This autumn Clive Head will display his most recent work Terminus Place, a painting inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of David. Our curatorial intern talks to him about his collaboration with Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Q: As a contemporary painter, what is it that you like about Dulwich?
I like the size of the collection; I think it’s very intimate and you can really get to know a small selection of paintings, as it’s quiet and you can just sit and contemplate. I like the scale of it really.
Q: What is it about Poussin and in particular The Triumph of David that fascinates you?
I think for me Poussin defines Western painting and what art is truly about; he is a huge resource in terms of pictorial invention. He is very much a painter who is constantly defining space and form, finding new ways of creating worlds that are always unique. The Triumph of David is a particularly good painting, it is probably one of the best paintings in London. It was a natural painting for me to gravitate towards, but really my response to Poussin is as much to do with the other paintings at Dulwich as this one.
Q: Why did you chose to depict Victoria station in Terminus Place?
For the last 20 years I have been painting urban landscapes and I tended to jump from one subject to another, painting different cities: Zurich, Moscow, New York and other places. Gradually, however, I focus more and more on London and find particular places that I keep going back to.
Victoria station has become a favourite location, which I have been painting now for the last five years and I will probably continue to do so. I’m not a realist painter, contrary to common perception, I don’t paint the world in front of me; my paintings are inventions. They are based on an experience of a place; you can’t stand in one spot and see the view that I painted because it doesn’t really exist. So that’s why I keep going back to the same place, because the more I know the more it helps me to be increasingly inventive by moving things around, changing angles, spaces and so on. I look for something that is visually very rich with a lot going on. Victoria is a very busy place; it typifies the chaos and business of the city. I am trying to resolve the chaos of the urban environment. I like taking a complex narrative, such as an experience in Victoria station, and finding a solution by creating a calmness, order and a kind of organisation which is completely the opposite to its reality in our world.
Q: Your paintings depict urban landscapes in intense detail that to many people seem to recreate a similar effect to a photograph. Could you explain how you achieve this? Is photography part of your process?
There is a lot of naturalism in my work; if I paint a figure I include all the details you would expect to be there, but I am not illustrating our world and giving it back to us in forensic detail. However, I do use the camera to collect information from the urban landscape. The picture that will be at Dulwich is based on walking through the underground and beginning to go up a flight of stairs at Victoria station. I use an old fashioned medium format camera with print film; I point the camera and everybody, everything that happens, enables me to collect information. Before taking photographs I make lots of little drawings and sketches as well. The initial construction of the painting is drawing and I always draw on tracing paper, which is very resilient if you keep rubbing it out. Although I make a tiny drawing at the beginning that drawing has probably gone through 30-40 different stages before the final version of the painting. The small drawing will give me an idea of the format for the painting, for the Dulwich painting it’s approximately a double small square letterbox shape. Then I start drawing again on a canvas and then it’s the big draw. Once the drawing is established I try to get it fixed using a varnish. Then I start painting, often working up quite small areas to get a colour and tonal range starting from the centre and working out from the edges.
Yes, I think it is the hardest thing to do. But the picture will either hold its own or it won’t, there is nothing I can do about it now! For me the whole point of doing these projects is to grow as an artist. I hope the public will get a little insight into what I’m doing, which perhaps will lead them to reflect on Poussin in a slightly different sort of way.
Q: How are you hoping viewers of your work in Dulwich Picture Gallery will react?
I think there will be a degree of surprise that there will be a large painting of London in an apparent world of mythical subject matter and landscape, in the arcadia which Poussin represents. If the paintings work at all, it will be by people acknowledging that they wouldn’t want to be in the actual place I have chosen to paint but they do want to be in the space I am offering them in the painting,
which is very different from the Victoria station we are all familiar with. If it develops a dialogue then that will be a good thing, but I think people going to look speaks volumes, despite what they are going to say.
Q: What is your favourite picture at Dulwich Picture Gallery and why?
Rembrandt’s little portrait, Girl at a Window, is such an ordinary subject but an extraordinary painting; if you go up to it close, you can see how those heavy brushstrokes are made and it shouldn’t work but it does. Those are the sort of things that completely elude me because I can see how it’s made, but it becomes an extraordinary thing: magic.
10 October 2012 – 13 January 2013, Dulwich Picture Gallery
A contemporary installation, Terminus Place, by painter Clive Head, known for his striking paintings of urban landscapes. The work forms part of his project From Victoria to Arcadia at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Marlborough Fine Art.
Painted in response to Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of David, Clive Head’s work Terminus Place will sit temporarily alongside the Gallery’s collection of works by Poussin. This provides a timely opportunity to reconsider the place of the artist today and a look back to Old Master techniques.
In Conversation: Clive Head and Xavier Bray
Tuesday 4 December READ MORE
Late Night Viewing: Cotman in Normandy and Victoria to Arcadia
Thursday 10 January READ MORE