The new exhibition Magnum Photos: Where Ideas Are Born looks at a range of 20th century artists – including Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, Yayoi Kusama and Tracey Emin – at their “moment of creation”
“There is no one standard encounter between artist and photographer,” says Amy Orrock, senior curator at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, where a new exhibition will unpack this unique relationship. “It’s very much a meeting of personalities.” Magnum Photos: Where Ideas Are Born is a survey of over 60 images from more than 20 photographers working in the 20th century. Looking at the different workspaces, interactions and performative responses, the pictures can be used as a vehicle to examine the changes in art practices, suggests Orrock.
“I wanted to really play on this idea of the artist’s moment of creation, so it starts out looking at the artist’s studio as a site of creation and the variety of studios artists have worked in over time,” she says in reference to the sequencing. “From the classic Parisian atelier to contemporary art studios, which are these vast factories almost, with the artist heading up a big team, to the very intimate studios of people like Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach and their very messy, creative environments. I thought it was interesting to set that up as, you can build an environment where you’re comfortable to create, and it can look however you want.”
The rest of the space (the exhibition is separated into three rooms), is given to the moment of creation and the artist as a personality, respectively, highlighting the unique access Magnum photographers had in the past century. “It’s quite a personal moment when the artist is working,” says Orrock, “often they seem lost in what they’re doing, completely absorbed in their work.” This sense of intimacy extends even further, as the artists’ health and other private factors become recorded in the frame. In one image, for example, Frida Kahlo is seen painting from her wheelchair several months before she died; elsewhere we find Matisse, bedridden with duodenal cancer, designing the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (the Matisse Chapel in Vence). “These seminal artworks are being created, but often the moment of creation can be quite quiet,” notes Orrock.
As the critic Fisun Guner wrote for The Arts Desk in 2013, following an early airing of BBC Four’s What Do Artists Do All Day?, “To many, the artist is an exotic creature whose mystery is still to be fully penetrated.” At Compton Verney then, as at A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 at the Whitechapel Gallery, and in the pages of Charlie Porter’s What Artists Wear, we become privy to what’s behind the curtain, most notably in the cases of those artists working prior to the advent of social media.
“There is a trend towards that – artists’ families and their personal relationships, things like letters of artists. I think it’s just a natural curiosity,” says Orrock. “I thought the Whitechapel show was really interesting. It’s similar to this show, in that you see the variety of environments and that every artist will work in a different way, drawing influences from different places. I think people are always interested in that behind-the-scenes look, and that’s what Magnum is really good at, capturing artists off guard. There’s a lot of humour here too, it’s quite playful.”
Largely produced for contemporary media, most of the pictures were captured deliberately during what she describes as the golden age of magazine journalism, when a photographer was sent off to shoot an artist representing the country in a biennale, or for a magazine spread. Others meanwhile, like those made by Inge Morath of Alex Calder, are the product of a longstanding friendship. Ultimately, it’s these varying instances that shape Where Ideas Are Born, as each creative partnership proposes something new to consider about the artists’ practice. “When you see the artists next to their works, it brings a whole new dimension to the work,” asserts Orrock. “You can really look at it in the round.”
Magnum Photos: Where Ideas Are Born is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 16 October 2022.