ELAINE CONSTANTINE

Jubilee Street Party, Elland, Yorkshire,1977 by Martin Parr, from Bad Weather

Jubilee Street Party, Elland, Yorkshire,1977 by Martin Parr, from Bad Weather

Elaine Constantine, photographer and filmmaker, on a picture by Martin Parr

GB Tell me why you chose this.

EC It’s one of my favourite images in the whole world. I find it beautiful aesthetically even though there was no motivation from Martin Parr to create a beautiful picture. He’s so interested in things culturally tHat he doesn’t look for the perfect composition, it’s more haphazard because he wants to quickly capture a moment with as many cultural references in it as possible – and often a little humour. This is a picture from the Silver Jubilee in 1977 when all the street parties were happening. From my perspective, there was so much excitement. We were simple people. NF hadn’t come into play. You just had these wonderful, colourful Union Jacks and this sense of pride. It was the last moment in my life that I can remember the country coming together over something and having a real sense of community. When I see this picture, apart from it looking so beautiful, it’s so tragic. I imagine that the community is based around factory workers who probably wouldn’t have got the day off because they work shifts. Everything looks homemade so there’s this sense of all the excitement being dashed by the weather. That’s what it’s like up there. It must have come down so fast that they left their pork pies behind. In that area there’s this huge valley where it rains all the time. It’s in Yorkshire and the cotton industry is based there because it’s damp. But for one day it could have been bright!

GB So it actually brings back a poignant personal moment for you.

EC It is personal but there’s something mystical about the picture too because it’s black and white and a bit like all the pictures you grew up with about the history of this and that, so it has that one removed feeling.

GB Can you remember when you first saw it?

EC It was about twenty years ago. When I first got into photography, Martin Parr was quite controversial. I started photography in my early twenties when I was unemployed. There was a darkroom for unemployed people in Bury and it was full of old men who were amateur photographers but had no interest in art. There was one guy who came into the group who was more middle class and a bit more educated. He said I should look at Martin Parr’s work because my pictures were a bit like that. I was just shooting with a camera I’d borrowed from the centre. It probably looked a bit brash to him, but to me it just looked normal. He showed me Martin Parr’s work and explained that he didn’t like it because he thought it was taking the piss out of people. But I instantly loved it. Taste is so shaped by our own experiences.

GB Do you think you have to be part of it to be able to laugh at it? There is a middle class squeamishness about that.

EC I like it even more now I know Martin Parr. He’s like a kid in a sweet shop. He’s the least snobby person I’ve ever met. His parents were professionals. He’s from a lower middle class background in Surbiton.

GB Do you think people who have never been to the North of England would also find this picture beautiful?

EC I think anyone can look at that picture and find it beautiful for the tragedy in it. I think that black humour is something that British people and American Jewish people do really well.

GB He developed a whole new tone of voice for social documentary photography, which is something you did for fashion photography.

EC The board of Magnum suggested Martin Parr as a member years ago and it caused a riot because Cartier Bresson, the master of romantic street photography, just saw him as an alien. He didn’t understand the work and didn’t want to. But now Martin Parr has been a Magnum photographer since 1994. Nothing about him stands still. He’s always leaping ahead. He’s not afraid and he’s not trying to be PC. There’s no political motive in the humour. He just sees things that are quite bizarre. He likes characters. There’s nothing condescending about it. I met him in 1995 when I was shooting portraits for the Telegraph Magazine and his best mate from college was doing printing for me.

GB Do you think about beauty in your own work?

EC I think commercial constraints dictate that kind of thing.

GB So you feel like you have to make things look a bit more beautiful than you’d like to?

EC Yes, in commercial work. I think most photographers will tell you that. Beauty is an awkward term because it suggests that there’s a consensus to it. There is a shape that the fashion industry has a consensus in finding photogenic for advertising. Then the light hits a certain face in a certain way. There is perfect skin, a perfect nose, perfect cheekbones. My own idea of beauty involves getting as much character out of someone as possible so that’s more than aesthetic, it goes deeper.

GB Northern Soul is a very beautiful film to look at. Was that intentional?

EC Not really. I needed the two leads to be fit enough to do the dancing and they are photogenic. They’re easy to shoot.

GB Do you think the soundtrack adds to the beauty? Does it make you see things differently?

EC God yeah. Sound makes such a difference. It’s such a joy to have that new addition, having worked in photography. It’s not just the music, any sound is such a wonderful thing to create.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

EC Depth.

ALEX MCDOWELL

Alex has chosen the painting on the left

Alex has chosen the painting on the left

Alex McDowell, film production designer and producer, founder and creative director of 5D Global Studio, on a painting by his wife, Kirsten Everberg

GB Tell me why you chose this painting.

AM ‘The Woodcutter’ is one of a series of four paintings by my wife, Kirsten Everberg. I feel deeply connected to my wife’s work. I’ve seen this incredible transition she made. She was a costume designer when I met her, working in film, and she decided that she wanted to go back to art school when we had our first child. So she literally went back to art school with Oonagh, our baby daughter on her hip. She was going to just dip in and then go back to costume but she realised she had found her life’s work. Her process is unique. She projects images and paints in very thin oil while the canvas is vertical, then she lays it flat and drips liquid acrylic onto the surface. There’s a constant tension between control and release. With this painting, what resonates for me is the notion of Kurasawa’s non-linear narrative Rashomon, that this series of paintings is based on. Like the film, this painting speaks to me of multiple issues about narrative. That’s kind of fundamental to what I’m doing nowadays. Then there’s this idea that every story has rich, layered, interwoven time and space, and each lens you put on it gives you a different story. For this series she made four very similar looking paintings of the forest where the Rashomon story takes place. Each one represents a different character and each character has a different story outcome because of their different viewpoint. And then there is her process. The surface of this painting has this beautiful quality of shifting from the abstract to the figurative depending on scale. The closer you get to it, the more abstract it becomes, which I think makes your relationship to the painting very volatile. It changes completely as you move back and forth from something chaotic to something that has layers of figurative meaning. The things she’s dealing with in memory and history are there for you if you stand back far enough to see it as something with a photographic source. Then as you get closer it becomes more about the paint and the materiality. That is a beautiful aspect but in this case it has extra layers of meaning with the Rashomon source.

GB I’m fascinated that your own work involves such unbelievably sophisticated technology and yet you’ve chosen something as primitive as painting.

AM I was trained as a painter and I think it’s a primary reference to me. I don’t think the technology itself is what’s important to me. I’m interested in the doors that it can open but it all still comes down to these primary things like story and memory. I’ve enormous respect for Kirsten for having stayed very pure in her relationship to painting. Technology for her is an overhead projector. She tapes together transparent elements and projects that onto her panel.

GB Some people say that painting is dead. Do you think that could ever even be possible?

AM I do think that it’s a fundamental. I don’t see this notion of things dying. The history of the ways in which we communicate our narratives shows that the platforms remain. Theatre is more and more vibrant and relevant. Each creative platform is a different but important way to express the human viewpoint, and none are supplanted by the next. I think that painters have to make strong decisions now about why they’re sticking to that medium and in this case the tension of the work in this painting where the physicality of the paint is almost at war with the intent, the fact that it has to be tangibly mediated in this way, is something you cannot experience in digital media. I worked in digital animation for three or four years and it’s really tough to get the accident to come back into the mix, to have that chaotic tension and lack of control. You have to make a decision about every pixel in an entire space. In everything we do now I’m striving for that balance where you’re not completely in control.

GB It’s interesting to study the neuroscience behind what happens when we have an aesthetic experience. For instance, there’s not just one part of the brain that responds to beauty. The mind is flooded with memories and associations when we look at an object. It seems that you’re creating an experience like this with world building, but one that you’re in control of.

AM Or not. The world building is a design impetus where you’re responsive to all the factors that control the narrative space and make it as broad as possible. The more the neural network builds between these disparate elements, the more robust that world becomes. But you kind of have no idea what happens when you introduce a new element, like adding a specific historical event that could’ve happened to this world ten years ago. You have to be open to constant disruptions to the world space. The creative pleasure I get from world building is the not knowing and the surprise. In the opposite way from what Kirsten does, I really enjoy these vast collaborations and the tension between all the different people involved. Incredibly, it never breaks. The more disparate and cross-disciplinary the creators are, the more interested they are in each other and the more interesting the world becomes.

GB Do you think universal beauty exists?

AM The notion of beauty never actually comes up in my work. I don’t know why. I feel the context is always one of problem solving. I arrived at the notion that I was an artist when I was ten and an art teacher told me I was an artist. When I was in London after art school I was doing life drawing but designing record sleeves at the same time. Then I had this revelation that it was all the same thing. At that point I think I became a designer rather than an artist, and I’m very comfortable being a designer whose job it is to solve problems. In a way I’m just an empty vessel until a problem comes at me. I have huge respect for the way Kirsten works in isolation and discipline, striving very much towards beauty and responding to the flow. It’s a set of internal, emotional, instinctive decisions and I think that the criteria she uses are pushing towards an ideal of beauty. I try to visualize quite abstract solutions to problems that I see as quite empirical. If the narrative you put out into the community does well and people who have been absorbed in that world are triggered emotionally, then you’ve been successful, but you haven’t imposed your own style on it. You take on the rules of that world so it’s a contextual aesthetic. So I suppose I find the painting beautiful because it’s the opposite of what I’m doing in many ways. It’s a moment in time that’s locked and there forever.

GB Kurosawa was very concerned about beauty in his films. Do you think his sunlight through trees is universally beautiful?

AM Yes, light is a huge part of beauty. Light and sound are the components of beauty. The visual only exists through light. I’ve always been interested in light, and I’m increasingly interested in sound and how much space it carries.

GB So have you noticed in your film work that things look difference once there’s a sound track.

M Yes, the difference is huge.

GB And at the moment, everything you do is limited to the human imagination. Do you think that one day Artificial Intelligence will supersede that?

AM Yes, I’m afraid I do. We’re going to have to decide pretty soon whether or not we have any function as humans at all. I just met an amazing scientist from Auckland University who is he’s doing a research project called Baby X. They’ve built an AI baby from the brain out. So they started with the brain and fed stimuli into it and it started to develop behaviour. They connected muscles to it that were triggered by emotional behaviour in the brain and they put a face on that. We saw a live demo of this scientist speaking to the baby and the baby comprehending it. I feel like everything changed for me in that moment. When the scientist walked away the baby’s face started to change and it started crying.

GB Do you think that the baby will ever be able to look at a sunset and find it beautiful?

AM I don’t see why not. That stuff has a function for us. We’d have to work out what that function is.

GB Do you think the baby might make a beautiful painting one day?

AM I don’t think that beauty is the reason for the existence of a painting. Kirsten is trying to express layers of meaning. The amount of decisions made in every millisecond is incredible whether they’re emotional or connected to light and colour. I think that Artificial Intelligence will only really exist when it’s self-motivated, so I think the aesthetics will be driven by very different things and may not be recognisable by us, but you need emotional satisfaction in what you’re doing.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

AM I think that it stands alone, resonant, without explanation and without conscious thought. You don’t need the explanation for this painting to give back to you more than you give to it. I could stand in front of this painting for hours and still come back to it the next day and it would be different. That moment in time that has been captured in the painting remains volatile according to light and distance and my emotional state.

TYLER UDALL

tumblr_nmtezvBII61u4hq5fo1_1280

Tyler Udall, photographer, on the wigs in a Jerome Robbins’ ballet, The Cage.

GB Tell me why you’ve chosen these wigs.

TU I used to be a ballet dancer. I saw this particular ballet, The Cage, at a time when I was going through a noteworthy emotional growth spurt. I was a teenager, and I’d just moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet. It was such an exciting time. EVERYTHING was new. This was the very first piece I saw the New York City Ballet perform. The Cage completely shattered any preconceived notion I had of  what classical ballet was.  By the end of that first performance, ballet (which I already LOVED), became the most magical and limitless art form.  These wigs are the perfect embodiment of what makes this work so special and against the grain. I usually find costumes very distracting, especially something as cumbersome as a wig, but these headpieces were so counter-intuitive to what people generally associate with classical ballet. The Cage was created in the early 1950s by Jerome Robbins, yet it’s still extremely modern, aggressive and even controversial. The score is a Stravinsky violin concerto which sounds a lot like alchemy… to me anyway. It’s incredibly fierce and intense but the dichotomy is there’s also something very innocent and delicate going on there. It’s interpretive, but I see The Cage as a love story about insects, animal nature and inner conflict. Specifically, its about a female tribe of insects who use their sexuality to hunt and then kill their prey. The ballet opens up with this “Queen” and a stage full of her insect army. The dancers are wearing the most DISGUSTING rat-nest wigs (think Tina Turner after an amphetamine fuelled bender). They are beautiful to me in a really grotesque way. To see that kind of irreverence on a world-class ballet stage was eye-opening, to say the least. The Prima Ballerina who plays “The Novice”, comes out wearing a very short black wig. Now that I make the connection, we actually have the same haircut. Weird. ANYWAY,  at first glance I thought I was watching a boy wearing pointe shoes, (which at the time I thought was so revolutionary), but it was Wendy Whelan. Wendy subsequently became one of my all time favourite dancers. She was a bug. A repugnant, preternatural, insect-creature-thing…but SO BEAUTIFUL!  I’d never seen a ballerina go that far with her character before. For lack of a better word, she was transcendent. She really touched a piece of my soul that night and at the risk of sounding trite, she changed me. These wigs pulled me into a different creative space. They’re the icing on the cake of this wonderful ballet.

GB So was it your love for the costumes that made you go into styling?

TU An injury ended my career quite early and fashion was really the only other thing that I knew. In retrospect, street fashion was always something I’d enjoyed and instinctively it made sense to me. The styling thing just fell into place without me even really knowing what a stylist was. I love collaboration and when I was in fashion school at F.I.T, I started interning with Marc Jacobs. I got to work with all these incredible editors and stylists and spent a lot of time drinking in these beautiful magazine stories. The publications in the late 90s/ early 2000’s opened my eyes to a whole new universe, in a similar way that ballet had.

GB . Do you feel it’s okay to be as passionate about fashion as you were about ballet, or is that more frowned upon?

TU It’s only been in the last year and a half that I’ve had this real renaissance with my love of fashion. Maybe it’s because I’m older and more self-assured, but I confidently admit that I adore fashion and great design. I love the psychology behind it. No one criticizes you when you want to have a beautiful house or a beautiful car but so many people still criticize you if you want to have beautiful clothes. But these things are on our bodies and they’re that instant reflection of who you are to the world. I’d say that’s pretty important. So whether you want to dress up or not, that’s one’s prerogative, but to frown on someone who searches for beauty through personal style seems so absurd to me. Fashion is such a direct reflection of a current social and economic mood. It creatively answers psychological questions that we’re grappling with as a society. People don’t tend to pay attention to it on that level. You can look at clothing throughout history and have such a clear vision into what was going on politically and culturally.  I think that’s quite cool.

GB Does it bother you that things go in and out of style? So something you create can seem beautiful one day but not the next?

TU When I was styling I worked predominantly with fine art photographers. I tended to collaborate with them better because we shared a sensibility and more often than not, an obsession with casting our versions of the most “beautiful” people. I only used proper agency-represented models when I was forced to by a client or  by circumstance, and those are the images I don’t enjoy looking back at now. There was no authenticity in those particular shoots. Beauty is so subjective and to say that there is a shelf life or one specific archetype deemed beautiful seems weird. Now that I’m taking photographs, I think what makes a person beautiful is their energy. So to come full circle to your question, I think beautiful things tend to be timeless.

GB Could you take a beautiful picture of someone you don’t like?

TU It could be an interesting project! Great idea! I reckon I’d get a stronger end result photographing someone I don’t like versus someone I have zero attachment to. I’m always sensitive to the slightest shifts in people’s energy, as well as my own. That’s what I hope I’m documenting in my photographs. If I don’t like someone, that’s going to be palpable in the image, I would imagine anyway. I do some self-portraits from time to time. The ones I like best tend to be from a time when I was quite disgusted with myself. I think the camera helps me see more clearly.

GB Do you think you will always find these wigs beautiful because they remind you of this revelation about ballet?

TU  Yes. More than a revelation about ballet, it was a revelation about myself and what I could do. Art seemed so limitless when I saw those wigs.

GB Do you think ballet can continue to be revelatory or revolutionary?

TU I do. I think there are some interesting shifts happening at the moment. There’s a new generation coming into directorial roles.  Dance as a phenomenon has gained such momentum in the last few years, recruiting a new generation of enthusiasts and patrons. People like Benjamin Millepied, now Directing the Paris Opera-Ballet, are preserving classical excellence at the same time evolving the tradition by making new works that cross disciplines. The collaborations that are happening now are incredible. Very current artists, designers, musicians etc, are creating original work within a classical ballet context. I think these creative conversations have the power to cultivate and bridge a new generation and inspire revelation.

GB And now you’re working visually,  do you miss the music?

TU I actually still listen to classical music all the time. But something I do miss is having an open space to move around in. One of the most interesting things about a studio or a stage is that its only purpose is to occupy it with your body. That doesn’t exist anywhere else. I miss having the open space to throw my body around with abandon.

GB When you were dancing did you feel as though you were an object of beauty?

TU When I was doing it well,  the answer would be yes. I was so hungry for those moments! I think every dancer is. That’s the dangerous drug about ballet. You get these little glimmers, where everything aligns; the music, the lights, your performance, the energy, the crowd. When all those elements come together, its just so beautiful and even otherworldly. The feeling is fleeting and I think most dancers are chasing it. I did feel like an object of beauty in those split seconds. Just for the record I could probably count those moments on two hands. They are rare!

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

TU Something that elicits a genuine emotion, even if that’s disgust. For me it has to be that palpable connection to the object, whether you’re coveting it or repulsed by it. If it has that magnetic strength as an object, then it’s beautiful to me.

POLLY SAMSON

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

Polly Samson, author, on a necklace.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

PS I chose this because of the person who gave it to me, and the circumstances of them giving it to me, more than the object itself. Of course, I love it anyway. I’d love it wherever it came from, but the bizarre way it came to me has made it my favourite thing. It’s a necklace but I don’t actually wear it. I hang it from the window at the end of my bed so I wake up and see it first thing in the morning, which always gives me a little thrill. It’s made from glass but there are so many facets, the crystals are cut like diamonds and the light that comes through it gets the full spectrum and shines around the room.

GB So tell me how you came to own it.

PS It’s quite a long story. My novel, The Kindness, came from a story connected to my family. My father is from a Jewish family from Hamburg. Most of them got out in the 1930s, some got out through suicide which is bizarrely called ‘rational suicide’ and my family would say that “it was only a couple of aunts who ended up in concentration camps.” But once you start thinking about those women, it really haunts you. My father was very close to his uncle, a man named Heino.

Heino was very happily married to a woman called Olly but unfortunately, they found out that Heino couldn’t have children. Heino’s best friend was a musician who was about to emigrate to America and his last act before he left was to offer his great friend Heino and Olly his sperm. It seemed like a good idea as they were unlikely to see him again so they accepted and Olly became pregnant and their daughter, Lotte was born. In 1936 they knew they had to get out of Germany so they moved to Paris. Within a couple of years of being in Paris, Heino knew they were in danger, so got back in touch with his friend in America, who had become a well-known conductor. He asked for help and Kurt agreed, so Olly and Lotte went ahead to New York while Heino stayed behind to sort out their affairs. He was then arrested and interned. He escaped from the internment camp, was rearrested, re-interned and then escaped again. This time he managed to get to Morocco where he joined the French foreign legion. He was the most unlikely soldier, being something of an aesthete.

He served in Africa for a couple of years, but eventually he made it to America only to find that unfortunately his wife and child had fallen in love with the biological father. Olly only wanted Lotte to have one father and thought she’d be traumatised if Heino reappeared. He never recovered. He actually became a rather successful photographer, who took the only portraits that his friend, Mark Rothko, sat for. He called himself Henry Elkan. But he was unhappy living in America while his wife and daughter were there without him, so he went back to Paris. He worked as a photographer there and when I knew him, he’d come to stay with us about once a year and brought this wonderful glamorous French woman called Anne Frère with him. She had been an actress and had been the first woman to play Anne Frank in a play in Germany, in 1948 or 49. As a small child I hero-worshipped this glamorous woman with these long legs and burningly intelligent eyes. Once when they went back to Paris she made me a doll. I grew up with communist parents and didn’t really have dolls but she knitted me this doll that had the most incredible trousseau; hundreds of outfits, handbags that she’d stitched, ball dresses with little pearls around the hem. I never forgot her.

When I was eleven I was told that Heino had died and that it was from a problem with his heart. I just knew that there was more to it than that so I asked around and went through things in my parents’ room. I couldn’t find out what had happened so years later I brought it up again and my dad said that it was suicide and told me the story of Heino’s daughter and how he had no hope of having another child. Gradually he’d become more depressed over the years and killed himself. That story became The Kindness.

When I’d finished writing the book, I hadn’t really researched Heino. I just knew that he was a nice man who came with his beautiful companion. I discovered that he’d become quite a famous photographer and managed to track down one of his pictures of Mark Rothko and buy it, but I was still frustrated that I didn’t know enough about him. The few living relatives had very scant memories. Heino was born in 1904. My grandmother had become quite blind in her final years so I’d written her address book out in huge letters for her. It came back to me when she died and one day I looked in a box of old things and the address book fell open at the name Anne Frère. As a child you don’t really notice the age of adults so I assumed she’d have been 120 years old by now. But I dialled the number anyway and she answered. I hadn’t realised that she was forty years younger than Heino. It was rather astonishing. I said I wanted to go to Paris to talk to her.

Last year, I went to her flat in Paris. She’s now 82 and standing at the top of her staircase, she still had this incredible elegance and I felt the exact same way I had as a child. We had this connection and hugged as though she was my long-lost mother. I spent the weekend with her and during the course of this weekend we talked a lot about Heino and went back to where he’d lived just outside Paris. It was the first time she’d been back there since she’d discovered his suicide and it brought back all these memories. She talked a lot about how unhappy she’d made him because she was so much younger and wouldn’t commit to him. She told me about his suicide note where he felt that all love had gone and he just felt tired, tired, tired. As we left we looked back and there was this amazing rainbow. We went back to her flat and she said she wanted to give me the necklace that Heino had given her. I asked her to tell me the circumstance of him giving it to her and she said. “Actually it doesn’t put me in a very good light. I surprised him one day when he was wrapping a present. I asked him what it was and he opened the box and showed me this necklace. He said it was for his friend Julia, in Germany. I told him, Julia will not have it! It’s for me!”

GB Now that’s an incredible story. Do you always find beauty in objects that have a story attached to them?

PS Always. I think that must be why I became a writer.

GB So you think that something quite mundane can have a universal beauty once its story has been shared?

PS That’s exactly right. When my children come to clearing out my stuff they’ll want to throw all these things away. I think I’ll have to attach little stories to everything.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

PS It’s the narrative. It’s never just looking at things. It’s the feelings that it evokes.

GB So you think that can supersede even the beauty of nature?

PS Yes, I do.

MOLLIE MILLS

IMG_2119

Mollie Mills, filmmaker, on her sovereign ring.

GB Tell me why you chose this?

MM I bought this ring for £26.99 from Argos in Hackney when I was 13. It’s been on a journey through my adolescence and into early adulthood, reminding me each time I look down at my hands of my youth – an upbringing on an East London council estate. It’s gold plated, chipped and misshapen but has an air of opulence that reminds me of my aspirations then and now. One day, I’ll get a real gold one I’d say.

I once told my boyfriend I’d never get married because there’s no ring more symbolic for my fourth finger than my sovereign.

GB Do you think you’ll find the real gold one as beautiful? It won’t have been on the same journey with you.

MM Probably not. They can live on different fingers – maybe some poncy resemblance between my past and future or something like that.

GB You like this because it reminds you of where you come from. You also make quite hard-hitting social documentaries. Does beauty have an element of the political for you? Or do you like things that are more superficially appealing too?

MM Beautiful aesthetic is always important to me but depth, whether that’s political, social or emotional can change the way I see something altogether and that brings a deeper beauty. A recurring theme in my work is showing a softer, more beautiful side to subcultures that are often portrayed as intimidating or unattractive, by telling their story.

GB Do you think that it’s possible to make anything or anyone look beautiful in a film or picture – though the right lighting and way of shooting it?

MM I think you can show a beautiful side to anything or anyone through telling their story in a particular light. Clever camera work and lighting can change audience perception but only up to a point. My dad used to tell me, “pretty is only ever pretty but ugly can be beautiful.” This is something I come back to a lot when I’m thinking about creating imagery.

GB Do other people find your ring beautiful? Would you make it perfect again if you could?

MM Firstly, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It is what it is and it’ll continue to look more silver and chipped. Some people find it cheap and garish but to me, it’s wonderful. Aesthetic beauty isn’t universal but I’d like to believe sentiment is.

GB Is this because sentiments like sadness and fear are biological – but you think our reaction to beauty isn’t? Do you think beauty as a concept has been created by us and varies for each individual?

MM Talking in terms of objects and belongings, it’s about taste and that is absolutely individual but revealing background or a concept behind something that people might initially find repulsive can pull on the heartstrings or like you said, play on sadness or fear. My gran had hundreds of these horrific porcelain dogs in her house when I was a child and I only understood, in retrospect, why they were so beautiful when I realised that animals gave her a sense of companionship in her lonely, older years; they were her closest friends. We can all experience compassion and empathy for something upon knowing what it’s really about and that’s a beautiful thing.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MM I can appreciate good design, sumptuous aesthetic, vivid colour and all the ingredients for something instantly, perceivably beautiful but functionality, feeling and reason is, for me, where true beauty lies.

SARAH HALL

photo

Sarah Hall, author on ‘Valley’ by Mateusz Fahrenholz.

GB  Tell me why you chose this.

SH ‘Valley’ is on the wall of my living room so I see and think about it every day. It used to hang in an exhibition in a pub where I worked in St Andrews, Scotland, and I became very fond of it. When the artist moved to Poland this particular work was too big for him to transport, so he left it with a friend. Several years later, I tracked it down in Bedford, stowed flat under someone’s bed, due to its unwieldy size. I’d sold my first novel by then, not for a huge amount, but to celebrate I bought Valley. As an artwork, it’s not out-rightly beautiful, one might even describe it as relatively ugly, industrial, penal-looking – the colours are plain, white and dun, the items in the composition are quotidian, and a bit worn. It challenges aesthetic notions, certainly.

GB What is your interpretation of the image? Do you find that others have very different interpretations? Do these have any effect on your own view of its beauty?

SH I find the image almost tragic – the cup on the chain will never reach the tap, though it seems to strain towards it – but other people have found that particular feature humorous. In this way the piece is quite divisive, perhaps even a test of the viewer, the viewer’s temperament maybe. It’s interesting to find that other people’s minds worked so differently, and see other messages. This expands the piece’s quality for me. Surrounding the central window is aged Polish newspaper, some of the text mentions Margaret Thatcher but I can’t read Polish, so I’ve no idea what the articles say. The photograph in the wooden panel on the right is of a forested valley. I know I’m missing some overall meaning, or suggestion, but I like not knowing everything. I say almost a tragic image – the enamel cup is at the end of its reach, but it’s wonderfully plucky and earnest, the chain is pulled taut and might even break. I love that an inanimate object can have such spirit! Don’t give up, cup!

GB Are you generally drawn to works that use symbolism in this way more than figurative art? Is there any connection between that and your use of metaphor in writing?

SH I do like symbolism, yes. Though signs are found in nature, particularly in colour schemes, it’s a peculiarly human trait to use cyphers, to say, this equals that, this stands for that. It also allows messages and information to be passed between cultures and languages, like a reservoir we all drink from. I spent a long time exploring the issue in The Electric Michelangelo, which features a tattoo artist. Tattoos, particularly traditional ones, are fabulous examples of symbols – usually representing good and evil, love and hate. I am interested in the idea of essence and meaning. I’d consider myself to be a realist writer, I do try to fashion realistic landscapes, humanism and scenarios that are or seem convincing (though is this just trompe l’oeil?) but one who also tries to work on symbolic, maybe even metaphysical levels, especially when I’m writing short stories.

GB Do you know the artist personally? If you do, does that affect your view of its beauty?

I’ve met Matt, but only once. He stopped off to see me during his travels in the UK, in order to fix Valley, which had broken in transit from Bedford to Cumbria (plucky cup had come unstuck!). He talked a little bit about his work then and I think he even may have said – though this was a long time ago – that he came down on the side of the composition being funny. He didn’t say too much beyond that. I like his work a lot, the use of salvaged photographs and representations of travel and exile, the ‘boxed’ past scenarios. There’s a tension between the ephemera of human lives, history and remembrance. But I do believe that writing and art, once created, exists beyond the intentions or motivations or even the inspiration of its creator. We interpret widely, according to our own proclivities and beliefs. The very best art challenges our notions – Valley does mine.

GB It’s a very large work. Is the scale of it important?

It’s much larger than a lot of Matt’s work of that period, I think. It does dominate the living room wall, it’s about five feet by three and half feet – hanging it takes some patience and it needs a load bearing wall! The scale works really well, partly because of the newspaper text on the body of the box, you get the sense of columns and broadsheets. The tap and the cup are life-size and this central piece needs space around it as its quite an intense image, and a decent frame. I don’t think it would have worked as a smaller piece.

GB Fahrenholz often puts his work in boxes. Do you think that this makes them more appealing? Other artists such as Duchamp use boxes too, to great effect. Is this a tradition you’re interested in?

SH Yes, I like it. What is it about containment that is satisfying? Perhaps it’s the notion of saving and keeping things, intimacy, heirlooms. Why else did we invent boxes? Of course, with Valley there is a glass panel too – a window – not a lid. We are allowed to see in, we have access. The open box is in a way the most satisfying of offerings.

GB Fahrenholz is of Polish descent but living in Scotland and his works refer to ideas of displacement. You have lived in many different places. Does this affect your feelings about the work?

SH I’ve never written a book about a place I’m currently living in. I need a little distance to give perspective, or distil ideas about a place, and to see it in the context of other places. I spend a long time trying to get my landscapes and settings right, to make them authentic, textured, nuanced, but for some reason I need to be elsewhere to do that. Matt’s work does resonate that way. There are fixed points and also un-moorings.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

SH No. How wonderful it is that we don’t all find the same things, the same set of aesthetic proportions for example, beautiful.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

SH Perhaps the sense of elation that ensues. It’s not just visual pleasure or satisfaction. Beauty moves me.

MOLLY PARKIN

FullSizeRender

Molly Parkin, Painter and Poet, on her garden.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

MP The garden rescues me all the time. I’ve always loved trees.  When I gave up drinking 28 years ago – that was the hardest thing I ever had to do – that and the death of my mother – the painting came back within four months. When the painting came back I was in Hyde Park and my granny’s voice came to me and said, “This is where you used to do so many paintings when the children were small. You’ve got a fresh start now – pick up a pencil and do a sketch.”

So I did a sketch of all the trees there that I’d painted in the past. I used to sell these paintings in the window of Liberty’s and then Eric Newton of the Guardian picked up on one, which was then housed in the Tate  – so I reached that height just out of my twenties. But that night I’d been to a women’s meeting and it was 7.30pm. I love walking through that part of the park between Bayswater Road and the Embankment where the trees are very large but the sunset was breaking my heart because I was no longer a painter and my granny’s voice said, “You can do it. Just do a little sketch child.”

It was her voice that rescued me when I was in the gutter. I was thin as a rake at that time and undeniably glamorous, but I was pleasuring these meat porters at 5am when the local pub was opening for them. I was still in my gold lamé. They’re simple boys those meat porters and they were lovely. I’d recommend them to anyone. I’d been out for a week and I was exhausted so I lay down in the gutter at the side of the road just for the novelty of it and thought that I was just about as low as you could go. Then my granny’s voice came to me and said, “That’s it, cariad. The party’s over. You just had your last drink.” I was so relieved.

GB What had made you stop painting?

MP It was after I discovered my husband was having an affair. I found his Carlton Tower hotel bill from Christmas Eve. When you have an emotional shock like that you go cold inside as if snow has started falling – and yet your wits are still about you. I called up the Carlton Tower and spoke to the concierge and they said that Mr and Mrs Parkin had spent the day together in the suite and then they’d left for Paris. At the time we lived a few doors away from the Chelsea Arts Club. I bought that house with my painting money. He came back laden with more presents than I had ever seen because they were guilt presents – including a tiny television for the kitchen, which no one had ever heard of then. But of course it was all paid for with my money. So I kicked him out. Infidels always become careless at a certain point. You have to step back and allow Fate to take over, then everything goes your way. But at the time I had all these commissions. I went to my studio on the Monday morning and it was full of huge canvasses, primed and commissioned by people who had paid in advance – and nothing came, as if I was frozen and it lasted for 25 years. That’s how I ended up in the loathsome world of fashion. At Art School, you’re told right at the start of it that if you’re going to be a painter or a sculptor, to prepare yourself to be a waitress for the rest of your life and not to plan for your art to make money for you.

GB When did you first start to love gardens?

MP I was introduced to gardens by my grandfather down in Wales. I used to help him in the garden from the age of four or five. He was also the man who took me to the top of the mountain. It was in a mining valley in South Wales and I suppose you could say that I’m addicted to landscapes. I am an abstract expressionist landscape painter. So from the age of five my grandfather would take me to the top and I’d say, “My little legs can’t do further, Tadci!” He’d say “Just a little bit further now. There’s a prize at the top.” I thought there was a sweetshop there so I went scrambling up and the clouds were just above us. “This is the prize that we were coming to. Look up. This is the nearest that you get to God.” I said, “Is God living up there then?” “Exactly,” he said.

At the top of the mountain my grandfather sowed the seed to the life I would later have by saying, “All this is yours Molly.” I’d say, “What are you saying? What is mine?” He said, “The world is your oyster, little girl, and it’s for you to do with your life whatever you would wish to do.”

That’s the same mountaintop I went to for guidance when my mother was on the brink of dying.  So I’ve always known, in times of trouble, to go to the top of my mountain.

I tried to go back and live there when I was penniless and that’s where I became bankrupt. I knew that I needed further spiritual enlightenment and that creating more wealth wasn’t the answer. Then a friend took me to India. I’d been keeping India for the pudding stage of my life. I have a great belief in Paradise but I also believe you can create your own Paradise here on earth.

GB And when did you first start to love painting?

Every night when I go to bed I say goodnight to my mother and father. I’ve forgiven my father who abused me as a child because it was pointed out to me by an American film director that I’m a Painter because he took me from the earliest age and sat me at the age of five or six in front of the Constables – and the Turner one of the steam train. I’ve seen the Turner film six times now. But if my dad went to spend a penny I ran round to see naked women with fulsome bosoms and bottoms, the Ruben’s nudes. When I was a fashion editor I had to use thin models and I wanted that fulsome sort.

Now I’m older. I look back with such gratitude.  My grandmother lost 11 children. My mother was the only one to survive. She was a very talented musician. She was the organist in our chapel and the beauty of the valley. But she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. A psychiatrist from America later explained that she was suffering from what my father was doing to me. He said that the wives always know. But at the time I thought it was my fault.

GB And how did you end up here, with your garden?

MP When I was made bankrupt I had to go to the homeless desk in Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. There I felt real shame because there were all these refugees in the room and I was going to be taking a home from them. There is an awful ethic in this country that if a person doesn’t have money they’re treated like dirt. But I was brought up as painter to imagine I would never have money. I would never treat people differently. I was dressed like an extra in Cleopatra but they didn’t know what was withering inside me. I asked for a place in Chelsea. “Absolutely not!” said the woman behind the desk without even looking up. In the end I was offered this flat because nobody wanted to come to this estate. It was the most violent one in London. Christine Keeler was put here when she was homeless. When they made the film, Scandal, she got some money and moved away from here. It was rife with drug addicts and within a month of me moving here there was a murder of a fourteen-year-old boy in the front there. All the flowers were around. It was perpetrated by a gang member, because he’d been bullying kids for money for drugs. So they killed him with a revolver and they still haven’t found out who did it because they stick together.

I looked back to where my happiest times had been all through my life – when I bought the house in India I had coconut trees. It was a big house at the bottom of the Holy Mountain and people would come from all over the world for the Guru’s teachings. My garden there was unbelievable. I bought many more trees and shrubs so I already knew how to make a garden. I had 35 monkeys in that garden.  I went there for 12 years and received the lessons I was meant to from the ashram. Many birds came to that garden. One was a nightingale. The sounds of music from nature are unbelievable.

GB What was the inspiration for your garden here?

MP When they gave me this ground floor flat it was in the Senior Citizens corridor for the elderly and infirm and it was so frightening with this space outside because everybody could look in. Nobody goes out on their balconies here. They’re refugees and they’re frightened. I thought I’d do what I did in India and planted trees here. One day a leaflet was pushed through my door about a voyage to the Arctic. I love anything to do with water and icebergs and all that so I thought I could paint it. I suggested to the Sunday Telegraph that they send me, as I could illustrate my own article and they jumped at the chance. I was worried about who would water the garden but then I realised that trees don’t need watering so I could have an evergreen garden that would prosper while I travelled. They were only so high and now it’s like Epping Forest! I’ve been here thirteen years now. At times of loss I’ve sat in the garden and it’s where I realised that my painting muse is back for good. So these trees have given me privacy here and enabled me to live on a Council Estate that was dangerous when I came here but is no longer.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MP Beauty, whether an object or a landscape or a poem , palpably moves you. You’re moved by it. Something shifts around the heart. This is a poem that describes the immense importance of it. It’s called The Bright Field and it’s by the celebrated Welsh poet, RS Thomas.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.