|David Gledhill, 'Das Gluckliche Paar auf Fahrt'. Oil on canvas, 92 x 127cm, 2008-2010|
A few years ago, artist David Gledhill was given an album of photographs that had been found in a fleamarket in Frankfurt. The album dated from the 1950s and had been put together in East Germany by a GP, Dr Wilhelm Munscheid, as a fifth-wedding-anniversary present for his daughter Renate. Renate had married a West German, becoming Frau Manjock, and as a result lived in the West, though she was able to visit her parents quite often. But for some reason she did not receive the album intended for her.
An important aspect of David Gledhill's practice is painting from photographs, particularly found images. He has produced a series of 30 paintings based on photos in the album. Later, he discovered that Frau Manjock was living near Frankfurt and he went to meet her and to give her the album that was intended for her. He has made an interesting film (available to view on YouTube) about this experience.
Now the novelist Nicholas Royle has collaborated with David to write a novella, In Camera, sparked by David's paintings (and illustrated by them). This adds a further intriguing layer of fiction which conjures a new world out of the album. The interplay between this imagined context and the historical context is very rich.
As I'm so interested in painting that takes photographs as its subject, I've been really enjoying an email conversation I've been having with David Gledhill about the project.
|David Gledhill, ‘Wohnzimmer mit Blick aufs Esszimmer’. Oil on canvas, 92 x 142cm, 2008 - 2010|
Jane Housham (JH): When your subject is 'in' a photo, how important is it to you to reproduce the same qualities of dark and light as the original photo? When you paint a picture derived from a black-and-white or sepia photograph, do you use a single colour and let the white come from the background or do you use one colour plus white or even several different colours?
David Gledhill (DG): With the work based on black and white photographs, I just use black oil paint and remove the paint with rags and cotton buds to allow the primed surface of the canvas to show through. I go on applying further washes of black paint and then removing it again until the image is complete. Towards the end of the process I tend to scumble dry paint broadly across the forms to deepen the tonal contrast. After a few weeks I then apply a glaze layer with a tiny amount of raw umber paint in it. This acts to warm up the image and to pull it together and set it back behind a slight sheen on the surface of the canvas. Raw umber can approximate to the sepia hue of some old photographs so it has to be managed carefully so as to avoid too overt a sense of nostalgia, which isn’t really the point of the work.
JH: That's very interesting. Does the desire to 'seal' the painting behind that sheen bear any relation to wanting to reproduce the sheen of a photo?
DG: Yes, it opens up a space behind the surface of the canvas which has a similar feel to the space of a photograph. Of course it’s hard to make the canvas completely ‘transparent’ as it were and I’m conscious of a century’s worth of art theory that has privileged the picture plane over the content of a painting.
Having said that, there are all sorts of little imperfections in a painting that remind you of its materiality and this is another significant distinction between paintings and photographs. I don’t think most people would be preoccupied with reading photographs in terms of their materiality rather than what they’re of, other than being conscious of the means of viewing, such as a print, an album or a computer screen. But when you see a painting you’re highly conscious of this object in the room, that’s like a piece of furniture rather than simply an image.
The work isn't photorealist in the traditional sense of the term as I'm not trying to reproduce the specific quality of reflected light as recorded by a camera lens. The tonal range of the original snap is the point of departure but the finished paintings have much stronger contrasts of light and dark. This is because I'm attempting to use techniques and conventions from the history of drawing and painting to translate a photographic image into a painterly equivalent that also suggests the tactile forms beneath the record of reflected light.
JH: Your mention of 'imperfections' in paintings has just made me think of some of Peter Doig's large-scale works from the Nineties, which are clearly derived from film stills or photos but in which he has absolutely spattered the surface of the canvas with drops and smears of paint so that there's an extreme pull between those two elements – the painting as mimesis and as surface decoration or mark-making. But that same tension is there in this series too, as you say.
DG: With this work, I wanted to move the balance between the painting as object and as image towards a position where it’s inviting to enter into the atmospherics of the painting, but also evident that it has some material similarities with photography. Wiping the paint back to allow the primed canvas to show through, produces a similar effect to the printing of black and white photographs in that the lighter areas of the composition come from the support.
JH: How do you feel about the process of choosing images to paint when you have decided not to select a composition from the infinite possibilities of unmediated reality but, rather, to choose from views that have already been mediated by someone else?
DG: I worked directly from the motif for many years. When I was studying in the late 70’s, I reacted to the conceptualised tendencies in the art of the time and went back to Cézanne. I wanted to work my way through the various modernist approaches and started by drawing and painting in the landscape. Of course, I ended up resorting to methods and conventions that I had seen in the work of other artists. I tried very hard to make work in response to my own perception and situatedness in a particular place, but as time went on the constant interruptions or bad weather conditions discouraged me from painting outdoors, so I made working drawings on the spot and developed them in the studio. These days I would take issue with the idea of the experience of nature as an 'unmediated' one. It seems to me that experience and sense perception are already mediated, not just in the strictly physiological sense but also in terms of how we create meaning from what we experience, which is a social and cultural process. I'm compelled by this process of making meaning, so the intention and the decision to take a photograph are what interests me, rather than questions of the objectivity or truth value of the photograph itself.
JH: So is the key element of the choice of a 'found' photo as your subject the composition within the frame of the photo?
DG: Yes, exactly. I look for a composition I can lift out of the photograph and render in painterly terms. If I see a painting by one of my favourite artists that I’ve never seen before, the unexpectedness of the composition has the shock value and disorientating effect of discovering a new species, or a new set of unforeseen possibilities. It’s something I’ve never been able to verbalise but occasionally I get the same feeling from a second-hand photograph in a box somewhere. It’s a completely new way of seeing the world and then the job is to work out whether the newness of the photograph will translate into painting. Working from entire albums is less to do with the quirkiness of the individual compositions and more to do with reaching beyond my preferences and challenging myself to invest in someone else’s habitual manner of framing their own experience. The reason why I stopped working from my own photographs was that I gradually stopped challenging myself to try new subjects in new ways and working with an album makes you do that.
JH: Is it more challenging when you don't just select images one by one but, as with the Dr Munscheid photos, accept a set of images as your subject?
DG: I've made paintings from individual second-hand photographs but when I was given the album, I thought it was important to attempt as many of the images as possible, and managed to produce 30 from a total of 57. I've been frustrated with what you could call the 'commodity status' of paintings for years. When I invite friends to exhibitions they say "but I can't afford your work". All I want is for people to see them and if they're interested, to think about them. I realised that working in series can divert attention from this idea of the saleability of paintings as individual artefacts. More importantly it also enables the construction of meaning from the interplay of the paintings amongst themselves and between the paintings and the source photographs in their album context. It's inevitably more challenging to work this way partly because each project takes several years to complete.
JH: Would you agree that it involves a certain degree of 'submission' to someone else's choice of moment, of frame? For me, if I'm looking for an image to paint, I will either search for a long time for an image I want to paint (for instance spending hours in second-hand shops going through boxes of old photos and only finding maybe one or two I like) or, alternatively, I'll see an image in a newspaper or somewhere and it'll speak to me -- I'll know instantly that I want to turn it into a painting, but that means it has some very special quality about it. So what it comes down to (for me) is that I don't want to paint just any old found image, and that's why I wondered whether it was more of a challenge to attempt to paint all the images in Dr Munscheid's album, since I thought there must inevitably have been some images that didn't speak to you as strongly. You ended up painting just over half, which is a great achievement, I think. Perhaps 'submitting to the album', as it were, served to intensify the sense of 'strangeness' one gets from painting a found image, which I think is caused by so many of the decisions one would have to make if painting a subject 'in the world' already having been made for one.
DG: I know what you mean but I wouldn’t choose the word ‘submission’. I think I must have overdeveloped empathetic faculties, because I’m absolutely enchanted by the idea of entering into somebody else’s world. I’ve also been fascinated by the less appealing works of those artists I admire and this is across all media, including pop music, literature etc. There are the things you adore and can’t get enough of. You read them or listen to them over and over and then after years of pleasing yourself in this way you become curious about the less immediately appealing stuff. In order to maintain and expand the range of what you can do as an artist, I think you have to try harder with things you don’t like at first. Teaching art has encouraged me to go to exhibitions I wouldn’t normally bother with and I’ve learned far more than I could have by sticking to Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian, whom I’m in awe of. So it’s a case of being aware that I need to tackle compositions that are less ‘catchy’ in a way, and those often turn out to be the best ones. This is definitely something that working with old photographs can help with because whilst early photographs were often formulaic, since about the 1930’s people all over the world have been pointing cameras at all kinds of things in all kinds of ways.
I knew why I took the shots I used as source material to make paintings when I started to work from my own photographs, but I was curious to explore other people's motivations. Of course this is only conjecture, but it seemed to me that the Doctor who recorded the family home as a memento for his daughter was trying to stop time and to preserve something that was slipping away. What made the album so powerful for me, was that with the passage to communist rule, the past must have seemed irretrievable in both a personal but also a larger social sense.
One of the mistakes I made early in the project was to assume that the Doctor’s personal transition from Nazi to Communist East Germany somehow made him guilty. Renate showed me a framed photograph of her father in Sweden during the war, dressed in an officer’s uniform. Apparently, thousands of small town doctors fled to the West before 1961 and the closure of the borders, in search of the material basics of life; their own flat and car, television etc. It was clear from the album (and the paintings) that Doctor Munscheid had a big house, a maid and chauffeur, so he must have adapted pretty quickly to the new regime. That fascinates me and it’s there to be read from the photographs and hopefully the paintings. It’s this possibility that snapshots can contribute to the development of a new form of history painting that motivates me to keep searching for material to work with.
|David Gledhill, 'Der Vater bei der Arbeit (mein Arbeitsplatzchen von 1945-1952). Oil on canvas, 92 x 153cm, 2008-2010|
JH: Is it possible to see the Dr Munscheid paintings in the flesh anywhere?
DG: I had a few shows of the paintings when I finished the series back in 2013 but not since then. I'm hoping that if the book generates some interest, I'll be able to exhibit the paintings outside the North West. I would love to exhibit them as a series in the town they document.
JH: That would be excellent. Do you have any feelings about their needing to be kept together as the originals were?
DG: I've sold two or three of the paintings from exhibitions and, in those cases, I've painted replacements so that the series is kept intact.
JH: Do you think you'll carry on replacing bought paintings in that way? What will it mean when you no longer feel the need to fill gaps in the series?
DG: I’ve produced a number of other series since the Dr Munscheid paintings, so perhaps there’s a time limit on the will to maintain the integrity of a body of work. If I was in a position where there was interest in the work, I would rather offer it to a public collection for a drastically reduced price than see it sold off bit by bit.
JH: Are there any photos in the album that you didn't make paintings of? What were the reasons for leaving those out, if you did?
There were quite a few out of focus snaps of dachshunds playing in a garden, which may have taxed my commitment to the project, so I didn't bother with them. There are three paintings of dogs in the series however, so they are represented!
JH: Is there a limit to how long you can concentrate on a single subject, even if it consists of multiple individual images?
I wanted to minimise my own intervention in the album's narrative by painting as many of the photographs as possible, but I think self-imposed strictures of this kind should occasionally be sidestepped to keep things fresh. I wasn't aware of any other artists who have used entire photograph albums in this way, so I was determined to do my best, but I think eventually you can run out of steam.
JH: Do you like Richter's photo-derived paintings? I mean those of his paintings that are akin to your Dr Munscheid series, clearly based on photos. I love them.
DG: I think Richter’s Baader Meinhof series are easily the best paintings produced by anyone in the last 40 years and for lots of reasons other than the technical quality of the individual paintings. His use of the serial form is genuinely innovative and the engagement with historical events and particularly events of such traumatic impact was completely groundbreaking. I often wonder why he seems to have backed away from the possibilities opened up by these paintings. Of course he has had to endure the volcanic political life of Germany first hand, whilst my interest is from a safe distance as it were.
JH: Yes, I think those paintings are extraordinary too. When Tate Modern had their big Richter retrospective a couple of years ago, I spent ages just sitting in the relatively small room where that sequence was hung. The imaginative engagement with those dark events was incredible. I agree that he seems to have retreated to some extent now.
DG: Perhaps the abstracts sell better!
JH: Did you feel any pangs at parting with the album when you returned it?
DG: The experience of meeting Renate and reuniting her with the album was incredibly powerful. For the first time I felt that painting could be a significant social activity with some kind of direct connection to lived experience. I think previously I had bought into the idea of art as a process of self-realisation, but with this body of work I had attempted to understand someone else's circumstances.
JH: I imagine it must have felt very strange to have owned the album for quite some time, to have painted versions of the images in it, and then, later, to reconnect those images with the reality of Frau Manjock in her retirement home. For me, one particularly powerful moment of your film was early on [it's at 1 min 44 secs or so], when you're just about to meet her and the automatic glass door opens to admit you. For me, that's the invisible barrier between your painted/constructed version of Renate's world and her actual world – you cross over, and then the rest of the film is about real Renate.
DG: The visit was an almost hallucinatory experience for me because many of the pieces of furniture and even the light fixture that you see in the film, I had spent months meticulously painting from the interior shots of her father’s house. I felt as though I had grown up in that house myself and here I was in the flat confronted with objects I knew intimately.
JH: Oh yes, it must have been quite surreal! It makes me think of my obsession with 'visiting' places via Google Streetview. Sometimes I've explored them so thoroughly on my computer screen that when I actually go there in reality, there's very little sense of surprise. But the circumstances here must have been a hundred times more intense than that.
When it came to collaborating with Nicholas (Royle), what were your feelings about the album and your paintings becoming the subject of someone else's creative process? Was there any sense of tension or reluctance?
DH: Absolutely no reluctance at all. I was delighted that Nick was interested enough to collaborate. There are key differences between Nick’s narrative and what I know about Renate’s childhood, such as the fact that she was an only child, whereas there’s a brother in the book. What really moves me about the story is the relationship between the Doctor and his daughter, which culminates in an incredibly tender and moving scene. I have a daughter myself so I suppose I’m susceptible to the subject, but it suggests that mixture of exasperation and love that parenthood brings, whilst also evoking the imaginative world of childhood during a time of comparative austerity when domestic objects had an immediacy and fascination. It also deals with the enduring mystery of photography as something that happens between people, something that I obviously enjoy thinking about!
JH: I think that would be the perfect note on which to draw this conversation to an end. It's been so interesting for me to discuss your wonderful paintings with you. Everything about the project interests me, and I do hope that very many people buy the book and experience the pleasure of experiencing all the layers it contains.
DG: Thanks very much, I’ve really enjoyed it!