The interview was recorded by the BBC in October 1962.
DS: Have you ever had any desire at all to do an abstract painting?
FB: I’ve had a desire to do forms, as when I originally did three forms at the base of the Crucifixion [Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944]. They were influenced by the Picasso things which were done at the end of the ‘twenties. And I think there’s a whole area there suggested by Picasso, which in a way has been unexplored, of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it.
DS: After that triptych, you started to paint in a more figurative way: was it more out of a positive desire to paint figuratively or more out of a feeling that you couldn’t develop that kind of organic form further at that time?
FB: Well, one of the pictures I did in 1946 [Painting], the one like a butcher’s shop, came to me as an accident. I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And it may have been bound up in some way with the three forms that had gone before, but suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.
DS: Did the bird alighting suggest the umbrella or what?
FB: It suddenly suggested an opening-up into another area of feeling altogether. And then I made these things, I gradually made them. So that I don’t think the bird suggested the umbrella; it suddenly suggested this whole image. And I carried it out very quickly, in about three or four days.
DS: It often happens, does it, this transformation of the image in the course of working?
FB: It does, but now I always hope it will arrive more positively. Now I feel that I want to do very, very specific objects, though made out of something which is completely irrational from the point of view of being an illustration. I want to do very specific things like portraits, and they will be portraits of the people, but, when you come to analyse them, you just won’t know – or it would be very hard to see – how the image is made up at all. And this is why in a way it is very wearing; because it is really a complete accident.
DS: An accident in what sense?
FB: Because I don’t know how the form can be made. For instance, the other day I painted a head of somebody [Head, 1961], and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I’d got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, more near, and I lost the image completely. Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly. [. . . ]
DS: In painting this Crucifixion [Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962], did you have the three canvases up simultaneously, or did you work on them quite separately?
FB: I worked on them separately and, gradually, as I finished them, I worked on the three across the room together. It was a thing that I did in about a fortnight, when I was in a bad mood of drinking, and I did it under tremendous hangovers and drink; I sometimes hardly knew what I was doing. And it’s one of the only pictures that I’ve been able to do under drink. I think perhaps the drink helped me to be a bit freer.
DS: Have you been able to do the same in any picture that you’ve done since?
FB: I haven’t. But I think with great effort I’m making myself freer. I mean, you either have to do it through drugs or drink.
DS: Or extreme tiredness?
FB: Extreme tiredness? Possibly. Or will.
DS: The will to lose one’s will?
FB: Absolutely. The will to make oneself completely free. Will is the wrong word, because in the end you could call it despair. Because it really comes out of an absolute feeling of it’s impossible to do these things, so I might as well just do anything. And out of this anything, one sees what happens. [. . .] You know in my case all painting – and the older I get, the more it becomes so – is accident. So I foresee it in my mind, I foresee it, and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I use very large brushes, and in the way I work I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an accident? Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process which part of this accident one chooses to preserve. One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity.
DS: What is it above all that happens with the paint? Is it the kind of ambiguities that it produces?
FB: And the suggestions. When I was trying in despair the other day to paint that head of a specific person, I used a very big brush and a great deal of paint and I put it on very, very freely, and I simply didn’t know in the end what I was doing, and suddenly this thing clicked, and became exactly like this image I was trying to record. But not out of any conscious will, nor was it anything to do with illustrational painting. What has never yet been analysed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently. […]
DS: Most of your paintings have been of single figures or single heads, but in the new Crucifixion triptych you’ve done a composition with several figures. Would you like to do that more often?
FB: I find it so difficult to do one figure that that generally seems enough. And, of course, I’ve got an obsession with doing the one perfect image.
DS: Which would have to be a single figure?
FB: In the complicated stage in which painting is now, the moment there are several figures – at any rate several figures on the same canvas – the story begins to be elaborated. And the moment the story is elaborated, the boredom sets in; the story talks louder than the paint. This is because we are actually in very primitive times once again, and we haven’t been able to cancel out the story-telling between one image and another.
* * *
DS: You may not want a story, but you certainly seem to want subjects with a lot of dramatic charge when you choose a theme like the Crucifixion. Can you say what impelled you to do the triptych?
FB: I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the Crucifixion. I know for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a nonbeliever, it was just an act of man’s behaviour, a way of behaviour to another. […]
DS: And is it the sort of mood implicit in some unique and possibly tragic situation that you want above all?
FB: No. I think, especially as I grow older, I want something much more specific than that. I want a record of an image. And with the record of the image, of course, comes a mood, because you can’t make an image without its creating a mood.
DS: A record of an image you’ve seen in life?
FB: Yes. Of a person, or a thing, but with me it’s nearly always a person.
DS: A particular person?
DS: But this was less so in the past?
FB: Less so in the past, but now it becomes more and more insistent, only because I think that, by being anchored in that way, there is the possibility of an extraordinary irrational remaking of this positive image that you long to make. And this is the obsession: how like can I make this thing in the most irrational way? So that you’re not only remaking the look of the image, you’re remaking all the areas of feeling which you yourself have apprehensions of. You want to open up so many levels of feeling if possible, which can’t be done in. . . . It’s wrong to say it can’t be done in pure illustration, in purely figurative terms, because of course it has been done. It has been done in Velasquez. That is, of course, where Velasquez is so different to Rembrandt, because, oddly enough, if you take the great late self-portraits of Rembrandt, you will find that the whole contour of the face changes time after time; it’s a totally different face, although it has what is called a look of Rembrandt, and by this difference it involves you in different areas of feeling. But with Velasquez it’s more controlled and, of course, I believe, more miraculous. Because one wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice, and in Velasquez it’s a very, very extraordinary thing that he has been able to keep it so near to what we call illustration and at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel. Which makes him such an amazingly mysterious painter. Because one really does believe that Velasquez recorded the court at that time and, when one looks at his pictures, one is possibly looking at something which is very, very near to how things looked. Of course the whole thing has become so distorted and pulled-out since then, but I believe that we will come back in a much more arbitrary way to doing something very, very lik e that – to being as specific as Velasquez was in recording an image. But of course so many things have happened since Velasquez that the situation has become much more involved and much more difficult, for very many reasons. And one of them, of course, which has never actually been worked out, is why photography has altered completely this whole thing of figurative painting, and totally altered it.
DS: In a positive as well as a negative way?
FB: I think in a very positive way. I think that Velasquez believed that he was recording the court at that time and recording certain people at that time; but a really good artist today would be forced to make a game of the same situation. He knows that the recording can be done by film, so that that side of his activity has been taken over by something else and all that he is involved with is making the sensibility open up through the image. Also, I think that man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think that, even when Velasquez was painting, even when Rembrandt was painting, in a peculiar way they were still, whatever their attitude to life, slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has had completely cancelled out for him. Now, of course, man can only attempt to make something very, very positive by trying to beguile himself for a time by the way he behaves, by prolonging possibly his life by buying a kind of immortality through the doctors. You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it’s entirely a game. And I think that that is the way things have changed, and what is fascinating now is that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.