In trying to find words to describe Simon Quadrat’s paintings, both in subject and style, I found myself returning to “articulate” and “eloquent.” Looking at them is like finding yourself in the middle of a strange but perfectly told story, and there’s a real poetical grace in the way they balance dark melancholy wit with light, warmth, and space. Somehow these words apply to Quadrat’s technique as well, which combines curiosity and intelligence with a sort of surprising clarity in the arrangement of a world full of color, pattern, and shifting perspective. I am very grateful that Quadrat agreed to answer a few questions about his work. (I say “a few,” but in truth the more I looked at his paintings the more I wanted to learn about them, and he very kindly answered everything I sent his way.)
A brief introduction to place some of my answers in context: I was born in London in 1946. My parents had met there after fleeing Nazi Germany before the war started. I read Law at university and practised as a barrister in criminal cases for 30 years. In 2000 I gave up the Bar in order to paint full time. I have exhibited continuously and widely and my work is in a large number of private collections. I would describe myself as entirely self taught.
I’m curious about the process of teaching yourself to paint, as fueled by a passion for looking at paintings. I see echoes of certain established artists, but your style has such a perfectly formed strangeness and honesty. It seems that every element is exactly where it needs to be and as you needed to make it. Can you talk about some of the joys and frustrations of discovering the art of painting?
I suppose a love of painting is partly inherited. The two things that have stayed with me for all my adult life are the love of painting and playing the piano. Both I got from my mother; where she got them I don’t know. I have been looking at paintings since my early teens and have countless times stood in wonder before masterpieces. My early interest was in old masters from Piero della Francesca to Constable, modern art came later, but for many years that interest was only as viewer not painter. By the time of my 30s I was pretty knowledgeable on art but I hadn’t painted a single picture since leaving school. Then for reasons I can’t remember or explain, perhaps curiosity, I wanted to try to paint myself. Perhaps it was for the same reason that I knew aged 15 that I wanted to learn to play the piano after I had heard Brahms First and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Of course I soon discovered that wishing yourself to do something is not the same as doing it and there are mountains to be climbed.
So began my journey with painting and I suppose it is very similar to anyone else’s, drawing, more drawing, copying paintings, finding techniques and styles I liked and gradually assimilating them and then of course finding subjects I wanted to paint, and as important, finding your own style and one relevant to today, the style you wonderfully call my strangeness, although ‘perfectly formed’? I think not. On the subject of teaching yourself to paint I don’t think your question implies that there is a learning period and then a doing period. The fact is that with anything one does the learning period never ends. Year after year, decade upon decade you strive to improve and sometimes you find you actually have. So as to the joys and frustrations of painting you ask about, one of the joys is discovering that you can produce something that you quite like, but only quite, because the main frustration is never reaching what you are aiming for, or as Francis Bacon put it … you know exactly what you want to do but can’t find the way this thing can be made. This on balance has to be a good thing, otherwise why carry on? Then there is the realisation that comes early, that you have to carry on despite knowing that you will never match the great masters in history. Having said that, the feeling of connection with those who have gone before is quite a consolation.
What are some of the artists or works of art that inspired and influenced you? Who did you look towards to understand different methods and techniques of painting?
There is no simple answer to this and the number of artists who have inspired and influenced me are beyond counting. I would say that the artists I turn towards are those who show their intelligence, their imagination, their understanding of and empathy with the human condition, their sense of humour and light touch, their ability to simplify and cut out what is unnecessary and above all their ability to relate to the viewer and to draw the viewer into their work, perhaps leaving the viewer something to realise and work out for themselves.
So when Browning wrote in his monologue Fra Lippo Lippi:
For mark this, we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor care to see;
And so they are better, painted …
That is a statement I totally get. Painters like Chardin or Morandi or Diebenkorn don’t paint everyday objects because they obsess about them or can’t think of anything more interesting to paint. A beaker or a pair of glasses and a cigarette butt are just things but in the hands of a great painter they become transformed; you see these things in a different way and that is their reason and justification.
I also relate to the statement at the bottom of an early self portrait by Giorgio de Chirico which, translated from Latin reads:
‘And what should I love unless it be an Enigma’
The quality of mystery and alongside it melancholy (which you ask about in question 7) distinguish his and a number of other artists’ works ( I think of Philip Guston for example) and are very important for me, while not meaning that either they or I are by nature melancholic.
As to technique I take this to cover every aspect of the painter’s craft including— surface, paint, oil mediums used, brushes, fast or slow working, preparatory drawing or none, experimentation and accident. In my case I don’t place a great amount of store by preparation as I make so many changes anyway and for most of the time I feel while I am painting that I don’t know what I am doing and am barely in control. All these points and questions affect the way you paint and the results you achieve. So the simple question of whether you use paint directly from the tube or thin it and if so whether you use a resin can have a profound effect, as also whether you apply paint broadly with a heavy brush or as I do favour small soft brushes. I have for a long time felt there are similarities between the act of painting and playing the piano. I favour the concept of the ‘quiet hand’ in both, a light but free ranging touch, which can be both fast and slow.
You ask who I look at to understand different techniques. I suppose I would reply by saying that by 1450, pictures in oil paint were being created which were perfect in every way, seemingly created from nothing and which can never be bettered; what has followed to the present day are infinite variations of what painting can achieve, determined by the spirit and fashion of the age they were painted in. We went to Paris in March and I spent a great deal of time in the 17th century French painting rooms in the Louvre. I was surrounded by artists I am in awe of, Poussin, Claude, the le Nain brothers, de la Tour and Watteau, whose so clever painting of Pierrot is my favourite in the gallery, for reasons I could write another essay on.
I love the interplay of textures in your work. Water and glass with their cool, discombobulating depths and reflections contrasted with walls and roads, which are almost tactile, layers of bricks, stones, plaster, posters. Can you talk a little about the use of textures in your work, and the techniques behind them?
Although quite understandable, it’s a great shame that we can’t touch paintings in galleries because the texture or feel of the paint surface is a great way of getting into the artist’s mind.
The texture in my painting can be quite varied. It comes about because we have restless minds and like to experiment and try new things. I also have a great fondness for paint simply applied in the most economical way and in small paintings I attempt to follow this approach. It differs with larger paintings where the surface is more varied. I think my use of textures began almost by accident. I often start paintings with no idea where I am going with them (I try to avoid that if I can now) So a point would come where I would start getting fed up or unhappy with what I was doing, If the paint was still wet I would take a cloth to it, or if it was dry I would either scrape or sand it back a bit or simply leave it as it was and just paint over it. Sometimes the earlier effort or small parts of it would show through leaving something rather magical and unexpected and these were the bits people would start to notice and comment on. Another approach I have used, favoured throughout history is to mix something inert with the paint. It can be anything from ground glass, as used by Rembrandt, marble dust, plaster or sand as used by Braque and Picasso. I have used all these things and in the past would even mix PVA glue with oil paint, creating a layer which will dry almost at once. I love the way for example that Jean Dubuffet used to comb the outlying railway sidings of Paris for tar, coal dust, smuts, and bits of gravel to use on his wonderful compositions in his search for unsophisticated art.
You talk about people “reading” your paintings, in a sense…making up their own stories as they look at them. All of your paintings seem to have a past and a future, there’s a sense that we’ve arrived in the middle of the action. Do you think in terms of narrative and character while painting? Do you have an idea of the story in your head, or is it just a particular peculiar moment that we see?
I think it is in the nature of painting to pose more questions than it can answer. Unlike music or literature, painting suffers or perhaps benefits from the inability to work within the dimension of time, so unless it is dealing with a story such as a biblical story which is already known to the viewer, it can only ever give a partial account of what may be happening; it is therefore an incomplete story and one in which you say, you throw the viewer into the middle of the action. But that is also good because painting such as mine requires the viewer if they choose to, to fill in the unanswered questions themselves.
It follows then that unless I can express it within the painting I am no more able to tell you what is happening than is the viewer, and I want the viewer to use his imagination. I can say that I have chosen to paint images from my imagination rather than subjects in front of me because that way I can do anything I want in the painting and that includes breaking the rules, such as they any longer exist, whether to do with scale, perspective, realistic colouring, abstraction of the imagery, or most importantly for me the ability to unsettle the viewer with a surreal or dreamlike image. So yes, in that sense I try to give the paintings a timeless quality where past and future don’t matter. Interestingly I have just realised that timelessness is a quality you find in the paintings of Poussin, although I hesitate to identify with him. I don’t claim to succeed but if I have anything in mind when I paint, apart from the practical and technical problems of trying to resolve the composition and painterly questions such as what colour, brush or type of stroke to use, it is a wish put an emotional charge into the painting and not just tell a story. Not the sole one but I think the wish to portray loneliness without becoming maudlin or sentimental, is a driving force in my painting, also human warmth and understanding. These are huge topics and I am after all only a painter.
Here are two paintings on similar themes which leave more than enough for the viewer to interpret what may have happened:
Has the man left his hat intending to return?, possibly not given the expression and demeanour of the lady
Has the lady been waiting for someone, has she been stood up, and has she now accepted that he isn’t coming and hence the bill for her coffee?
Speaking of stories, your parents both emigrated from Europe shortly before the Second World War. I imagine they and their friends had many interesting tales to tell. Do their history and their stories find their way into your art?
Yes I was brought up in a stimulating and colourful household. My parents, who were Jewish but not particularly religious raised my sister and I in the strange and also exciting milieu of emigre post war London. Story telling was central to conversation and the descriptions used often in Yiddish were very direct and visual. They, our relatives and their friends were with hindsight people with fascinating and poignant backgrounds. Yes, they had a past to relate but that was a story they never told and as is the way, we never asked, or rather very occasionally they would just hint at the lives they had left behind. I am a product of my parents so their histories must go towards the person I have become but if that finds its way into my painting it is not an obvious connection. More importantly it is the lives we led together and the things we did and the place London then was and the areas I got to know well that have had a lasting and profound effect on what I paint. For example my father ran a clothing factory in the East End— the factory workers, the noise of the machinery, the popular music played on the Tannoy system, the feel and smell of the cloth, the humour, down to the drabness and dampness of the brick walls, all have left a lasting impression on my memory. Then there were our trips to the seaside and visits to France Italy and even Germany, all imprinted on my memory and all providing in one way or another the basis for my painting. If as is suggested, artists tend to remain more constant to their childhood sensations and are obsessed by images from childhood then I suppose I am an artist.
I love everything about the windows in your paintings. When they’re open/unframed, the light and shadow presents such an evocative sense of interior space (even in a child’s toy!). There’s nothing so wistful as a glimpse through a window into the lives of others. When they’re closed the texture and color of the reflections in the panes of glass instantly conjures a certain time of day or year, and the associated mood. And one of my favorite things in the history of art is a scene through a window that adds another element of meaning and another layer of space. Can you talk a bit about windows as a motif in your work?
You have drawn my attention to an aspect of my painting which I hadn’t really thought about.
I see that I have put windows into some of the paintings as a way of saying something indirectly about what the painting signifies.
For example here is a painting called The Swimmer:
The man is swimming in the pool. Beyond the pool through the window can be seen the sea and the outside world, but he can never reach it because he is trapped, his world is contained by the pool.
This painting was used by a magazine when covid lockdown was introduced as it is again about separation, recently enforced, from what is happening outside.
On the subject of windows I am fascinated by the idea of looking into other peoples’ lives. I read and was highly influenced by Dylan Thomas when I was younger, and identified with the sense that he writes as an outsider looking in. In painting no one has conveyed that better than Edward Hopper whose rides on the EL looking into open windows bore such fruit in his painting. The Office is a favourite of mine, the tension he achieves, amazing.
Finally a window used to emphasise the tone and setting of the painting:
We don’t see a lot of smiling people in your work. There’s a sort of lingering melancholy or loneliness, maybe even detachment. But underlying that there’s such a generosity and almost affection, not just for the people but for the objects as well, which seem to carry the memories and spirits of the people who have held them or used them. I see a vulnerability in them that’s more tender than hopeless. Can you talk about your process of painting people and their place in your work, and also the way this extends to the objects people use?
My family tease me about this often. Your comments, which are very generous, about the people in my paintings made me realise that I didn’t know how to answer this until I looked up the paintings shown on my website under the heading ‘Imagined People’. I think that when I paint these pictures putting imagined people into imagined scenes, that I am subconsciously acting out similar stories and scenarios. It is, as you point out, quite clear when you look at these paintings together that I place them in very similar poses. Their positions are very static, perhaps interrupted in doing something very mundane, they appear deep in thought, they appear neither happy nor particularly unhappy but perhaps they are experiencing some difficult emotional disturbance which they seem to be trying to suppress, or they are simply waiting for something, none of us know what, to happen. I already knew that loneliness was a key feature in my work but when I write the comments above it is almost as if I was writing about another painter’s work, so that is very odd. If my work is melancholic and the people appear lonely then people assume wrongly that I am painting myself. I am neither of these things. I am aware that I also paint about relationships in a positive way. That is more a reflection of my true character as I am very happily married.
As to the process of painting people against certain settings, I think I contemplate the setting first and then work out who should appear in it and how. Again so much of this is subliminal. I always thought that I abstracted the people to remove individual identity but now I look at them again I am not so sure. Perhaps you will agree that I set my paintings in a timeless period which isn’t quite real. I think this is the only way I can paint, partly of my memory and partly from pure imagination
I would like to add a postscript on this last comment which applies also to the remaining questions. I paint funfairs, circuses, seasides, run down houses, cafes, streets at night, buses and trams and other similar settings, all of which I have experienced myself. I have come to realise that I don’t paint these things because of a particular interest in them or because I have to exorcise them so to speak I paint them because they serve as a pretext or catalyst to the act of painting itself which is the prime motivating factor. I know that I am unable to paint a picture unless I really want to if the subject is alien to me, and I think like many painters that painting is an end in itself. For these reasons I am not suited to painting to commission. My work is too subjective and I can’t isolate myself from it.
The backgrounds of your paintings are balanced between “fun” and “industry,” between inhabited and abandoned. Places where people gather for amusement on the one hand, and the vacant relics of shops and factories on the other. There’s not a lot of distinction in mood between the two. But they all have a sense of being haunted by memory, the memory of the people who lived there, the memory of the expectations of fun or profit, and the memory of the history of art as well, through the centuries. Do you think about a sort of world of your paintings? Of creating a space for the stories and characters?
Yes in a way I regard the background of my paintings as crucial stage sets and the characters in the foreground as my principal players. Behind them or on the sidelines are the audiences or bystanders. My three paintings showing Punch and Judy are a distortion of the reality that exists inside the booth and the separate reality of what is occurring outside and show as clearly as any of my paintings do that everything is unreal and taking place on a stage.
I would like to say that these backgrounds, run down, dark and very quiet have occupied my dreams for years and without them I would not paint these pictures. Even as I write this I have an image in my head of me walking down a street at night. There is no traffic and the street is cobbled. It has just stopped raining and my shoes make a metallic sound as I walk, The old brick houses either side are shuttered and I have a vision as I walk of rows and rows of sleeping bodies lying in their beds, unseen by anyone. Is that strange or unusual?
I love the use of images within images in your paintings—posters, labels, paintings, billboards, graffiti. It seems such a beautiful way to place the scene in a certain time and place, to add depth to the characters in the image, and to pay tribute to artists you admire. Do these images have a certain motivation in your work? I almost feel as though we can follow them to other worlds within your paintings, and in the lives and works of other artists.
As with the previous answer the world of the imagination as I show it is an unreal world which has to be populated with sufficiently real objects as to be capable of being confused with reality. I love things like billboards, signs and posters and they help signify the atmosphere and because so much of what I put in is reminiscent of the city I grew up in. I love the paintings of Philip Guston in all 3 stages of his career. His constant use of similar objects and symbols from his early life, some of which are now causing a controversy I find hard to understand, in both his pre and post abstract phases are very much what I am seeking to do. How wonderfully he uses them and his motives are pure and genuine.
Similarly, I’m intrigued by the symbols in your paintings. For the old masters, there was a sort of language of symbols that people viewing the image would understand (Lilies representing purity, for instance). I feel that your work invents its own language of symbols, though its etymology might be based in some of the meanings the old masters were drawing upon. Looking through your work feels almost like deciphering a new language—searching for the meaning of a bird, a bottle, a letter, a toy, a teacup. Can you talk a little about objects as symbols in your paintings?
And so to my answer to your last question and if anyone is still reading this then heaven help you and thank you.
I find that sometimes when I am in conversation I confuse people by using metaphors the meaning of which are not instantly obvious, so I am told to say what I mean. Well I don’t think I can or want to as without metaphor and symbols language and painting would be so dull. As I mentioned much earlier on, objects in painting take on a life and meaning of their own and they lose their quality of ‘function’ which allows us to ignore them in order to treat them as exciting, puzzling and even sinister. I think that painters came to understand that from the earliest days of painting hence the richness of their art. Well the symbols have changed over time but the intention remains the same.
Simon Quadrat was born in London in 1946, the son of parents who separately fled Nazi Germany before the war started. After reading Law at university he embarked on a 30 year long career as a Barrister specialising in criminal cases.
In 2000 he gave up the Bar in order to become a full time painter. He and his wife Jenny live in Wiltshire and his studio is a barn at the bottom of the garden.
He has exhibited regularly over 20 years in a number of galleries and his work is in numerous private collections both in the UK and abroad. Since 2009 he has been represented by Panter and Hall in London. Simon is an elected member and past President of the Royal West of England Academy and an elected member of the New English Art Club. Apart from art, music and particularly playing the piano has, since childhood, played a large part in Simon’s life. You can see more of his work at simonquadrat.co.uk and on Instagram at simonquadratartist.