Michael Peppiatt on The Art of Interviewing Artists
Michael Peppiatt is a world renowned art critic, author, and art historian, who has interviewed some of the 20th century’s most eminent artists. Here, he discusses his new book, Interviews with Artists, 1966-2012, an informal, behind-the-scenes account of his interviews with such art world giants as Bacon, Dubuffet, Moore, Balthus and Auerbach.
Michael Peppiatt —
Crossing the Villa Medici’s grand rooms to meet its equally grand director, Balthus, in summer 1966, I was a million miles from thinking that this encounter would one day be the first in a whole book of interviews with artists. My main preoccupations, I remember, were my badly scuffed shoes, not at all right for gliding through hallowed, frescoed halls, and my badly prepared questions that veered swiftly from the pretentious (‘How would you describe your debt to Piero?’) to the lame (‘Have you always done preparatory drawings?’).
In the event, neither my shoes nor my questions mattered. Balthus turned out to be above all intent on persuading me that one could say nothing about painting and that he himself was ‘an artist about whom nothing was known’. He then chose to talk, volubly and amiably, about everything else: from restoring the Villa and the exquisite views Velázquez had painted from its gardens to the little-known fact that he was descended from Lord Byron. By the end of the day I felt quite elated because Balthus seemed to have taken me into his confidence, but as I made my way down the Spanish Steps a sense of impending doom hovered over me like a cloak. This was my first assignment as a fledgling magazine writer and all I had gleaned from it was there was nothing to say, either about art or the artist himself.
I need not have worried. I whipped my scant information up into a verbal froth that hardly changed the course of art history but did in many ways capture Balthus quite accurately: his dandyish disdain, his aristocratic affectations and his love of make-believe all played out against the ideal backdrop of a historic palace. At the same time the experience taught me something essential. You might know an artist’s work well and have all the right questions up your sleeve, but you can never foresee how an interview will turn out. Just as on a blind date, one of you might be bubbling with joie de vivre and curiosity while the other is on edge, moody or unreceptive. An early blunder – a mix-up of dates or techniques or influences, the tape recorder stalling, the mere mention of a hated rival – might kill the whole thing off or paradoxically cut through the preliminary skirmishes to the very nub of the artist’s identity and daily struggle to produce memorable images in the studio. Somehow, at some point, a current of sympathy has to flow between interviewer and interviewee for any successful communication to be made.
No sooner have I written this than I realize that it is only conventionally true. There can be an atmosphere of antipathy, or even downright hostility, and still a good interview can be achieved. The last interview I did with Bacon began after a spat as to whether he had agreed to talk ‘on the record’. Since I had come over especially from Paris and I had a whole issue of Art International dependent on the interview, I knew I had asked his assent well in advance over the phone. After some tugging to and fro and several questions that received no answer (with the tape recorder turning listlessly in the silence), I managed to get him going and he then delivered a word-perfect performance, with nothing to add or take away. In retrospect I think he was playing with me, testing my resolve. Somehow that first moment of aggressive banter had cleared the air and, like an apéritif, given him an appetite for discussion. Then right through dinner and late into the night, he became increasingly loquacious and indiscreet, giving me interview after marvellous interview which to some extent I still remember but unfortunately was not able to record and thus fix the changing timbre of his voice and the sheer devilry and spontaneous brilliance of his ideas.
Some artists are never as forthcoming as Bacon could be, above all in his cups reeling from bar to bar through the night. With Zoran Music the wine could flow too, and we frequently spent the evening together in Paris or Venice, or travelling to some far-flung exhibition of his. But he was as sparing with words as he was with paint, applying only a thin wash of color on the canvas. When he spoke about his experiences in the death camps he had none of Bacon’s bravura, almost an embarrassment at having such a chilling account to render. However, his horrors had not been culled like Bacon’s from photographs of disease and disaster but lived minute by hallucinating minute in Dachau where prisoner protocol, to give one graphic example, required you not to report that the person sleeping in the bunk next to you had died for as long as possible in order to get the dead man’s ration of sawdust bread. When I eventually obtained my interviews from Music – the culmination of nearly thirty years’ friendship and trust – I felt I had got something far more precious than the most perspicacious talk about an artist’s aims, influences and techniques. It was a survivor’s graphic memoir – first through painful paintings of cadavers, then through painful words – of the blackest hour of the century.
I could of course continue this blog – dread word! – in a hundred directions, ending up with a text far longer than the book it is blogging about. I could recall scores of studio visits, of intense whittling down of artistic concepts while tape recorder whirred or pencil hovered over pad. I could describe the privileged sensation of entering ever more deeply into fascinating worlds that had been heralded by images of all kinds that I was then able to explore at leisure: the sense of privacy invaded, of broken taboos, in search of a larger truth, with all the risks that such presumptuous explorations involve.
Instead, dear reader, I invite you to go to the book itself, wander through it with an open mind and let me know what you think. I should be very interested to hear your reactions and, like a good correspondent, I promise to reply.
Michael Peppiatt is a well-known writer and curator who began his career as an art critic in London and Paris in the 1960s. He is the author of, among many books, Francis Bacon in the 1950s (2007), Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait (2008), and In Giacometti’s Studio (2010). His newest book, Interviews with Artists, 1966-2012, is now available from Yale University Press.