, and I think she can visualize her and her dog in our office, and she made a connection, which is awesome by the end of the night.

Craig: [00:31:38] I pay three dollars for three postcards, three by four inch of the painting for her as a keepsake. When we got home, I was in the office. She came in and said, Hey dad, do you think I can see that painting on the Canvia? And I was like, Let's see, I pulled it up, and there it was in full, high definition. "The Geography Lesson" on our wall. And she was delighted. The Canvia is a 17 by 28 inch digital art frame can be as full HD display provides unmatched detail. The brush strokes, you can see every one. There's a technology called Art Sense, just like the name of this podcast that samples the ambient light in the room and automatically adjusts the display to heighten the sensation that you're looking at a real painting or print. Unlike a framed TV, the goal of the Canvia is an authentic viewing experience. Your Canvia provides access to thousands of historic works and premium members have access to a host of contemporary artworks as well. If you want to learn more about Canvia, head over to canvia.art and check it out. And now, a dive into the world of Hughie O'Donoghue.

Craig: [00:33:02] All right, so Hughie O'Donoghue, I really appreciate you joining us today for the person that's not aware of your artwork. How would you normally describe your work to the person that is approaching your paintings for the first time?

Hughie: [00:33:17] Hi, Craig. Yes. That's always a difficult question, because as the artist, you tend to be inside things and you're preoccupied on what you do, what you're doing at the time. But I think it will be if you look at what I've done over the years, over many years now, I've been interested in the idea  of the relevance, the ongoing relevance of painting as an art form. It's something that I've been drawn to from a very early age and and so a number of things were sort of key factors in my development. One of them was was being sort of an artist in residence at the National Gallery in London, which was a kind of privileged position in that that was in the early 80s. But it had a lasting effect in that I looked at the tradition of painting not as something that was to be ignored and, you know, replaced by something new, but something that could be learned from. And so my my interest in painting was was fueled by that. I wasn't necessarily interested in ironizing it and so but I also knew that I want to develop a personal particular style, and I wanted my work to be relevant to the 20th 20th century, then 21st century now.

Hughie: [00:34:52] So my paintings to get to the core of your question are characterized by they're meant to be. Well, they're often large scale, overwhelming in size. They're very physical. They they involve you in the actual material of paint of painting. So that a typical response might be that you see the paint first and you see an image later that there's a sort of tension between the act of painting and what you are actually painting. So these paintings often deal with, they deal with themes. They hover between two idioms of abstraction and figuration for various reasons. And so I mean, that's that's been a term that's been used to sort of describe my work often because it's not obvious, it's not graphic, it's very visceral, it's very painterly. And whatever medium I work in, I try to exploit that medium to its maximum potential. So the response from the viewer is, first of all, it's compelling for them. It commands their attention. And secondly, they perhaps start to perceive what the layers of meaning in it are. So I hope that goes some way to. I can describe more physically. 

Craig: [00:36:29] That's excellent. So, you know, I've heard you speak on this notion of memory versus remembering. Maybe you could kind of help elucidate that concept as it pertains to your work.

Hughie: [00:36:45] Well, it's I suppose that I got interested in memory for all sorts of reasons to kind of obvious memories are personal memory, which is usually not accurate. I'd say it's often true, but not accurate. And then there's cultural memory. I mean, I've made pictures that have eluded to say, the First or Second World War, which I wasn't alive to see, but they're part of cultural memory and remembering, which I think is a more accurate term. If you think about remembering, it's almost like pulling limbs on a body. So it involves an imaginative process of a re reimagining or actually being about representing something, some some response to an experience. And so it is representational, representing something. And I had various routes into that, and how should I say, ruminated on that over a long period of time. And what I've found is that things that really connect to me, I can successfully. Remember, in some way, what I'm looking for is not a description of something, but but something that stands in place of the event. And so so there's those those two personal strands. And in a way, another word would be consciousness. Often people think about remembering and memory as being to do with the past, but it's actually rooted in the present, firmly rooted in the present in a sense of who we are.

Hughie: [00:38:36] We all have these markers which we construct our own defense of our own identity, from whether their grandparents and stories from the past or places they've lived in. And that's how we construct our sense of the present. The present is always in your face. In a sense, it's always there and it's very, very difficult to record it somehow without it being almost reportage. And the future is unknown. So all we have to some extent is memory. And most of my paintings tend to deal with with things that have affected my life for. But sometimes occasionally an event happens that is so significant, and so world-affecting that I am able to respond. And one of those events that 911 in America and the first real paintings I made in relation to that was about 2003. And so that was really quite a quick turnaround for me. But it was partly to do with it was such a sort of world affecting event. Everybody knew about it. Everybody knew where they were. It changed the world. And so it had an. But again, I didn't want to deal with it in terms of reportage. I wanted to allude to it through symbolism and, you know, all the imagery that goes with it. Sure.

Craig: [00:40:06] So that that painting that I think you're speaking of specifically "Tomb of the Diver". It's a it's a it's a very... Well you're making historical reference to to a specific piece of art. But the image, the colors are, it's just something very visceral. And I think there's also scale, you know, at play there. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that specific work.

Hughie: [00:40:35] Yeah. Well, that is an enormous work. I think when you're talking about is is sort of 16 feet tall and it's made into three sort of vertical columns. And it's roughly corresponds to the original design for the World Trade Center architect's drawing in terms of its form, which pressed the two columns in in and sort of an equidistant space between them. So that's where the painting gets its form. The diver, obviously, images of divers were associated with the the terrible events of 9-11, and people had various news about them. I also had quite a sort of positive way that they were people not awaiting fate but taking hold of their own destiny. But also, I was I was affected by something I saw just after which was a tomb in Paestum in Italy that I didn't know about. It's about 480 B.C. and it's about the tombs occupant entering the afterlife and dives into what was then the unknown see, which is the Atlantic. And you know, the other end there's a pomegranate tree, which is a symbol of life, so it's about entering the afterlife. So there were a number of themes involved in including personal themes. I picked up on the idea of the unknown individual, the divers. I had somebody particular in mind, but it could be anybody that that that's always been something that fascinated me, the unknown, the unknown person in history, rather than the person who were all told about it, important the individual who's kind of lost and swept up in history.

Hughie: [00:42:26] And the painting the color of the painting is this sort of amazing blue sky of New York on the day it happened. It's a kind of a sort of an intense, visceral blue. And at the bottom of the painting, it's like people have looked at it casually and thought it was a volcano. But it's an image of the city of casino in Italy, where my father fought in 1944. But it's like a ruinous city like New York was. So it has. It's how you connect. How I'm trying to do is connect with history through personal reference, but also through universal references, and one further point about that is that, you know, I think that that's one of the roles that painting can do, that it can. One of the things it can do is that it can tell a different story. They can tell a poetic story. And I've read a lot of history mainly in connection with researching subjects. But I've noticed you read different historians, you get very different versions of events. And so the poetic version of them can often be the truest record.

Hughie: [00:43:45] You know the Victorian English, Victorian critics add that really and that, you know, it's often the book of the nation's art is the truest record of its deeds because the artist should have no axe to grind, whereas the historian and the politician they may well have. So that's my take on that. And it was it was, you know, it was a rich vein of imagery that's been in my work at the diver of being symbolic of somebody immersing themselves in a, you know, in a sort of spiritual or an imaginative journey rather than it being literal, you know. So I've always tried to pitch my work so that it allows the viewer their own kind of way in and, you know, only one interpretation of it. And sometimes some of the more obvious interpretations I haven't seen because I'm too close to the to the process of making it, and that's something that a lot of people have pulled me up on about. But it's to do it. How painting establishes meaning. It does it in a very different way to purest conceptual art where the idea is there, and that's the only thing that's important in painting an idea is modeled, it's changed, it's transformed and enriched, and it only appears when the form of the painting is resolved.

Craig: [00:45:22] It sounds like that's pretty much a constant struggle with the artist content versus form, right?

Hughie: [00:45:30] Yeah. Yeah, that's the interesting bit of it, right?

Craig: [00:45:35] You know, there's the idea and then there's the execution, right? Do you start with the idea or do you let the idea come to you?

Hughie: [00:45:43] Well, I've got so much history now I suppose that ideas come and go and they get picked up again. But I think you hit the nail on the head there. It's content and form and when I started out, I was sort of formalist abstract painter because I was making paintings I was looking around at what was being done. And that was the sort of, you know, I wanted to make relevant work. But eventually I felt the need of subject matter and the content there, I suppose. And so the purpose of content is to measure what you're making a painting against. Got to have something to refer back to. If you're you're only got the painting itself. And I'm not decrying other artists who have done that. They work for them or whatever. But if it's only, you know, the form, my life would be a lot easier. I think if all I had to worry about was making things in a beautiful form, right? So the subject a kind of anchor point is what is is the grit that makes the pearl in the oyster. And it's difficult and irritating and you have a subject and you don't quite know how to do it. But what what happens when in a really good way sometimes is a light bulb comes on and you, you, you realize you've been over complicating putting too much in and you simplify things and find for a new form because that's what you're trying to do as a painter desperately trying to make a painting that nobody else has made. If you're a serious painter, that's what your ambition is. And, you know, to make something new and hasn't been done before.

[00:47:36] Sure. So one of the previous podcast episodes kind of revolves around Andrew Wyeth. And one of the one of the persons I interview is Bo Bartlett, who's an accomplished contemporary painter. But he spent five years with Wyeth and worked alongside of him and documented his work. And one of the things that Bo said that Andrew Wyeth used to talk about a lot was this sense of place, right? And being rooted in your patch of Earth and letting those roots be your crown. When I look at your work and here you talk about your work. I feel like that same idea kind of ruminates with you. And so maybe could you talk to a little bit about place in the importance of place?

Hughie: [00:48:22] Yeah, absolutely. I think that that's a very good analogy. I think, because I think in great paintings of landscape that wherever they are, whoever made them there is in a really strong sense of place. And it's the difference between a lot of time an artist who knows somewhere absolutely in an intimate way. They're not a tourist. They're not gone there to paint the scenery, but they know the place and they've lived that place in it. And somehow, because they have that connectionship with the place, they've earned the right to paint it in a way. And it's a curious, really curious thing for me. I suppose my in my work, when I when I sort of started, I moved from abstraction a long time ago, probably about 1980, I moved from abstraction. I got this satisfied and I wanted to make paintings. And so I went back to what was the what were really very, very early memories of of of place. And they had a particular resonance because my mother emigrated to England from the west coast of Ireland, from County Mayo, and she she did that in 1937. She didn't do it because she was wanting to see the world. She did it for economic necessity. She went to get a job. And so she she kind of almost spent a whole lot of life being homesick, and she would take us back there as a child, and it was kind of a magical place to go as a child because you took your shoes off and went, you know, ran around the place. And it was it was a primal landscape. You collected water from the river and you turf the fires. And yet it was very it was an exciting place to be in that that that early memory of that place was was an absolute engine.

Hughie: [00:50:33] Because even though I wasn't at the time I was making paintings in England, I was was dredging up this idea of the landscape of memory, of the landscape, of feeling in these paintings. And so they were quite freely constructed. That's that's kind of interesting actually in reference to what I've actually been doing during the lockdown in London, which is which you could categorise onto the landscape of fact, which are images of Desert Creek in London, which was near the studio where I was working. And it was that it was a very sort of unusual because I was walking past this every day and it was something starkly unusual about London being depopulated, nobody being there. So I've made and made these images. So that was. But again, that's quite unusual in a way to connect with something that's absolutely instantaneous as that. But that's something I'm interested in to the landscape as fact where it just fact and the landscape of memory. That's that's my preoccupation at the moment. But you know, your point about places absolutely significant. It feels however beautiful. The place is it. I couldn't. I couldn't actually make work related to it, and I felt some kind of connectivity. Hmm. And that's I suppose, if you look at Cezanne paintings of Saint Victoire, they're amazing. You know, over 50 paintings, they don't tell you anything about Saint Victoire, really, but they tell you a lot that says, you know, it's it's his response to the landscape. And I see that as a sort of a powerful thing only connect his expression. But you've got to connect in some way, or I have at least to make a work of art. It's got to connect, right?

Craig: [00:52:36] So your your most recent body of work, "Night Cargo" it's beautiful. You know, I'm sure you can give us some really interesting background, but I didn't know the whole back story about the the film "Nosferatu" and what it was trying to symbolize. And I'm curious if you pulled from that before the pandemic started or was it a happenstance that what was going on in the world was kind of aligning with some of the themes that were showing up in the paintings?

Hughie: [00:53:12] Well, I think strangely enough, on this occasion, the paintings really predate the pandemic. They look very prescient, but they they begin and think about 2014 15. It was gradually developed. Nosferatu, I think, is a master visual masterpiece of the 20th century. But again, something I knew I came across as a youngster and reluctantly watched it because I didn't have much interest in silent cinema, but it was fabulously, visually compelling. And it was a truly terrifying story, really, because it but I can understand also, it was kind of allegorical, and to me at the time I was studying the First World War, and Murnau was a veteran of the First World War. And you know, the idea for the vampire film came out of the First World War from some encounter with a sort of Serbian farmer who told him it's father had been a vampire or he told one of the producers Albin Grau, I think Grau, so his name eludes me. But it has this rootedness in this trauma, and the film conveys that in a very sort of compelling visual way. And so they are large scale paintings. They're sort of 12 feet by sort of 24 feet in the case of "Cargo". And of course, in the story. Chicago is the plague that comes back from the German little German town, the estate agent goes off to sell the county's castle in London or in the book, that was all changed in the last film for copyright reasons, but the story is basically the same and it comes.

Hughie: [00:55:17] He comes back with his cargo of coffins, which which carry the plague, and so he has all this kind of layered, layered meaning and. I didn't know about the pandemic was going to was going to come about or have any idea of that. So the paintings, but the paintings now it's very hard to look at them without that prism there. So it was about that, but it's also about the world of dreams, the kind of kind of neo neo surrealism in a way that they put together slightly improbable things in a way that dreams do. And of course, these employ photographic space and they're on they're on industrial tarpaulin, which is a kind of sculptural thing so that although they're paintings they're really employing to twist almost alien space, the space of holographic space and with the sculptural space at the tarpaulin or the sacks that have used in some of the other paintings. And what the paint does is really pull it together in a way has a very sort of modest role in the whole enterprise. But it actually they are paintings. And so they have this. Yeah, and they're also meant to be like cinema. It's hard to remember now, but when when I first went to cinema, it was kind of visually shocking because they called it the sort of silver screen and and you would go into this darkened space and see this amazing silvery version of reality.

Hughie: [00:57:15] And I suppose that was some of the inspiration for those paintings, cinema and and also storytelling. You know, there's an element of storytelling in my cultural background that recurs in my painting. There's an argument that storytelling is the whole of all art, but it's something I've not wanted to purge from my work. And it sometimes occurs in a very in a very sort of minimal way in that the idea for the work on sacks came from the fact that my grandfather really spent his whole life unloading sacks in Manchester, the goods depot there. So it was kind of, you know, it was it was a kind of repurposed material as well reused material. And I suppose that's at the heart of the project of what I've done is to try and reinvent paintings over the reinvent how I make paintings so that people don't say, well, that's a hugely annoying painting. It looks like that, well, it may have looked like that in 2000, but it doesn't look like it's going to look different and that that's what excites me. And I've got to retain that sort of excitement. I've got to want to see what the painting is going to look like, and it's got to be different, but it's got to feel like me, and that's how I suppose I judge it.

Craig: [00:58:49] So tell me, you know, in my mind, a great painting is great regardless of its size. You know, I've seen amazing small paintings. I've seen amazing, enormous paintings. But can you speak to me about scale as an attribute in your work?

Hughie: [00:59:10] Yeah. Yes, I agree. Totally. I make small paintings and but I suppose it's also very much do with the space you're going to show paintings in. And there's been a in recent years, a sense of sort of breaking out of the traditional gallery space and framed around paintings and and to try and engage with the space where those paintings are going to be shown. And I've always I've always found that challenge interesting, whether it's showing them in an old church or in a in a factory building somewhere or in a grandiose museum or whatever. I've tried to tailor the work to. To make you go into the space and that you feel it's appropriate to be in the space, that work is there, that that you, you, you engage with the architecture rather than fight with it. And you're so in a sense, I suppose, the the thing about scale. Certainly, I've been interested in the idea of surrounding the spectator like this in the screen did and so that they're not just looking into the painting, they're looking at it. And that's a tension that. I have it in my paintings, even if they're small, you know, you're not looking into them, you're looking at them. It's the object and the the two, the two only two traditions that I can work out in in Western painting one is the painting as a window that you're looking into a window. The other is the painting of an object, and I'm trying to fuse those two. So you've got a thing that you're looking at and you've also got an image.

Hughie: [01:01:17] So the scale has been something that's excited me, that physicality of it. And I suppose it's just something that excited me and I thought, Wow, that painting is that big. That's extraordinary. And but it doesn't mean I decry small work and it has its it has its place. Absolutely. But I think scale is particularly in the modern world. It's important how art art's not shown in isolation. It lives in the space where it's shown up in all of its site specific works. And that's made that's that's actually been a liberating factor for me. You know, if somebody says, Look, here we've got this, this factory here that you know, what can you do? What can you do in this very, very exciting because it carries with it all the baggage of the place. It's a bit like you said earlier about Andrew Wyeth's connection with his place. That is, you know, this is a place you've already got a place that's given. And so so that excites me. And I did a lot of paintings of the human figure starting probably in the early mid 80s, and I still make paintings of the human figure. But one of the things that is almost universal in those paintings is the human figures always the same scale as human beings. It's always, you know, at least sort of six feet tall, so that you're not you're not diminishing it. So it's not becoming like a, you know, again, you're not looking into it, you're looking at it, right? And so that's that's excited me really scale in art and it just gives you different, different possibilities.

Craig: [01:03:26] Well, Hughie, I really appreciate our time today. Do you currently have any work being exhibited or coming up?

Hughie: [01:03:34] I do have an exhibition of new paintings, which will be shown in London in November that at the Marlborough Gallery, which is not none of which have been seen or in reproduction or anything. So that would be a new show of work November this year, another show in London in the spring at the 12 Star Gallery's European EU gallery. It should be mainly prints, but with some paintings in and we have plans for shows in the following year, which I can't really say much about them, but they will be happening, I think. And so I'm trying to make those shows that there will be new work, a move on from the night, Calgary, but that will get shown again. So at some point.

Craig: [01:04:33] And folks wanted to to keep track of you and your work. Do you have a website or,

Hughie: [01:04:39] You know, we do on the website, I'm able to say for the first time in 20 years, yes, we do have a website. I finally got organized on that and it does have information about my work. And there was a very good documentary made by RT television, half an hour documentary made by artist, which you can access on that website, which would give you a feel of the work, I think, and that was filmed in the Irish studio because I work in London and Ireland. And that's partly to do with the history of my own history of being involved in those places. But so that's on the website. And yeah, there should be a good bit of information out there. But yeah, but any other inquiries can come through Marlborough or some certain partners working with it. And all that was Graham Southern... Ssouthern Partners now and we're working with them and Marlborough. So yeah.

Craig: [01:05:47] Wonderful. Well, once again. I really appreciate your time, Hughie. And thank you for joining us.

Hughie: [01:05:52] It was great talking to you. It was great talking to you, Craig.

Craig: [01:06:09] And now the news.

Craig: [01:06:13] It was recently announced that the world's northernmost modern art museum is planned to open in 2025 in the Siberian city of Norilsk recognizes the world's most depressing city. The community of one hundred and eighty thousand residents is built around a nickel mining operation in the Arctic Circle. In addition to federal grants from Russia, mining company Nornickel is chipping in 150 billion rubles, which is roughly $2 billion us to convert an abandoned shopping mall into a new contemporary art space totaling roughly ninety one thousand square feet. But why is the location considered so depressing? Well, try rampant industrial pollution, virtually no sunlight all winter and an average high temperature in February of 11 below zero Fahrenheit. Hopefully, the new space will provide a warm respite in those long, dark winters. There is a hot new artist who is causing quite a stir in this new cycle, an artist with no formal training and no history of exhibiting their work, but whose upcoming show in New York is fetching prices between $75,000-$500,000. You might recognize his name, and in fact, that's the problem. This newly minted artist is Hunter Biden. Hunter, who has been accused of providing access to his father at the right price, will be showing his new work at the George Berges Gallery in Soho. There's been bipartisan questioning about whether the younger Biden is dragging his father into an ethics quagmire. The question at hand is what is keeping a Russian oligarch or some other interested foreign party from paying Hunter in exchange for some form of favoritism? We are being assured that there is what the business world calls a Chinese wall in place. In other words, certain information is not shared to avoid a conflict of interest. Supposedly, the purchase agreement with the gallery has been crafted in such a way that the buyer's identity is withheld from Biden. This discussion made it all the way to the White House press room this week, where White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had to field questions about this arrangement.

Jen Psaki: [01:08:32] Hunter Biden's artwork Did the White House play any role in crafting the sales agreement with the New York gallery to protect the the purchasers or the ultimate purchasers identity? Well, I can tell you that after careful consideration, a system has been established that allows for Hunter Biden to work in his profession within reasonable safeguards. Of course, he has the right to pursue an artistic career, just like any child of a president has the right to pursue a career. But all interactions regarding the selling of art and the setting of prices will be handled by a professional gallerist adhering to the highest industry standards, and any offer out of the normal course would be rejected out of hand. And the galleries will not share information about buyers or prospective buyers, including their identities with Hunter Biden or the administration, which provides quite a level of protection and transparency. If the gallery owner is a private

Jen Psaki: [01:09:27] citizen who might not be privy to who might have some interests in purchasing this artwork.

Jen Psaki: [01:09:34] Is the White House doing anything to work with the owner to make sure there is not impropriety there when it is ultimately sold? Well, I think it would be challenging for an anonymous person who we don't know and Hunter Biden doesn't know to have influence. So that's a protection.

Craig: [01:09:52] Is it a protection? I guess, but there is nothing to stop the buyer from self-identifying themselves outside the bounds of the transaction. The buyer could pay $500,000 for an original Hunter Biden and upon receipt, take a picture with the painting and email hunter directly saying, Hey, look, I'm the guy who paid half a million dollars for your painting. Maybe we can meet for coffee. The bottom line is, what does someone think they're buying when they pay $500,000 for a Hunter Biden painting?

Craig: [01:10:35] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to art since you can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rates show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. If you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read a transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to canvia.art and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at craig@canvia.art. Thanks for listening.

< Show Less

Search