Tess Jaray was born in Vienna, and has lived and worked in London since 1954. She studied at St Martin's School of Art and Design and then at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she later taught between 1968 and 1999. Over the course of her career she has exhibited in solo and group shows all over the world and written extensively, including 'The Blue Cupboard: Inspirations and Recollections', published in 2015.
Perhaps the sadness for many artists now is that talent is measured in terms of financial success, which actually was seen as rather shaming in those days – if you actually sold your work it was seen as a bit naff…and of course there was something else, a much greater difference, and that is that art wasn’t yet international. If an artist was competitive, they were competing with people they knew, either personally or saw in the pub.
When did you start your career? How has the art world changed since then?
It is possible that there are two kinds of artist: those that are born and those that come to it through interest in the subject. I was certainly of the first kind, having spent my childhood drawing – that’s what I did in the evenings, when there was no television and you could listen to the wireless, as it was then called, and draw at the same time. I still have a few of those early works, and when I look at them I’m amazed at the paucity of the paper and crayons that were available then. It was war-time, and nothing like felt pens were available then, in fact not even invented. But still, at age five I even had some success: I was top in my Infant School at drawing Princesses, which was fashionable at that time. Possibly I was then at the peak of both my talent and my success.
In the early years as a student and young artist it never occurred to me that I would have a ‘career’. With a few exceptions I don’t think my generation, certainly not in the student years, thought in those terms. We didn’t know what a ‘career’ as an artist might be. On our first day at the Slade we were told by William Coldstream that if we wanted to make a living from painting we should leave right now. The boys should get jobs as bus conductors (they don’t exist now) and the girls as seamstresses (don’t let’s go there). Rather, we thought in terms of being good artists, or at the very least as to how we could make a good painting. That is still a mystery to me.
As to how the art world has changed since then, like the rest of society, which it always reflects, it has changed in most ways beyond recognition. So much, including art, seems to have become corporate. A word that only a few years ago would have been put in inverted commas. Now we simply assume that everything is like that. The same. Perhaps the sadness for many artists now is that talent is measured in terms of financial success, which actually was seen as rather shaming in those days – if you actually sold your work it was seen as a bit naff…and of course there was something else, a much greater difference, and that is that art wasn’t yet international. If an artist was competitive, they were competing with people they knew, either personally or saw in the pub. Now no one can know all the artists working, it’s inconceivable. Even just in this country, let alone internationally. Which seems to me partly good and partly not so good. It’s great that we get to see art made across the planet, and of course it’s much more interesting for curators to travel to Outer Mongolia to look at art then it is to go to Newcastle, for instance, but it is surely the case that good artists are working there as well, and stand very little chance of getting any attention.
Then there is the question of scale, or perhaps I should say size. So much building now is vast, and there is such a mass of visual information that some artists feel they are obliged to make enormous works just for impact. And enormous works do have an impact, but they rarely touch the heart, so that tends to affect the way that art is experienced, and also what is expected of it. Very important then, it seems to me, that artists say what they want to say in a way that is true to them. But to be certain of what that way is in our fast, fast changing world is very difficult indeed. I really admire young artists now who have found a way.
One could say that everything one has seen, looked at, been entranced by, affected by, has somehow entered into the work, controlled and structured, as far as it’s possible, by our characters.
Can you explain your influences over the years, and how they've lead to the evolution of your work?
That’s such a complicated question that it can really only be answered briefly... We are all creatures of circumstance and I’ve presumably been influenced by the times in the same way that my contemporaries have. But I must confess to having been drawn equally to what may perhaps be called the primal, as much as to the great works of the Early Renaissance, and the way they have affected me. I say affected, because I don’t think it possible to say one has been ‘influenced’ by such great artists as Piero or Vermeer. What exactly is the impact of those rare geniuses? Is it the fact that they achieved something so startling, so lasting, that cannot really be emulated? I have certainly been influenced strongly by certain things that I came across early in my student years, the years of Piero and the light of the Early Renaissance – we were lucky enough to catch Gombrich’s last year of teaching art history at the Slade – and much subsequent art. But I’ve also been greatly attracted to Islamic art and aspects of Middle Eastern countries. The architecture, the way of life, the colour, the light. That has certainly entered my work, together with difficult questions as to what is the difference between the art of the West and that of the Middle East, and how they both invite different interpretations. And I’ve been drawn, too, like so many artists since Modernism, to the primal aspects of art and mark-making. To the primal and even the primitive in other senses of the word. This seems to have been a thread running through art for well over a hundred years, and I haven’t really come across any convincing explanation of why this should be so.
Otherwise one could say that everything one has seen, looked at, been entranced by, affected by, has somehow entered into the work, controlled and structured, as far as it’s possible, by our characters. And the longer you go on working the more memories assert themselves and confirm what you may have suspected along the way. Perhaps it’s a journey with a beginning and no ending. Or maybe it’s not even that, as we come from somewhere, and if we’re not ending up somewhere else, others will continue it. They will go on dipping their toes in that river.
How much does experimentation guide your work? What's the process, from inception to completion, of each piece? How different can it be?
I would think that most young artists experiment all the time. That’s really how you find your way into the subject. Trying out what other artists have done, what excites you about their work. But by the time you have a few decades of work behind you, I’m not certain how much choice there is by then. To some extent you’ve found your path, even if not particularly your way. You could say you don’t quite know where you’re going, but you have a means of getting there. Now, rather late in life – though one never knows how late – I see things rather differently. I’ve come to believe we have remarkably little choice in what we do. Something in our character and our behaviour seems to determine things, without really asking permission of the artist. I’m not remotely trying to make a mystique about this, on the contrary I simply see it as I believe it is, but nevertheless it is a mysterious process. Partly because many artists spend their lives attempting to do something that can’t actually be achieved. Masterpieces aren’t created any more since the advent of Modernism, and since the social context has so strongly become part of our lives. But the ideal and the concept of the absolute lives on. In his introduction to The Invisible Masterpiece, Hans Belting writes about his title, 'This book’s title, therefore, does not refer to any specific work, but only to an unattainable ideal, a work in which a dream of art (or art as a dream) is incorporated.'
So at a certain point in the process something may appear to be complete, or at least you don’t know how to take it any further, you can’t see how to experiment any more, so you call it finished. But actually it’s only a point along the way, some kind of marker. I could compare it to making notes on a train: the notes themselves may not be significant, and the destination of the journey doesn’t matter much either, but somehow it feels very important to do it. And if those notes mean anything true to you, you won’t want to do them again. This is partly why we admire the few successful artists who have survived success, they don’t repeat themselves, but still hold on to their true voice.
Think of Homer’s famous allusion to the wine-dark sea. No-one has ever solved this. Was their sea red, or their wine blue?
Colour seems central, as a viewer. How do you understand colour? How do you choose which one will sit beside another?
No-one understands colour. Of course the physics of it are known, but no-one truly understands why one colour next to another, for instance, affects us in the way it does. To make it even more complicated it seems as though we all see individual colours differently. I have a suspicion, with absolutely no proof, that men see colour differently from women. This is probably not a good feminist thing to say…I have an on-going argument with a couple of friends who insist that what I see as blue is actually green. And think of Homer’s famous allusion to the wine-dark sea. No-one has ever solved this. Was their sea red, or their wine blue?
Personally, I don’t believe that I use colour as colour. I see it rather as aspiring to certain conditions, or certain states. Time of day for instance. I have used dark colours to refer to my own experience of that moment when the sun has completely gone down and there is no light left, but somehow one is not left completely blind. Or, conversely, the moment at dawn when the light seems pale, not yet full. Or a red to convey an intensity of feeling that can’t be described in words, not just the obvious passion or anger, but a degree of intensity which is experienced very differently if it’s vermilion or alizarin or carmine. I suppose I’m really talking about the memory of a colour, and how a pigment, or a surface, can equate with that memory. I’ve never been very interested in what might be called ‘colourful’, that’s always seemed too general to mean much in painting. I try to use colour to aspire to some kind of meaning, even though I may not be able to say what that meaning actually is. And to some extent this is where the experimentation comes in: until you find a way to create the colour that represents this state you aren’t able to explain, you have to keep on trying to achieve it, by whatever means. If this seems a very strange way of living one’s life I can only agree. Not explain.
Colour can also be the means by which artists access their innermost needs and desires, which may not be understood until they become substance in the real world. Even then, this may be neither a true translation of those sensations, nor entirely satisfactory. But when people ask, about a painting or a print, which happens on occasion, what is that colour, I feel I’ve achieved something, because asking a question demands an answer, and if there is no easy answer, it might increase the interest. Of course now with computers the answer might be 2A633W, but even if you get a colour by simply clicking a button it won’t be meaningful unless you find a way of making it so.
To what extent do you consider your work sculpture?
To no extent. I don’t mind what it’s called, but even now painting deals with illusion, which I still use, though at the moment there is a suggestion of three-dimensionality.
How do you decide on the size of each piece?
That has nearly always been decided by the nature of what I am dealing with. In each case the size is decided by the dimensions needed for the image. If one can still refer to ‘the image’. By scale rather than by size. As we all know, there is a great difference between something depicted as very large or very small. In everyday life this is easily seen: a small loaf of bread or bottle of beer declares its smallness in relation to a large one immediately. Particularly if you are hungry or thirsty . What I mean by difference here is really impact. There is a lot of what one might call giganticism going on at the moment. Partly perhaps, because the world is now so full that some artists feel their work has to be enormous in order to make an impact. And of course there is truth in this, a large work often does make more impact. But is more really better than powerful, or affective? I don’t think so. It seems to me to be a real challenge now for an artist to make something small that has as strong a presence as something large, only different. Something that can hold its place on a wall and even give meaning to the space around it. We certainly saw this in the great art of the past, it’s possible that the small iconic paintings of the past remain more strongly in our minds than the large ones. Think of Vermeer or the small works by Leonardo. And it would be hard to say which is the greater painting, Piero’s Flagellation, which is small, or The Resurrection, which is large, though not enormous. But art now doesn’t aspire to greatness in the same way that it did in earlier times. Don’t ask me what it does aspire to, I think we’re all still trying to work that out. Having said that, really in defense of smaller work, at the moment I’m planning something large. So much seems to be accepted now that perhaps in lieu of being opposed one has to contradict oneself. Perhaps artists have a need to contradict their own ideas from time to time, or they get ossified.
So much seems to be accepted now that perhaps in lieu of being opposed one has to contradict oneself. Perhaps artists have a need to contradict their own ideas from time to time, or they get ossified.
Could you talk about your technique of breaking the canvas/board into two or more sections? How does negative space enter the equation? How about the white of a wall, when you're considering your palette?
It doesn’t really happen quite like that. I don’t think in terms of ‘technique’. That asserts itself in answer to a purpose. And actually, the purpose itself, or intention, doesn’t usually work if it’s too obvious - in any art, in my view. You are groping in the dark to some extent, and looking back now I can’t remember the moment I decided to shape the edges of the canvas, but now I can also see the logic of it – taking the ‘serration’ just one stage further; clearly it was demanding to be cut, not just slightly raised from the surface. But where that demand comes from is very very obscure, it’s as though the work itself understands the direction it needs to take, without actually asking my opinion. Clearly the unconscious mind is in control in some way. I just wish it would wash the brushes as well…
In fact what happened partly was that measuring the depth of the ‘stretcher’ led to something unexpected, which is what one always hopes will happen. That is, when two of the stretchers were placed together, the space between became active. Simultaneously both positive and negative. It seemed a bit like creating ‘nothing’. This has always been an ambition for me, though I suspect, it may lead, in the next works, to its opposite.
It’s as though the work itself understands the direction it needs to take, without actually asking my opinion. Clearly the unconscious mind is in control in some way. I just wish it would wash the brushes as well…