Sophie Dickens - Sculpture

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An interview conducted by Caroline Lazar on the subject of Mythology

Extended version of an interview published in Trespass Magazine Issue 8 (available from the Inpress Books website)

SD - Sophie Dickens. Sculptor
CL - Caroline Lazar
KA - Karim Arafat, Dept. of Classics, Imperial College

CL: Why do you choose mythological subjects so often for your work?

SD: Partly because I have an art history background (I did art history at the Courtauld Institute), but then I studied Anatomy at the Slade, so I came at mythology through anatomy and through artists like Titian. A lot of my work isn’t mythological, but the theme is the same—it’s the physical interaction of a man struggling with something. Like all the Leda ones I’ve done, where there’s a woman preparing to lay an egg and you have her pregnant shape echoing the shape of an egg.

There’s a quote from Radio 4 which I’ve written on my studio wall: “mythological subjects represent universal truths,” but it has to be visually interesting from my point of view. All this subject matter makes fantastic pictures, but the strongest images come through again and again. I’ve read bits of Ovid where I think “that would be good and that would be good”, but actually you nearly always come back to subjects that have been sculpted before and painted before. There’s a reason why they’ve been selected and others haven’t. They are just fantastic visual material. But I think I haven’t really gone into things deeply enough. I come in, like this kind of vandal, grab what I like, without any real depth of knowledge, other than a smattering of Latin and some art history. I am like a burglar.

KA: I’m intrigued that you’re coming at it through the medium of Titian—through the reception of the classical—but there’s no reason why you should copy ancient models. After all in most cases there’s no one single way of representing a myth. [Looking at Sophie’s Hercules and the Lion] I mean just to take the lion as an example. There’s one in the British Museum where Heracles is kneeling and the lion is being flipped over his shoulder onto his back in a sort of judo throw. It’s unique as far as I know and this is what yours reminded me of, because it’s the only one I’ve seen where you’ve got a vertical hold. He’s kneeling on the pot and he’s pretty much doing the same in yours—the lion’s above him, over his shoulder.

SD: I just wish I’d looked at more pots ’cos then I’d know more!

KA: If looking at them means you feel you have to follow them, then I think that would be a negative. You should be expressing yourself and doing what you do, but I can easily email you a picture of the original pot. [SD: I’d love that] It is just a painter who’s thought “let’s do this differently.” I don’t know why. Sometimes you can see they’re doing it differently because the pot’s a different shape, so they’re confined by the space they’re working with, but then you have to ask “why did they choose that shape in the first place?” Sometimes you think that a painter just has a little bit of extra inspiration. I ask my students what they think art is about, and they go all misty-eyed, but in the end, it’s got to sell. If you’ve got a standard scheme, then you do something radically different, your customers will go next door.

SD: Unless you have wonderful enlightened patrons and they say “yes, I love it, I want it different”. I don’t know what the Greeks had. Whether it was keeping up with the Joneses, or whether they were more adventurous. It’s funny we should have this conversation. I have all this sculpture going to Germany for an exhibition. This Hercules and the Lion has been in galleries but it’s still on its first edition. I don’t know, maybe it’s not commercial, the idea of this man grappling with a lion. People love it but they don’t necessarily want it because it’s violent. Whereas I look at it and I see it as dynamic—these joyous shapes interacting. If you think of the successful sculptors of the last century—the Lynn Chadwicks and the Henry Moores—they produced a lot of the same work. I just find that so boring. I’m always trying to find new subject matter and I think it’s probably a huge mistake because you don’t give your clients a safety zone.

KA: I’m intrigued by your Minotaur. He’s got such a long history, he’s been done by Picasso and all the Surrealists. Freud was keen on the Minotaur too, so I was wondering why are you doing it?

SD: I saw a particularly bad Minotaur at an exhibition. He was really fey, and I thought “NO!”, so I was spurred on to do a sinister and aggressive, scary, angular Minotaur. I did a little black drawing. Then the small one came out of that, and the big one came out of a client wanting it to be made out of mirror-polished stainless steel. In order for that to be copied, I had to make it big, to be copied by steel fabricators. I love this idea. Polished stainless steel becomes almost invisible—all shimmery ripples. It reflects the space around it. It was so exciting, just having the opportunity to have it made permanent. When I was doing Art History A level, the Riace bronzes, which have been in the sea for thousands of years, came out in perfect condition more or less, with their eyeballs intact. KA: After some de-encrusting, they are! I show a black and white photograph of the foot and people don’t always know it’s a sculpture. In colour they would, but in black and white they don’t.

SD: When I was about 19, I went to Naples because I was trying to learn Italian—in the wrong place because you don’t learn southern Italian if you want to learn good Italian—but, anyway, there was this lecherous old museum curator who’d let me feel the thigh of these marbles if I let him feel my thigh, so I went round feeling all these pieces and you could feel the muscles, you’d get the relaxing-contracting movement within them. An amazing experience, that was. Not him—that was mild prostitution—but it was worth it. Those sculptures were absolutely unbelievable.

KA: Did you think of making a Theseus to go with the Minotaur?

SD: No, I liked him in splendid isolation, and also I thought of him as more predatory at the time. He was chasing the girl, rather than fighting Theseus.

KA: The way he’s almost always depicted is on the losing side in the duel, so you don’t usually see him powerful, you see him cowering. There’s just one, an Etruscan pot, which shows his mother cuddling the baby Minotaur on her lap. It’s very nice. The Etruscans don’t much go for these things, so this is really strikingly different. [Re SD’s Minotaur] This is one looks as if he’s pawing the ground ready to charge. You weren’t doing it in reaction to Freud and Picasso and the Surrealists then? They landed on the Minotaur because it expressed your subconscious, the things you were afraid of – something that wasn’t pure monster, but was something part-human, part-monster.

SD: No, I love all those, I particularly love Picasso’s endless minotaur drawings and I’ve done loads of minotaur drawings myself, but it was because I thought it was such an good subject. It’s a brilliant opportunity to do some sculpture which really worked with my kind of visual language. You have to choose your themes. My anatomy doesn’t really go with women as well as it does with men. Scrawny men is what I work with. The moment you start getting fatty deposits, it starts looking a bit dumpy.

KA: You are deliberately or otherwise echoing Aristotle, you’ll be pleased to know! Like the universal truths quote. Aristotle said, as far as I remember it, that the male body was superior to the female on the grounds of articulation – each part set off from each other part – it was precisely about that definition of the musculature, which you can’t do with a series of curves.

The Minotaur is limited in the sense that he doesn’t do anything beyond the one story. There he is stuck in his labyrinth, waiting. Nobody ever shows him eating his lunch, the tributes of youths and maidens who get imported from Athens before Theseus comes. With centaurs, there’s a whole range of stories both about individuals like Chiron who tutored Achilles, and about centaurs in general. I spent Easter in centaur country at a little place called Pholoe near Olympia which is where Pholos the centaur came from. The locals still tout it as the birthplace of the centaurs, but I didn’t see one!

CL: It’s funny how these stories can persist even when people have forgotten their original significance. For example, my parents had a cleaning lady who was absolutely terrified of black dogs (not easy for her, because my parents got a black Labrador, which didn’t go down well). It was only a long time later that I learnt about Black Shuck who’s a hellhound in English folklore. She’d never heard of Black Shuck, but she “knew” you should never trust a black dog. SD: We get that with some people with our cat who’s black. Sometimes people come to read the electricity meter and they have a voodoo-y thing about the cat. They’re petrified of it.

SD: I have seen people do centaurs with horses’ heads and human bodies, but they always seem rather sorrowful. They’re normally sitting down looking a bit miserable. They are like a person in a mask, rather than a real monster.

CL: Where do monsters come from? I suppose originally from dreams and the subconscious. Someone must have had that idea of half-human, half-animal, perhaps it happens especially in societies where people lived closer to animals.

SD: It’s like Christianity too. You could say that religions are a way of explaining why things are the way they are. 

CL: Making sense of the world. SD: They’ve got to come out of somewhere. It’s so interesting where they start, from asking questions like why does it get dark every evening? They seem to be there, right at the beginning of language. Where did creatures like the Minotaur come from?

KA: This was where Freud got interested. He used it as an expression of the subconscious, because the Minotaur is a monster that is partly human. A pure monster is a pure monster and therefore in a sense you don’t need to account for it, but something that’s partly human is “the enemy within” and does need some explaining.

SD: I’ve made my Minotaur very much as the rapist too, with huge testicles and an erect penis. He’s a threatening, frightening figure.KA: Is it a result of our natural desire, our bestiality? These are expressions, to say the least, of the socially unacceptable! SD: Did Freud, having asked the questions, come to any conclusions? KA: I suppose that it’s the subconscious expression of the monster within us. What we are potentially capable of, the non-human side of us, the uncontrollable side of us. And, of course, he was very influential on the Surrealists. SD: You could say that that’s true for however many thousands of years before Freud too.

CL: Niki Aguirre who led one of the Trespass workshops made a really good point which is that villains make a choice to be bad but monsters can’t really help it. They don’t have a choice.

SD: No, exactly. They are the result of unnatural passions. It’s a sad fate. Is the article about monsters then? What’s it about? What’s your line? Does Hercules come into that? Is he a monster himself or does he just fight monsters?

KA: Good question. He does a lot beyond the twelve labours.

SD: He did terrible things. He murdered his own children. Hera made him mad and he murdered his own children. He had a horrifically miserable life, didn’t he? It wasn’t even his fault anyway. It’s so mean. He was sent mad and then suffers as if he was responsible.

KA: One tends to think “this is the myth”, “this is the story”, but actually it isn’t. It’s one version of the story. There’s something else as well. The Greeks were primarily a pre-literate society, they have books and they read but they’re not literate in the way we are, so a lot of it’s oral. You know what it’s like. I think of the parallel of Little Red Riding Hood. Do you tell your children the version where the wolf eats granny and the wolf is torn apart at the end to get granny out, or do you tell the version where they find granny hiding in the cupboard. Is it variations to make an impression on the audience? Is it because you’ve forgotten the story? Is there another literary source that we don’t have? Is there some political purpose in telling the story? So myth is very fluid and very flexible.

SD: Like Chinese whispers, but that’s lovely, isn’t it? It means we don’t have to stick to anything.

KA: They were as flexible as anything and you should follow in their footsteps.

CL: I think one of our problems is we are used to having a Bible and we have a canonical text – KA: yes, “text” is the word. It’s written and unchanging. Though we tend to forget it wasn’t written in English sometimes so you can get variations out of translating it differently. Yes, we have a text which is fixed and that is it. But they didn’t. Talking about parallels more seriously, I sometimes find parallels for myths in newspapers and I cut them out because again it livens students up. Now you mention Heracles massacring his children, I’ve got a cutting of somebody who did precisely that in modern Greece, years ago. It was strikingly similar. Or somebody more recently who was killed by a discus.

SD: There’s been that case recently. The man who threw his children out of a balcony.

KA: That’s what Euripides wrote about, one of his plays was called “The madness of Heracles. It goes back to what we were saying about responsibility.

SD: You feel that Hercules is blameless in the versions I’ve read. That he’s a victim too.

KA: What is the term they use in Court – Diminished responsibility? when the balance of the mind is disturbed? There’s even now a sense of being taken over by something divine under the legal jargon, so we retain this idea to an extent.

SD: So if I ever do anything horrendous, I’ll say that the balance of my mind was disturbed!

KA: Yes, you’ll have to plead insanity, but you’ll have to take the consequences!

SD: Oh dear, Broadmoor with everyone else. That might be worse!

CL: There’s a very nice book which comes over as rather old-fashioned now because it was written so long ago, called The Greeks and the Irrational – KA: oh yes, by E.R. Dodds. CL: He talks about the way in which the Homeric heroes talk when they do something wrong. It’s like they get taken over by the gods for good and bad – so they get inspired to fight better, or their understanding is taken away and they do something stupid. Everybody around them seems to accept both that they have responsibility for their actions and that a god made them do it.

SD: That’s exactly right and that’s why it’s nice to do these stories because there’s that element of pathos and humour, and you can relate to them on an emotional level. When you sell mythological art, people are not buying it because they think it’s Hercules. They find a connection. Like fighting your demons or whatever.