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Allen Jones Kate Moss RA
“Body Armour”, 2013, image courtesy of the artist © Allen JonesImage courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones

Allen Jones: the body politic

‘The artist cannot worry about how someone might misconstrue the work’: the pop art pioneer on feminism, fashion and his favourite Dazed cover

He’s turned down Stanley Kubrick, had paint stripper thrown on his work in a ‘feminist attack’, and cast Kate Moss in plastic. Never far from controversy, Allen Jones is indisputably one of the most renowned British artists of the last century. Despite primarily considering himself to be a painter, it's his sculptures that have left the biggest impression in our collective cultural consciousness – a fact he first viewed with “a faint irony”. Now, he's more accepting: “If anything survives and it’s worth looking at, I’ll take the sculpture!” he laughs. Opening today (November 13), a new retrospective at the Royal Academy – his biggest UK exhibition in almost 20 years – celebrates and examines the preoccupations that have defined his work, and there's a lot more to it than the infamous, fetishistic furniture pieces that sparked outrage in the late 60s.

In fact, Jones has been a force both reflecting and inspiring British culture over the last half-century. Things truly began at the formative “melting pot” of the Royal College, with the likes of David Hockney and Peter Phillips (“a chance grouping of talent which turned out to dominate at least a decade of British art”). He was expelled, but opportunities soon arose – drawn to the States by the knowledge that “the avant garde was in New York,” he was offered a contract at a gallery in America, before returning to the “explosion of possibilities” offered by Chelsea’s “vibrant” World’s End scene in the 60s. It was in London at the end of the decade that the ‘forniphilia’ sculptures were debuted, catapulting him into the public eye and angering an entire generation of feminists, to whom they were sexual objectification made literal. In 1986, the pieces made headlines once more, after one was horribly disfigured when acid was thrown on it (which, in 2013, earned it a spot in the Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm exhibition at the Tate Britain). 

Jones's vibrant, hypersaturated paintings, sometimes bursting unexpectedly into three dimensions, are fascinated with the female figure. In 1993, he accepted a request from the National Portrait Gallery to paint ballerina Darcey Bussell, with slight apprehension – despite the “personality” that he says people often detect in the women in his work (“so much so, that a lot of people want to know who the model was”) it had been decades since he’d worked from a sitter. One of the portraits of Bussell – who recalled how, when going en pointe in Jones's studio, he gasped, “It's even better than a stiletto!” – is proudly displayed in the exhibition. More recently, Jones has worked with another of Britain's most famous figures, Kate Moss – a collaboration which allowed his long-term fascination with clothing to cross even more directly into the fashion world. Last year, his photograph of the model clad in bronze armour sold for a cool £32k.

In a cavernous room deep in the RA, surrounded by some of his most iconic pieces, Jones pulled up a chair to reflect on his prolific, political career. 

Your work has a fashion crossover – shoes and leather are especially prominent. Why are those things that you return to?

Allen Jones: Well, they were transgressive at the time, not a part of high fashion – I remember reading articles where they said leather wasn’t seen as a legitimate fashion item, you know. I had hit on the idea of doing some paintings with a shelf attached, so that the legs on the surface had their own floor to stand on. The ‘in’ shoes were Mary Quant at the time, and I thought if I use the latest fashion then the painting’s going to date, so what I got from Soho was the stiletto, which was out of fashion. Nevertheless, it was a Freudian archetype and everybody would recognise it, but it wouldn’t be a part of their everyday experience. Little did I realise that, pretty quickly, it would become high fashion. I found that quite interesting, but I think as an artist who is preoccupied with painting the female figure and therefore describing it using clothing, it doesn’t surprise me if some of those ideas take off in the world of fashion, because an artist’s studio is – if nothing else – a laboratory for visual ideas. 

You've said that what attracted you to both your previous and your current wife was an aura of inaccessibility?

Allen Jones: Yes, I’ve always been attracted to – not the ice maiden, but there’s a challenge there if a person seems fairly out of reach or unobtainable, and of course that feeds out into mass culture with things like film stars. There is a popular relationship that people have with the icon of the time – because of the impossibility of entering the celluloid world, one can fantasise about the figures that you know you will in fact never meet.

Does that relate to the perfected figures that appear in your work?

Allen Jones: In that way I do like the idealised figure, but I would say that most artists dealing with representing the figure would understand that. And according to what the social mores of the time are, certain things go in and out of fashion. In the time of Rubens, big hips were the deal, then in the 40s big chests were the deal. I like something rather in between.

Having seen your wife in a documentary, one can’t help but notice that her hair seems to crop up... 

Allen Jones: It’s the Louise Brooks bob, I used the hairstyle on paintings and on some sculptures that I did. What I quite like about the bob is that it’s sculptural, and actually it came from Mary Quant’s hairstyle, it was just like that. It came from Vidal Sassoon and it was very gamine and I thought it was very sexy, actually. So when I met my second wife and that was basically her hairstyle, I was obviously sunk.

What would you say to the person who attacked “Chair” in 1986?

Allen Jones: Take a look at it. Take a look at it. They’ve never seen it, they just see it in reproduction. Take a look at it.

Do you think that modern feminism has moved on from vilifying your work?

Allen Jones: Well, I don’t think my work had anything to do with it. By chance they coincided at the same time and the image was a perfect setup for them, you know. But that doesn’t mean to say that that’s what it was. Anything I say would sound like that I was trying to justify myself or apologise. There was a programme on the other day, where an interviewer said, ‘Can you think of an argument in our day and age for someone not being a feminist?’ I thought that was spot on. The thing is, if you're wanting to bang the table and make a point for some cause, if you appropriate images or language to use as a slogan, what happens is that it hijacks the source. What I was trying to do when I was making them was, if anything, to offend artistic canons. What’s happening to real people in real life is something else. I do vote in elections, you know!

Hopefully not for UKIP!

Allen Jones: Correct! No, I was brought up a socialist and I really am. But, the artist cannot worry when he’s doing something about how someone might misconstrue the work. When you’re doing the work in your studio, your duty is to make the image within the language that the artistic frame of reference you are pursuing and if someone doesn’t like it, that’s tough. And then if someone misreads it, it’s tougher still. In the ancient world, you see these hieroglyphs and signs. One of them is a cross with little bits coming off it, and as it happens, it’s called a swastika. There's no way can you look at a swastika now without seeing the baggage of history. Some people say, ‘Oh no, Hitler changed it around!’ – do you think that makes a difference to most people in the street? It’s a lesson in how images can be used or appropriated.

“The artist cannot worry about how someone might misconstrue the work. When you’re doing the work, your duty is to make the image within the language that the artistic frame of reference you are pursuing. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s tough.” – Allen Jones

On the topic of appropriation, what did you think of Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard's “Chair”? 

Allen Jones: I don’t think anything about that. I mean, there’s a huge tradition of artists making reference. But usually when someone does that they bring their own aspect to it, they make a contribution to it. And apart from the figures being black – I haven’t seen them, I’ve only seen photographs, so I’m not prejudging them – but they didn’t mean much to me. I have a drawer full of parodies of the furniture sculptures. Some of them were by quite serious artists – women, well-known artists, people making their name on the scene, but it’s a memorable image and somehow it gets used as advertising and God knows what. But there we go.

Do you have drawers of reference images that you’ve collected over the years? Are you a hoarder?

Allen Jones: Yes, I am actually. I’m quite a collector, I like collecting other people’s artworks. I had some idea years ago that if I saw a good photograph, usually in a fashion magazine or a newspaper, something which just rang a bell to me – it might be a pose, or a face, or breasts, or legs or whatever – I’d tear it out and file it thinking that I was having this sort of dictionary of anatomy that I could refer to, like you look up a word in a dictionary. But, in truth, in 50 years I think I’ve only made direct use of such material about three or four times. I think it’s just the pleasure of collecting things – you see a nice image and you want it. Among my collection of stuff, I do have a Dazed and Confused – it was a magazine cover on which there was a photograph of a female figure which looked as though it was most likely simply wearing a body stocking. Inside, the genitalia had been removed, and it was a very interesting issue.

“What I was trying to do when I was making [the furniture pieces] was, if anything, to offend artistic canons. What’s happening to real people in real life is something else.” – Allen Jones

Is it true you have an old collection of, shall we say, dirty magazines?

Allen Jones: Dirty magazines? I don’t have any dirty magazines. No, I have a collection of erotica, but I wouldn’t call them dirty – according to what your opinion is, they’re anti-social or exciting or whatever. I don’t have a big collection, but what I like is that most of them are not photographic, they would have been done by illustrators. At one time, I thought that it was a great way of seeing the possibilities of representing the figure without resting on academic artistic ideas which somehow ran out of steam. I like seeing work which is about the figure and exists outside the fine art umbrella. They’re not always particularly saucy or exciting, you know.

And you collaborated with John Sutcliffe (creator of early rubber and leather magazine, AtomAge)?

Allen Jones: Well, I didn’t collaborate with him, I employed him to make the boots and the corset for the first furniture sculpture. ‘Collaborate’ sounds as though you’re both having the same input, but it was very much a case of me going into his shop and having him make something. For him it was a novelty because he was making them for people and he’d never made them for a sculpture, and the sculptures got in the news and got in the papers. He was able to stick the newspaper up on his notice board, so that if he was raided by the cops he could say ‘Oh no, this is in a museum, this is art!’ 

If someone knew nothing of your work, what would you want them to take away from this exhibition?

Allen Jones: Happiness. 

Are you happy?

Allen Jones: Well, I’m happy when I’m making work. 

Will you ever retire?

Allen Jones: One of the great things about being an artist is that you go at your own speed. So as long as you’ve got something to do. No, I can’t imagine not working. The only time when I don’t work and it seems as though it’s not actually slightly upsetting to one’s equilibrium is if one’s on a beach in the Caribbean, then I don’t mind, then I’m happy! But you know, after about three weeks of doing that, I get jumpy. It’s time to go home and get on.

Allen Jones RA is open from November 13, 2014 until January 25, 2015 at the Royal Academy, London