Arts: The gift of generosity

Eduardo Paolozzi's substantial donation of his work to his native Scotland will soon have a permanent home. The playwright David Hare (left) spoke to the sculptor on the occasion of his 75th birthday
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The Independent Culture
On 27 March, the National Galleries of Scotland are to open the new Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, which will house a permanent collection of the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, and re-create the extraordinary abundance of his studio.

To celebrate the occasion, and also to mark his 75th birthday, I went to talk to Eduardo. He lives in Chelsea in resolutely Bohemian surroundings, and when I arrived his daughter Emma was due a couple of hours later, "to help me sort out the rubbish from the, er..."

"Art?" I ask. Spilling down the stairs is a litter of tins, boxes, newspapers and unopened shirts still in their cellophane. The inside of the room is layered with disparate objects. They pile up, fermenting in his imagination, like humus. Above the chaos, and up a flight of stairs, is a single bed on which Eduardo lies at night, listening to what he calls the Third Programme. "It's been my education. I owe everything to the Third Programme."

With most artists, it is the studio that is unruly, and the living quarters which are tamed. But Eduardo, on the contrary, executes his work on the other side of the yard, in a place of comparative order. There are so many busts and plaster sculptures - the accumulation of a life's work - ranged neatly on library-like shelves, that the effect is beautifully monochromatic. You could be in the dusty annexe of a quarry manager's office.

Eduardo is, as ever, physically compelling as he sits talking, never looking you in the eye, but always addressing his remarks a rather Roman few inches above your left shoulder, with the Renaissance power of his features stronger than ever for the passage of the years. I start by asking him about his working methods. He works every week, and every day of the week, he says, without exception.

"I set myself a task, and when it's done, then I'm finished and that's it. It's become a way of life. For me, the concept of work doesn't exist. Reading a newspaper may be as valid as sketching a person sitting at a bus stop. That's Modernism. We now accept that anything may be art. Two fried eggs may be art. And there's a large public which can assimilate that into their range of ideas. So maybe our creative world is rather more open than yours, David. In the theatre, there's still such a thing as orthodoxy."

"I know. Maybe that is because, in the theatre, larger numbers of people are involved."

"I'm sure that's the reason," he agrees. "Artists can make an art-work by themselves, all on their own, and money isn't involved. That's the advantage we have over you. Our form is freer than yours because it's cheap."

"You say anything can be art. But do you ever see anything in a gallery and say `That isn't art'?"

"I have the opposite reaction. I often see things elsewhere that might be art, particularly if I look at my old scrap-books. I used to cut out things from the National Geographic magazine. Often there would be advertisements done by a generation of commercial artists who really could draw. Even in the Fifties I used to say that certain advertising was as good as - or more interesting than - say, a rather bad watercolour by an RA.

"There's no point in being an artist if you have to subscribe to the actual moulds people would like you to inherit. Punch always used the fried egg in cartoons as a sort of symbol of the silliness of Modernism, but, by a wonderful irony, a pair of fried eggs ended up on display in the Royal Academy [in the Sensation show]."

"When I think about your work, I always think of that weird word "fecund". There are artists who are out to celebrate life in all its variety."

"That's right. You've chosen a good word when you say "celebrate". Now I'm doing the breaker of the Enigma code, Alan Turing. I love an artist being able to celebrate their own idea of genius. It was the greyest time of the war, yet my work about Turing is going to be full of shape and colour - not at all what people expect. By the way, I've run into the story of this woman at Bletchley who was so well-bred that she didn't even know how to make a cup of tea. Didn't you use that in your film about black propaganda, Licking Hitler?"

"A journalist reviewed the film saying he didn't believe that an 18- year-old girl, however posh, could fail to know how to make a cup of tea in 1941. Several women wrote in my defence, saying they themselves went into the Wrens in exactly that ignorance."

"Lucian Freud once told me that he bedded a very aristocratic girl and he sent her out to get breakfast. She came back with a lobster and two bottles of beer."

"Same idea."

"The first few drawings I've done of Turing are partly architectonic. I like that world, and I've worked very hard on it. I want them to be works which will inspire an architect when he looks up from the drawing- board. I want them to fizz for him - I want the art I do to inspire musicians and architects, because I feel that is my audience, not necessarily the lay public."

"Really? Who are your audience?"

"Architects and musicians. I've been trying for ages to make a connection between shapes and music. Music means a lot to me; it's my petrol."

"Don't you care about the general public?"

"I did a sculpture in Selfridges. Three minutes away is the Wallace Collection. Selfridges is always packed and this incredible collection is always empty. Yet it could give such joy. What does that tell you? The public don't feel they need art, but they do need Selfridges."

"They need Monet, it seems."

"Take a photo of the queues there. It's the same people you see at the Chelsea Flower Show. Middle England. Listeners to The Archers. It's full of retired civil servants with a daughter called Lucinda at university and destined for oblivion."

"Isn't there a contradiction in what you say, Eduardo? You say you aren't offended by students not bothering to walk the hundred steps from the Royal College of Art to the Serpentine Gallery, but you yourself know the tradition inside out, and want to make a contribution to it."

"I do, very much. Yes, I want to contribute. Exactly. And I don't mind being considered minor, because a lot of minor musicians and even painters thrill me, far more than the major ones. I would rather listen to Lennox Berkeley than Beethoven all over again."

"But you met a lot of the major ones, didn't you, in Paris, just after the war? Did you just turn up at their front doors?"

"By a misunderstanding, I arrived at the door of Hans Arp, and I was sent packing. But not before he'd fixed a time for me to come back. Braque I just rang up. Not once was I turned down by anyone. I was even asked to come again by Leger. Even at an early age I was very critical of that myopic, catatonically withdrawn kind of English art, so I loved everything French - the world of Aragon and Breton. I'm a bizarre, upside-down kind of Frenchman. Remember, you could just look in the telephone book in 1947 and they were all there."

"You rang Giacometti?"

"Yes. I think the easy access to people like Brancusi was a kind of euphoria after getting rid of the Germans. It was open house. There was never a hiccup. I suppose it was naivete, but one rang without any feeling of embarrassment. You didn't go into the living-room. You just went to the studio and looked at what they'd been doing. There was a very black cloud over French intellectual life. The period had been so shattering that they were pleased to see you. I loved being in France, because I felt I wasn't such an oddball as I was in London. Every day was a day of euphoria, because I was exactly where I wanted to be."

"Have you had that euphoria since?"

"Erm... well, perhaps I've got more maturity. At the time there was just the sheer pleasure of being alive, and going for lunch with who you wanted to and not thinking about work. Now things are different. When I do the Alan Turing works, I want to give them to a hospital and a school. That will mean a lot to me."

"You're saying you felt euphoria when you were young, and now, instead, you have the deep pleasure of knowing what you want to do?"

"Exactly. I think a lot about this question of work. Even today. I wouldn't call myself obsessive. I dislike obsessiveness. It's dangerous for an artist because the work becomes a wall between you and reality. Work can cut you off from reality. That's what I feel when I see a lot of abstract painting - that it's only in touch with itself, and not with the world."

"When I think of you, I always think of your generosity".

"But what is strange to me is how ungenerous most artists are. Generosity should be normal. I can't understand why artists don't give their work away to the local hospital. It seems normal to me, but it never crosses their mind. I feel free now because I have no dealer, and I'm aware that if I had one it might limit my freedom to give my art away. I just know that unless I keep that freedom, I'm finished. Without making up my own mind I'm dead."

"You were very lucky, weren't you, to go to Paris when you did?"

"Very lucky indeed. Incredibly lucky. Because it's been the framework for my life. From these men - from Braque, from Tristan Tzara, from Giacometti, from Leger - I learnt the first and essential lesson: the lesson of sharing. They just let me in, and never behaved as if it were anything but what an artist does. I'm always shocked today when people collect all their lives and then sell the lot at Sotheby's, when there are museums that are crying out for these collections. I'm giving what I have to the V&A."

The new Dean Gallery at the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, opens 27 March and will include the Paolozzi Gift, presented by the artist in 1994, and a recreation of his studio.

A longer version of this interview appears in the Spring issue of `Modern Painters' magazine. To order a copy for pounds 5 (p&p free) call 0181-986 4854 with Visa/Access card