It is a chamber of the mind, a room of one’s own, a hothouse or a prison. It is an attic or an empty shop, a suburban lockup or a concrete cubicle in a disused acid factory that still takes coins for the meter and is a million miles from the white cube factory designed by architects where assistants manufacture blue-chip art for the rich. Yet they are all known, because of who goes there, and what they make, which may be something or a paralysed nothing whatsoever, as artists’ studios.
A show with this theme opens at the Whitechapel Gallery next week. And it turns out be a riveting experience, achieved with great wisdom and drama by Iwona Blazwick and her team. A Century of the Artist’s Studio goes in and out of this magical place in such inventive ways. There are spectacular reconstructions of actual studios – Matisse’s bedroom in the south of France, hung with magnificent embroideries; Kurt Schwitters’s Dada studio, all wild wooden stalactites – but the show also moves through global space, crossing five continents from the secret studios of Iran to the tiny kiosk in Manila where the father of Filipino art, Roberto Chabet, made conceptual sculptures.
The century flows through the show like an underground river. Egon Schiele sets up his drawing box in the office of a prisoner of war camp in 1916. Ten years later, Brancusi is labouring through the dark night in his Paris attic. Frida Kahlo, torso in plaster, works from her sickbed in the second world war while Picasso sets up studio in the 60s in a majestic French castle. Cindy Sherman makes herself up, character by character, in her Manhattan loft in the late 1970s, the flashbulb wire visibly trailing across the floor. In Johannesburg, William Kentridge doubles up to play two versions of himself on screen, arguing about the value of political art in the digital 21st century.
In films, photographs and paintings, the studio edges in at every turn. It is a place of cigarette butts and congealing palettes, the masking tape running out as the daylight fades too fast and the leg of the drawing table needs propping yet again. It is a place where the clock ticks with reproachful violence as no work gets done in Darren Almond’s live feed of his studio. Where the canvases are still worryingly bare, in an exquisite tempera painting by Andrew Grassie (perfect paradox). Or the paintings have all gone, along with the students, in Paul Winstanley’s photographs of deserted art schools, haunted by telltale hints of colours the decorators have tried to cover over with whitewash.
The studio is a place of heroics. The heap of paint rags in Lucian Freud’s Holland Park studio, so lovingly depicted in the enormous portrait of his assistant, becomes a sacred relic in Darren Almond’s photographic homage. The rags in Robert Rauschenberg’s studio appear almost erotic in their sprawled abandon, photography by his friend Cy Twombly. And there are hints of Twombly’s own paintings of high summer in the luminous dabs blossoming across the walls of Francis Bacon’s studio, where he has wiped the excess of mauve, blue, pink and black from his brush. There is a fascination in seeing his colours isolated like this, and even more in the presentation of photographs found in that studio. It is sometimes said that Bacon couldn’t draw and relied almost entirely on photos. This feels like the ocular proof.
The show teems with revelations. A startling 1925 shot of Alexander Rodchenko making photomontages in his Moscow studio looks fantastically advanced, except that he is wearing gaiters. Giacometti’s painting of his studio, so spectral and sketchy, looks so like the photographed reality – diaphanous shadows, walls scribbled with sketches – as to confuse art and life. And a lifesize log cabin – a facsimile of her Nova Scotia home – shows that the Canadian artist Maud Lewis painted everything she loved upon everything she owned: birds, flowers and trees trail right across the walls and windows.
So many of the artists in this exhibition never had a separate studio. I am reminded of the great Cuban painter Carmen Herrera, who died last week at the age of 106, still painting dazzling abstractions in a room of her flat. A studio can be a floor, a hall or a kitchen, like the one shared by several artists in Iran, where the bowls of food look just like the bowls of paint.
Studios may bring privacy and peace. A beautiful painting by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham shows the perfect easel in the perfect studio, rectilinear, formal, everything in its place – the Platonic ideal. But studios may also be the stage for performing, throwing parties or fighting with art. A terrific painting by Maria Lassnig shows the Austrian artist literally struggling to get into – or is it out of – a newly primed canvas.
The studio becomes a place of pilgrimage. There are classic photographs here of Picasso painting for the cameras in Antibes, his masculinity barely concealed by a toga; and Jackson Pollock hard at it outside his Long Island barn for Hans Namuth to memorialise on film. This act of painting – this solo feat, this battling with one’s demons – is gleefully satirised by Paul McCarthy in his violent video Painter, in which McCarthy plays a clownish child lugging giant tubes of paint around his studio-cum-nursery. Painting is not so much heroic as a monstrous display of infantile male tantrums.
Women alternate with men, here, to coruscating contrast. The American painter Helen Frankenthaler, photographed by Gordon Parks, sits with poised intelligence upon one of her own canvases, in command of her art. The young African American artist Mequitta Ahuja paints herself hemmed in between easel, mirror, canvases and art history, but breaking free of the past. And the whole show opens with one of Louise Bourgeois’s monumental caged Cells, all working hands multiplied in mirrors: a dynamic studio of the mind.
The studio, always a subject in itself, becomes increasingly central with time. Joseph Sudek was reduced to photographing nothing but his bare Prague studio, first under Nazi occupation and later Soviet dictatorship. Gregor Schneider’s German family home has been both studio and source of his terrifying films and installations for three decades (he is said to have once remarked that he might have been a murderer if he hadn’t been an artist). And the Polish artist Mirosław Bałka has made art, piece by piece, from and in the house where he works outside Warsaw, inherited from his father. One of the last works here is a wooden angel beautifully sculpted from their fence and garden gate. Bałka’s forebears made funeral monuments, just to complete the elegiac metaphor.
This is Iwona Blazwick’s last show as Whitechapel director – she departs in April – and it is fittingly superb. She changed the whole nature of the gallery, turning it into a multi-part museum with a special welcome for the local community and for artists of all ages. Blazwick has presided over many great exhibitions, but I doubt the rooms have ever been more densely and revealingly used than they are here. Go if you possibly can. This is nothing less than a history of art by other means; a magnificent way of entering the minds of artists through the places where they worked, and what they made there.