Paris, 5 December 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).
Contemporary perceptions of artists are often heavily influenced, and informed by, the environments in which they work. For David Hockney, the still, blue-skied heat of Los Angeles shaped now-iconic works such as Splash, whilst Edward Hopper’s paintings of city scenes exude a sense of the 1940s New York in which they were produced.
Of all the locations associated with the artist, however, it is the artist’s studio which is perhaps the most intimate, compelling and revered space. Places such as Warhol’s Factory have become inseparably linked to the artist’s work, and to a broader notion of how art should be conceived and produced. For other artists, such as Anselm Kiefer – whose work space takes the form of several open fields in the South of France – the studio becomes expansive, growing to form a site which resembles an artist-dedicated theme park.
We considered the history and development of the atelier, looking at how artist’s studios have shaped their production, and how contemporary arts spaces are forming production today.
The early atelier
Away from Warhol’s comparatively starry factory, medieval studios frequently lacked the enigmatic quality associated with their contemporary equivalents. Often merging art with craftsmanship, ateliers of the period frequently had decidedly practical associations; it was perhaps hard for artists of the period to cultivate temples to their production whilst those around them fixed doors, filled holes, and constructed.
Adding to this sense of anonymity was the social landscape at the time: artistic production of the period was predominantly seen as a way of honouring God. To produce art therefore, though often implying considerable talent, was to undertake an act of religious subservience.
It’s not a bottega, it’s a studiolo
The later Renaissance saw the dawn of the “Renaissance Man”, the independent, cultivated polymath, whose unparalleled line of thought singled him out from his labouring peers. Here, the artist’s studio became a sanctum, with Leonardo da Vinci having purportedly said “An artist’s studio should be a small space because small rooms discipline the mind and large ones distract it”.
Quite apart from the practical space of the medieval workshop. da Vinci’s “closed off” studio model implies an area of highly concentrated thought. For da Vinci, the closed walls of the studio appeared to offer a protective pod, serving almost as an extension of mental space for an artist who counted Cicero, Levy and Seneca amongst his predecessors.
And it was not just da Vinci who saw the studio as a very particular, isolated entity. A difference in linguistic terms at the time – however particular – shows a clear divergence in attitudes to the practical space of the workshop versus the studio. In Italian “studiolo” emerged as a term implying contemplation or study, differing from the term “bottega” which indicated a workshop.
Artists began to differentiate between the function of these spaces, elevating their studios to increasingly sacred spaces by differentiating between them and the more practical bottega. In his study, The Artist’s Studio, Giles Waterfield cites the example of Tintoretto, who worked and supervised others in his bottega, but who reserved a studiolo for periods of serious contemplation.
On famous bottegas – and the pursuit of the studiolo
The difference between the studiolo and the bottega was expressed, not merely in the differing function of each, but in the artists who inhabited them. In the Renaissance, the atelier would often serve as an educational facility, with young artists producing works in the “bottega” portion of a space, under the direction of a qualified “master”
Famous proponents of this “school of production” system included Peter-Paul Rubens, whose Antwerp studio hosted a large number of students, some of whom went on to become master painters themselves. Amongst the most celebrated of Rubens’ pupils was Antony Van Dyck, whose talent was said to have been quickly recognised by his tutor.
Graduating from Rubens’ bottega at the age of 17, van Dyck went on to become a master painter himself, rising to be fêted as one of Holland’s leading portrait artists. Eventually opening his own studio, the artist would come to be recognised as a master in his own right, and continued to collaborate with Ruben, not only as apprentice, but as collaborator.
This is where the magic happens
As artists’ studios became recognised as the sites of flourishing talent, the subject of image-making increasingly became a focus of paintings – a trend which particularly flourished in Holland, with artists such as Maarten van Heemskerck producing works which sought to emphasise the subject of making a finished piece.
Produced in c.1532, van Heemskerck’s “Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child” honours the act of painting, whilst also valorising the religious subjects which – in the medieval era – had inspired devotional artistic production. Painting was no longer a hidden act, but one which was an elevated art – openly associated with religious figures. Van Heemskerck was careful to make this link explicit, painting across the bottom half of the piece:
‘This painting was given as a memento, by Maerten van Heemskerck, who made it. He did this in honour of St. Luke, and he also had us, his guild brothers, in mind. We should be grateful night and day for his generous gift, which is here on display. Hence, we want to pray with all our might, that God’s grace may guide him.’
By the 1800s, the already-rich history of the studio – as some alchemic site of philosophical contemplation, religious devotion, and rare talent – led to a sense of curiosity which approached voyeurism. Van Heemskerck’s exaggerated depictions of the artist at work – which came to feature an ever-more elaborate cast of saints, cherubs and deities – gave way to realist depictions of artists at work.
Produced in 1666, Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting combined an allegorical illusion to Clio, the muse of history, with a realist depiction of the artist at work. Depicted from behind, and seen through an open curtain, the artist is not aware of the presence of the viewer – who profits from a rare opportunity to glimpse into the ethereal brightness of the artist’s place of work.
Summarising this voyeuristic attitude was an article, published in Britain’s Victorian-era Strand magazine, which described the artist’s studio as “The sacred place…of a secret society, whose talk is a mosaic puzzle to the uninitiated – a laboratory in which ideas are melted down and boiled up and turned out on canvas by magic”.
Twentieth century studios
In the 20th century, several famous examples rendered the relationship between an artist’s studio and their practice ever more inextricably linked. For many artists, different studios became associated with entirely different approaches to production.
Situated in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, Picasso’s Bateau-Lavoir studio became associated with the artist’s Cubist period, whist his Grands Augustins atelier became the production site of a number of large format pieces. For Henri Matisse, too, the studio and painting became entwined: in 1938 the artist moved into a room at the Hotel Regina, Nice – a site which has become connoted with the artist’s famed gouaches decoupées.
Perhaps one of the most famous studios of the 20th century, however, is Andy Warhol’s “Factory”, the New York-based production site which had three different venues across the city between 1962 and 1984. Quite apart from the quiet, contemplative studios of his antecedents, Warhol’s factories became home to a menagerie of adult film performers, drag queens, socialites, drug addicts, musicians, known as the “Warhol superstars”. As Stuart Comer, curator of film at the Tate Modern stated: “You would have somebody like Valerie Solanas” – the radical feminist writer who shot Warhol in 1968 – “a German countess; a bum from the Bowery and some artists from suburban America who’d come to NY to make it.”
In a warped imitation of the bottega or guild model, Warhol’s “superstars” would help the artist to produce paintings and starred in his films, reinforcing the artist’s famous dictum that: “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes”. If the link between studio and production had been strong for other artists, for Warhol it became inseparable; the studio’s “superstars”, along with its name, implied a collaborative, systematised form of production which encapsulated the artist’s broader concerns as one of the most significant proponents of Pop art – a genre which embraced both commerciality and accessibility.
For Warhol, the studio also acted as a physical extension of his visual art: Warhol’s first studio, in Midtown Manhattan, was known as the “Silver Factory”. Covered with tin foil, silver paint and mirrors, the space served as a glittering homage to a decadent, carefree lifestyle focused upon drugs and fame – whilst also commenting on American values. Those who frequented the studio claimed Warhol would frequently enter with silver balloons, allowing them to float to the ceiling as a further eccentric elaboration upon shining vapidity.
The art factory
Warhol’s Factory, whilst using the idea of mass production as a means of perpetuating the artist’s philosophy, prompted a return to the era of the bottega, with contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst moving towards large, assistant-focused production models which evoke – and expand hugely – upon much earlier sites of production.
Taking contemporary, factory-based production to its most extreme limits is Damien Hirst, whose Stroud-based factory “Science Gallery & Studio” – incorporating the ominously named “Science formaldehyde buildings”, occupies a site measuring 9,000 m2. Featuring a specially-ventilated production zone, the studio is built to allow Hirst’s animal specimens to travel, in an efficiently abbatoir-esque manner, through the factory floor, before finally landing in tanks of chemical preservative.
This monument to mass production expands upon the methods employed for the artist’s most renowned – and most expansive series – The Spot Paintings. In June 2013, the artist’s company “Science Ltd” – an entity which epitomises Hirst’s prolifically commercial approach to production – revealed that the artist had produced 1,365 spot paintings. Of these, only a handful were painted by Hirst himself, with the artist having told British newspaper The Guardian: “I couldn’t be fucking arsed to do it”.
Hirst, along with artists such as Jeff Koons, joins a new branch of artists for whom art is in the idea – not the execution. For these figures, the studio is not a place of quiet glimpsed in Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, but a mass organism, whose body of assistants is not the artist but the assembler – a method which has attracted accusations of laziness, or inauthenticity.
As with Warhol however, Hirst’s method is inextricably linked to his “philosophy” – one in which his studio is an essential component. And, whilst Hirst’s formaldehyde production line might provoke repulsion – or at least environmental concern – there is an eccentricity to the artist’s construction which nevertheless prompts voyeuristic interest.