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David Bailey: Hitler Killed The Duck

The legendary artist reflects on art, life and murder as his first exhibition of paintings reveals a side no one has seen yet

After a moment in sculpture last year, David Bailey - the photographer widely revered for his black and white pictures - debuts his paintings at Scream this weekend. The new works journey from the autobiographical to mixed-media images of contemporary icons, brought under the narrative of the artist as a six-year-old experiencing the Blitz.

Two things are most intriguing; first, Bailey’s great sense of colour and second, what he sees sans his usual subjects – the beautiful people who electrified his pictures for more than half a decade. What transpires are poignant, childlike artwork with cheek and rawness shared by his favourites Picasso and Francis Bacon. Clearly for the visionary image-maker, it’s about everything but the medium. 

Dazed Digital: As someone who’s always scrutinising other people in your work, how does it feel?
David Bailey: To be on your own like a Rolling Stone? It’s a good question but you’re not going to be too serious, are you?

DD: I’ll try. You seem to be more introspective than usual lately.
David Bailey: No, it’s all the same to me, whatever I do. It’s about the way I see things.

DD: Do you think mixed media is more relevant today?
David Bailey:
No, I’ve always done it. But it’s got to go somewhere else now; it’s too easy. Soon you’ll be able to paint on the computer and knock off Botticelli to – well, you can already do a Warhol. The only thing the computer can’t do is be you and have your emotions, so what I do is tell my story. It’s not about what Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons is doing, it’s what I’m doing. The Italian artist Raphael couldn’t exist now, maybe he’d adapt to the times but maybe he wouldn’t even want to.

DD: He’d probably have a seizure.
David Bailey
: Take Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, and Damien Hirst. Show that to Raphael and he’d say you’re fucking mad! It’s not about skill; dripping drips on Pollock’s or sticking butterflies on a canvas. But somehow we have a collective consciousness and think it’s art. That’s why there are no schools of surrealism or expressionism, because now the person is the ism.

DD: How would you describe your paint approach?
David Bailey:
I’m not a painter like I’m not a photographer, because most photographers are not artists. Anyone could go ‘click’. Many are like window dressers today - they’d take a zebra, an upside-down chandelier, a few fucking seagulls, a stuffed polar bear and then they’d put a girl in the middle! Where’s the attitude or point of view?

DD: So is composition overrated?
David Bailey:
It’s like placing things on a mantelpiece; if it doesn’t look right, you move it until it works. It’s not about composition. It’s the way you feel about how your objects should relate to each other. I’ve got lots of African statues and things, and the cleaner arranges them like soldiers, which drives me mad. So I have to rearrange them and I must drive her mad, because I’m doing anarchy and she’s doing military manoeuvres.

DD: Sounds disastrous. What is your point of view today?
David Bailey: Oh, different from yesterday. And I hope to have a few more by the end of the day! If you don’t keep changing you don’t find out anything. My whole life is motivated by curiosity, to find out how things work or how people think - it’s kind of existential.

DD: And what are you particularly curious about at present? 
David Bailey: 

DD: Wasn’t that 50 years ago too?
David Bailey:
[laughs] Well, I’d rather interview you because I’d rather find out about you. I already know about me.

DD: We’re at cross-purposes here. How do you feel about growing older?
David Bailey:
At least I’m growing - I like the growing bit. Especially round about 10 o’clock at night! 

DD: Thanks for that image David… Can you tell us the story behind the great title, ‘Hitler killed the Duck’?
David Bailey: The Germans bombed the cinema that I went to see Bambi and cartoons in with a V2 rocket in 1944, so I thought Hitler had killed all the Disney characters.

DD: People tend to be drawn to religion during those times, but you’re not religious are you?
David Bailey:
Of course not. God’s just a daisy on the sidewalk. There are many good religions; I like Taoism because it’s more a philosophy. The Carthars were interesting. They were Christians who didn’t believe in killing and that nonsense and were wiped out by the Catholics. I’m completely against capital punishment, because you could get it wrong and that’s enough not to do it.

More than half this country will bring it back because they don’t think; they watch football and get drunk every other night. There’s not a chance many times they’ve made a mistake and the state’s part of you so in a way, you become the killer. Similarly, we’re responsible for Blair, because we - I didn’t, but I’m still part of society - voted him in. So we have to live with that arsehole.

DD: Any final words with regards to the exhibition?
David Bailey
: Whether you like or not, there’s nothing I can do. There might be people, whose collection or view on the world I dislike, that end up buying something. That would be sad. Imagine if Hitler or Bush or General Mao or Stalin came along and bought one. All the arseholes in history are famous, weird, isn’t it?

DD: Yes, society’s a bit twisted.
David Bailey:
I guess god, or maybe the devil’s got ratings, he gave Stalin a 5 star!

‘Hitler killed the Duck’ from 7 October – 12 November, 2011, Scream, 34 Bruton Street, W1J 6QX