The studio reflects the changing status of artists through time, from the humble workspace of art workers to the hallowed ground of masters
Today, art production is just as likely to take place on a laptop as in a paint-splattered loft; nevertheless, the studio retains its aura as the ultimate site of creation. As represented in paintings such as Courbet’s allegorical self-portrait of 1855 and in the kitsch mid-century photos of Modernist greats by Vogue art director Alexander Liberman, the studio is a crucible in which experience is transmuted through the struggle of a genius into gold, both metaphorical and literal.
In earlier centuries, most artists worked in botteghe (workshops), where they were apprenticed to master craftsmen, or in the scriptoria of monasteries. The relatively low status of art workers in the Middle Ages, when they were still regarded as manual labourers, began to alter as they imbibed the scholarly pretensions of their aristocratic patrons, and the bottega became the studiolo: a site of learned refinement more suited to quiet contemplation than to dust and hammering. (Leonardo da Vinci, who abjured the role of the bottega principle, said that ‘an artist’s studio should be a small space because small rooms discipline the mind’.) Successful artists such as Tintoretto could afford both a bottega and a studiolo, thus spatially separating the functions of research and development, and production. This paralleled the division of labour that would accelerate with the development of capitalism.
Source: Hubert Fanthomme / Paris Match via Getty Images
However, the studio was not firmly welded to the artist’s identity until Netherlandish painters of the 17th century began to incorporate it into their self-portraits. In this mercantile, bourgeois society, Rembrandt’s obsessive self-documentation extended to his place of work (in an early self-portrait he shrinks from his looming canvas), and Vermeer hit on the fantastic idea of catching himself in the act. Vermeer’s room, unlike the studio with crumbling plaster occupied by Rembrandt, has a domestic character the refinement of which serves to bolster the artist’s professional status. In both, however, light already emerges as a thematic constant.
‘Vermeer’s room, unlike the studio with crumbling plaster occupied by Rembrandt, has a domestic character the refinement of which serves to bolster the artist’s professional status’
By the 18th century, artists across Europe had an alternative career path to the studio apprenticeship in the form of the school. Such institutions were modelled on the École des Beaux-Arts, founded in 1648 and given its current buildings by Félix Duban in 1830-60. Duban’s works culminated in the enclosure of the central court by an elegant vault of glass and iron. While Duban saved his avant-gardism for the interior, later academies such as Mackintosh’s school in Glasgow and Van der Velde’s Weimar Bauhaus took transparency to the facade, making them instantly legible as sites of production. The glazed wall was also the marker of the factory, a double-coding (made explicit in Gropius’s Dessau Bauhaus) that can be traced back to William Morris’s attempt to recalibrate modes of artistic and industrial production.
Source: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy
The impulse behind Morris’s programme also provoked a dramatic escape from the studio, with painters following the Barbizon School in fleeing the cities for the plein air of the countryside – ironically, this was facilitated by the industrial production of paints, which were now available ready-made in tubes. Later, the Impressionists revealed that nature itself had been industrialised, but they continued the practice of painting outdoors with artistic labour now reconceived as an analogue of bourgeois leisure rather than peasant toil. This circular walk comes to a halt in Anselm Kiefer’s 200-acre outdoor studio near Nîmes.
‘The restored unity of life and art was, however, only available to the rich’
By the time Henry James wrote his short story The Real Thing in 1892, light had become the defining quality of the studio, to the point of being thereby legible to the layman: ‘He had had no other introduction to me than a guess, from the shape of my high north window, seen outside, that my place was a studio and that as a studio it would contain an artist.’ Meanwhile, the countryside was being merged with the city by critics of industrial urbanism, facilitating a sort of domesticated plein air painting in artistic suburbs by the new middle classes. While the academies had professionalised the discipline, continuing its trajectory away from the workshop, after Morris an attempt was made to fuse the broken parts – both institutionally and spatially. The restored unity of life and art was, however, only available to the rich: several of Shaw’s villas in Bedford Park are distinguished by large north-facing studio windows, while Voysey’s wallpaper factory in the same suburb was – though equally light – a proletarian place of alienated labour.
Source: Page \ Park
In any case, few artists could afford the luxury of a house-cum-studio in a garden suburb, and had to settle for grimier settings. The history of artists reusing light industrial spaces in insalubrious areas is coterminous with that of second-wave industrial urbanism, as industry moved out of the cities. Montmartre, Chelsea, the Village – all became artists’ ‘colonies’ in the mid-19th century. Bourgeois isolation was not an option for the impecunious, and despite the imperialism of the word colony – which would later be revealed in all its racist, gentrifying power – there was at the same time an undeniably potent communalism at work in such locales, often shared by immigrants and radical political cells. This is the milieu now romanticised as bohemia, but it also bred anarchist bombers.
‘When Abstract Expressionists explored the terrain of the canvas … few … would have acknowledged a relationship between their concerns and real estate’
This process was to have unexpected consequences. Martha Rosler put her finger on the turning point: ‘When Abstract Expressionists explored the terrain of the canvas … few … would have acknowledged a relationship between their concerns and real estate’. The city has been remade by avant-garde pioneers extracting value from poor neighbourhoods, and the workshop as site of de-alienated labour was ironised for a post-Fordist age by Warhol’s several studios, most famously the Silver Factory created by Billy Name.
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Source: Sophie Fiennes
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Source: Judd Foundation
Many artists have followed Warhol in returning to the bottega system, among them Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons; however these have jettisoned any remaining fragments of Morris in favour of imitating capitalism’s less romantic industrial processes. Meanwhile, a post-studio condition is inhabited by a jet-setting precariat of art producers lugging their laptops between London, Lisbon and Berlin. Their workspaces, should they be able to afford them, are in subdivided warehouses on city fringes, while in ‘revitalised’ centres, where all labour aspires to the status of ‘creativity’, co-working spaces such as Second Home plays on bohemian antecedents to colour exploitation with absinthe-tinted spectacles.
A31 Architects, Art Warehouse, Dilesi, Boeotia, Greece, 2010
The rough, board-formed vault of this free-standing concrete studio has a tough, elemental quality, sheltering the artist Alexander Liappis from the Mediterranean sun beating down on the carapace. Within the simple structure, a small mezzanine to the rear acts as a store for canvases, while the large, full-height space to the fore allows for the production of sculptures and paintings on a grand scale. Outside, a terrace acts as a place to display completed works among the olive trees.
Caseyfierro Architects, Assorted studio spaces, London, UK, 2015
Former industrial buildings have long been preferred sites for successful artists, especially those producing large-scale works, for reasons of economy as well as space. Warhol’s naming of his lofts ‘factories’ gave this phenomenon wry recognition, but most are less reflective on the conditions of their labour. Anish Kapoor’s recent monopolisation of an industrially produced pigment suggests his embrace of the capitalist mode of production is entirely unironic. He bought a former dairy in south London 20 years ago; Caseyfierro has been transforming the space over the past five years while he continued to work there.
To leave him relatively undisturbed, the project was completed in three phases, resulting in a spaces ranging from studiolo to bottega: small, white-walled drawing studios, painting studios, a gallery-type space for testing installations, an office and a vast workshop with a roof structure capable of bearing suspended weights of up to 3 tonnes. From the street, the 3,100m2 studio is the soul of discretion, so when the uprising against gentrification comes these high brick walls will likely escape the attentions of the mob.
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Source: Jim Stephenson
Garcés - De Seta - Bonet, Artist’s Studio, Barcelona, Spain, 2013
The central architectural problem of the studio is natural light and its diffusion through space. In this workspace for Catalan painter Eduardo Arranz-Bravo, the problem was made knottier by the client’s stipulation that there should be no distracting view accompanying this light – and that there should also be room for the display of his work, where visitors can view pieces without distracting him.
In response, the architects designed a two-storey, in-situ concrete building on a sloping site adjacent to Bravo’s house. The lower gallery space is directly accessible from the road and has a long glazed facade looking out onto woodland, while the upper studio space is accessible via a footpath from the artist’s house and is sightless, with a prismatic ceiling culminating in a skylight.
Knowspace, Studio Houses, Songzhuang, Beijing, China, 2014
The romantic image of the artist is a lone figure struggling in a garret. But this is rarely the case: for many, isolation is not conducive to creativity, whereas community allows for the exchange of ideas and inspiration. The enduring popularity of artists’ colonies is testimony to this: from Giverny to Provincetown, artists have fled cities to settle where life can be reorganised around communal creative labour – and crucially, with cheaper rents. Today, one of the most substantial artists’ colonies in the world is 20km from Beijing in the suburb of Songzhuang. This was established by a group of artists who relocated from the inner suburbs 20 years ago. It embodies ancient and modern aspects of Chinese culture: the long tradition of the artist-scholar leaving the city for rural seclusion, and the more recent process of urbanisation that has devoured formerly peripheral areas of Chinese cities, rendering them insufficiently isolated for such purposes.
Thanks to the booming Chinese art market, Songzhuang now thrives, with around 2,000 artists in residence. This recent addition to the colony is by Berlin studio Knowspace, which was commissioned to design a complex for a pair of artists who desired individual homes and workspaces arranged in close proximity around a private courtyard. Saw-toothed roofs allow for the top lighting of the studio blocks, with garages on the ground floors.
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Source: LV Hengzhong