Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Deanna Petherbridge: I was born in Pretoria South Africa and studied Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatesrand, Johannesburg. As I get older, I’m beginning to realise the significance of this background, something I didn’t really think about before. I’ve spent most of my life here in the UK compared to those few early years in South Africa, but having lived under such an acutely unjust political regime I was already radically shaped by different beliefs, fears and expectations from my future compatriots by the time I emigrated. In the ‘swinging’ London of the 1960s, people were just getting over post-war austerity war, and there was a consumer boom in Carnaby Street and on Kings Road and a buzzing party atmosphere fuelled by the sexual and social revolution of ‘Flower Power’. I found this all very problematical to adjust to it, having come from a country with immense issues of poverty, suffering and discrimination where people I knew were in prison, and where as students we were involved in protests at the closing down of universities to non-white students. I therefore came to this country with a different kind of political consciousness, which made the early years in London very difficult, along with the factors of being economically fragile in a totally new country where I had to find jobs, friends and put down roots.
Secondly, as a practitioner, I came out of a very different artistic tradition. Again, this is something I hadn’t really thought about until recently, but looking back on it I do realise that in South Africa, in education and professional artistic practice at that time there was a very significant graphic emphasis. Drawing can be done so simply: you can scratch in the sand or you can just draw with a piece of charcoal or with very simple instruments. Paper-based works don’t have the material weight and monetary value of paint and canvases or sculpture. So drawing is not a grand tradition, it is a way of thinking visually at a very democratic level. It’s the poor persons way of inventing and communicating.
Walter Battiss (1906-1982) was an influential artist, when I was growing up in Pretoria, whose own work and teaching drew on influences from indigenous traditions. In those years there were a handful of what we could now call ‘outreach’ classes for young people of all races to learn graphic techniques such as woodcut and linocut encompassing ‘vernacular’ subject-matter. Our pan-African identity was widely debated in my student years in the 1950s, while, on the contemporary art side, the influence of Léger, Picasso, Paul Klee (both the latter looking to cultures outside Europe) was dominant. And, significantly for my future career, Fine Art studies at the University of the Witwatesrand involved a joint practical and history-of-art degree. European Art History was taught by a very well-informed German refugee, Dr. Maria Stein-Lessing, but she was equally involved in collecting traditional Ndebele bead work and lived in an amazing house designed by Sir Herbert Baker, whose terraced-gardened neoclassical ‘Union Buildings’ (offices of the peripatetic government moving between Cape Town and the administrative capitol Pretoria) was so influential on my future preoccupations with architecture. I realise now that these early factors of environment and education have influenced me all of my life.
RB: Then you went on to study here or did you teach?
DP: I didn’t study because I couldn’t afford it – although I would have liked to do so – and I started teaching quite soon in a London secondary school with multiple other occasional and part-time jobs along the way. I painted huge canvases (relating to anti-Vietnam war subjects) and made soft sculpture in stuffed fabric and did some exhibiting in the London Group. By 1967 I had moved to a Greek island, where I lived more or less permanently for about a year and then went backwards and forwards on long visits from London as I had my major studio there. My earliest drawings in Greece explored the constructed terraced landscape and flat-roofed whitewashed architecture of the island with its sharp shadows, and, in summer, the dearth of colour in the rocky landscape.
In the late 1960s and 1970s I travelled widely in the Balkans, Maghreb, Italy, Spain and the Middle East and I attended lectures on Islamic art at the Architectural Association in London. The first journals for which I wrote regularly in the 1970s were architectural journals (Architectural Design and The Architectural Review) and I taught drawing at the Architectural Association for some years in the Communications department. I was then interested in what was referred to as Town Art or Art for Public Places, although in time I came to reject many of the ideas associated with the movement. I originally wrote about it in The Architectural Review, where for a time I presented a regular monthly article and then in 1980s I started writing for Art Monthly, founded by Peter Townsend. I collaborated with him on his book Art Within Reach, Thames & Hudson, 1984 writing three of the chapters and was the editor of Art for Architecture: A Handbook on Commissioning, HMSO, 1988, in association with a small research team sponsored by the Department of the Environment. As well as sitting on all sorts of juries and committees including Art for Architecture,which I helped to launch, I also showed regularly at exhibitions such as Art into Landscape at the Serpentine Gallery and even won a few prizes. In addition to running a Public Art column for Art Monthly I also started investigating the structure of the art world and looking at other social issues, such as the rise of sponsorship in the Thatcher Years and its relationship to publicly funded institutions. In those days the Arts Council of Great Britain held a very authoritative and hegemonic role, together with other Establishment bodies such as the British Council (which still maintains what is shown at the Venice Biennale), museums and publicly funded contemporary art galleries and certain art schools. This was a very hieratic and centrally controlled art world, compared to the (apparently) laissez faire world of multiple practices that we live in now, that depends on different forms of competitive power structures. In the 1970s and 1980s monolithic art movements, for example Minimalism, were endorsed by the dominant institutions who influenced all aspects of teaching, exhibiting, acquisitions, curatorship, critical writing and publications.
Of the various art schools which I visited or taught at as a sessional lecture, for example the Fine Art department at Reading University, the most interesting was Middlesex Polytechnic. The Fine Art department ran a very liberal inter-departmental, non-mediumistic system where staff taught across the board. This would mean looking one moment at a performance artist, the next at installation art (that was then becoming an important genre) and the next watching film – video was then just being taken up. I believe, looking back, that the art that was being produced in the 1980s was extraordinarily inventive. A lot of things were set up then that have now become boring, stale old orthodoxies in the 21st century.
RB: This was teaching art across the board and you then specialized in drawing later?
DP: I didn’t specialise as a teacher of drawing until I became Professor of Drawing much later at the Royal College of Art in 1995, although my own practice had been consistently drawing-based after I went to live in Greece in 1967. I moved there while still undertaking focussed visits to Middle Eastern countries that now one can’t easily travel to any longer (for example the Yemen and Iran) as I was very much influenced by the geometries and design values of Islamic art and architecture.
I had moved into drawing because it seemed to me then as a way to solve a number of problematical issues about representation and the tactility and evocative qualities of paint that were challenged under the austere and reductive regime of Minimalism. Monochrome linearity seemed to me a much more abstracted means in which I could play contradictory games with three-dimensionality, and in an early series I deliberately constructed circular, square or lozenge-shaped works that could be hung any way up, without a predetermined axis of orientation.
RB: Over the past twenty years or so, anthologies, conferences, dedicated degree drawing courses, research papers, have proliferated. They all speak of the ‘expanded field’ of drawing, expanded not only in what can be counted in as drawing, but also in how we can think about drawing. Why do you think there has been such an upsurge in interest in drawing?
Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.