First published in Studio International Supplement, Lithographs and original prints, December 1968
The images are collected. I was cutting so many photographs and eventually it appeared that they were on a definite theme. I was collecting things at random from any book or magazine, and when I finally went through them to sort them out I thought, God, it's like somebody has asked me to collect photos on a special theme. It just happened, completely unconsciously. I felt, they belong together somehow, and quickly I wrote 'Power and Beauty' on the envelope they were in. And then I couldn't change it at all. I had just put it on as a temporary note. Just to remember what was in the envelope, but then I decided, well, you know. I'll just call them 'Power and Beauty'.
In a way I wish I could have taken all the original photographs in all those places. (Interviewer: 'These are like pictures that only spies could have taken for you.' Self: 'Exactly.') Now, I have taken photographs myself, and some of them have been pretty good, but I've always come away from it feeling like it was a Chinese dinner—good, but that's that. I have to put myself through something physically.
In these what is called the photograph is what you see first. In the cat print the art is the tint of the eye and the shade of red, which it took some mixing to get the colour of blood. It's hard for mo to see the picture as a thing; I always get lost in the space of it and what it's about. But a photograph is just an object, a dumb thing. I mean, for example, that in the car picture I could have cut out the figures in the background. They are small and anonymous. The thing is I didn't want to mess about with the original photographs too much, because then it gets to be a thing in itself, like collage. That would be a decision. It would be like parents going to adopt a child and saying 'We'll take this one if you can straighten his hands out'.
All the pictures are the same size. I discovered that by accident, after thinking that I'd better have some kind of uniformity. They are the lame size in the same way that all cigarette cards are: they are all things you can't really possess and one is as good as another.
When I cropped down the cat picture I kept cutting and cutting, getting the thing to register, until it became monumental. There was quite a bit below what is now the lower edge. Before I cropped it you could look down past the cat's jaws, and you got a sense that you were bigger than the cat and looking down at it. So I did what often happens on a cinema screen: you get just the head so big that you have to look up at it and it becomes monumental, like the carving of the four big American cats on Mount Rushmore. You have to look up in respect, as to Buddhas or cathedrals.
It's like Gulliver's Travels. I'm going through things, and suddenly they are huge, and then they are tiny. But things are always fresh. There is a sort of scale in these things like a disturbance; you get a disturbance of the senses.
The sofa was an object, and when I first drew them people in the Slade and such thought I was cheating, because there wasn't any apparent atmosphere in the things—no hand-made brush strokes. I was obsessed with the reproduction of the object. In actual fact I invented a way, a new way to myself, of actually drawing things. I wanted nothing of me to be on the surface. The imprint should be psychological. I wanted to be there, but there as a producer. The subjects themselves will become associated with me. In ten years' time if somebody sees these pictures I want him to know that they are Colin Self's, but not by anything like a brush stroke. I've become interested, instead of, say, obsessively drawing a sofa or a head, in reproducing by photograph. I think I can make a work of art out of a photograph as well as I can make a work of art out of your head. People say, 'Why aren't they like his drawings?' but I want to be like a sort of agent or producer or boxing promoter who would put on a thing, and the night's boxing is as much because of the promoter as it is about the boxers.
I liked one particular car because it's a customized car by the great American car customizer, Joe Baillon, who got all the big prizes in the early 50s. (He hangs out near San Francisco somewhere, and he makes furniture which is like Greek temples, but you press a button and a door comes out and there is a colour television inside.) All his things still used to go. (By 1954 or '55 people were putting customized cars on removal lorries and driving them to exhibitions, often without engines!) He built this from, I think, a 1941 Ford. He lowered the chassis and put these big wheels in and did the grill: he did everything, just everything. And this photograph was actually taken when he had just put some primer on it—two or three coats—which is why it looks dull and metallic. That makes it look like the big Russian missiles you see in the May Day parade. I can't remember seeing a piece of American sculpture from that time that embodies all the abstract qualities of what the world was like at that time. It's explosive; it's elephantine; it's really sinister; it's as big as if it were pumped up—I mean, if you went and did that the thing would explode! It looks like a mine, like an ocean mine. I just don't see it as the destruction of a standard car. I see what it's been made into. And the kind of terror it has is a different kind of terror from a wrecked car. This car is powerful in a different way. It doesn't have to be that terrifying.
The negative version of the car picture makes it look like it's going up in flames. It reminds me of another picture I saw in an obscure magazine which showed the Ku Klux Klan. Everything at the bottom is bright and everything at the top is dark, like a bonfire at night. It is terrifying, the way it seems to burn. It seems like the car is being sacrificed.
Abstract art says nothing to me; it's too specialized. It's like a game that's gone on for too long. When it was going strong every book would begin with an enlarged detail of a velasquez painting. But I want to do more than that. Abstract art is just one cell in a too compartmentalized world. Take The Surrender of Breda: there are plenty of levels there. Even abstract qualities, in the way the lances shoot up against the sky. But there is also much more. The humility of the Dutchman, crouching down. If you're afraid or in terror, and you want to elicit the minimal amount of aggression from a superior power, you crouch down. He's a defeated general, a broken man, you know. Then there is the obvious sympathy of the Spanish general, a kind of mutual respect between officers which held true even up to the First World War. There Was a code, you know, and the Spanish general obviously knows what it must feel like, so he bows as well, to sort of take some of the sting out of the other's humiliation. All this, and yet a three-year-old can say, What a lovely picture!' Yes, I would like to achieve an art which stands for everything, and I think it can be done.
I first came across Cavafy's poetry in The Alexandria Quartet. I wanted to do Cavafy pictures since 1961, when I first did some for his poems. They came out in Studio. One was called Kaesarius in All His Beauty,which is the title of a Cavafy poem. It's actually about the politics of Alexandria, but—this is what I like—there were only a few lines of history, so I was freer to invent it in my mind. I made him handsome and sentimental. Then I did another etching called Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, which has this last line, 'Proud to have received upon itself that entire beauty', which is from a different translation from the one used in the new Cavafy album. So, all in all, it took quite some time to etch them, from the first idea, to getting around to the actual etching, to the time the book finally came out, around last December.
I work very slowly, in a way on principle. Often with painting I get involved and kind of rush, working fast, but with prints I never do. I think very slowly and put things off and I doodle around, although when I finally did them I employed an assistant who did all the 'awful' work. He waxed the plates and cleaned them after, so that all I actually did was the drawing and putting them in the acid. But it took a long time to get around to that.
I like drawing in lines. It is a marvellous feeling. When I first did etching, at the Royal College of Art, they didn't like you to just use lines. The other students thought that here you were using all this metal plate, so you'd have to use it all up to get your money's worth. You were supposed to put-aquatint on, and this, that and the other. Just to use a simple line was considered uneconomical for getting the most out of a plate, from the point of view of material. I bought my own materials, of course, after I left college, so the etchings begin to get simpler, therefore. I think, better.
Anybody who likes to draw would like etching, I think. At first you might not feel assured enough. One reason to be frightened of an etching plate is the cost of it. But if you treat the cost as nothing it doesn't matter. You have to treat the cost of materials as immaterial. If you waste a ten pound copper plate, well, it doesn't matter; stick it down to the book. In a way I'm not frightened by the clean plate any more. At one time I was.
The idea of a print show seems boring to me, because, on the whole, people use smaller ideas for prints. Not always, but frequently. Maybe it's just the way I work, but I like to think that my biggest ideas, as it were, go into the biggest etchings.
The very first etching I ever did was a portrait of Walt Whitman, Gandhi, and me. It was called Myself and My Heroes. My favourite Whitman is, 'When I heard at the close of day how my name had been received with plaudits in the capital, until that night I was not happy.' That's the first line. He goes on to say that even with all his honours he wasn't happy until he was in bed with his friend.
In a way these Cavafy poems are slightly old-fashioned. They never describe sex or anything. Like, in 1968 Ginsberg might write a poem on a similar subject, but it would be vastly different, and if one were tempted to illustrate it it would be completely different. I mean I must admit that to people who aren't acquainted with, say. the homosexual world, they don't seem ordinary, but to anybody who is they are, as I say, even old-fashioned. Some of the plates are drawn from live models, some were done from photographs that I took myself, and some were done from photographs in magazines. And then some were drawn directly on the plate, and others done just as drawings and then re-drawn on the plate. I was just interested in these slightly old-fashioned poems.
If one's own art has any progress it seems to me it's in an ability to make things simpler, and you can only make things simpler by having more knowledge. Looking back at my early etchings, it seems to me that they were cluttered with irrelevant things or things that were, in a not very interesting way, ornamental. First you've go to know that it was ornamental. Now, as I say, two and a half years later, I think even these could be done simpler. Maybe it wasn't essential before, whereas I would think all these lines (illus. page 282) are reasonably essential. Maybe I could take out a few, but not very many, I think. Because you wouldn't feel their bodies under the sheet if there were no lines in that part, for example.
This one and the one of the boy in the shop are about the best. I remember, when they were published, another one of the same two guys sold out very quickly, probably because it is more ornamental, and I suspect that people like ornament in principle, whereas this one is really far better. The boy on the left looks kind of satisfied; he's got his hands behind his head in a kind of pose one gets in bed when sexually satisfied. And on one or two of the others they are staring out at you; here they aren't, they're unconcerned, they're spectators.
Looking at these again, I'm getting excited about doing some more etching. I have been thinking of starting on Grimm's Fairy Tales, but I keep having reservations about it. I might just take four of them. I like the grotesqueness of some of the tales, and their simplicity too. One of the ones I would take is the story of Rapunzel and Rumpelstilskin; I might do those. The description of Rumpelstilskin tearing himself to bits is wonderful. He tears his arms and legs off at the end. When she finds out his name he gets so furious, stamps about with such intensity that he tears off his arms and legs, all over the place! I think I'll do a few versions of it.
Cavafy, as far as I know, has not been illustrated before, but the thing about Grimm's Fairy Tales is that it's been very well illustrated before by very many people, and many of the illustrations are well known. I really want to do them differently, and that's why I think I'll just take maybe four stories and not do the whole book. Another problem with Grimm is that you can't help thinking of Walt Disney all the time. Before there had been marvellous illustrations, with in-credibly grotesque dwarfs, hideous people. They are rather likeable and loveable in Walt Disney. (Disney, by the way, was obviously influenced by Franz Marc: look at Bambi.) Well, I'm certainly going do some etchings for Grimm in the near future. Whether we'll publish it as a book, or as etchings, I do not know.