Laura Gascoigne

Fails to dispel the biggest myth of all: Whitechapel Gallery’s A Century of the Artist’s Studio reviewed

What this show glosses over is how today’s big-name artists, nearly all male, use dozens of assistants while they, the ‘artist genius’, reap the glory

Fails to dispel the biggest myth of all: Whitechapel Gallery's A Century of the Artist’s Studio reviewed
‘Studio Interior’, 1945, by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Credit: © Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust
Text settings

A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020

Whitechapel Gallery, until 5 June

Picture the artist’s studio: if what comes to mind is the romantic image of a male painter at his easel in a grand interior with an admiring audience and a nude model at his elbow, you’re in the wrong century for the Whitechapel Gallery. Its new exhibition, A Century of the Artist’s Studio, runs from 1920 to 2020, and there’s precious little romance about it.

To be honest, the studio was never that romantic; Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Artist’s Studio’ (1855), the main source of the stereotype, was itself a send-up. The Whitechapel’s show sets out to complete Courbet’s work, dismantling the myth cliché by cliché. ‘The artist hero… is both abject and absurd,’ Dawn Adès writes in the catalogue. ‘Is the painter a shaman, a sacrificial victim or the sexualised infant that we repress in ourselves?’ All options are on the studio table in this show.

In the opening display of photographs of famous male artists in their studios – Matisse, Giacometti, Brancusi and the octogenarian Picasso, posing for Robert Doisneau in his Mougins workshop in 1963 draped in an orange beach towel like a Roman toga – the artist hero remains very much alive. But the exhibition, originally conceived as a photographic survey of artists at work, changed course after the death of Adès’s co-curator Giles Waterfield, expanding its horizons to take in a global diversity of artistic practices – solitary, collective, installationist, performative.

In its present form it’s a trip around the world in 80-plus studios, and the effect is dizzying. Flitting between the Papunya Tula Aboriginal artists’ cooperative of Australia’s Northern Territory, the Laboratoire Agit’Art of 1970s Senegal, the women’s arpilleras shanty workshops of Pinochet’s Chile and Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis’s Painted House in the wilderness of Nova Scotia gave me jet lag. That said, I was disappointed not to find the lion’s cage studio tantalisingly trailed by Iwona Blazwick in the catalogue. (She doesn’t say whether the lion was in residence.) The closest thing is the cage in which Indian artist Nikhil Chopra, cross-dressed as a 1950s ‘Black Pearl’, incarcerated himself for 60 hours in the Plaza de Armas during the 2015 Havana Biennial, painting views through the bars before hacksawing his way out on the third day.

Throwing performance art into the mix stretches the definition of the term ‘studio’ to breaking point. Carolee Schneemann’s 1960s ‘Eye Body’ performances parodying male action painting by using her nude body as a canvas were at least recorded in her studio, but Guy Ben-Ner’s video ‘Berkeley’s Island’ (1999) was set in his kitchen. (The Israeli performance artist’s other ‘studios’ have included Ikea showrooms where he filmed his guerrilla video ‘Stealing Beauty’ (2007) under constant threat of ejection by staff.)

Traditionalists will take comfort from the series of ‘studio corners’ recreating the reassuringly old-fashioned workspaces of Matisse, Bacon, Hepworth and Moore. Immersed in the creative clutter of his maquette studio, Moore is one artist who looks as though he’s having a good time; for others, the studio serves as self-torture chamber. In his videoed ‘Interview for New York Studio School’ (2010), William Kentridge subjects himself to a brutal cross-examination across his studio table before concluding: ‘I don’t quite know what you’re doing here at all.’ Paul McCarthy, meanwhile, in his video ‘Painter’ (1995), desperately psychs himself up to feats of artistic self-expression – ‘Try to understand emotion… Try to feel!’ – while blundering about the studio in a prosthetic rubber nose and banana fingers, wielding a giant brush like an abstract expressionist Mr Pastry.

Other artists appear simply bored. In her monochrome painting, ‘A Day in the Studio’ (2000), Lisa Milroy presents a deadpan diary of her daily routine – eat, sleep, paint, repeat – while in his video ‘Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance)’ (1967-8), Bruce Nauman films himself for eight long minutes going round in squares as an alternative to circles. In this company the paintings of their studios by Picasso, Giacometti, Auerbach and Freud ought to look old-school, but the choice of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s light-filled ‘Studio Interior’ (1945) – with a blank canvas waiting on the easel – as the catalogue’s frontispiece is an admission of the continued pull of the solitary creative workspace on the public imagination.

What this show glosses over is how today’s big-name artists with global brands, nearly all male – Hirst, Ai Weiwei, Kapoor, Gormley – have reverted to the Renaissance model of workshop where teams of anonymous assistants are hired to execute the master’s designs, without any of the fun of Warhol’s Silver Factory. Don’t be deceived by Gormley’s naive image, ‘The Origin of Drawing VIII’ (2008), picturing a solitary figure painting his shadow on a cave wall. The Gormley operation involves dozens of assistants across two studios working for wages while he, the ‘artist genius’, reaps the glory. This is a story the Whitechapel doesn’t tell. Plus ça change, plus c’est le même atelier.