A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920 – 2020

For its latest exhibition, the Whitechapel Gallery isn’t showing portraits, sweeping landscapes or still lifes. It’s focusing on the humble artist’s studio.

And as it turns out, it’s really quite brilliant.

The studio holds a kind of magic, transcendental status; a place where entire worlds are conjured up within a tiny, usually unremarkable space. This concept of the studio as a liminal space is something hundreds of art history students have probably pondered long into the night while working on dissertations, and at first glance it might not feel like the kind of exhibition that’s totally accessible – or, honestly, of interest – to the average joe. However, the Whitechapel’s busy, endlessly varied display – a barnstorming swansong from departing director Iwona Blazwick – is totally captivating.

By turning the painter’s gaze away from those vast, imaginary worlds and reflecting it back upon their own surroundings, something quite special unfolds. As it happens, these paintings are portraits, landscapes and still lifes, all rolled into one. We see the studio of Francis Bacon, which – with its walls treated as palettes, and a cascading mound of brushes and old water jars – looks exactly as you’d expect. There’s Kerry James Marshall’s engaging portrait of a Black painter in her studio, part of his enduring mission to increase representation; and the tangible ‘still life’ of Matisse’s bedroom, one of many spaces recreated as full-size installations.

Perry Ogden © The Estate of Francis Bacon/DACS/Artimage 2021

The show is dazzling in its breadth, with over 100 works on display and 80 artists represented, from names as big as Picasso, Egon Schiele and Louise Bourgeois, alongside contemporary artists like Lisa Brice and Walead Beshty. They take you from Africa to Australia, China to South America. Following two main threads, we see how studios are intensely private refuges for some artists, and public arenas for discussion, collaboration and solidarity for others – most stirringly represented by hand-woven tapestries from the Chilean Arpilleras Workshops; a grassroots movement driven by women who wanted to document the stories of victims of the Pinochet regime of the 1970s.

The exhibition’s unexpected charm and power lies in the vast range of emotions it evokes. There’s Josef Sudek’s paintings capturing tiny details of the everyday as he sheltered in his studio during the Nazi occupation of Prague; but also William Kentridge’s amusing film in which he interviews himself. There is the romanticism of tiny Parisian attics and Warhol’s Factory in 60s Manhattan, but also the gruelling reality of artists working in poverty, sickness, or under political censorship and oppression – and still, in the direst of circumstances, creating something that wasn’t there before.

With several of the featured artists currently the subject of other major exhibitions in London – like Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Frankenthaler – this is a fascinating insight into the many different ways that creatives work. And if you’re feeling inspired and charged up with artistic energy at the end of it all, you’ll be glad to hear that two gallery spaces have been enlisted as ‘living studios’, where you can create your own world-changing work of art. Or just give a live rendition of your famously highbrow piece of performance art…

Artist Drawing Stick Men.


NOTE: A Century of the Artist’s Studio runs at the Whitechapel Gallery until 5th June. Tickets cost £12.95, and you can book right HERE.

A Century of the Artist’s Studio | Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX

Main image: Untitled (Painter), 2008, © Kerry James Marshall

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A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920 – 2020

Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, Whitechapel, E1 7QX
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