Lecture given Tuesday March 27, 1984, Bankside Gallery
transcript edited by Augy Hayter
I have not quite worked out what they have brought me here to talk about, but since most artists will talk about themselves at the drop of a hat, I think that was the idea.
Most artists are very pleased with themselves too, but actually I would like to talk about various things that have happened, and I suppose that have happened to me too - not so much about the teaching bit, because in spite of the fact that to my regret I have an international reputation as an educator, I don't in the least believe in the idea of education - the whole thing is a mistake. We would be far better off without it.
There is a man called Ivan Illitch whom you may have heard of, and when I met him some years ago I found that his views were very similar to mine. Most education in the form of telling people to do things or telling them things which I happen to think is a bit of nonsense, I just don't think you can.
In the workshop of mine where a lot of us get together and make experiments and see what happens to us, what we do is difficult to describe because we don't in fact teach people to do things. People have made reference to my method or methods, but I have always tried to be as least methodical as possible and not to have any methods in particular.
So much so that… well I mean I don't want to do too much talking about what I do myself, but I'm in the middle of a plate at the moment, as well as doing a lot of painting, which takes a lot more of my time, and what I try to do is start off every plate in a different way because I don't think there is any one way, i.e. any right way to begin it, any right way in which you continue it and any right way in which you finish it. Consequently the whole thing is open and experimental, and I think you start each one off as if you had never done one before. At least this is what I feel is the thing to aim at, as far as I go personally, and that's all I can tell you.
That I should tell any of my fellow artists here that they should go and do this or that would be pure nonsense, because they are going to have to do their own thing. What they have to find out is how it is with them, what conditions permit them to produce things, and it's quite useless to tell them: "But look, wouldn't it be much easier to do this way?"
I have in mind a particular friend of mine who must be about to retire from his job at this time - he must be one of the best-known educators in this job of printmaking, and he would take a plate - and this is the way he works even now that he's been doing it, I suppose, for more than forty years. He would make a mess of his plate, I mean he really makes a mess of it, then he scrapes out about half of the mess, and that's when things will start to happen. Now it would be perfectly reasonable to say: "Listen fellow, why don't you just drop that one. Take a nice new clean plate and start afresh." But if you did that, of course, you'd put him off, he wouldn't be able to do anything.
Now as a way to work, that's perfectly unreasonable, but most people's way of working is unreasonable, and it is their way, and there is nothing you can tell them about it. In fact I will go a bit further with that idea, I don't think you can tell anybody much about anything.
So what am I doing here? Nattering, trying to tell you about things that have happened to me which I suppose is as near as we can get to anything serious at all.
You see when I started to do this business, I came from a family that has had a lot of painters in it so that one of the things you just didn't do was to paint; you did anything else, you could take up any other trade that you liked. My brother was an engineer, and at one time I was a chemist and geologist, but of course I was painting all the time and in the end I came to the idea that this is what I had to do.
My father had a very charming view of this, he said: "If you are willing to devote your life to this sort of thing, and you are prepared towards the end of it to realise that you have not only had no success with the public, but no success with yourself either, in other words you've not succeeded in doing anything that you set out to do: if you then feel that you have passed your time very well and profitably, then you should be a painter. That's the only way: there is no other way of doing it."
Now talking like that almost dates us, doesn't us? Look at the young men who are painting now, do they go about it in this way? I don't think so, I don't think so at all. It is a little like the remark of Degas who once said in reply to someone who asked him when, as a painter, he had "arrived" - "Monsieur, de mon temps, on n'arrivait pas." In my time nobody arrived, in other words nobody became successful. At one time he was interviewed by a journalist after one of his works was sold at an auction for 50,000 francs - gold francs, that was a lot of money at the time - and when the journalist asked "How do you feel?", he replied "I feel like the horse that has just won a horse race."
This way of approach may seem incoherent, but I'm not talking as much nonsense as it may seem to you. This is the way we went about this job. There were a lot of us at the time, but not so many compared with the fact that, at this moment, there are probably a hundred thousand artists in France that consider themselves to be artists. In those days there might have been a thousand, and we already thought it was far too many. We didn't think the world could stand that many, and we're still a little bit of that opinion, but all this was something that had to be done.
As I was saying to my neighbour at lunch the other day, any person with the same background as mine, that is who was once a scientist and who became an artist, will give you the impression that had he gone on being a scientist he'd have been at least a Nobel prize man by now. In my own case, I doubt it, I doubt it very strongly. Doing research in organic sulphur coumpounds and things like that was very exciting, but I doubt that my enthusiasm would have lasted long enough, and also I don't know that I had the peculiar twist that is necessary to find things out in that particular field. At a certain moment I identified the fact that I had to get on with something else.
During the three years that I was in the East, in Iran where they are fighting right now, I knew at the time that I was going to drop this business and get on with the painting, and I also knew that I was going to be poor and stay that way, because it was the first time that I had ever had enough money to get around with, and I'd found out that I didn't have to have it, that I could do very well without that. And the result is, of course, that you've got nothing to regret.
The other thing was that I decided to go to France: it was France because there were a lot of other people there doing work that interested me. And above all, because I did not know any one soul in the place and I proposed to make entirely my own friends and my own enemies and so on and get on with it, and cut loose completely from everything I had done before and all the people that I knew before. This actually worked out very well, because when I first arrived in France, which was very different from the atmosphere now, within a matter of weeks I had met a lot of very interesting people and had made some very close friends, one of whom has become very famous and successful (ed. note: probably Baltus), and all of whom have done something or other.
There were four of us who went around together at this time, it was in the twenties, and I think it worked out very well indeed. The poverty of course lasted for quite a long time, it was most enjoyable. The idea that you had to have money to live didn't occur to us very much at that time, but France was very different from the way it is now, you could live practically without money. Now, at this time, you can't do that, you really can't. I see the younger people coming to work with me having plenty of trouble, they have to make a considerable effort in order to get the absolute minimum of existence. We required very little, just the very small amount we needed to be able to eat and so forth. Of course we didn't live in a great state of comfort, we didn't have cars, estates in the country and things like that, nor did we imagine that we ever would have, but the minimum of existence could be had very easily and the conditions for work were extremely good. There was no question of becoming successful.
I know that at one time in that printmaking studio I had, I was more of a fixed point than some of the others, because having to have a press you see, you've got heavy equipment, you can't sort of move every three months rather than pay rent, which a lot of my friends did. I used to assist them in moving sometimes, in France you call it à la cloche de bois, which means the wooden bell, in other words without making much noise and late at night, handing stuff down out of windows into handcarts and that sort of thing. I couldn't do this myself because I had heavy equipment, so I had to stay in one place. The result was that in my courtyard at one time enormous masses of furniture would stack up from other friends who had done these flitting jobs. This is, of course, a little bit beside the point, because the work was still the main activity.
Regarding the work, it seems to me that there is something to be said about it. In my own case I'm thinking more of the painting than the prints because I think a little too much has been said about the prints and the methods of doing them. You see, I still have a workshop which has been going on now for rather more than fifty years, but I have a basic theory that nearly all of the operations needed in printmaking, with perhaps the exception of engraving which takes a little bit of attention, could be taught to an average half-witted ape.
What we are going to do with it or the fact that we then spend the rest of our life with it, this is something else. The operations themselves are not terribly difficult. Printmakers being very often a bit slow on the uptake will try to convince you that it is madly difficult. It isn't, it really isn't.
Doing something worthwhile, of course, is beautifully difficult. Beautifully difficult. If it weren't difficult, why would we be bothering to do it? It would just be a social accomplishment, something like the painting in watercolours which my great-great-great-grandfather used to teach to little princesses. Not so that they would do it well, you understand, but because it was a nice thing to do. To do it well would have been very bad form indeed, not at all the sort of thing to do. But things have changed a little since that time.
In one of his books (Sir George Hayter) has letters to his students, and one of them which starts "Madame" - rather a different way of addressing people if you compare it to the way we talk to each other in the workshop - then a little further on you realize he is talking to a little girl who is thirteen years old. So you see, it's a slightly different position to the sort of thing we have now.
Anyway his view of the matter is that art is something that goes on at a certain distance, a long way off, and alas, it won't do you any harm, it's reassuring and there for your pleasure or entertainment, to some extent when you've got nothing else on your mind.
But you see we're not in that position any more and the point about working in your own age is that it is not a matter of choice, it's what you have to do, there's no other way as far as I can see, and if we pretend we are reassured and reassure other people, we are not living in our time. At this time now, things are very very unsure in our lives, even in our world or even in the ultimate survival of our species. If we are unaware of this, and unaware of this in our work, I think we are not working in our time.
Of course it is always possible to put on a cloak, hat and sword and pretend to be a sixteenth century gallant, but it's not very convincing if you know that you're faking, and I think that in a short time so does everybody else. And this is one of the nice things about our craft, by this I mean the business of visual communication, it applies to painting and printmaking too, if you like, but it really is that it is very difficult to tell any lies in it without you yourself being very well aware of it, and, before long everybody else being aware of it.
Whereas the trouble with speech, which is the sort of thing I am doing now, is that it is very difficult to talk for more than five minutes without lying. The words will betray you.
I know this is one of my hobby-horses, but I think you'll see that it's quite a serious matter. When you think "Look, we're going to work with colour"; no words give you any notion about colour at all. When you've said the word for a colour - let's say 'red' which comes from an ancient word 'rudira' which some of the people in here probably know, it comes from the Sanskrit and it means blood. Well once we've said that, we haven't actually said very much about red, you know.
The redness of red is nothing much like that, and I myself tried at one time to distinguish between thirty different sorts of red, and the average man can see at least half a dozen. Now which is the red and what is its redness?
Can you see what I mean? The words are not doing us any good at all. We've got nowhere. You have no image whatever from what I have said.
This is one of the great problems in the job we are trying to do. We're trying to communicate with people, but mostly I think you've got to communicate by gesture and by example because, you see, the language will betray you, just as what I'm doing now is talking a long way off the subject, in fact we're going all around it and so forth. I've not been able to impart to you anything that you couldn't get by looking at one of my prints for two minutes.
You see what I mean, we're in the wrong language, it's in the wrong neighbourhood, and you can see how hopelessly besotted with language we are if I have to use the word 'language' when I'm comparing the method of expression in these things with what we're doing now.
Well, language is after all, what? A peculiar method of conveying thought. Let's say I have a think - I translate it into a series of noises if it's English or monosyllables if it's Chinese. We don't speak in words, you know, we speak in syllables. All right, you're hearing this. The operation was perfectly rational, wasn't it? It was a rational operation. You hear this, you register that and you then translate it through another layer of rational consonants into a think in your own mind. Now we've had two layers in between there.
For the sake of argument, let us suppose a thing which, in a way, I think is somewhere near the truth, that our information and communication in graphic, plastic or visual terms, is irrational. It doesn't mean it's nonsense, but it's irrational, which means that it does not obey the ordinary rules of subject, predicate, object and so on.
Now it's quite clear that something got lost on the way there, so that when I attempt to talk about this thing that we're doing around here, we have lost the thread. You see what I mean, I have gone all around it, I haven't been able to convey anything to you. There are things that one can do, of course, which I am perhaps trying to do now, and that is to say to you to look at it, and look at it very hard, because our craft begins by looking.
I don't think you can find a proper defense against any equipment we have, have for doing this,
that does not start from looking very intensively at things. Now if we set out with the notion that we propose to be artists, which is rather absurd in a way, I suppose there are people who do think this way, but I think to want to make something is something else. Wanting to make something more important than yourself is fair enough, but to want to be an artist is something which must be completely absurd, I can't think why anybody would do it.
But in order to do this, you see, you've got to look a little bit harder than anyone else. If you haven't looked a little bit harder than the man in the street, I don't see where you have the equipment to say anything much or to communicate anything very much.
To come back to the teaching bit, which I am not too keen on talking about, one of the things we do is to try to incite people to look at things much harder. You do it by telling people or rather asking them, and of course frustrating them, which possibly I am doing to you a bit right now because you expected me to tell you something and I'm not telling you anything much. But you see what I mean: if I can get you to look at something a bit harder than you looked at it before, we have not wasted all of our afternoon.
One of the things I think I was expected to do here was to talk about what has been happening to me, and what I myself have done in my particular so-called career. In that context, I can think of a few stages of things.
I do remember when I was very young, about fourteen, painting a picture of Blackfriars Bridge with a barge going underneath it, and it was very dark and dramatic, so that I was already playing with things, beginning to get a bit serious about it at that time. I knew a lot of painters too, a lot of my father's friends, and my father was a painter too, but what it seemed like to me then was that the whole scope of what was offered to us at this time - I'm speaking now of fairly early in the century - was very limited indeed and didn't seem to have any great scope.
It was all very largely figurative in the sense that it was limited to the description of things which were immediately to be seen. There was not a lot of nonsense of the sort we are surrounded with nowadays about abstraction and figuration: the nonsense being of course that nothing is any more abstract than the person who looks at it and nothing is absolutely figurative either. That thing you did on a flat piece of paper is not the object, the person, and so forth. In fact, Magritte's very simple joke which you all know - he does you a lovely picture of a pipe, and writes underneath "This is not a pipe."
Of course it's not a pipe, it's so damned obvious that it's hardly worth saying, but perhaps it does bring you a little bit closer to the reality of looking at the thing itself, just looking at it, because I do insist that this business of looking is rather serious for all of us. Not only for people who propose to be professional artists and who therefore make a claim to see a lot more than anybody else does.
You know, that's a claim that I think you can demand of some. You say "Maybe you could make this good, and you've got to show me something that demonstrates that you've looked harder than somebody else has." And of course, this can get you into all sorts of what I suppose people call "abstraction."
In my own case I can remember that I did attempt to do things from what I saw in front of me. I was sufficiently ingenious to realize one or two of these, let us say, when I was very young, and also sufficiently witty to look at them and say "This is not it, it just won't do."
It's rather funny because I once talked to Kandinsky about this and he said that he went through the same stages.
The next thing you do is to say "Yes, but all the elements are there, around you, to be seen if you look carefully enough. All you've got to do is reassemble them." To attempt this, and if you're ingenious enough, you're successfully doing this, so to speak. You then consider the results thoughtfully and say "Oh yes, but that's not right, it won't do."
So you then start worrying about things like: "Look, by what means and in what sort of fashion did I assemble the bits?", and you finally decide: "Well it was not reasonable, it was not logical, and it must have been some unconscious pattern that I had, and I had to assemble them because of this."
That being unsatisfactory, you then proceed to see what you can do about exhibiting some of these unconscious patterns, and from them of course you've no longer got anything that you can easily measure, easily compare with somebody else or easily get somebody else to criticize, because in most cases you're dealing with people whose minds, in the ordinary phrase, have been made up. Anyway that's the way I put it, but that's something else.
Whereupon you're on your own, you see, and that of course began to be quite interesting. I suppose that it was some time in the thirties that that sort of thing happened to me. At the same time, I suppose, the species of maturity arrives in one's life, which was very nicely celebrated by the poet Villon in a phrase that you must all know: "A la trentième année de mon age ou toutes mes hontes j'ai bu" - in the thirtieth year of my life where I had swallowed all my shames.
I think that is rather a serious point because an artist who is not shameless is probably not qualified in his craft at all. That he is worrying about how he looks when he is doing it, is self-conscious and looking behind himself to see if he is getting any laughs makes the person an actor rather than an artist - as the artist, I think, has his concentration on that thing which is coming into existence and which he intends to make of far greater importance than himself - this is what I think he's concentrating on.
So that does describe a few stages of what I went through myself, and as I say, I know a number of other people who did as well, because as Malraux remarked upon one occasion "Painters are people who are interested in other painters." The case of a person with talent and imagination who is interested only in nature would be charming, but there has never been one known. I know his statements get a little bit "lapidaire" - what's "lapidaire"?; a little bit authoritative - but I think he's got a point there, because even when we look at things scratched and daubed on prehistoric paleolithic cave walls, I think that any of us working in this craft feel that this belongs to us. We know what it felt like when the fellow did that.
With an archeologist whom I used to know very well, we visited a whole lot of prehistoric caves in which there were engravings. That is to say that with a sharp tool, which the French themselves do call a "burin", the French word for chisel, people had carved lines into the walls of the cave, some of which described things and some of which didn't.
What I did with this chap, a fellow called Jacques Mauduit who wrote a very nice book called A Hundred Thousand Years of Modern Art, a rather charming title, and in this museum where there are masses of these things, what I could do with him was to tell him in which way they were cut. I could tell how this prehistoric man held his piece of flint and which way he cut, in other words whether he cut that way or this way.
Any engraver with the proper experience can tell you that because he knows how it feels to do it. He's not looking at it from the outside, like a critic, it's a very different business to them because they are making it into a good story which reads very nicely. But we're in the unfortunate position that if we say something can be done, somebody is going to say: "Okay, fellow, go and do it."
You see, you have to be able to do it, otherwise you're talking pure nonsense. So we have to be rather more serious about this matter than the critic who is writing from outside. But you see what I mean: whoever he was, we were connected to this man who smeared his hand with clay and then smeared it onto the wall of that cave; or the fellow who put his hand up there and blew through a bone so as to give an image of his hand - in fact, a lot of those hands are mutilated, which is strange because nobody quite knows why that was done - but you see, we are connected to those people, and this brings me to another point that a lot of people worry about, and which is the question of influences.
A lot of artists are frightfully self-conscious about being influenced. Now I never quote remarks by Picasso that I have not personally heard, because there has been so much nonsense invented about what he has said that I won't accept any quote I have not personally heard. But one I did hear personally was when somebody was teasing him because he used to go around and look at everybody's exhibitions, including young people who were just beginning and so forth, and not generally when there was anybody else around. But he did go around and look in this way, and one time some critic saw him coming out of one of these places, and said "Hmm, doing your shopping?" So Picasso looked at him with a sort of glittering eye, and said: "So, you have to be influenced, you have to be influenced with everything except yourself", and you know, that's not bad. That's a story I heard myself so that I know it's accurate.
But you see what I mean, these points about a painter being a person who is interested in painting, and a printmaker being interested in anybody who ever scratched a wall is something that I think is all right. I mean this is how it ought to be. We have a kinship with everybody that ever did this, a kind of intimacy, and we are also interested in nature and everything that happens to us in trying to explain ourselves and our conditions of existence to the world and so forth. All these matters are perfectly acted out, but the point is that, at the first level, we are interested in those operations which give rise to an image, and I think it's nonsense to pretend we are not.
Now my neighbour at lunch here the other day got a picture of mine for the Tate about a year or so ago, and the picture is called "Ophelia." From my point of view it was an important one because it was done in 1936 and that sort of work was not common in 1936, although it's become much more common since then. The painting was called "Ophelia" because in my mind it was derived from that picture of Ophelia in a sort of marinade that was done by Sir John Everett Millais and which is in the Tate Gallery.
It is, if you like, a bad picture. There are far more bad pictures than there are good ones if you're a painter. These things stimulate your mind, they irritate your mind in a remarkable way, and when there is a good one you admire, you are only too delighted because there is never enough decent painting going on, anywhere. But it doesn't necessarily stimulate you to do it yourself, and if you're a serious painter, you're probably enormously moved at things which are very remote from your own process of operation - all of which doesn't get us very much nearer to what we are doing at this time, because I think that this is one of the crafts in which you are always starting over again.
Any time you start on another painting - I have a damn great big one that's been going on, I think I finished it two days ago - it's as if you've never painted one before, and you're starting the whole operation over again. I think that's how it is.
Stanley William Hayter