With almost five decades of experience in the art world as a writer, curator and historian, Michael Peppiatt is one of the most prominent experts on 20th century art.
Having extensively interviewed and written with illuminating insight on some of the world’s greatest artists and creative minds, such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Richard Meier, Brassai, Henry Moore and Henri Cartier-Bresson; he is the perfect choice to pen the introduction for gallery Art Plural’s latest publication ‘Voices of Contemporary Art’.
Making a stopover in Singapore for the launch of the book, the self-effacing and affable gentleman muses on his career amongst the greats.
‘Voices of Contemporary Art’
How did you stumble into the art world?
When you are 19 and studying Art History at Cambridge in a rather oppressive environment, where my professor thought all art had stopped in the Renaissance period, I became curious about what was really happening on the ground then because art to me meant more than Madonnas and crucifixes.
In my final undergrad year in 1963, I started a magazine called ‘Cambridge Opinion’, which was all about British Modern Art I had wanted to see and experience.
In a chance meeting, I managed to connect with a photographer in his 50s who became my conduit to Francis Bacon. I then met Bacon in a pub, where we had a marvellous lunch and expectedly I consumed far too many glasses of wine.
I became fascinated by Bacon’s magnetic personality and started coming down to London from Cambridge, getting there at about 2 or 3 in the morning and meeting him regularly.
To me personally, it was a very interesting study in polar opposites. I was an aimless drifter in my 20s while Bacon who was in his 50s was such an intense, focused man who was always in control and conscious of what he was doing.
Through Bacon, I was introduced to the likes of Lucian Freud, David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj, which eventually led to interviews with them too.
As a student with no particular prospects, meeting such engaging personalities in Soho really opened my eyes more than the boring provinciality of Cambridge.
*In November last year, Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych painting ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’, was auctioned for a record US$142 million at a Christie’s auction in New York.
Having spent a considerable part of your career in Paris, what are some of your fondest memories?
I made the big move to Paris in 1966 and had gone to Alberto Giacometti’s (a Swiss sculptor) studio, carrying an introduction letter from Bacon. Despite the letter, I was nervous and didn’t have the courage to knock on his studio; I was simply circling outside his place like a clueless English expat wondering if a legendary artist would speak to me.
Paris in the ’60s and ’70s was great because one had easy access to creators of the era. You could come across the likes of Samuel Beckett (an Irish playwright) working in a café and have a casual chat with them, although I was too shy to do so.
What are some tricks for a captivating interview?
The secret to a great interview is to have a genuine connection with your subject and know them well, yet it’s essential to leave your preconceptions at the door. One should also always allow the interviewee to take the lead and not use a recording device, because it distorts how the interviewer captures the tone of the conversation.
Some people adapt naturally while others are more reclusive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t draw them out of their shells.
One of the biggest challenges is glib artists who seem to be regurgitating stuff off a press release. Personally, I have never had issues in this terrain, but Henry Moore (the English sculptor) was simply giving me clichéd material mentioned in a hundred different interviews, so I actually irritated him by scrutinising his techniques and he had to think hard and be more responsive, which made for a much better interview.
Over the course of five decades in the business, , what is one question you never had the courage to ask?
I have never managed to get from Francis Bacon the real reasons why he was so violently atheist, who believed he came from nothing and went into nothing. Not that I am a believer, but I didn’t dare to sort of probe too deeply into his passionately atheistic stance, despite our friendship.
'Art Plural: Voices of Contemporary Art' will be available on Amazon and other quality bookstores islandwide from early February. Pre-orders on Amazon will be entitled to a 30% discount.