'Modern art isn't easy'

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, the godfather of British Pop Art, has a reputation for being difficult. He refuses to fit into categories - even the one about being Scottish.

The prospect of lunch with Sir Eduardo Paolozzi was not something I viewed with particular relish. I had been warned of his mercurial nature, reminded by well-meaning art world friends of his "difficult" manner, his legendary mood swings, his "frightening intellect", his biting put- downs.

What I was not prepared for, though, was the reality of the Godfather of British Pop Art. Individual success can often be measured by the amount of myth it attracts and Paolozzi is no exception. To many he might appear irascible, acerbic, aggressive, but he is also - undeniably - intelligent, lucid, witty and instantly likeable.

Two facts: Paolozzi is a great artist. Forget Freud and Kossoff, this man has just as much claim to be our "greatest living artist". And Paolozzi is a great Scotsman. Forget Billy Connolly. This is the real "Big Yin"; a great bear of a man, with stubby, sculptor's fingers and a putty-soft face of deep furrows and creases. Paolozzi, 72, immediately dominates a room and it seems bizarre that, seated at the lunch table in Jason and Rhodes's gallery, this imposing presence should speak in a soft Scottish burr, coming out with polite platitudes more suited to a country parson or an Italian mama. "Another cake? More pasta?" But such delicious incongruities have always characterised his life and work.

Paolozzi is all about the unexpected - as anyone brave enough to sign up for his masterclass in Edinburgh this summer will quickly discover. Sunday painters need not to apply. "A masterclass is a very difficult thing," he says ominously. "A lot of people like to combine a holiday with making art and there's also an assumption that art isn't much good unless it's fun. Amateur artists often start off with a sublime subject and end up with something banal, whereas a real artist does it the other way round."

Eduardo Paolozzi has been looking at the banal and transforming it into the sublime for over half a century. Born near Edinburgh in 1924, he grew up in the ice-cream parlour owned by his Italian immigrant parents, immersed from the beginning in popular culture. It was, as he says, "a lasting influence", reflected in his most recent installation, "The Jesus Works and Store: an attempt to describe an indescribable film", included in Spellbound at the Hayward Gallery. A contemporary cross between a cabinet of curiosities and a film prop store, it was a link between ephemera, Pop and artefact, in which consumer objects were charged with a personal significance and underlayed with an abiding sense of classical aesthetics.

The exhibit, says Paolozzi, "was in a sense a lost autobiography - a lost childhood; a world of cigarette cards and cinemas. Something quite subliminal. It was naive art with a whiff of the psychotic. That relationship between childhood experience and art is lovely open territory. It's fascinating how things change when you see them in a different context."

If any one idea sums up Paolozzi, it is this decontextualising of objects to imbue them with other meanings. And, as this implies, if there is one thing he hates, it is the tendency to categorise: "To describe Kandinsky as an 'abstract painter' falls short. But what phrase do you use? Art in the 1990s is very complex. It's such a swing from Lucian Freud to Damien Hirst. Think of Hirst's spot paintings. Haven't we seen all that before - in the 1950s with the Cohen brothers? People doing the same kind of work over a period of time has made the labelling of art almost impossible."

Paolozzi himself is notoriously hard to define. At the Independent Gallery in 1952 he broke new ground with a silent projection of found images in random order. His early, fetishistic style of sculpture, influenced by Dubuffet, is also reminiscent of Giacometti and Germaine Richter. Gradually, these totemic figures metamorphosed into the slick mechanical men of the 1960s. At the same time he was making his seminally important Pop Art collages (he prefers the term Bunk). In 1965, he produced collage-based screenprints and, in the 1970s, his quasi-cubist sculptures. Then, in 1979, in an Edinburgh exhibition, he made a statement - Junk and the New Arts and Craft Movement - in which he defined himself as the inheritor of the populist torch of William Morris, again implying that high culture was popular property and vice versa. Having been professor of Ceramics at Cologne in the late 1970s, he now occupies a similar position at the RCA. Over 50 years, Paolozzi has worked in sculpture, graphics, books, films and the written word.

He does not see why all artists should not make similar crossovers. He cites Cocteau and, throughout our conversation, shows evidence of a vast fund of knowledge. Hardly surprising given that he has spent the last 40 years as a teacher as well as an artist. He proves the lie to the maxim that "those that can, do; those that can't, teach". It was Paolozzi who, as a visiting professor in Hamburg from 1960 to 1962, taught ill- fated Beatle and abstract painter Stuart Sutcliffe, commenting on his work: "One of my best students ... a very perceptive and sensitive person."

His own artistic education was somewhat unorthodox. Taking over the family ice-cream shop after the death of his father in 1941, Paolozzi attended evening classes at Edinburgh in 1943, only being free to enter the Slade full-time in 1944. Removed with the college to Oxford, Paolozzi spent most of his time in the Pitt Rivers Museum, fascinated by African art and fetish scupture. It was, he says, "a bit of a cultural struggle. I was the only student who slipped off there. Others were indifferent to it.

"When I left the Slade and went to Paris in 1947, I had a mission to see modern art and in particular Surrealism, and to meet real artists for the first time. They were all still alive and extremely approachable." He met Braque, Arp, Brancusi, Dubuffet, Leger, Giacometti, Mir and Tristan Tzara. He became friendly with Duchamp's ex-mistress Mary Reynolds, often visiting her house with its collage-covered walls. He realises how lucky he was. "Giacometti was unbelievably amiable. We met twice a week. We didn't have diaries - you just met at the Cafe Flore or the Deux Magots. We were all there every night." The casual "we" is taken to include not only Sartre and Camus, but such young Scottish artists as William Gear, William Turnbull and Alan Davie.

Paolozzi, a Surrealist at heart, schooled in the Europe of the 1950s, exemplifies that Scottish artist's internationalism which makes the current plans for a gallery devoted solely to Scottish art so inappropriate. As a Scottish artist, he has been claimed as a national asset in a new wing housing his work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art that will open next year. While excited by the prospect, he is cautious about being labelled. "Everyone has their own notion of nationhood, but it would be absolutely disastrous to be considered purely Scottish." And what exactly does Scottish "art" mean? "The Scots were once famous for building ships for the whole world. While Mackintosh's Glasgow Art School was being built, so were three cruisers for the Japanese Navy."

Paolozzi leaves the lunch table and dives into the storerooms of Jason and Rhodes to emerge with his 1970 portfolio of immaculately finished prints of US military hardware - Zero Energy Experimental Pile - a homage to American imperialism. This illustrates the leitmotif of his entire career - that all objects have an interrelated continuity within the human psyche.

"Modern art isn't easy," he says. "I remember Freddy Ayer [the logical positivist] telling me he found modern art very confusing. He longed for a big book on modern aesthetics so he could look up everything to see if I had the right amount of classifications and points. It just doesn't work that way, does it?"

n Masterclass, Edinburgh College of Art 15-26 July (lnfo: 0131-221 6111). 'Paolozzi Collages', Talbot Rice Art Gallery, Edinburgh (0131-650 2211) from 7 Aug

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower