RCA Secret postcards sale 2013: three big names to look out for
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As the Royal College of Art prepares to launch its annual postcard exhibition, Maggi Hambling, Pete Fowler and David Bailey reveal the challenges of taking part
On 14 March, RCA Secret returns. Since 1994 the exhibition has raised more than £1m to help artists at the beginning of their careers. The event asks famous and not-so-famous artists to pit their talents against each other on the back of a postcard. All cards are then sold anonymously for £45. Potential buyers can view the postcards at the RCA in Battersea, London, or online. This year, 2,700 cards will go on sale on 23 March.
“It was wonderful. All the judging committee required was a postcard. I can’t remember what I sent. Something terribly obvious, like the Empire State Building. But that’s all you had to do – send a postcard.”
It’s late morning in Clapham, south-west London. Outside it’s horribly grey, yet thanks to some enormous windows, there is a lot of light in Maggi Hambling’s studio. On a shelf by the largest window are 50 or so cacti and a skull. Several of Hambling’s seascapes hang on the walls, their waves about to crash; the space exudes the sense that this is what an artist’s studio should look like.
Hambling is talking about her scholarship to New York in 1969. “I remember being at Woodstock,” she says smiling, knowing she’ll get a good response.
The trip followed seven years as an art student in London, during which she got by living off government grants and money from holiday jobs. She contrasts then to now: “The situation for students today is criminal. People work at night, and still end up with debt they’ll owe for the rest of their lives. Any small thing one can do, like making postcards every year, is a good thing.”
Hambling has sent in postcards to the Royal College every year since the secret postcard exhibition began in 1994. She strongly supports efforts to raise money for emerging artists who are struggling financially.
I ask whether she ever toys with visitors to the exhibition by sending in a decoy postcard. She scoffs. “Not at all! We paint for ourselves. Artists are very selfish people doing things entirely for themselves … making a piece of art is about a person alone in a room, with their own demons. Otherwise you might start trying to please people!”
So the game – that you don’t know who has painted which postcard until after the sale – does not affect her postcards. But it’s clear she gives them her all.
Whoever ends up with a Hambling card is buying an original, as rigorously produced as her other work: “You address yourself fully to a piece of paper, however small. And it’s as disciplined a process, as if it were five feet by six. There’s no difference. As I say to my students, Rembrandt could have done a crowd scene on a postage stamp.”
Hambling believes paintings are superior to photographs because they stay alive. The appeal of a Titian or a Van Gogh, she says, is that it is still happening in front of you; it takes you to where it was created. She hopes her postcards do, too.
On the ceiling of Pete Fowler’s studio is a lightbulb full of water. “It’s just a bit of water in the electrics – it’s fine!” says Fowler, encouraging my delight in the now surreal bulb. When the leak happened a month ago, Fowler immediately put a picture on Instagram: “It was a very popular image that day!”
Social media has become important for Fowler, the artist best known for his work with indie band Super Furry Animals. In fact, it’s so important you suspect that, on finding the leak, he shared a photo of the lightbulb first – then checked the power was off.
As well as promoting his art, Fowler uses Instagram and Twitter to find new inspiration and get feedback on his work. At his desk, he shows me fans’ reactions to his latest project, a giant mural in Swansea of Dylan Thomas flanked by Fowler’s trademark owls, UFOs, and octopi. Naturally, he documented its development on his Twitter account @themonsterist.
Given this drive to share, he sometimes needs reminding not to – especially ahead of a show. Last year, organisers of his exhibition at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff had a quiet word to make sure he held something back. Thinking it over, he recognises that the anonymity of RCA Secret presents a challenge, but is quick to promise he hasn’t tweeted pictures of this year’s cards.
For Fowler, making the RCA cards is one of the highlights of his year: “I just love it,” he says. “I knew it was them when they arrived. I recognised the envelope and thought, right, down tools … I did them in a day, here at my desk, with some paint and a palette. It was brilliant. And the chance to paint on paper is so appealing, so important for me right now.” Before I can stop him, he has told me what is on the cards. I’m not supposed to know.
Fowler has contributed cards to the fundraiser for six years: “I love everything about it – the affordability, the amount of work there.” He also likes how the show demonstrates that a great image works in any size, no matter how small.
To prove it, we’re back on Twitter. He shows me Tim Burgess’s Twitter icon, an image of the Charlatans’ lead singer created by Fowler. He talks me through its design. Squinting at Twitter icons makes the postcards seem massive.
Fowler has heard David Bailey is my next interviewee. He’s a big fan: “He must have the best pair of eyes of anyone of the 20th century, really. Mustn’t he? Up there with Picasso?” He wants to know more about what Bailey is submitting. I can’t say (I don’t know).
“No one knows which mine are, do they? They expect John Lennon, 1961.” David Bailey is looking through past postcards he has submitted for RCA Secret. To help me prepare for the interview, the RCA sent over scans of his cards from previous years. Bailey is enjoying seeing them again.
“What’s that? Did I do that?” He laughs and has a closer look at my laptop. The card is a collage of a grasshopper, an angel and a forest. “Oh yeah, we went with Damien [Hirst] to Mexico. That grasshopper was in Damien’s house on those Eisenstein photographs … It’s funny how things look better when you haven’t seen them for years.”
We’re sitting on low leather sofas in the corner of Bailey’s London studio in Clerkenwell. Alongside us are Bailey’s wife, Catherine, and the manager of a photography store in Soho.
By coincidence, on tables at the business end of the studio are black-and-white prints of Hirst. Every so often, Bailey presses his team to have them couriered to Hirst’s shop.
Without the scans, I wouldn’t feel confident of keeping Bailey’s attention for long: exhibitions, books, prints, decisions need to be made every few minutes. At one point, his assistant shouts over that a call has come in. “Do you mind if I take this?” he asks. “No, of course not,” I say. I’m finding it hard not to be in awe of Bailey. It’s Pete Fowler’s suggestion that’s done it – that Bailey has the greatest eyes of the 20th century.
Bailey’s cards will be some of the most sought after at the RCA – and possibly the hardest to spot. More than Maggi Hambling and Pete Fowler, he is ready to fox the audience, joke with them. “The best one I did was stick forty quid to the front. I thought, ‘At least you get your money back!'”
When Bailey returns, we continue the slideshow. As with much of his artwork, many of the images on the cards are inspired by his childhood in the East End. On one is Chad, the graffiti figure ubiquitous in London during the second world war. It’s one of the first drawings Bailey remembers seeing.
I mention a Chad mural I saw in Shoreditch recently. “Fuck ’em. I’ve done about 50 or so paintings of him. That size.” He points to a painting of himself with Hitler on a train.
Hitler is a recurring figure in Bailey’s art. In fact, his name appeared on Bailey’s postcard for the RCA’s 2009 show: “Oh yeah, Hitler killed the duck! The story behind that is when I was six, we used to go to the cinema a lot. I used to love watching all the Disney films. Anyway, the cinema got destroyed by V2s. So for me, Hitler killed the mouse and the duck.”
The final card is a photograph of an old man with a walking stick. It starts a story about how pop artist Richard Hamilton used Bailey’s photos in his collages. I ask who the man is. “Fuck knows,” says Bailey. Catherine remembers it was taken in Marylebone, which leads to a discussion about whether to include the photo in a forthcoming project. Bailey decides not to.
“Got any more?” he asks. I promise to see if the RCA have any other scans and to send them over. He asks if I would like one of his postcards; of course I would. As I leave, I look at the photo on the front. I can’t help but think it’s another of his jokes. It’s of Lennon and McCartney, 1965.
via Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/mar/13/rca-secret-postcard-big-artists Thanks for reading Jay
Posted on March 13, 2013, in Photography News and tagged Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk, arts, guardian, IFTTT, info, information, journal, news, newspaper, photo, photography. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.