My portraits and other figures all come from my preoccupations, the areas of history or culture
that I am most immersed in. There are several prominent themes which crop up again and again.
The Second World War is one: the sense of déjà vu connected to it, and especially the horror and fascination surrounding the surreal phenomenon of Nazi Germany. Most of my paintings that emerge from this period tend to be portraits. They are often (though not always) of somewhat ambiguous figures like Albert Speer or Wernher von Braun; they sometimes (though not always) exploit the uncomfortably seductive and iconic aesthetics associated with the period.
Classical (especially Greek) culture is another recurring element. One can detect a strange and somehow healthy realism infusing it. Things that are frightening or horrible are mixed in with those that are beautiful; their gods could often be monstrous without being any less holy. I find something bizarrely soothing about this aestheticizing of things that are terrible, but inevitable and natural, and I am taken with the flavour of Hellenic culture. It very often finds its way into my paintings, though usually disguised in some way.
The way my paintings are made can become a subject, or at least a reference, in and of itself. I paint them using roughly the same method as the Venetians used in the 16th century. This probably isn’t obvious because the subjects are so different, but the surfaces and colours come largely from the Italian Renaissance, as does some of the pictorial language: the way figures are often drawn, and the shortcuts and abstractions used to paint foliage and grass, for example.
If you look at a Giorgione with a forgotten subject, or a Balthus painting based on his own strange and obscure ideas, they both have a spooky electricity that a stereotypically up-front and melodramatic Victorian painting can never achieve. I think that symbolism is often most interesting when it’s meaning is uncertain, and similarly, in my own paintings, I have a deep-seated abhorrence of overstatement. This is most important in my treatment of the human figure. I try very hard to achieve a level of ambiguity, hovering between states rather than clearly and theatrically conveying an idea, which would cheapen it. As a result, I often spend an inordinate amount of time adjusting and agonizing over the nuances of posture and facial expression.
Copyright © 2010 by Harry Steen