Think Tank Studio

The artist’s studio is a virulent place for anyone curious to lurk around the source of ideas.

Johannes Vermeer van Delft (1632–1675), The Art of Painting, ca. 1666/1668 © KHM-Museumsverband

Art studios are still the main site of artistic production, even in the age of media technology. Studio visits are a chance to explore these think tanks and ask protagonists how journeys of the mind manifest themselves today – be it on canvas or on the computer.

New media technology has turned the computer into a mobile studio, enabling artists to draw inspiration for their artwork anywhere they go. This is nothing new of course: traveling artists used to tote sketchbooks. But now the concept, which is to say even the digital note, can replace the actual work of art. While the art studio’s “sisters” – i.e. the gallery and museum space – are often used to implement these ideas, special workspaces remain in use because the range of crafting methods and materials used to make art has expanded since 1960 – think, for instance, of fat, felt, blood or honey. Thus the studio remains a virulent place for anyone curious to lurk around the source of ideas.

From the cave to the factory
The first painting workshops could be found in Stone Age caves. The artistry of prehistoric peoples has often been compared to that of Leonardo and Michelangelo. They mixed earthy colors and coal with water in rock depressions. The sculptures and grave goods accompanying murals in West Thebes since Amenhotep I (ca. 1520 BC) have their origins in the workshops of what is now Deir el-Medina, an artisan settlement near Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Reports from artisanal workshops in Babylon mention maternity leave for craftswomen, and stars like the sculptor Phidias erected studio buildings at the site of large commissions even in ancient Greece. In Olympia in 2002, archeological excavations led to the reconstruction of a 13-meter-high hall next to residential buildings – the cavernous space where a number of wood, metal, glass and bronze specialists cast the 12.37-meter-high statue of a seated Zeus on a throne in 440/30 BC. From Gothic builders’ huts to Renaissance and Baroque studios to Andy Warhol’s “Factory” and postmodernism, famous artists have always had assistants on staff. There was, as in all democratic constitutions, a battle for Greek statesman Pericles’s favor in commissioning the decoration of the Parthenon temple given the amount of financial support involved (it was bestowed upon Athenian sculptor Phidias with the flourish of a prince), yet artists like Apelles – court painter to Alexander the Great – enjoyed such high prestige in the Hellenistic period that, according to Pliny the Elder, Alexander gave him his mistress Campaspe as a present. Besides the artistic representation they received through their palace workspaces, this story marks the start of a publically appealing, erotic reference to intimacy between painters and their nude models that spans all the way to the bohemia of Pablo Picasso’s Montmartre studio in Paris and Gustav Klimt’s “harem” at his studio villa in Vienna’s Hietzing district. This centuries-long gender attribution – active male artist here, passive female muse there – saw a break in the work of exceptional female artists.

The painted studio space
But there was also another perspective on the studio as a place of artistic research: a shift away from the studio as a site of pure craft and artistic activity to the seething laboratory of ideas. This resulted in a specific type of image: the studio and gallery picture.

The most famous studio representations are meta-paintings. Concealed behind a superficial portrayal of the artist at his or her easel are further levels of thought and reflection – elements, allegories and fundamental questions, from Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” to Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” to the socio-political attitude captured in Gustave Courbet’s “The Artist’s Studio” from 1855. Efforts to preserve the studios of great artists such as Raphael or Leonardo as museums started as early as the Renaissance, and were fueled by the cult of genius and Romanticism in the 19th century; the best-known modernist examples include Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, Francis Bacon’s chaotic painting studio and the noteworthy arrangement of works in Constantin Brâncus¸ is’s workspace for sculptures, not to mention the club and commune-like atmospheres at Andy Warhol’s and Robert Rauschenberg’s New York City studio lofts.

Where journeys of the mind take shape It is still exciting to visit artists’ studios, even after bohemia and the cult of genius, after social representation and parodies like Vito Acconci’s 1972 “Seedbed” at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery where – masturbating while concealed under a false floor in the gallery – Acconci performatively transferred the act of seminal creativity to his own body. It’s all about seeing spaces of thought and asking protagonists how their mind journeys manifest themselves today, be it on paper or canvas, in wood, textile, synthetic resin or on the computer.

Text by Brigitte Borchhardt-Birbaumer:

Brigitte Borchhardt-Birbaumer is an art scholar, journalist and exhibition curator. Lectures at the University of Vienna, the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the Max Reinhardt Seminar. Member of the KHM supervisory board since 2009.

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