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“No one should be ashamed of their art hero”

Published 6 April 2017

Mentioning the quirky, non-conformist style of Anthony Green at my art school interview drew sniggers – but it was Green’s very idiosyncrasies that taught me to think for myself, says artist and RA Schools tutor Mark Hampson.

  • I first saw Anthony Green’s paintings in 1984 at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester as a young art student. It was an instant artistic epiphany.

    Wildly irregular in shape and sometimes constructed over the course of several years, Anthony Green’s paintings, currently on show in The Life and Death of Miss Dupont in the RA’s Tennant Gallery, are often described as “immediately recognisable” for their eccentric format and autobiographical content. His work is acutely personal; his wife of 56 years, Mary, often appears alongside him in them. Born in 1939, Green has now spent four decades of his career as a Royal Academician, but at the time he was a relatively new recruit.

    That 1984 exhibition marked the first time I had seen paintings that weren’t constrained by a simple rectangle or square format, but it also sowed the seeds of an awareness that paintings could have both multiple viewpoints and split narratives. It was the first time I had understood that as an artist you could confidently create work about your own life, relationships, passions and environment, doing so in a humorous, confessional, celebratory manner. I was 16 and learning! Such epiphanies came daily.

    I remember standing in the galleries asking myself all manner of rambling questions. Is this how Van Gogh might have painted if he had a TV? Do old artists play video games too? (Green was 47 – ancient to my youthful mind!) Can I also make work that is autobiographical in some way?

  • Anthony Green RA, The Birds/A Second Marriage

    Anthony Green RA, The Birds/A Second Marriage.

    Oil on MDF with birds carved by Martin Hoar. 140 x 253 x 15 cm.

  • Two years later, I went for an interview at The Chelsea School of Art. When asked about my influences, Anthony Green was one of the many names that I passionately and naturally claimed as an artistic hero.

    The mention of his name was met with an exchange of complicit snobbish smiles from an interview panel whose passions centred around abstraction, minimalism and conceptual tendencies. My admission of debt to Green felt like a flatulent faux pas by which I had somehow simultaneously exposed my lack of sophistication, my working-class bad taste and my cultural naivety. My “greenness”.

    Perhaps sensing my distress, one of the panel offered, “I suppose you can have him as a guilty pleasure, but who do you REALLY like?” To which I wish I had replied, “I never feel guilty about pleasure and I REALLY like Anthony Green!”

    Sadly, in reality I blushed pathetically, feeling somehow disloyal and guilty about my pleasure. It’s easy to be clever in retrospect and not always in interviews. Moments like these lodge in our memories, forging our positions in both life and in art. I have hated this type of snobbish orthodox artistic opinion and its elitism ever since.

  • My admission of debt to Green felt like a flatulent faux pas by which I had somehow simultaneously exposed my lack of sophistication, my working-class bad taste and my cultural naivety

  • Over time in my practice as an artist, an ever-evolving army of great painters has influenced my thinking, cramming the corners of my mind and my studio – but I have always kept an eye out for Green. At every annual Summer Exhibition, his works have continued to surprise me in their unflinching ability to be uniquely his.

    To me, The Life and Death of Miss Dupont is a distinct reminder of how wonderfully inspirational and edgy Anthony Green’s work seemed to my younger artistic self and, more importantly, how refreshingly relevant he remains for me today.

    The works on show embrace almost every conceivable static form and approach, fused to forge an inventive narrative homage to the artist’s late mother. Under Anthony Green’s spell, the Royal Academy’s Tennant Gallery has been transformed into a wonderland of creative possibilities: part archive, part wunderkammer, part circus. The Life and Death of Miss Dupont simultaneously manages to be lovingly devotional, perversely funny, disturbingly erotic and visually mind-blowing in its eclecticism.

    How, despite their acknowledged debts to the masters of art history, the homages to Soutine, Bonnard, Van Gogh, do the works manage to look so original and distinct? Nobody else paints quite like Anthony Green.

    As an artist and a teacher, The Life and Death of Miss Dupont makes me want to be wilder and more courageous in my own approaches, and to encourage that boldness in my students. Anthony Green encourages me to poke the eye of the establishment, while simultaneously sticking out my tongue at some of the commercial aspects of the contemporary art world. He gives me permission to embrace my not-so-guilty pleasures, my personal obsessions, and my own idiosyncratic imperfections. He makes me want to go Green. I hope all aspiring artists feel free to do the same.

  • Anthony Green RA: The Life and Death of Miss Dupont is in the Tennant Gallery, 18 January - 25 June 2017.

    Mark Hampson is a painter, printmaker and the Head of Material Processes at the RA Schools. His 2013 Tennant Gallery exhibition Almost Real Art: A Satirical Archaeology of the RA Collections and Library displayed a series of mock-historical artworks, inspired by stories Hampson discovered while collaborating with the RA Collections, Library and Archives. His prints and engravings are available on the RA Art Sales website.