Harry Holland – Models
One of Britain’s best-known painters, Harry Holland has had a long and storied career, marrying his distinctive style to his love of detail. Ahead of a new exhibition at Martin Tinney Gallery, Fedor Tot gets behind the canvas.
Are you fascinated by the human body?
Well, isn’t everybody? We were evolved, really, to be very sensitive to the form itself and to distinguish it from other animals, but also particularly facial features and aspects of the body which identify individuals. The Western tradition in painting is to idealise everything so that everybody is related to the idea of perfect human form. But of course, people aren’t actually like that. And I like difference in people.
Do you see yourself as part of the Western tradition?
Oh yes, very much. And I believe in it like I believe in science – and they are connected. There’s always been a strong mathematical and physical aspect to the arts in Western culture – look at music for example. The Western tradition is much more to do with the observation of things and the depiction of things. It comes from the Greek tradition, which is very mimetic – it was actually copying.
In terms of the exhibition that you’ve got, how long a period does it cover?
Well, I’ve been doing this since about 1978. The earliest one in this show, I think, is 1980. What usually happens is I have three or four models at any one time, who come in and I draw as a matter of practice or I use them in paintings that I’m doing. You always want to try something new in terms of the way you use paint, the kind of paint you use or the kind of atmosphere you want to create. Making paintings of models was a good way of doing that. This was study only. It was never intended to be seen, but I was interested in them and I kept them and that’s what this show is about.
So were they initially intended more as tests or works in progress?
Yes, that’s the idea. They were just ways or studies of ways of painting. A lot of them are in progress because the model buggered off halfway through and I never saw him or her again. All the ones in the show are among the more finished ones.
Do you consider yourself to be a realist as a painter?
Yes. There are a number of different nomenclatures in the artworld about the sort of thing that I do and realism is one that I would happily accept.
To actually paint something you have to actually decide to put that detail in. With photography or with film, a bird could fly into shot last minute or whatever and in a sense that is more ‘real’. Does that mean that there is a limitation to realism in painting? In the sense that it’s always specifically through the artist’s eyes.
I’m sorry to have to bust illusions here but almost anything in any form which is put out can be faked. So, with painting, as with every other artform, you can’t apply to it the same rules you’d apply to science. In fact, this is a very serious thing at the moment – this thing about fake news which is going round. A very serious subject for our democracy and our way of life. We have to find ways in which we can actually check what people say.
Fortunately, art has an out in the sense that nobody is expected to believe it. I mean, when you go look at a major fantastical film or a Star Wars or something like that, you enter into the world created by the artist. But, the reality in that world – or the seeming reality of the artistic world – can be equally strong and very persuasive. The church, politicians, various dictators have used art over the centuries for precisely this reason. It can create very powerful realities which isn’t actually the reality that people are living in.
So art is powerful but nobody should actually kid themselves that the depictions in art are anything other than, you know, art. And that includes most of photography. Having said that, there are ways in which art can actually get a truth which we don’t normally get at.
Harry Holland: Models, Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff, Wed 17 Oct-Thurs 15 Nov. Admission: free. Info: 029 2064 1411 / www.artwales.com