To celebrate the opening of ROSL's latest exhibition, Drawn to Architecture, this week, Overseas spoke to one of the exhibiting artists in the latest issue. Anne Desmet RA, tells us about the overlap between the two disciplines of art and architecture and how it has influenced her work.
There is a huge amount of crossover between the work of artists and architects. Do you think an architect can be an artist and vice versa?
Definitely an architect can be an artist and vice versa. There are many parallels between both disciplines in terms of consideration of visual forms in space, proportion, relative scale, light and dark contrasts, textures, materials, context. As an artist who makes drawings and also prints using, primarily, wood engraving, linocutting, lithography, and collage techniques, these are all significant considerations that go into my own works and are absolutely the same considerations with which an architect works.
Are there any particular architectural styles that you like to return to again and again in your work?
In 1989-90 I lived in Rome as the recipient of a Rome Scholarship in Printmaking (from the British School at Rome). Until that time, my work as an undergraduate at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art and later as a postgraduate at London’s Central School of Art and Design, had focused primarily on portraiture and a sense of metamorphosis in one form or other. In Rome, I was immediately captivated by the overwhelming sense of compressed centuries of time in the city - the way in which Etruscan catacombs lay beneath Roman pavements and streets, on top of which are medieval, Renaissance and baroque churches; and crowding in on all that are the 20th and 21st-century apartments and TV aerials of modern life. All of these centuries of history - expressed through the city’s ancient and modern architecture - suggest vast spans of time, and echoes of cultures and civilisations present and long past. Architecture is a great time machine in that sense! I have returned often to Rome’s Colosseum and its Pantheon - great examples of the ancient Roman world’s architecture - and have made images inspired by both of them. But in London I also found myself much drawn to the 2012 Olympic Stadium - a modern evocation of the ancient prototype of great stadia such as Rome’s Colosseum - and have made many images of it at various stages of its construction, as well as images of the other Olympic buildings in construction including the late Zaha Hadid’s Olympic Aquatics Centre. I am especially interested in buildings in construction or in renovation or temporarily scaffolded; they seem to suggest cities in states of change and evolution, which interests me much in the way ideas of metamorphosis have interested me ever since I read the Roman writer Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Roman retellings of Greek myths) when I was at school, in Liverpool, studying for A levels including Latin.
Some of your works pay homage to other artists, such as your Babel Tower in Pieces, which references Bruegel. Do you ever also pay homage to particular architects in your work?
One strand of my work has involved images of invented towers - many of which have clear antecedents in Babel tower imagery of Northern Renaissance artists such as Bruegel. But I am also interested in architectural inventions by early Italian and German Renaissance artists such as Giotto and Durer amongst many others. As to architects, I am in awe of the work of Roman architect/artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), but more for his stupendous evocations of a real and semi-invented Ancient Rome in innumerable dramatic monochrome etchings than for his architectural legacy, which was relatively minor. I have also made collages that suggest the tiny convex glass mirrors with which the English architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) punctuated archways and ceilings within his London home, now the Sir John Soane’s Museum. I am interested in Soane’s vast collection of Greek and Roman statuary, paintings and architectural fragments on permanent display in the Soane Museum. Soane assembled these, in his lifetime, to be an educational collection for the training of young architects. The fact that he bequeathed the entire collection to the nation has enabled it to continue to fulfil this function to this very day. As an architect, too, the lantern lights and trompe l’oeil illusions with mirrors that Soane achieved are also inspiring and there is perhaps something of the drama and light effects in his buildings that is reflected in the drama and light effects in my prints.
Do you think your focus on real or imagined buildings and urban landscapes is informed by the medium you choose to work in? Is there a connection between wood as a building material and the subject of your engravings?
Wood engraving, in particular, is a medium that lends itself well to a certain theatricality and drama. It is a medium in which the marks you engrave end up ‘printing' as the white of the paper as it is the uncut areas of the block which receive the printing ink and print as the dark parts of the image. So, when you make an engraving, you are literally creating an image in light out of darkness. To create an illusionistic image with a sense of three dimensions and strong contrasts of light and dark can be very effective, and wood engraving is an ideal medium in which to achieve this. I started out, however, using the medium for other subjects - primarily portraiture subject to a sense of metamorphosis. I think, however, that the architectural subject matter that now interests me lends itself more satisfactorily to the medium in which I work than portraiture did. I find it immensely satisfying working in the natural medium of endgrain boxwood and my compositions are often inspired by the natural organic roundel-like shapes that the woodblocks can often have. Sometimes, too, I build up images in sequences, using several blocks to create a composite image. So the printed blocks come to create something like the building blocks of an image. Thus, there are parallels between wood as a building material and the subjects of my engravings, but I hadn’t thought of it quite so explicitly before until you asked this question!
When taking part in an exhibition, such as at ROSL, how do you decide which works to contribute?
I was invited to take part in this forthcoming architecture-related exhibition by Eilidh McCormick and she asked me to contribute particular works that she chose from my website: www.annedesmet.com. Eilidh was particularly interested in showing some of my London-related images that haven’t been shown at ROSL before. I had a solo exhibition at the Royal Over-Seas League in 2016 of some 60 of my Italianthemed prints and collages spanning 25 years’ work. That exhibition comprised something of a retrospective of my works relating to Italy and it was put together to coincide with the launch of a book of my drawings that the Royal Academy of Arts published that year - and launched at ROSL. That book was called Anne Desmet - An Italian Journey and comprised over 100 pages reproducing my drawings of architecture and landscape from sketchbooks documenting 25 years of my travels in Italy. The Royal Academy of Arts, incidentally, has just published a follow-up to that book which takes the same format but this time looking at the landscape and buildings of the Greek islands. It is called Anne Desmet - A Greek Journey; see the Royal Academy of Arts website for details, royalacademy.co.uk)
Find out more about the Drawn to Architecture exhibition here. If you would like to attend the Private View this Thursday 12 September, please RSVP here. You can read more articles on the theme of architecture in the latest edition of Overseas, available here.