Your exhibition Time & Tempo considers the parallels between music and visual art. What prompted you to explore this relationship?
The pace of 21st century life continues to accelerate at breakneck speed, with new electronic devices allowing us to tune out of our immediate surroundings, directing our attention elsewhere. My ambition has become to slow down, taking time to observe the land and the cityscapes around me.
That’s where the notion of tempo comes into my practice: out in the country, or the studio, I can set the metronome to the desired pace. An avenue of trees might inspire an andante, or walking speed; a still life, painted on the Maine coast, with a fishing village visible through the window, could be said to move at largo, or slow tempo.
Lately I have been listening to Rossini’s operas. His music is characterised by its energetic harmony and rhythmic intensity. Similarly, in the studio, one of my objectives is to transmit the sense of rhythm and harmony inherent to the landscape or interior that originally inspired the painting.
Helen Berggruen, Looking Beyond the Village, 2012. Oil on linen. © Helen Berggruen
Do you listen to music when you paint, or are you inspired by certain pieces of music?
The painting usually comes first; if I’m working outside, I’m listening to the landscape’s own musicality — the birds, or whatever the ambient sound may be.
Helen Berggruen, Time & Tempo (Homage #4 to JDD). © Helen Berggruen
Do you hope that your works will have their own musicality?
When the viewer looks at a work, their eye roams the surface, eventually seeking a point of resolution akin to tonal repose — that’s the musical parallel. Having found that repose the gaze is again free to roam. In a way, the viewer creates his or her own music in the act of looking.
I like to think my works might sing to viewers. A friend of mine wrote an essay for one of my exhibitions entitled ‘The Song Inside of Things’, taking his title from a German proverb; he certainly felt that there was a connection between what I do and music.
A few years ago I travelled to the heart of America to begin a series of landscape paintings, some of which feature in this exhibition. I placed my easel by roads, riverbanks and in farmers’ fields, working in series to explore a particular theme and it’s variations — a very musical idea.
One morning, a farmer approached me; I thought it was because I was on his land, but he wanted to know why I had chosen to paint this particular view of the landscape. In a sense, it was the musicality of those rolling hills that engaged my eye as a painter: Wide views opening up, only to close abruptly as a road curved; Silos, massive against the horizon when seen up close, yet punctuating the hillside in a staccato movement when seen from afar.
As for my still lifes, my goal as ‘composer’ is to establish a contrapuntal relationship between objects pictured inside, on a table, engaging them in a melodic exchange with the outside world.
Helen Berggruen, Village, Southwest France, 2015. Oil on linen © Helen Berggruen
You spoke about the farmer finding you in the middle of a field. Do you generally paint real places, or is there an imaginary element to them?
My subject matter is evenly split between landscapes, interiors and still life. Every painting starts from direct observation: all of the landscapes and interiors are places I’ve physically been. The foreground of a still life, however, sometimes demands an invented landscape, shown in the background as a calmer counterpoint to the interior.
I find I’m drawn to agricultural farmland, whether in Iowa, the South of France or California. One day, I learnt from a farmer that the abstract patterns I admired in the field had purely practical origins, tracing where soy and corn had been planted to match the contours of the land. I realised that the beauty I see in the agricultural landscape is intrinsically tied to the methods employed by those who work with the land each day.
I’m also drawn to domestic gardens, which provide an opportunity for extravagant displays of colour and contrasting texture.
Helen Berggruen, Ink, Concertina, Telephone, 2013-15. Oil on linen. © Helen Berggruen
How do you work?
I tend to roam with a sketchbook and canvas until I alight upon a particular confluence of angles, textures, scales and colours. Once the easel is set up, most paintings begin with a pencil sketch in a notebook, followed by a charcoal sketch on canvas, and rough blocking in with earth tones. My objective is to fix an image of a fleeting moment.
Once in the studio, the initial image changes as the marks on the canvas acquire their own rhythm. I tend to emphasise what I would call the alive nature of inanimate objects; certain objects seem to announce their presence, whilst others are more retiring. Some areas ‘paint themselves’ whilst others are repainted over a series of days, weeks — even years. Brushstrokes are like characters in an opera, taking on a life of their own, determined to play out their own destiny.
Helen Berggruen, Rings of Saturn, 2015. Oil on linen. © Helen Berggruen
You say you animate objects, but rarely feature the human figure. Is that intentional?
I began my artistic life, not as a painter, but as an actress. From the age of 12, I was determined to be on the stage, and spent a number of years travelling as part of a theatre group. We performed in London, at the Royal Court, and then in New York and Europe with Robert Wilson in the early days before he became a renowned opera director.
In the 1980s, I stepped away from the theatre, and picked up a paintbrush. Life in the theatre was all about collaboration; now, it was just the easel and I. I was determined that my canvases would not feature people, but would focus on landscapes and objects; humans would play a role in the work, but only through implication or suggestion — providing an anchor or, I hope, a sense of mystery.
Helen Berggruen, Finsbury Parlour, 2000-15. Oil on canvas. © Helen Berggruen
Which artists, or artistic movements influence your work?
The first on my list would be Vincent van Gogh, because of the ecstatic rhythm of his brushstrokes and clashing colours — intense greens beside the reds, and the vital energy of the sky. Van Gogh had a huge influence on early 20th Century painters, especially the Fauves and German Expressionists.
The first group of Expressionists believed in the artist’s power to create a vision of the world as it ought to be, and to reveal hidden truths, which they believed could only be grasped aesthetically, rather than rationally.
I think, not only about the song inside of things, but the notion of the liberation of colour and intensification of expression — ideas that continue to infuse my practice. In term of brushstroke, Van Gogh is a great influence: My desire is that the energy on the canvas echoes what Edward Munch called the ‘note of luxuriantly pulsating life’.
Your father’s collection is now featured in Berlin’s Museum Berggruen. How did you encounter art as a child?
I spent my childhood in California, whilst my father lived in Paris, where he became a renowned art dealer and collector. My childhood was filled with trips on horseback through the Californian hills, imagining I was a hero in a Western movie.
Later in New York, however, I started spending a lot of my free time at the Museum of Modern Art, discovering Matisse’s work especially, but also taking time to learn about early modern painters, the Renaissance, and Delacroix, right through to Impressionism and Post Impressionism.
To return to my father: Although he was on another continent whilst I was growing up, he certainly kept in touch. When I first began painting, I sent my father some of my early watercolours, and his reaction was one of delight and pride. I remember him holding up and early drawing and gleefully proclaiming ‘Matisse!’ That was high praise indeed, and of course very encouraging. When, a few years later, I began to work in oils, my father continued to encourage me; I’ve always been grateful for that.
Time & Tempo: Outside, Inside, Still Lifes is at Christie’s South Kensington until 4 October
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