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New takes on Old Masters: Contemporary artists and the masters who inspired them

Five artists describe how the ideas and techniques of the artists of the past have informed their work

Grayson Perry

The first exhibition that impressed Grayson Perry was a show of Outsider art at the Hayward Gallery he saw when he was a student. “It was the first show where I thought: ‘OK, I see that this is expressive, this is really doing it’, but it wasn’t like I was signing up for art history, my love of Old Masters didn’t come until much later,” he says.

The artist, who won the Turner Prize in 2003, makes beautifully detailed pots, urns and, more recently, tapestries decorated with images ranging from the excesses of consumer culture to car wrecks, supermodels, Christian myths and nuclear disasters, interspersed with references to his own life.

“My role as an artist is to do something that’s relevant to now. I don’t want to learn to paint as well as the Pre-Raphaelites because what’s the point? They’ve done it. There are a lot of artists who do try to paint as well as them. Glenn Brown is an interesting example because he is a technically brilliant painter, but he puts such a spin on his [canvases] and they seem so contemporary. But if you go to the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait competition [show], you see these technically brilliant, ploddingly earnest paintings that are God awful.

“That’s why I’ll never do a painting. You’re competing with most of the great artists of history and it’s a framework within which it’s very easy to judge how bad you are. Whereas I make pottery and people don’t know that much about pottery, so they don’t know how bad I am.”

Don’t copy the masters of the past, learn from them, Perry says. “I always tell students my working method is: I go to museums, see something I like and do my version of it.

“I want to see something special when I go into an art gallery, I don’t want to see something that has just been brought in because we’ve already done the found object thing… if you see a beautiful Ferrari on the street, it’s a beautiful Ferrari, but in an art gallery it’s a crap work of art. People get that wrong. If something is very funny or politically charged or a good idea, it doesn’t mean it’s good art. That’s why the historical canon is so important: it teaches artists what good art is. You get it by osmosis from wandering around museums and looking at old stuff. It’s visual art. The clue is in the title. When people say: ‘It’s conceptual art’, they should be saying: ‘It’s conceptual, visual art’.

“We seem to have forgotten what art is because it seems to have become everything and the danger is that we’ve got no judgement on what is good. I was sitting on a panel a few months ago at the National Gallery talking about drawing and what constitutes a good drawing. Katharine Stout, one of the curators at the Tate, said: ‘At the Tate, we don’t like to use words like good.’ I asked: ‘Well, what do you say? How do you judge what to buy? How do you judge what to show?’

“She responded: ‘Well, it depends on whether the artist succeeds in what they set out to do.’ So I said: ‘What if the artist sets out to succeed in a load of shit?’ As you can imagine, that got quite a reaction from the audience.

“The great connoisseurs who ran museums in the past and collected often had an amazing eye. There are amazing collections because someone has stared long and hard at a painting and said: ‘That is a really knock-out example of that person’s work.’ We lose that skill at our peril.”

Toby Ziegler

At first glance Toby Ziegler’s new sculptures seem almost abstract. The lumpy forms loom out of the darkness of a Mayfair car park 14 storeys underground where they are on show this month in an exhibition organised by the Simon Lee gallery. Supported by wooden crutches, the works suggest heavy, injured creatures.

The first inspiration behind them, says the artist, was a 1568 painting by Brueghel, The Cripples, which shows five beggars, all of whom are missing limbs, huddled together in the street.

“It immediately made me think of a family photograph, which we always used to joke about because we look particularly dysfunctional in one way or another,” Ziegler says.

The image by Breughel resonated with the artist in other ways too. “I’ve been working for years on sculptures, like Classical ones, which have literally lost information or become fragmented—limbs have gone, faces have become eroded—and I’m interested in the way these works have been pieced back together in museums with metal rods and limbs almost like prosthetics.”

It is the way that art changes meaning across the ages as it loses its original context or form and is then re-interpreted by different viewers at different times that fascinates Ziegler. Often his starting point is reproductions of historic works of art that he has found online.

One thing on the artist’s mind while making these sculptures was photographs of mutilated men killed in combat that were posted online by US soldiers. “It was so easy to find these pictures of fragments of bodies strewn around… a lot of my work is to do with the availability of images today.”

But, for Ziegler, looking at art is different. “Somehow [old] paintings don’t have the same quickly digestible cultural reference points of a contemporary image… they appeal to me because they slow down the process of looking.”

The artists who most fascinate him are “Breughel and Velázquez and Piero della Francesca; they’re all painters who, for some reason, I have to keep going back to.”

The fragment of a fresco in the cycle of the “True Cross” in Arezzo by Della Francesca has inspired eight light boxes, which form the backdrop to Ziegler’s current show and provide the only illumination in the car park. Ziegler has chosen a detail of horses’ legs, which he has manipulated on the computer so the animals’ limbs “become quite abstracted, like a forest”.

Glenn Brown

Not many artists are bold enough to tackle the Old Masters head on, but then few are as skilled as Glenn Brown in the art of applying paint to canvas.

He has made his career appropriating the work of artists as diverse as Velázquez, Fragonard, Auerbach, and Dalí, re-imagining the colour, scale and brushworks of their images.

Working primarily from reproductions that are not particularly accurate, Brown distorts familiar images further: the soft, young flesh of a portrait by Rembrandt is transformed through his use of acid greens and turgid yellows into a picture as reminiscent of zombie films as the Dutch Golden Age. Old decrepit men decompose before our eyes in works that “struggle between beauty and ugliness”, in the artist’s words.

Brown confounds our expectations in other ways too, building up his figures through what appears at first to be vigorous impasto but is in fact enamel-smooth trompe l’oeil rendering, an examination of perception and illusion that few of his contemporaries could master.

But the artist, who says he spent much of his time at Norwich School of Art in life-drawing classes, says technical ability will only get you so far: “What’s more important is that you learn how to look and learn how to question things.”

It all began, he says, with a deep love for painting at a time when it was unfashionable. “When I went to Goldsmith’s [where he studied for an MA] there was very definitely a sense that painting was in crisis… and those of us who pursued it were confining ourselves to the outskirts of art. To make the decision to paint was borne out of pure love of what I’d seen [painting] do and the emotions I got from it compared with other conceptual forms of making art.”

Brown, who collects “interesting” works by the likes of Henri Fantin-Latour and the Dutch 17th-century painter Elias Vonck, has little time for prevailing hierarchies in the art world, describing artists such as Dalí, as “massively under-rated”. “I would very happily put Dalí next to Rembrandt in terms of the quality of the work,” he says.

“I made a painting called Oscillate Wildly, 1999, which was based on Dalí’s Autumnal Cannibalism, 1936. I scaled it up, changed [the palette], elongated it, and made it the same proportions as Picasso’s Guernica, 1937. One of the things I wanted to do conceptually was to suggest that Autumn Cannibalism, which is about the Spanish Civil War is every bit as important as Guernica. It is, I think, a better painting.”

Brown says that as he has got older, he has become progressively more “anxious” about “standing up against great artists like Rubens, Picasso, and Rembrandt”. “When I was starting out, youthful exuberance certainly [got] the better of [me]; lack of knowledge makes you feel as if you could do anything… age and experience make you more cautious and you have to battle that and remember to forget [other] paintings.”

He describes himself as nervous at the prospect of his work being shown alongside paintings by El Greco and Brueghel at Upton House in Warwickshire, home to the collection of the oil magnate Walter Samuel, which is hosting an exhibition of Brown’s work for the next three months (until 6 January 2013).

“The idea that someone will look at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch and then look at mine and think, ‘Oh dear, is this the best the 20th century can do?’, scares me. But based on what other people tell me… I think it might be OK.”

Will Ryman

What is it like for an artist to grow up with one of the giants of post-war art as your father? For Will Ryman, the son of Robert, “art was never really talked about at home. It was just what mom [the artist Merrill Wagner] and dad did for their job.”

But his parents did take him and his brothers to see art, lots of it, and one particularly formative experience for Ryman was seeing Edward Kienholz’s 1965 immersive tableaux, The Beanery, (based on a bar in West Hollywood) as a child.

“I remember not being able to take my eyes off of anything. I was so drawn to the world he had created, the imagination behind it, the feeling from the objects. I’d never seen anything like that before. That was when I realised how much possibility there was with art,” Ryman says.

Nevertheless he resisted the appeal of making art himself for years, choosing instead to pursue a career in writing first. It wasn’t until he was 31 that he turned his hand to sculpture.

“In 2001 I made sculptures that were based on an idea that I had for a play, just to see what would happen. I became more interested in the medium right away. Looking back I was probably always resisting that, growing up in a family where everyone was an artist. I really felt like I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing.”

Now Ryman makes sculptures that play with distortions of scale using a range of materials and found objects, such as the 38 giant roses installed last year on Park Avenue. He says he is not overtly aware of past artists whose work has inspired him, “most things we do are a response to what we’ve seen before”, and that he is as likely to find ideas in literature as in art.

His oversized Bird, 2012, for example, which was shown earlier this year at the Paul Kasmin gallery in New York was “very loosely inspired” by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven”. In Ryman’s reimaging of it, the creature is formed of nails, giant ones made specially for the installation and normal-sized ones purchased from hardware stores.

The artist says his interest in art history is usually focused on research for specific works. “I don’t aimlessly look at images online. I usually look at images when I am working on a piece that might be somewhat derivative of something that has been done before or something that is related to something that I’m doing.”

And he doesn’t worry too much about comparisons with other artists and the originality of his own work. “Because it’s coming from me I like to trust that it’s going to be original because it’s my own take on something.”

Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker has a humorous, playful relationship with the historical artists whose work she admires. In 1998, she exhibited the canvases from the back of paintings by Turner, who she describes as one of her “heroes”, at her solo show at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

“In Turner’s day, canvases were double stretched,” she explains. “The one at the front was the one he painted on and this would be stretched together with the [one at the back]. In the 1970s, the Tate re-stretched its Turner paintings and kept these old bits of material.

“They looked very melancholy, like Rothkos, because they had patinas and dirt and there was water damage because the Tate got flooded in the 1920s so there’s all this kind of Impressionistic stuff on the canvases… I got the feeling Turner wouldn’t have minded… he was drifting towards abstraction at the end of his life.

“When I exhibited them I gave them the original names Turner had given to his paintings. Then I got the Tate to reacquisition them as an example of my work rather than Turner’s.”

Parker might not appear to have much in common with painters like Turner. She made her name with pieces like Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991, which is made up of the suspended fragments of a garden shed exploded by the British Army at her request. But, she says her preoccupations are similar to those of artists throughout history. “The medium Turner uses is very important… he’s trying to create his experience with his material. And that’s very much my concern too.”

Parker believes a knowledge of art history is important, particularly for young artists. “Whatever profession you’re in, you should know what’s happened before. I remember discovering Arte Povera, for example, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni and artists like that. I wanted to be a sculptor but it wasn’t until [I saw their work] that I thought: ‘Oh, I could do this’, because their art was liberated from the tyranny of technique. It was a breaking point for me.”

More recently Parker has used the flies, sand and dirt swept off a Donald Judd sculpture at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, to make a work that she describes as “quite Baroque, a Gothic horror”.

“I made a print by scanning the debris [collected from the sculpture] and blew it up large and I thought it was quite funny because it’s the opposite of Minimalism... I like the idea that on the surface of Minimalism is this teeming microscopic life. The prints were going to be given to the patrons of the Chinati Foundation and I just thought they’d all be very disturbed by it,” she says.

But nothing has disturbed some members of the public as much as Parker’s intervention on Rodin’s The Kiss, 1901-04, in 2003. She wrapped the sculpture in a mile of string for an exhibition at Tate Britain, a gesture she says has as much to do with her love for the Rodin work as for the art of Marcel Duchamp. When the wrapped sculpture went on show, Parker’s string was cut by one of the Stuckists who said he was “liberating Rodin”.

“I had some really vitriolic comments [about it], but I thought if I’m prepared to take the praise for it, I should be prepared to take the opposite.”