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The arts J

ulian Opie’s portraits probably look familiar, even if you can’t quite put your fi nger on it. He created the Best Of album cover for Britpop

band Blur back in 2000, and now he’s bringing his own works (some of which are previously unseen) – including the breathing, blinking self portrait Julian with t-shirt gracing our cover – as well as his collected works to the Holburne Museum this month. You can expect works of art that do much more than simply hang on the wall. Here, in his own words, Julian tells us about the artistic process and the links and resonances between these two very different collections . . .

PEOPLE AND PORTRAITS “I fi rst noticed people as possible things to draw when standing at railway stations and seeing rows of people on the opposite platform. Seen fl attened out and from a distance I could imagine a way to draw them. I see echoes of this fl attening out of people into lists or friezes in ancient Assyrian stone panels and Egyptian tomb paintings. Roman and Greek carved and painted friezes also use this trick. Many individual people seen fl at on create a pattern and a movement and a kind of story. “I made wooden boxes and drew pictograms of people on both sides of the freestanding box. This gave me a statue, a stand-in person to work with. Like a wooden cut out sheep in a child’s farm set or a cardboard tank on a general’s war chart, this box stood for a person. I found a system of drawing these people by using pictograms, commonly used to signify men and women in public places. I found a place between language and observation that felt like reality. Having done this with human bodies it seemed possible to ‘zoom in’ and do the same with heads, with faces, the things by which we know ourselves and others best, our interfaces with the world. It was in this way that I discovered portraiture. “The portraits that I make are not

Opposite page: Julian Opie, At home with Maria 2, inkjet on canvas on wooden stretcher “I photographed Maria in her home in St John’s Wood wanting to compose a space within which to set the model. Together with my photographer we moved around her house and garden trying different poses with accessories and props chosen to echo those found in the print outs of Old Master paintings that I had scattered on the floor before us. This painting shows Maria in her front hallway in a pose borrowed from Reynolds with a magazine grabbed from the occasional table.”

Left: Julian Opie, Julian with t-shirt, continuous computer animation “I have watched people looking at this work where it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. They never recognise me but I like to see the double take they make when they see that the man is breathing – they check to make sure and then usually call a friend over to take a look. Getting someone’s interest is half the battle and the Portrait Gallery environment is perfect to set up expectations.”

“It’s exciting

to realise that the past was once today”

really paintings though they look like paintings. Instead, they mimic paintings; perhaps they are sculptures of paintings, models of paintings or stand-ins. I hope they have a powerful connection to reality, an ability to evoke reality. We know the visual world largely through observation. An artwork is an object that observes that process, which intercedes and bridges worlds and yet must exist within the reality it discusses. Anyway, I found it hard to resist obtaining every artwork I found that seemed to vibrate with a sense of connection and presence, jumping from one artist to the next, moving from early 17th century to late 18th century. When compared to daily needs some of these things are rather expensive, but seen as a process of swapping my artwork for someone else’s, it made more sense.”


“Looking at Old Masters takes you to very different venues than those of contemporary art. Maastricht instead of Basel art fairs, Philip Mould Gallery instead of Gagosian Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery instead of the Hayward Gallery. When discussing frightening medieval medical practices one of my children said that people used to be so stupid and I often come across bemusement from people in the contemporary art world as to why I would be interested in this old stuff. The old stuff is often afforded reverence but little relevance. It’s tempting to see the now as special and correct but it’s also exciting to realise that the past was once today. The art of different periods brings those worlds parallel for me.

Left: Christoph Willibald Gluck by Houdon,

terracotta. “The sculpture from this period is hyper real and often amazingly crafted. Houdon took this to the greatest heights right at the end of the 18th century. He portrayed pre-Revolution French aristocracy and then people of the Revolution, both French and American. This portrait of the composer Gluck shows him without a wig, as was the custom for artists and musicians, and it also shows Gluck’s smallpox scars and even seems to contrast them with the ridged jacket.” Bath Life 19

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