The Artist’s Studio by James Hall review – lust, crime and creativity | Art and design books

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The Artist’s Studio by James Hall review – lust, crime and creativity | Art and design books

Llike the loading bay at Anfield, or the unremarkable Detroit house that became Motown Records’ hit factory, the artist’s studio is where the magic happens. But the strange alchemy that turns branding into a mesmerizing work of art is only half of it. Sometimes there is also sex in the studio. The Dutch Golden Age painter Gerard de Lairesse hired two sisters as models in his hometown of Liège, but did a runner in 1664 after locals discovered that he had had an affair with not one, but both of they. And when there was no sex, the studio could witness the mad infatuation of an artist like the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. He commissioned a life-size doll modeled after his ex, Anna Mahler, and made more than 80 paintings, drawings and photographs of it in his studio.

There can also be violence and death in the studio. The sculptor Bernini swung a crowbar at his brother Luigi in their workplace at St Peter’s, Rome, cracking several ribs after discovering that Luigi was sleeping with his mistress. The early art historian Vasari wrote of Michelangelo, “He was constantly flattering corpses to study the secrets of anatomy.” He got through at least 30 cadavers.

In art historian James Hall’s account, some artists would stand in baskets of wood shavings to keep their feet warm. They must “ignore odors of varnishes and oils that make painters’ workrooms smell like a communal latrine”, as one 18th-century chronicler put it. The Spanish master Goya would refresh his canvases at night and stumble around his gloomy studio with candles attached to a sturdy hat, a risk to himself and the entire household. No, the artist in dress and beret calmly channeling his vision at the easel is atypical.

One of the few who could manage it was the pure Peter Paul Rubens, a diplomat as well as the outstanding figure of the Flemish Baroque. He has done more than the dreams of any management how-to guide. In 1621 the physician to the King of Denmark happened to call at the great man’s studio in Antwerp and found “the master was working on a canvas while listening to a lecture by Tacitus and at the same time dictating a letter” .

The studio was not always a safe place for a female artist. Pioneer Artemisia Gentileschi grew up in Rome, the daughter of a painter, and the family home served as her father’s workshop, with a steady traffic of models, colleagues and buyers. It was the scene of her rape by a fellow artist in 1611 when she was 17. In one of her most celebrated works, a dynamic and assertive self-portrait as the allegory of painting, “her studio is cell-like and windowless, but, Caesar-style, she crosses a cultural Rubicon”, says Hall.

For my money, the greatest studios in British art belonged to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Besides their friendship, one thing the pair had in common was a spell at an English boarding school, which probably explains a lot. Black-and-white footage shows Bacon plodding across the middle of a studio like a hoarder being talked out of a stash of junk. At one time, his nanny shared this space, sleeping on a table after a hard day’s shoplifting with her full-grown charge, as if in a riotous reimagining of the Jacob Rees-Mogg story. Freud’s studio in Notting Hill, with its rolling bare boards, clumps of paint on the walls and piles of dirty white rags, looks like the deck of a ship converted into a makeshift field hospital.

The Artist’s Studio describes how a tumultuous cabin of lust, crime and virtuosity produced innovations in how art is made, and by whom. To you, me and the estate agent, a studio is the pinchiest of accommodations, but in Hall’s sprawling and dryly entertaining survey, it has many mansions.

The Artist’s Studio by James Hall is published by Thames & Hudson (£30). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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