Art historian, Benedict Read, talks to Michael Sandle RA, ‘widely recognised as one of the finest sculptors in the world.’
Benedict Read: Your childhood was spent during World War Two – to what extent do you think your childhood experiences impacted on you at the time and have had a continued impact?
Michael Sandle: My father was a radio engineer in the Royal Navy, he was working class, intelligent and principled. He was also deaf and bad-tempered. My mother was tough and lively, she called me ‘Professor Piddle’ and had a healthy disrespect for intellectual pursuits.
I learnt very early in life how bad it could be. My mother once knifed my father and he took her to court. The magistrate was impressed with her, she should have been an actress, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and all he said was ‘Don’t do it again Mrs Sandle’. Another time she served my father rat poison in a tin for breakfast saying, ‘There you are, you rat!’ He couldn’t hear what she had said, so I repeated, ‘Here is your breakfast you rat’ and he hit me! If you have a childhood like that, you aren’t necessarily going to be that well–adjusted. He never distinguished between me and my brother – that sort of thing affects you. My parents were a very unhappy match, a lot of bad vibes in the air and negative energy.
I was a five year old in 1941 when Plymouth was badly hit by the Blitz, it was bombed more than anywhere else, but I was not remotely scared. You just accept it for what it is, cities in ruin became normal. One day when we were on the train, my mother pointed out of the window and said, ‘Look Michael, that is where we used to live’, and there was nothing, just rubble, and that stuck in my mind, and also the running into the shelters. I remember playing in our backyard and seeing a German aeroplane right above me, I could clearly make out the black crosses, I think it was a spotter plane. Some months later I remember too my mother crying because our house had been bombed. All this goes into you. I am absolutely certain that is why I am interested in war. I think one has to be interested in war, it has determined so much about life and it’s the background of human stupidity and wickedness.
Did your National Service enhance your earlier wartime experience?
I had a very good National Service. They asked me what I wanted to be and I told them I wanted to become an artist, so they gave me a job as a sign writer with a little studio. The older Officers in my Regiment were very humane and encouraging and I painted many of them and their wives. I told them I wanted to go to the Slade afterwards. I did apply for an Officer’s commission, but I was only offered a commission in the catering corps which I didn’t accept. On my second attempt these same Officers sat me down and said ‘You would surely agree with us – what you need is your own army’ so it would have been churlish of me to try again .
Once a diminutive General with a stutter turned up to a large parade and walked up to my Battery Commander and asked, ‘Any oddballs in the Battery Major’ to which he replied, ‘Only Gunner Sandle.’ That’s something to be proud of!
You are very interested in history and politics, which is reflected in your work. How did this arise?
It came from anger at being inarticulate, I couldn’t finish a sentence even in my late twenties. I remember at the Slade being so angry, burning with rage. I had a year when I didn’t speak to anyone on purpose. The idea was that if I spoke to people, it would weaken my magical power. The change happened when I listened to a discussion on the radio about a French philosopher, Merleau-Ponty and his thought processes. I thought to myself, I think like that. I got his book and it all fell into place; you build a mosaic of ideas and you connect them, and then articulate them. It changed my life. Then I started reading widely and trying to teach myself what words meant, to become articulate – because although I was inarticulate earlier, I certainly wasn’t stupid. That was the spur.
I wanted to start talking about your work by asking you about the sculpture you have just exhibited at the RA (figs.1&2)?
Well in 2008, about eight years ago, I saw a news report on the internet about a Palestinian called Anwar Balousha, whose five daughters were killed while they slept, by an Israeli air-strike on Gaza. I thought about this and tried to imagine the enormity of that man’s pain – it was an appalling war crime. Then for some reason, as I reflected on it, the Holman Hunt painting The Light of the World came in to my head, where Jesus is knocking on the door of a middle eastern hovel holding a lantern. Slowly I developed lots and lots of sketches and drawings, it became quite an obsession really. The thing about me is that because I am not a commercially successful artist, I am not on the hamster’s treadmill, I like to take my time. I agree with the art-critic Robert Hughes what we need is ‘slow art’ – all the artists I admire are the Old Masters anyway.
In the end in my RA piece, Jesus became an F-16 pilot. The reason was obvious, he is holding in his hand five severed children’s heads and the message is pretty straightforward, even simplistic – we cut heads off too (fig.2). We are appalled about Isis cutting people’s heads off, but we do it too. I use your phrase in your catalogue introduction to Michael Sandle: War or Peace? (War or Peace? An exhibition of work by Michael Sandle, RA, Centenary Gallery, University of Leeds, 2007, n.p.) – ‘war or peace’ when you mention moral bankruptcy. I think we are in terrible trouble morally and our foreign policy is grotesquely stupid and dishonest. It is all very well to try to ban hate crime, but think what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, we shouldn’t be there. I try to imagine what would happen if the Taleban came in a tank down Oxford Street.
And so the title of the work is straightforward, As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap: An Allegory (2015). I am not a Christian, but I was brought up that way; now it’s lore, part of our culture. Actually Jesus, the F-16 pilot, is representing hypocrisy because you cannot say you should not cut heads off when you are doing the same thing. It is simplistic really and there’s a lot to be said for simplicity. I think art should be about communication and not having your head up your arse as so many do. Talking about things, which are so stupendously boring. I feel I’m the only person in the world who knows what Marcel Duchamp wrote on that urinal, R.mutt, which is a homophone for armut the German word for poverty; he was actually telling us something. I have a plan to make a beautifully crafted mahogany box with compartments and in it little busts of Duchamp made of camphor that you put into urinals. Beautifully crafted busts, called the Anti-Duchamp that you put into your urinal to remove the penetrating odour of intellectual dandyism.
Do you think you have gone out of your way to provoke controversy in your work?
I think the contemporary art scene is so unoriginal. I used to go to open studios and look at the stuff and it was unoriginal and meaningless. The artists look around at each other trying to be cool. I’m not a cool person, I’m a bull in a china shop. I’m actually a clone of my mother, I even look like her. My mother was barking, very powerful, a little Nicola Sturgeon of her day, you didn’t mess with her. One day she took in a lodger and asked him what he did for a living, he replied that he was a tax inspector and she threw him out!
I do think artists should not be yea sayers, but should criticise and I get into deep trouble for that. I was born with a critical mind and I’m really hard on myself. I do think that the artist has an obligation not to support the art game, I don’t like it, I fight it, that’s probably why I can’t sell anything. Sometimes this pays off, I was at a symposium eighteen years ago, the subject was Sculpture Parks and Gardens, lots of international museum directors were there, people from the Kröller-Müller, Storm King Art Center and artists. One woman got on my nerves so much rhapsodising about Nam June Paik that I wanted to leave, but Joan Bakewell was the moderator and I liked her so I stayed. I came on after David Mach, who made everyone laugh, and I went all though my slides until I got to A Mighty Blow for Freedom…Fuck the Media (fig.3), when I added ‘and while I am at it fuck symposia’ and ‘fuck Nam June Paik’. I got standing ovation, because people have a hunger for honesty. It was a risky thing to do. Penelope Curtis was one of the speakers and actually she was rather good, she came dressed in black rather like a dominatrix. As I walked down the corridor to leave she said to me ‘Oh, you do have a way with words, Michael!’
What intrigues me is that you have been outspoken for a long time. I was desperate to show A Twentieth-Century Memorial at Leeds University and we did. This is pure anecdote, but I think it had been in store for some years (fig.4).
The Tate hadn’t shown it for fourteen years and when I had a show in Ludlow at the Castle there, it was exhibited in a Land Rover dealership. The owner moved all his Land Rovers out, except for an old army one and he showed the sculpture there for three months and people were ferried from Ludlow Castle by Land Rover to the showrooms.
Yes, that was in 2007 and we showed it first at the University, before Ludlow. I have this image forever in my mind of when the pieces arrived and it was a miracle that they got through the only door into the premises. I have this picture of you, Derek Pullen, our three studio technicians and a volunteer cleaning it up.
It is always polished before it is shown as it tarnishes because I have deliberately not lacquered it. You have to clean it up every time, but this can be done very quickly. We were supposed to be showing the work last year actually in the Saatchi show, Post Pop: East meets West, but the Tate who own it messed the organisers around so much, they said they needed twelve days to set it up, which is bollocks, because it can be done in a day.
Can you explain what you were doing in A Twentieth-Century Memorial (fig.4)?
Yes, I was visiting a friend at the Berkeley campus in California and we found ourselves in the middle of a violent student riot opposing the war in Vietnam. The National Guard were shooting rubber bullets and shouting cynical things at people and my friend said we better get out of here, so we ran off. It crossed my mind that someone should do a sculpture about the war in Vietnam and I realised it had to be me.
I was going to call it the Mickey Mouse Machine Gun Monument for Amerika, thinking they were the bad guys, then I did a lot of homework and found to my amazement that the war in Vietnam had been caused by us in 1945. Immediately after VJ day the British went to Vietnam, they sent a British General called Douglas Gracey. He went out to receive the surrender of the occupying Japanese forces and was told not to get involved in local politics, but he did exactly that. He thought that Ho Chi Minh, who had become President of the Provisional Government of Vietnam was a puppet of the Chinese Communists, which was bollocks. Anyway, he went there with small contingent of Indian troops and instead of rounding up all the Japanese and imprisoning them, he armed them.
When I tell people that in 1945 the British fought alongside the Japanese, their mouths fall open. Not only that, he then sprung the interned French garrison that the Japanese had locked up, and the French wearing British uniforms with the Japanese and the Indian troops, drove Ho Chi Minh into the jungle and into the arms of the Communists – it was a disgrace. There were articles in The New Statesman saying it was the blackest thing the Socialists had ever done. We were giving up on our own colony and going against the wishes of Roosevelt, who thought the Vietnamese deserved more than to be under the yoke of a corrupt colonial power i.e. the French. People don’t know about this any more and they don’t care he got clean away with it. That’s why I thought I’ve got to do something about Blair and that is why I did this very large drawing about the war in Iraq.
The Iraq Triptych (fig.5)?
That’s right, I thought I’ve got to do something about this, I can’t let Blair get away with it, which of course, he has more or less. That was why I had to change the title of Mickey Mouse Machine Gun Monument for Amerika to A Twentieth-Century Memorial to sum up general perfidy. We are all as bad as each other, you can’t just say it’s the Americans, although of course it is probably the Americans who are the bad guys now. These are very ugly chickens coming home to roost, should artists be involved in that? I think some of us should be and unfortunately one of them has to be me.
Granted market forces, why shouldn’t artists speak out in their art?
Well some do, but not many. That is an interesting thing, not many, you wonder about that. Art is a wonderful area for satire and you wonder why more people don’t take the piss. The Cubists got called that by someone poking fun at them. Why is it that people accept this horrible stuff as the real deal? There are some, my friend Tim Shaw, for example, deals with reality. He did a very powerful piece all about Belfast. He is Irish, actually from Belfast and that piece is fantastic because there is no irony. I had a talk with the artist Hughie O’Donohughe, whom I also admire about this, and he says that irony is a busted flush now. He understands why we needed it after the horror of the First World War and possibly the Second, but people hide behind it now and they can’t deal with pathos. That is why I made absolutely certain that these are children’s heads and that you feel sorry for them, that was my intention.
Can I ask about your teaching in Germany? Were you invited to go over and teach?
Yes, I was, the reason was that I exhibited Oranges and Lemons (1966, fig.6) in the Paris Biennale and the man who founded the Documenta, Dr Arnold Bode, saw it. He liked the work so much he wanted to show it at the Documenta and it went down a storm there, the Germans liked it. I had just finished teaching in Canada, when I received a letter from the Fachhochschule, which was written in weird English, offering me an interview for a job in Pforzheim that I very politely turned down. But I had this friend in Baden-Baden, an artist called Klaus Jürgen Fischer who was also the editor of Das Kunstler and the first time I went back to Germany after receiving the letter, as I stepped off the train, he said, ‘Congratulations you’ve got the job.’ When I told him I’d turned it down, he went ashen faced and said, ‘You have no idea how hard I had to work to get you that job.’ So I visited them in this rather beautiful Jugendstil building, one of the few left standing after the bombing in the war, and they were thrilled to see me! They showed me a very large, but incredibly scruffy room with rags as curtains. They said you can work here day and night and you only have to do two days teaching a week, so I took the job. I lived there for eighteen months and I did work day and night and I lived in a hideous flat. I liked the students very much, they all spoke English. I didn’t speak a word of German, so I learnt it from reading the headlines in the Bild-Zeitung. My German is not grammatically sound, but I can speak it and tell jokes in it, which is all you need.
After eighteen months, they said if you want to stay, you can and we’ll make you a professor, so I thought why not. Then I got headhunted to go to the Akademie at Karlsruhe just down the road, a much bigger city. That was a dream job, you couldn’t make up because I was the leader, the der leiter, as they called it, of the workshop for fibreglass and new techniques. I had no students, a full-time assistant and it was state of the art, fantastically well-equipped and I had no teaching to do. In the end I moaned about it, I felt guilty because some of my colleagues had up to 25 students, so they gave me six for the rest of my career until right at the end when they gave me a full class. I lived in a castle and they renovated a studio for me with a huge amount of German thoroughness, in what I think must have been the former stables. I had everything I needed. I asked for a crane and got an eight ton crane and a lathe, it was paradise, almost too good to be true. They said we were there to do our own work, that’s what really impressed me, and it was true – we taught by example.
When I first went to Karlsruhe the stars of the scene were all there, Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, Per Kirkeby and a few lesser luminaries. I got on with them all, very well with Lüpertz, I liked him and Kirkeby, I’m not so sure I liked Baselitz so much.
How did you respond to their work?
Lüpertz did some interesting stuff. He was very uneven. I wasn’t too mad about Baselitz’s later work, but his early stuff against the regime when he was in East Germany was quite interesting. As soon as he became settled, I think he became spoilt by success, which can be dangerous for an artist. There is a tendency to repeat successes and become lazy.
I am fascinated by your time in Germany because it seems to me that most English viewers, and probably critics and practitioners as well, have very little knowledge of German art since 1945. There are a few exceptions, of course.
It depends when you mean there was little knowledge?
Well even until quite recently.
I’m not sure I agree with that, certainly when I was at the Slade I was very taken with Otto Dix and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. I think people knew about them and were impressed by them. They were very different from the English, who seem well-mannered by comparison and there were some very good artists I liked a lot. I was influenced fantastically by Edward Burra when I was in my teens and Christopher Wood. One woman I am very grateful to is Doris Zinkeisen, who was a quite a big figure along with Dame Laura Knight when I was at art school. She used very heavy black lines to bring her figures out and I do that and I am pretty certain that it came from her (fig.7).
What is the relationship between your sculpture and your drawings?
If I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t do sculpture, as the proportions are so important. A Twentieth Century Memorial is over life-size and is very well-drawn. I hate maths and I don’t like measuring, I do measure, but I prefer to do it by eye. For me it’s got to be that proportion in my mind’s eye and it’s all related to drawing. I was born with the natural ability to draw (fig.8). You can teach it, I’m a good teacher of drawing as a matter of fact.
What intrigues me is that you mention making endless drawings, but to what extent do you model in clay?
In As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap I made the main bulk of the figure in clay and all his F-16 stuff and I was thrilled that I could even though I have modelled before (fig.9). The Heidelberg Dame (Woman for Heidelberg, 1987) was modelled in clay and bits of Fuck the Media. Some of it couldn’t be modelled because you can’t do flat surfaces in clay, you use wood. I’m an autodidact, well actually that’s not quite true, I went to the Douglas School of Art, when I was fifteen. One of the teachers there was a nice lady teacher, I can’t remember her name now, who taught plaster and clay modelling one half day a week. Somebody else taught wood carving in the evening, but apart from that I am entirely self-taught and I am grateful for that because otherwise there would be all too much prescriptive or doctrinaire stuff in my head, I’m lucky to have escaped that.
There was the series of works about Germany, the Untergang des Dritten Reiches (The End of the Third Reich) for example (fig.10).
The reason I did that was having been through the war as a child, I was fascinated I wanted to go to Germany and find out who had been trying to kill me. I bought one or two popular magazines about the war and there was one about Berlin, which showed the petrol cans that the SS had used to try to burn the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun, they didn’t have enough petrol. I thought this is an interesting idea and what fascinated me is that they are called Jerrycans i.e. from Germany and you can still get them exactly the same. This was one of a series of sculptures I did at this time on very grand layered plinths. I got the idea from Alfred Gilbert’s Tomb of HRH the Duke of Clarence at Windsor. I had never seen it in the flesh, but I love all Gilbert’s bases, like the one for Eros. So I put Untergang des Dritten Reiches on a rather grand base, with the intention of creating a direct continuation of history.
I have also done a lot of stuff about broadcasting and propaganda. I think Joseph Goebbels was a key figure in the twentieth century, and by extension, in this one. He was a genius in terms of advertising slogans. He was a real hypocrite though, he had this image of a family man, but one of his nicknames was Kaulquappe, which means tadpole, because he used to screw all the starlets in the Berlin film studios. Another of his nicknames was Spitzmaus, which means shrew, so with the big ears the idea he was Mickey Mouse wasn’t that far away (fig.11). I also used the idea of Mickey Mouse as a symbol for the obscenely light-weight, an epithet – a ‘Mickey Mouse cup’, ‘Mickey Mouse politics’ – as an insult. I think it sums up a malaise, which I call ‘the obscenely light-weight’.
Do you think your utilisation of war subjects could be misleading?
I got myself a bad name in England, they thought I was a fascist for some reason or other, because my subjects were so dark and that wasn’t genteel. It’s all right now because everybody is doing it. I was rather alarmed and irritated to be thought of as a fascist, because I’m opinionated, it doesn’t mean I’m a fascist – does it?
Yes, I remember when you came to Leeds you talked at the University and gave a seminar the next day at the Met. someone there laid into you for being a fascist. You acquitted yourself extremely well.
Just because you have strong opinions, that doesn’t make you a fascist. Anyone who says that doesn’t know much about history. The fascists were appalling and I’m actually rather generous and quite kind.
Another word used against me is ‘academic’, what is wrong with being academic I ask myself. There was an interesting review of Tracey Emin in The Guardian, which compared her with Michelangelo. I like Tracey and I quite like her little drawings, but they are formulaic, she could do them in her sleep and the thing about Michelangelo is he went to great lengths to dissect cadavers illegally to develop his craft. I ask myself what is bad about that? John Humphrys, who hosts Mastermind, wrote a rant in the Daily Mail about modern art and quoted me, because I had said I had stopped teaching life drawing to my students because it was harming their career prospects. Terry Atkinson, a colleague of mine in Coventry years ago, said what matters today is how well you draw badly and there’s an awful lot of truth in that.
Terry became a friend of mine at Leeds latterly.
He’s a good guy. He was an interesting artist, I was sorry he got involved in the Art and Language scam. He had some very good ideas and has done some rather interesting work about the First World War. I first met him at the Slade when he was a young guy and that is what he was doing there. He showed me his book Covenant with Death published by the Daily Express full of photographs of the First World War, a very powerful book, and I’ve used that as a source of material ever since.
Can you tell us about the WW2 Malta Siege Bell Memorial (figs.12,13 & 14)?
Now that’s a very interesting one. My very first job was in Leicester and I vaguely remember going to a pub and having a drink with a guy who was older than me, I think he was called John Wain and I didn’t know him very well. Thirty years later, when I was sitting in my studio in Karlsruhe he contacted me out of the blue, asking if I remembered him. He told me that he was now the President of the Mercantile Marine Branch of the Veterans’ Association called the George Cross Island Association and that they wanted to erect a memorial to the convoy that saved Malta, which had the code name ‘Operation Pedestal’. He had followed my career and said he thought I was the man to do it and asked if I was interested. I said that I was, but that I’d never been to Malta. So he and I went went to Malta along with a retired naval captain called Tony Bailey.
My recollection of this commission was questioned in an article by Eva Kalyva, following an archive exhibition about the WW2 Malta Siege Memorial at the Henry Moore Institute, which claimed the display could ‘dissolve’ the ‘mythopoeia,’ which came from my ‘personal choice to retell an amusing story starting with a man called John Wain, but not without a cost.‘I’d like to set the record straight here, I am absolutely certain that the first thing that arrived out of the blue and grabbed my attention concerning a memorial to the WW2 Siege of Malta, was the letter from John Wain. I remember the letter from the former Maltese Ambassador to Rome Philo Pullicino too – it was written on thin blue airmail paper, but I have no recollection of having received it before I had heard from John Wain, in fact, I believe it was included in the letter from John. Mythopoeia is it now ? I am saddened that she thinks I might have made up the sequence of events for effect.
Anyway, to return to the memorial, I fell in love with the Grand Harbour at Valletta, it is stupendous although it was horribly bombed in the war and it had been built back up. It has immense sloping walls, which were constructed by slaves in the Renaissance. I was shown the sites that had been chosen, which I told them were no good. Then I found one, a former First World War gun emplacement, which had fantastic lines of sight, with views all round the harbour. You could also look down on to the site, because adjacent to it was a raised garden and you could look through the arches and see the whole memorial (fig.13). It was perfect – I can’t imagine a better site. So I managed to cleverly lure them in to quite a big budget, but I hasten to add that I did not charge a fee – only modest expenses because it was reward enough to be able to work on this scale and in such a fantastic site.
The man who had come up with the idea for the memorial was the former Ambassador of Malta to Rome, Philo Pullicino. He wanted an over-lifesized statue of St. Mary because the Maltese believe that the convoy which saved Malta during the WW2 Siege did so because of divine intervention and they call it the Santa Maria Convoy . I suppose it could have been a good idea, but I didn’t think so at the time. Anyway, I said I can do you a sculpture for £30,000, but then I realised that it needed to be architectural. I did an awful lot of work on it for four years and came up with an idea, which I thought was perfect. I made this fantastically good large model of the bastion. I thought when people see this they will know exactly how it is going to be. I thought because Malta is so close to North Africa it should be North African in feel, but this was completely wrong. I designed a stylised African bunker-like bell tower. The Duke of Edinburgh was patron and he hated it. I was rung up by the former Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Lewin, who was the President of the Veterans’ George Cross Island Association, I ended up liking him a lot, he was a great guy, and he said ‘I am sorry old boy you have to go back to the drawing board.’ The Maltese hated it too, because they consider themselves to be Europeans. So I rethought my ideas, and after making about 20 models in wood, I ended up with a neo-classical roman cupola, with a footprint that was oval, a bit like a ship’s funnel and right at the end was a bronze figure representing a burial at sea. The whole bastion was like a ship, and the symbolic figure represented all of the dead (figs.14&15), I insisted on that.
I originally wanted to have the bell cast in Germany. I wanted it hung in the European style because the bells swing much further than the English ones, which don’t have as much kinetic energy, they aren’t so loud. The idea of the bell came from John Donne, the last two lines from his poem ‘No Man is an Island‘. I went to the bronze foundry in Karlsruhe, where I was living at the time, with an idea for a big bell and they gave me a CD of famous bells in Germany . On it was the most famous bell in the world, which is in Erfurt Cathedral and is called the Maria Gloriosa, it is over 500 years old now and was made by a Flemish bell caster, Geert van Wou. It is known as a virgin bell because it has perfect pitch; usually bells are cast and then tuned by chipping metal out to obtain the correct pitch. It had a fantastic resonance, so I designed the cupola to hold a bell the same shape and the same size as the Maria Gloriosa (fig.16). Another possible subliminal inspiration for the bell is that going to the Isle of Man you go down the Mersey as you go out into the open sea you go through a channel of buoys red on one side and green on the other and some of them have bells and you hear the bells ringing. It is haunting, so that too, may have had something to do with my idea. Anyway they liked the idea of the bell and I insisted that the 20 foot long bronze figure representing the dead of this conflict was meant for all who had fallen, including the former enemies and not just for the Maltese and the Allied Forces. I have seen films of the Battle of Malta with the Luftwaffe, who achieved incredible feats of flying between the bastions low down on the water. I hate nationalism and jingoism and all that. This memorial is not remotely intended to glorify war. Anyway it turned out to be hugely successful and I got a medal for it, not from the English, of course, but from the Americans.
The Malta Siege Memorial is the work I am most proud of and the reward of just doing it was enormous. I got some advice from a German architect, called Gernot Kramer, who is now dead and from the historian, James Stevens Curl, but it was all my idea and I had some enthusiastic support from Sir Hugh Casson, and oddly enough, I received a wonderful letter from Norman Foster, who thought it was terrific. I always wanted to be an architect, but I don’t think I’d be any good at dealing with the clients!
It has been designated a national monument now, second class, which means that they will look after it. Why not first class I ask myself? The fascinating thing is that the Germans, the specialist bell hangers, made such a terrible mistake I still can’t get my head round it and can’t believe I didn’t notice. They fucked up so badly. They had a magnificent huge oak headstock, but they put the axles in the wood, not under it and so after a week of ringing, it split and the bell nearly came crashing down. I had to have an English cast iron headstock made which is cropped so you don’t have the same energy. I was told by the Germans, who came out to Malta that the bell may well have some impurities in the bronze because although it sounds ok it is certainly doesn’t sound like the Maria Gloriosa. However, it rings every midday and has been doing that for over twenty years. Now there is a notice, which says you can’t stand under it because of health and safety. I had no railings on the steps, but they have put some in now. I thought if people fall down, it’s their own bloody fault! It was such an incredible stroke of luck that I had met John Wain in the first place.
Chance is an interesting thing. I was doing a show in Fischer Fine Art in 1985 and Louise Spence, one of the women who worked there, was Canadian. She saw someone she recognised walking past and ran out to drag him in. It was Bill Lieberman, curator at the Metropolitan in New York, and he bought two of my drawings there and then – so now I’ve got two drawings in the Metropolitan Museum just because of that.
How do you feel about your own career?
The thing I would like to stress is that I feel I have evolved into the artist I am today and most of my life I was waiting for the breakthrough, but now I’ve realised I’ve had it all the time – I just didn’t realise. The breakthrough is that I’m not a one trick pony, my ideas evolve. I am working backwards, having started off doing so-called abstract sculpture, I then made a sculpture influenced by mediaeval wood carving.
Are you referring to Iraq – the Sound of your Silence (figs.17&18)?
Yes, that’s right it was carved deliberately in limewood as it is the wood that the German mediaeval woodcarvers I admire used. The sculpture took a very long time to do, because it originally was going to be a seated version of the ‘Queen of the Night,’ a sculpture based on Kali, the Hindi Goddess of Love and Revenge. She has a plait because my ex-wife from Hell had one – it was what attracted me to her in the first place – but I had also been thinking about Matisse’s reliefs in the Tate and also somewhere I recall seeing a woman with a plait by Diego Rivera (fig.18).
I had difficulty finishing the sculpture as I had originally envisaged it when I started work on it in Karlsruhe. After I moved to my studio in Devon, I put it on the back-burner so to speak and it was only when I came to my London studio that I abandoned the original idea because I was exercised by the criminal stupidity of the Iraq war. I felt that I just had to put my feelings into a sculpture in the same way that I had been driven to do earlier by the War in Vietnam…There were and still are many images of the victims of the Iraq war on the internet – and one in particular grabbed me which was of a mother, whose hands had been blown off, carrying a baby, and others showing crouching prisoners with bags over their heads, which really got to me. So eventually the figure, which was anyway always intended to be seated, became a mother holding a child, like a pietà, with a bag over her head, because I was appalled that we – the British – did this to prisoners as in the case of the infamous Corporal Payne. Incidentally the original spark for this sculpture was an image I had once seen many years ago of a very early Japanese wood sculpture of a seated dignitary with a tall conical hat.
Recently I was in a Baroque phase. I start in the middle and work outwards anyway. I did A Twentieth Century Memorial like that, I started with the Mickey Mouse head. I modelled it in clay and took a rubber mould. The clay dried out and I took a rubber cast of the cracked Mickey Mouse head and as I took the rubber off and turned it inside out all the cracks were in relief. I thought this is interesting, this is a rotting Mickey Mouse head and all the rest came from that. It took a long time to do, seven years with no money.
I was just thinking of your St George and the Dragon, that’s a Baroque work (fig.19).
Yes, it has to be, I suppose you are right. It is certainly not cutting edge. A bit of Meštrović in there I think, though not necessarily directly. The inspiration for that was quite interesting, many, many years ago my dear friend, Ivor Abrahams, showed me a photograph in an old copy of The Studio magazine of a stylised horse, with a very powerfully arched neck. I thought it was wonderful, the best sculpture I had ever seen. It was by an Icelandic sculptor called Einar Jónsson. I’ve been to the Victoria and Albert Museum to look for that copy of The Studio, but I can’t find it. The horse in the illustration was a work in progress and I think I know what happened, he over-worked it, because it is not the same any more. It is called Skuld (Fate). I’ve always wanted to do an equestrian statue since the time I was in Paris and saw the beautiful equestrian Jeanne d’Arc by Fremiet, it is normaly gilt, but it is often covered in black paint as a protest against the National Front who would gather around it. It is actually a very small sculpture, but I thought one day I’ll do something like that.
There was a competition organised by Unilever for a sculpture for the forecourt of a building in Dorset Rise at Blackfriars. Anyway I won the competition, the subject was left up to me and I got the idea in my head that here was the opportunity to do an equestrian statue. The idea I originally had was of a dragon winning, analogous of Thatcher’s Britain. But no firm in their right mind would like that would they? But the St. George is certainly unusual, he’s working incredibly hard to get the dragon, which incidentally has no claws. The building was the headquarters of Reuters, then KPMG and now it is a Premier Inn. I notice the bastards have put a bit of brick round it, they could have asked me. It’s a pretty good sculpture I reckon and it has stood up quite well.
I think the tilt has a touch of the Baroque?
Well, it is Mannerism. I’m all for Mannerism, you have to be intelligent to be a Mannerist. Yes it’s that crazy angle. The St George is not from the officer class playing polo, he is working very hard! The owners of the site made me alter it a bit too and have metal pipes coming out of the dragon’s mouth because as it was a fountain and was splashing the director’s car that was parked in the courtyard. That was my first British commission. I only get commissions once every fifteen years, some people get more commissions in a year than I’ve had in my whole lifetime.
Going back to the subject of abstract art, I do not believe there is such a thing. I think that all art is concrete, I can’t get my head around the idea of something being abstract. How could it be, I ask myself? What you should do I think, is react to your nerve endings, it is very biological. If you do sculpture by digital images cooked up on the computer that process of reacting, and the pentimenti, where you make mistakes and change your mind is lost – you should react organically to what you are doing. If you get someone else to do it for you or just do body casts that is all completely lost – which is probably why so much stuff is so fucking awful and boring.
There is an anecdote about a young, very intelligent junior lecturer at the Courtauld, who later became a professor. He went to interview Gabo and said, ‘Tell us about your abstract sculptures’. Gabo absolutely went off the handle and said, ‘It is not abstract, it may look it, but it is realism’, which reinforces what you are saying.
It is like Rothko, who I can’t see as abstract at all. I think that it is just what happens when you stop thinking about it, and just become aware of your body – you experience the world through your body. Abstract comes from the word ‘abstrahere’ which literally means to draw off, to take away. I don’t think I take stuff away, I condense and compress it, but that’s another topic in itself.
On behalf of the PMSA, I would like to talk about your monument to Sir William Hillary which is a straightforward public monument (fig.20).
Yes, it is the Memorial to founding of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in the Isle of Man and it’s a monument I’m rather pleased with. How did I get that? It had something to do with the Manx Art Council and Sir David Wilson, former Director of the British Museum, who lives on the Isle of Man. It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life and there was a stage when I thought, I am going to ring them up and say I can’t do it. I had to put twelve people in a boat in false perspective and I had to have enough room on that boat for the people they took off the ship. Because William Hillary took over as steersman, the coxwain had to sit somewhere, so I put him on the side with his back to the spectator. Modelling his back was bloody hard to do, and I couldn’t get it right – either he looked like a giant or a child. All these people, I had to make them up, I had my accountant in it and someone I’d seen somewhere in the street.
When I did The Seafarers’ Memorial (2001, fig.21), the figure ended up looking like my father. It was so much like him that while I was modelling him – I was talking to him. When John Prescott unveiled the memorial, my sister exclaimed to my brother ‘It’s dad!’
Can you talk about your recent show at Flowers Gallery? Were you involved with the installation and what did you want it to achieve?
Isabel Bingley from Flowers curated and put the exhibition together extraordinarily well without any interference from me – the sculptures were well-chosen and beautifully lit . Next to the exhibition I had in Ludlow Castle, I would say that this was the best one I have ever had. As it was a mini-retrospective I wanted to show that there was an emotional consistency in my work and that it has something to say, unlike a lot of contemporary art which apart from mirroring what is ‘in’ has very little to say. I felt this exhibition had very definitely achieved this aim and I was particularly pleased to see that some of the older work had not dated – but in fact seemed even more relevant.
The feedback was extrordinarily positive and was good for my morale as making sculpture requires a lot of slog as well as being very expensive. Sometimes it can seem worse than a ‘mug’s game’ – particularly when no one wants it and you have to pay for storage. I felt people could see that I had put my heart and soul into the work and could see that I was, as Marco Livingstone has described me, ‘a radical traditionalist’. And to be one is to do it the hard way, because I sense all of those Masters I admire are always looking at what I am doing over my shoulder.
Could you tell us about your latest work shown in that exhibition, Vanitas (2016, fig.22)? This is an intriguing title and work. What is the inspiration behind it and which techniques and materials did you use?
Vanitas is another example of ‘time travelling’ which I feel you are able to do as an artist – I had finished the bronze sculpture As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap: An Allegory last year which contained Baroque elements like the Bernini-esque solid shafts of light and deliberately decided to visit my earlier Surrealist phase, when I worked in fibreglass. Vanitas was in fact made from fibreglass, polyester and wood treated with resin. The subject was – as the name suggests – Vanity – an interesting but common weakness often verging on the ridiculous . The scent bottle on the left was based on the one my mother had on her dressing table and the strange head of the ‘personage’ is based on a Dogon mask . Dogon art has always fascinated me and when many years ago I lived in Paris I was in walking distance of the Musée de l’Homme which houses some examples. The ‘stars’ dressing table with rows of light bulbs is something I have had in my head for ages, but the final touch of having my creature looking at a mirror in a mirror – a bit like Spiegel im Spiegel – just happened.
Finally can I ask you about music, how important is it to you?
I love Bruckner and Monteverdi. I am slightly bi-polar, I get depressed, it hits me like a truck, and music helps me no end. When I heard a record by Gesualdo, I felt it must be what taking heroin is like, as the music just went straight into me. I had to do a sculpture to him, I gave it the title Monumentum pro Gesualdo, and later I got a phone call from the musicologist, Glenn Watkins, who called on behalf of Igor Stravinsky, who wanted to know why I had used his title. I told him that in my mind’s eye, this sculpture was a funeral barge taking Gesualdo’s soul to the Cemetery Isle of San Michele in Venice. Incredibly, less that year later, Stravinsky’s body was taken on a funeral barge to the same island in Venice.
I wanted to be a musician, a trumpeter, like Harry James Betty Grable’s husband. My son is musical. Music plays an important role in my life and my work. I adore Wagner – a pain in the arse, but what a bloody composer, what scale and what grandeur! I like Bruckner for that very reason, he gets to me, he’s fantastic and Mahler I love him too. Monteverdi, Queen based themselves on him, he gives you a reason to live – it is purity. It’s what Walter Pater said, ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’
Main image: Michael Sandle, A Twentieth-Century Memorial, 1971-78, bronze, brass and wood, 126×522×522cm. Tate, London (photo: Howard Grey)