The Herald - The Herald Magazine
How did Sean Scully emerge froma brutal upbringing to become arguably the greatest painter of modern times?
When Sean Scully was a curly-haired child, he was so angelic he was adored by all in the extended Irish family surrounding his parents in their London exile. But the boy also became the disputed prize in a tug-of-war between the eternally scrapping Scullys, a battle usually won by his late mother, whom he describes as “a dangerous woman”.
A Catholic convert who became a professional singer, Ivy Scully would clasp her eldest to her like a lioness protecting her young; then she would reject him, albeit briefly, because she wished it to be known that she was the one who cared for him the most deeply. “I was their beautiful strapping boy – everybody loved me,” says Scully. “I was prized, always the star of the family. So my love was competed for.”
It was a bizarre parental regime for the artist, whose evocative work is the subject of amajor exhibition at theMetropolitanMuseum of Art in New York. “My mother loved me so much I could do no wrong. If I had murdered somebody, she would have said, ‘He probably asked for it, love.’
“So I had a desperately unhappy childhood because in our house two people were always in a state of not being loved – usually my brother Tony and my dad. My mother was very good-looking, but she was like an animal. Her personality was gigantic.” Is he like her? “I ammy mother,” he replies. He sinks deeper into his “throne”, a paint-scarred old armchair salvaged from the street outside his New York studio. We are talking late into an autumn afternoon in the London district of Chelsea after lunching in a nearby restaurant. “She made me what I am, who I am,” he murmurs.
The Dublin-born artist’s singular childhood remains with him to this day, although he’s 61 now and has an international reputation as perhaps the greatest painter of his generation, so he feels he really should have grown out of it. But he never will.
Scully’s memories are so potent he returns to them again and again. To him, the child is the father of the man he’s become: a man irreparably damaged like the injured birds he used to try to save in the little animal hospital he ran while he was growing up in impoverished south London.
The first time I ever met Scully he cradled an imaginary finch in his large hands as he told me one of his many enchanting stories. His trusting blue eyes welled up as he spoke of how only recently he had found this tiny, defenceless creature by the wayside. He had held it tenderly, felt its wee heart fluttering in panic, then fed it drops of water.
“But I was tired,” he said angrily. So he and his long-time partner, the Swiss-born painter Liliane Tomasko, went to bed after making the bird comfortable in their London flat. “It wasn’t enough,” Scully sighed. “The finch died – and it shouldn’t have. We should have got up at twohourly intervals during the night to feed it.”
Scully, the outgoing professor of painting at the Academy of Art in Munich, asked his students, “Why did the bird die?” When one replied, “Because it was supposed to die,” he lost his temper. The bird died, he said, because he didn’t care sufficiently. “It was my fault.”
Caring passionately is what Scully does best. It is what makes him such an obsessive artist and a generously spirited human being capable of creating some of the most emotionally profound art of our times. Over the years, he estimates he’s saved more than 200 wild birds. He can imitate their songs uncannily well
and, as a child growing up in a family that was “dysfunctional beyond belief”, his animal hospital became a powerful metaphor for his boyhood. It infuriates him that even now he’s this big, vitalman, he is still unable to prevent the fall of a finch.
TheWall of Light exhibition at theMet in New
York, where he has been based since becoming anAmerican citizen 23 years ago, is a showcase for Scully’s monumental abstract oil-on-canvas stripes and bars executed in strange, muted colours. Next month, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh will devote a room to a selection of his abstracts to coincide with the launch of a collection of his writings, Resistance and Persistence.
Scully is a giant of the modern art world, in every sense. His paintings break all auction records, often commanding upwards of half a million dollars, and his work is in the permanent collections of galleries and museums around the globe. Scully is an immensely tall man who creates big canvases, but a man with a broken wing just like the finch he failed to succour.
“I’m a walking wounded painter,” he says in a voice that is soft and gentle despite his size. He speaks slowly, in an accent that is part East End, part transatlantic. There is an enormous wound in him, he continues, and it will never heal. If it ever did, he would never paint again and would have to kill himself.
“ Without my work, I would die. So that wound is my curse and my blessing,” he says, as we sit in his studio. Lined up on the paintencrusted floor are a dozen pairs of bespattered trainers and pots of paint mixes lie everywhere.
We are surrounded by some of his meditative paintings; works, wrote one critic, as uniquely recognisable as Mondrian’s grids or Rothko’s blurs. They are created out of pain, referencing landscapes, people, memories, narratives and cataclysmic events in the painter’s life, most specifically the wounded self. “That wound is what enables me to paint, but it’s also what happens when you rip a child out of their context as my parents did when they left our home in Ireland,” says Scully, who divides his time between his New York studio, another in Germany and a third in Barcelona. With Tomasko, 39, he also has a London home.
Next month Scully will marry Tomasko. “We’re such similar spirits that we have the most incredible relationship,” he says. “She’s the love of my life.” They plan to marry in Bermuda and Scully hopes they will start a family. “But I can’t seem to findmy home,” he says. “I’ve thought many times I would find a home and I never have. It’s my restlessness, but I’ve had themost magnificent life and I’m ready to have another child.
“ Perhaps my parents had to die before I could cope with the idea of becoming a father again [his only son, Paul, died in a car accident at the age of 18] and having a child with Liliane. I used to thank God there are no heirs to my family’s insanity but now I’ve changed my mind. I think we have the perfect environment here in which to raise a child.”
Scully loathes the hypocrisy, cynicism and insincerity of many in the art world, but he’s delighted with the positive critical responses to his Wall of Light exhibition. He was thrilled when the psychiatrist wife of a friend told him after viewing his work at aNew York gallery opening last year, “You know, you are 80% woman.”
“I’ve noticed a lot of women really love my work,” says Scully, “while many men react violently against it, although I believe my paintings aren’t threatening. Indeed, a lot of people think of them as extremely sensitive, almost tragic. They are terribly sad, yet some guys think the work is macho. Sure, it’s male in its directness, its ambition and its insistence, but my work is a grid woven in paint – and that’s archetypally female.”
As a boy, Scully loved to darn everybody’s socks, “making a neat patch, carefully weaving the warp and the weft,” he says, gracefully demonstrating how he would do that. Which brings us back to the metaphorical hole he says pierces his heart. He was barely four when his parents left Ireland, sailing across a still mine- filled Irish Sea just after the Second WorldWar. Their boat was lost for eight hours and he’s made a painting, Precious (1985), in which he gives thanks to his parents for their courage during this hazardous journey.
Scully is a quarter Scottish, his maternal grandmother coming from an aristocratic family near Fort William. She married a sweetnatured, virile young coalminer from County Durham. “She married for sex, not for love. My grandfather was very physical – he knew how to do her,” says Scully. “So she was disinherited by her family. She was awful. I couldn’t stand her – a brooding, unhappy woman.”
One of his grandfathers committed suicide and his paternal Irish grandmother was stoned out of her village. She single-handedly raised eight children in London. His Anglo- Irish father’s family were also “high-born”, but they lost their castle and their fortune.
“So my background is this peculiar mix of the aristocracy and the fallen aristocracy, which meant I grew up in an insane Irish household,” he says. “There was this crazy extended clan.
One aunt was religious, but a woman of extremely loose virtue; it was rumoured that she had been a prostitute. Another married a millionaire and spent all his money, dying a pauper. There were violent fights, lots of storytelling, and a hell of a lot of drink was taken.” Although, he adds with a broad smile, never underestimate the role of alcohol in the creative process. He drinks a bottle of wine daily.
Both of Scully’s parents were deserters from the military during the war, a fact in which he takes great pride. His Durham-born mother had been an ambulance driver during theBlitz; his father was an RAF pilot. In London they lived in the “Irish ghetto” of Islington, before moving to the mock-suburb of Sydenham. “If I had to choose between dying and living in the suburbs, I would choose death,” he says.
Nevertheless, a sense of loss permeates his life and his work, although he’s insists he’s happy and grateful to his parents for their rollercoaster emotional life. “They gave me so much for which I’m thankful – the gift of life,” he says. In London, his parents abandoned their Catholic faith, removing him fromSt Joan of Arc, the Highbury convent Tony Blair’s children attended years later. “That was the big explosion in my life; it was such an unholy mess, such an argument between my father and my mother. Awful.”
Ivy – latterly known as Holly – Scully died in 2001. “She was a force of nature, magnificently charismatic,” says her son. “When she died, there was no resolution at all. She wasn’t interested in making a deal with God or with anyone about anything.” His father, a door-todoor barber who died “elegantly” in 1999, was quiet and bookish, but he could also be violent and would often beat his son up.
His mother’s passing affected Scully
profoundly, even more than the loss of his only child a decade earlier. His “messy” relationship with Paul’s mother was long over. They had lived with his parents when the boy was small and that was “ disastrous, truly awful. My parents were so punishing, so judgmental and so quixotic.” After his son’s death, Scully was unable to paint for a long time.
He remembers finishing the last of his “ Catherine” paintings – made for his third wife, the celebrated monumental sculptor Catherine Lee, with whom he moved to New York in 1975 – and the brush falling from his hand. Hecouldn’t pick it up again, so he walked out of his studio. Finally he consulted a psychiatrist. “But it didn’t work. I ended up looking after him, then rearranging his art collection, would you believe,” he says, with an ironic laugh. Eventually, he did paint again – “like a maniac” – and his 1984 painting dedicated to Paul is in the Tate’s permanent collection.
Inevitably, given his childhood, Scully’s was a
wild youth. His brutal state school in London was “a criminal training academy”, he says. He remembers the beauty of the Catholic church his family used to go to in London before they lapsed. “It was all reds and golds and whites and black, then I went to the local school and I entered a world that was grey, hard, spiritually empty and very, very violent,” he says. He had to use his fists to survive.
Many of his friends ended up either dead or in prison, but Scully found a way out. He saw a reproduction of Picasso’s ChildWith aDove (1901) and was inspired. “It was a tender painting in a rough school,” he says. “I looked at it a lot. In fact, it was as important to me as the Church in pointing to art as an escape from that harsh, working-class environment.”
Scully worked as an apprentice printer, a typesetter, a messenger and a plasterer, also running a blues club and singing in a rock band with his brother Tony and two friends. He was politicised in the radical sixties, but he also got into trouble with the police for brawling and burglary before going to evening classes at the Central School of Art, London, then to Croydon College, and on to Newcastle University. “I saved hard to put myself through my studies, but I was also incredibly badly behaved as a teenager,” he admits. “ I was brawling, committing burglary, gang-fighting. It was rough – seriously rough.”
Scully has been married three times, but he and Tomasko, with whom he has lived for almost 15 years, have not married sooner, he says, because he feared he might immediately start plotting his escape in his gypsy caravan – “like an Irish tinker” – and he wants them to stay together for ever. She’s more than 20 years his junior yet somehow she copes with this footloose, restless soul.
“ Yeah, you’re right, I am restless. I’m a troubled, fragile spirit,” he says. “I can’t seem to find a resting place. It’s not the easiest way to live, because I know I’ll always hunger to fill that void insidemyself. That void was created when my parents uprooted me from Ireland and then they tore me out of the Church, although I’ve never had any truck with organised religion. Maybe my work is my way of weaving everything back together, but I believe there’s no shelter, no protection in this life. As a man, I have no worth, no value. But I paint, therefore I stay alive.
“ There’s a lot of darkness in my work, but there’s a lot of light in it too, because I’m always trying to paint the whole world, yearning for the union with life. In a way, I don’t exist. I feel I’ve no worth, no value. But my paintings are proof I exist; they affirmme. I am in the business of making something sublime.
“ Without them I’m nothing, just a big fat zero.”