The outspoken photographer talks to Glass about angels, Picasso and his new art show, Hitler Killed the Duck
There is much anticipatory small-talk going on at Mayfair’s Scream gallery as I, along with various other press wait for the arrival of the eminent East London-born photographer, who reportedly once snapped up 800 pages of Vogue editorial in one year. Today, though, we’re here to see David Bailey, the artist.
We’re surrounded partly by canvases that put the viewer in a time warp of his past work: such flashbacks include photograph-turned mixed media art works of Jerry Hall with her knickers down, a very young portrait of Kate Moss, another of Jack Nicholson and one of the Kray twins, Reg and Ron Wanted, where the photographic likeness has sunk under a mountain of heavily painted forms and a murky pink and red palette, save a bright yellow nose and a white face. In fact it’s one of my favourites in the part of the show that references his iconic photography.
I am staring at a portrait of Jeff Koons’ ex-wife and porn-star, Cicciolina, depicted wearing angel wings, Cicciolina Up A Ladder – when Bailey walks in. For someone so highly regarded in the worlds of both photography and fashion, he does not have an air of self-importance about him, although he is honestly blunt about everything – which can be refreshing at times, awkwardly disconcerting at others.
The latter effect of course, only adds colour to a character that with such iconic status, need not enlighten anyone, least of all a journalist. Thankfully, he is open to discussing the works of the show which relate to its title, Hitler Killed the Duck. These works also give insight into Bailey’s childhood growing up in East London, “There was a cinema in Upton Park, and that’s where I saw Bambi and Mickey Mouse cartoons and I thought that was the only place you could see them. Hitler bombed it, so he sort of killed Mickey Mouse, Bambi and all those characters for me. These works reflect those years of my childhood.”
During those years, it worked out cheaper for Bailey and family to go to the cinema instead of heating the house and staying in, so he went more than most. Such early cinematic influences must have made an impression, because later on in his career, he made commercials and documentaries, such as those on Beaton and Warhol as well as several films including The Lady is a Tramp, featuring his wife Catherine Bailey.
Film and drawing intertwined closely in the early days. “All I did was watch films at the cinema and then draw Walt Disney characters,” Bailey says. In fact, Bailey has been drawing and painting continuously all of his life. He’d been working on this particular collection of works for the last six years and it was Jamie Wood of Scream who suggested he put on the show. Other works feature figures drawn in the style of Picasso and are an undeniable homage to the painter.
“Hmm, the Picasso references are very vague aren’t they?!” he jokes. Religious iconography is also given attention, including an image of where his love of angels is made vivid, as with several of his other works. “I love angels,” says Bailey. “Until I was about 25, I thought angels were all women, until I discovered they were all geezers dressed up in frocks! Whereas actually, all the original angels from the Bible were guys.”
Angels first figured in Bailey’s life as a child, “During the war when I was a kid there was a bombed church nearby, which I wandered in to. I brought out two wooden angel wings which I then hid in my mother’s cellar. Lots of the show is about when I was a kid really.”
What is visible in Bailey’s show is an expressive manipulation of paint and a varied combination of styles. I ask him if he likens art to photography in any way. He replies brusquely, saying, “I don’t prefer one or the other, they are both a means to an end.” It is difficult to get any names from him, in terms of whom he thinks may be upcoming major talents in the fields of art and photography, or those who he admires.
“I admire anyone who is sincere and sticks to their guns. I don’t mean they must be necessarily good, but they must be artists that stay true to themselves.” Any in particular, perhaps a great painter of times past, I ask? “No.” Stalemate takes hold of the conversation for a while, as does an awkward bit of silence.
Then as if an angel of my own had shed some light on my very own murky palette of a situation, he offered, “Well actually, the greatest artist of the 20th century, without a doubt, is Picasso.”
I have one last question for him – does he see himself as an artist who paints and takes photographs or a photographer and an artist in their different meanings. “I am not either of them or a combination. I don’t want to be all or any of them,” he proclaims. “Maybe you can just be what you want,” I offer. “I will be, thank you,” he says.