“I don’t know which to admire the most; your courage in defying the tendencies of modern art or the skill with which you have done so.”
So wrote Lord Kenneth Clark to Anthony Christian, at a time when the art historian had just launched the acclaimed “Civilisation” series and was considered one of the supreme voices of the art world. Lord Clark’s was not a unique perspective, and the artist for many years enjoyed an illustrious career that took him to America, France, Tibet and India, as well as many other countries where he associated with artists such as Dali, Picasso and Warhol, and where he painted (often portraits) for the rich and famous: from the late Lord Mountbatten and Peter Cazelet (in the Queen’s Royal Collection) to actors Terence Stamp and Donald Sutherland.
Collected by the highest echelons of the global elite, however, Christian remains largely unknown; in terms of the 21st Century art market he remains largely in obscurity, having operated one-to-one with his clients like the Renaissance master painters of the court. His indefatigable wanderlust, together with his convictions about the more commercial side of his metier, caused him to fight shy of the standard gallery path.
This exhibition marks an important return for Christian – to the city in which his gift was first nurtured at the National Gallery, where at the age of just ten years old he was granted the privilege of studying the techniques of the Old Masters. One particular painting that brought public attention was Christian’s full-sized (6 by 4.5 feet) copy of Dutch master Philips Wouwermann's Cavalry Battle, which he completed there between the age of 10 and 14 (see below). The work, which at the time provoked media frenzy and the art world to pronounce him a child prodigy – did far more, marking the start of a remarkable life, dominated by the need to draw and paint. It was during these years that Christian developed a distinct “inner voice”, an artistic conscience that would judge everything he ever did; this highly critical, relentlessly demanding eye was formed entirely by the magnificent works by which he was continuously surrounded. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Rubens were among the masters by whose work he was absorbed and by whose work he set his own standards.
More than 50 years after those years in the National Gallery, this exhibition will display 15 works spanning the artist’s career, from the 1970s until the most recent paintings from 2017. In all genres, Christian possesses the extraordinary capacity to create – with equally dazzling facility – pulsating life and deep emotion in not only portraits and nudes but also still lifes, interiors and drapery studies. The show’s title, Animate / Inanimate, highlights the significance of one particular series in the artist’s oeuvre – Christian’s mannequins – and its importance in context of so much of his subsequent work.
It was in 1976 that the artist returned to London with “Mr Frank”, a 200-year-old articulated mannequin that he had found in Paris. He had been searching for one such item for many years, unsuccessfully, and it was only coincidental that it materialised at that very moment – a time in which the artist truly believed he had reached a point at which he could express himself, sharing the awe and joy he felt before all he beheld in which he found God and beauty.
The artist named Mr Frank in memory of the large sums of that currency he had paid for such a rare item. Known also as ‘lay- figures’, such mannequns have been made for artists in Europe for hundreds of years, to “stand in” for the (predominantly noble) sitters who had neither the time nor inclination to sit for their portraits any longer than was absolutely necessary. These mannequins on the other hand, given life through paint, could sit for months. While for a short time Mr Frank did indeed serve his purpose as a stand-in, before long his role was proving far more significant – becoming the true subject, the limbs upon which Christian would swathe the drapery which he had become so obsessed with perfecting.
After dressing Mr Frank in white robes – essentially metamorphisising and elevating the prop into ‘the original’ subject – Christian painted in a fever of inspired excitedment a series of studies which (all but one, which he retained) quickly sold. He resolved to make more – ultimately making three variations on the theme every year – each year keeping just one for his own collection. Although Christian’s mannequin works were widely admired for the brilliance of the light and texture of the drapery, people were troubled by Mr Frank himself, by his being so “alive”. We are reminded of Pygmalion, Ovid’s famous sculptor whose ivory statue is so beautiful and realistic he falls in love with it, praying to Aphrodite and wishing for a bride who would be “the living likeness of [his] ivory girl.” When he returns after the festival day, he finds the lips of the sculpture to be warm, and the ivory to have lost its hardness. Much like Pygmalion, Christian’s obsession with an inanimate mannequin has brought it very much to life.
By contrast, Anthony Christian’s most recent figurative works seem to do the opposite, presenting the dichotomy working within the artist: either breathing life into the inanimate or extracting life from that which is alive. Here in the newer works, the resonance of Pygmalion is replaced with that of Medusa, she who turned flesh to stone. Featuring the artist’s wife Fanny, laid out or curled up on a bed, these figures appear almost deathlike – de-humanised and removed of vitality. Evidently he portrays someone whose existence in the world is tantamount to his own...and yet he removes not only character but also humanism. She appears doll-like, objectified and yet undeniably elevated, in some sense in an ethereal loveliness.
It is in this dichotomy between the animate and the inanimate, the alive and the lifeless, that Anthony Christian’s oeuvre hangs together – his relationship to his subjects, in all their rarity, their humanity, their objectification and their reverence, is astounding, and the resulting masterpieces breathe and pulse. Vogue’s affirmation, “Anthony Christian is a new world’s child who makes old world portraits,” remains equally true almost half a century on.