The following interview forms part of a series where I invite a number of contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Anne Desmet, a Royal Academy artist specialising in wood engravings, linocuts and mixed media collages, many of which draw a longstanding influence from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ and other mythological works.
Anne tells me which alternate material she would wish to master, what it means to her to be vulnerable as an artist, and which work of art she would erase from her mind if she could, just to experience it again.
You specialise in wood engravings, linocuts and mixed media collages and have written seven books on prints and drawings. If you suddenly became a master in another material entirely, what material would it be and what would you make?
I’d really like to be much more skilled in Photoshop and Illustrator as it would be fun to be able to make digital collages using my pre-existing wood engravings as their starting points. I’ve done two or three of these but I was seriously aided by a teacher with the relevant skills during an artist’s residency I had at Eton College in 2016. I’d really like to improve my own skills in this area so that I could make digital collages independently and much more speedily than I could possibly manage at the moment.
You write that as a teenager, you were inspired by Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, which then heavily influenced your work going forwards. At this point in time, which particular archetype or character from mythical folklore would you say most resonates with you as an artist?
Gosh that’s a good question. At the moment, because of the year of lockdowns we’ve all had, it feels a bit like a year of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology he was a king who offended the gods and was punished by being forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, and then he had to start again, over and over again, for eternity. The Covid year has felt a bit like that with all its ongoing setbacks. But, being an optimist, I’d be up for that constant struggle up that hill and the constant belief that one day the boulder would make it to the top and then roll down into the sunny pastures on the other side and freedom. Seems an apt metaphor for our times!
Are you guided by any particular philosophy in your creative expression?
I want my works to have a sense of time and timelessness and of some sort of relevance, an emotional and visual resonance, over the long-term. If they outlast me, which I hope they will, I’d like them to be appreciated by viewers 100 or 500 years into the future, just as we can be deeply moved by the works of, say, Jan van Eyck or Giotto or Rembrandt or Piranesi today, centuries after those artists were alive and working. So, I guess that I am trying to make work for an audience of the future as well as for the present but I will never know whether it succeeds in that respect.
It is also important to me that my work is made with what I can only describe as love – the marks I engrave all need to be considered and crafted. Spending time to craft my work, much as a novelist would take time crafting their book and choosing each word with care, is very important to me. My works often take weeks to make but I hope that the time they take and the thoughts and ideas that go into them somehow build their own depth and quiet power into each piece.
What does it mean to you to be vulnerable as an artist?
I feel vulnerable every time I have an exhibition. It’s a bit like being an actor at the opening night of a performance: you’re very vulnerable to the response of the audience. After all the months of working alone on works to exhibit, you have to trust your own judgement all the time about what works and what doesn’t. However confident you feel that individual works or an entire exhibition have strength, your confidence can certainly be knocked by adverse or noncommittal audience reactions or if sales are poor – despite that fact that whether works do or don’t sell also depends on lots of factors including the state of the economy; whether the weather is bad or some other factor that keeps people away from the exhibition’s Private View; or whether the gallery has done its marketing effectively – factors beyond my control and irrespective of the quality of the work on show.
I also feel vulnerable to changing fashions in art. I feel that something inside me somehow dictates what I will or won’t create and that particular something seems to be very unconnected to popular trends, so I have never been able to say I’m part of any particular ‘movement’ or ‘fashion’ in art. I feel I’m always ploughing my own furrow and, so far, have been fortunate in managing to sell enough work and to gain enough public notice in the form of exhibitions, awards and commissions, to make a reasonable living, but I always feel somewhat vulnerable to that situation changing. This last year has been especially challenging with all the galleries closed and exhibitions cancelled. I have taken to Instagram for the first time during last year and, fortunately, have found it a very useful forum in which to present my work.
Which work of art do you wish you could erase from your mind so that you could relive experiencing it for the first time?
Probably the so-called “Arnolfini Marriage” oil painting on a tiny oak panel painted in 1434 by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441). It’s in the National Gallery and it glows like a tiny jewel pulling you into a magical world all of its own. The first time I saw it it took my breath away. It’s the ultimate demonstration of the presence and impact that a tiny work of art can have and that art doesn’t have to be big in size to pack an almighty punch. Van Eyck was a painter who worked in Bruges, Belgium. My late father was Belgian and I spent many childhood holidays there, so, apart from being a hauntingly beautiful small painting, it also evokes, for me, a sense of my family and my Belgian/English heritage.
If you were to design a new artwork that emulated your current experience of the world, what might it include?
At the moment I’m working on a new series of printed collages – very large for me, at around A1 size – and they’re made from lots of printings of one of my architectural linocuts all cut up into equilateral triangles and reassembled into geometric semi-repeating patterns – a bit like looking through a child’s kaleidoscope toy – yet with some parts drifting into chaos.
I think there’s a strong sense this year of trying to hold on to some sense of order and structure to life amid an ever-present sense of life tipping in previously unknown and unsuspected directions and of things both holding together and falling apart. I hope that these new works will convey some of those feelings, which definitely emulate my current experience of the world right now.