Ian Breakwell

Keep Things as They Are: In Silken Chains


Not on display

Ian Breakwell 1943–2005
Paper, charcoal, wax crayon, emulsion paint, oil paint, oil pastel, gouache and ink on paper
Support: 1516 × 1395 mm
frame: 1560 × 1428 × 61 mm
Purchased 1984

Catalogue entry

This catalogue entry discusses a group of works; details of the individual work are given at the end of the introductory text.

Ian Breakwell born 1943

T03936 - T03938 120 Days 1981

Three drawings various media, various sizes from a series of twenty
Purchased from Anthony Reynolds (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Galeria Fernando Vijande, Madrid 1983; sold to the Tate Gallery through Anthony Reynolds 1984
Lit: Ian Breakwell, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1982, repr. [p.2]; Jeremy Lewison, ‘Ian Breakwell: Caught in the Act' in Jeremy Lewison (ed.), Ian Breakwell: 120 Days and Acting, Madrid 1983, pp.12-19, T03936 repr. p.34 no.11 (col.), T03937 repr. p.31 no.3, T03938 repr. p.31 no.4

The following entry is based principally upon written answers from the artist dated 18 January 1988 to questions posed by the cataloguer. All quotations are from this document unless otherwise stated.

These three works on paper are from the series collectively entitled ‘120 Days' and were made along with the other seventeen works in 1981, during the period in which Breakwell was artist-in-residence at King's College Cambridge in association with Kettle's Yard Gallery. Each work consists of the depiction of an imaginary person against a background either of diary pages (T03937 and T03938) or date stamps (T03936). The series title ‘120 Days' is stencilled at the top and beneath that and sometimes overlapping it, the slogan ‘Keep things as they are' is written in manuscript. The phrase is completed at the bottom of the sheet, again in manuscript.

At the start of Breakwell's residency in Cambridge he worked on a series entitled ‘The Artist's Dream' which he had begun before his move and which was nearing completion. This series was finished just before Christmas 1980 and subsequently exhibited in a touring exhibition originated by Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery. One of the venues for this exhibition was Kettle's Yard Gallery. Breakwell stated that the act of finishing off this series ‘made me aware that my equation of drawing with small scale had been artificially determined by the cramped domestic space I had previously been working in; I had never drawn in a studio, so now seemed to be the time, and the large studio space suggested a large scale'. Breakwell's studio was the old laboratory in the grounds of Newnham College, a large, virtually unfurnished space which contrasted with the room in his London flat in which he was used to working. Although he made a number of other works during the term of his residency, including videos, books and sound casettes, ‘the studio was reserved for the private activity of picture-making-on-paper (hybrids of drawing and painting)'.

All the works in the ‘120 Days' series were approximately the same height and most of them were approximately the same width. All were executed on paper with the exception of two; ‘Keep Things As They Are: In Camera' which is on board and ‘Keep Things As They Are: Spellbound' which is on canvas (both collection of Galeria Fernando Vijande, Madrid, repr. Lewison (ed.) 1983, p.34 in col. and p.38 respectively).

Breakwell has explained the genesis of the series in an extract from his diaries published in the Madrid catalogue (p.30):

Now that the Artist's Dream series is off my back I have decided that a different way of working is necessary if I am to use my studio effectively. So I bought a roll of the largest cartridge paper I could get (5ft in height) and taped up a length of it on the studio wall and started drawing on it with scene painters' charcoal. What was immediately noticeable was the difference between working sitting down at a table using wrist/finger drawing movement, and now working vertically, standing up, using full arm movements. Like playing tennis after years of table tennis. Soon my shoulder ached and I developed double vision through working close up against the large paper on a bigger than life size figure drawing. The drawing was out of my head, with no reference to material or sketch: it became a head and shoulders of a woman, vaguely reminiscent of the Duchess of Argyll [Margaret, Duchess of Argyll]. I worked on the drawing non-stop until exhausted on the first day; it ended up an ugly mess. The following day I laid into it with emulsion paint and a big brush; it began to take shape.

Since Breakwell had never made drawings on this scale before his method of working was improvised and adapted as he went along. He wrote in the Tate Gallery catalogue: ‘constant change, destruction and re-working were integral parts of the working process. Chance, accident, the use of unusual combinations of materials, the rejection of source reference material, and above all my implicit trust in intuition and free imagination were inseparable from the ideas behind the pictures'.

Breakwell has stated that he was not inspired to create a series of ‘portraits' by anything he had seen but, as he continued to work on them, he realised that they may have resulted from his isolation in the studio. He had been accustomed, in London, to working in his flat high above Smithfield Market from where he observed the bustle of daily life and where he was often interrupted by the telephone. He was rarely disturbed in his Cambridge studio, which was on ground level and, apart from trees and sky, he was unable to see out of the windows since they were located above head height. He believes that ‘120 Days' reflected ‘this change of environment' and described the series as

my Cambridge family, always waiting faithfully for me when I arrive each morning; I nod to them in greeting when I enter the studio; and when I sit in the middle of the silent room their huge faces, half-smiling gaze impassively back at me from the four walls, whispering in unison: ‘keep things as they are' (Lewison (ed.) 1983, p.38).

He regarded the personages, therefore, as actual company in the studio, as replacements for the people he was accustomed to encountering when working in London.

The origins of the title of the series, which was conceived in advance of its making, have been explained by Breakwell as follows:

After spinning out the ARTIST'S DREAM series of table-top pictures for three months I went away for Xmas 1980 and bought in a bookshop en route a remaindered copy of the Marquis de Sade's letters from prison. About a year previously I had read the complete, unexpurgated edition of THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, and afterwards had thought: what conditions led to the writing of this monstrous, terrifying book? Then, reading the prison letters, which I found to be warm, passionate, angry and full of humanity, I became aware that only when de Sade realised, too late, that instead of a minor sentence he had been tricked and was in for the duration, only then did he change from being a dilettante writer of harmless farces to the disturbing analyst whose writings are still banned in England today. Only when he realised that the rules had been changed in his case did he then, in return, imagine all normal rules of behaviour changed with a vengeance. But the key revelation to me was that one didn't need source material to make figurative work. In isolation the only landscape is that of the imagination, which in the conventional life outside the walls is padded round with cotton wool, blinkered, in a mist. With no conventional stimuli of any kind then the potential scope of the imagination is unconventional and given free rein: resulting not in fantasy but heightened reality. I didn't need a view from the window; the lack of one could be a starting point. Imagination and memory, that's all I needed. But complete freedom for the imagination in isolation is an unnerving prospect, so I imposed the arbitrary structure of 120 working days for the series, but also as a passing nod of appreciation to De Sade for showing me the way forward. Unlike his grotesque work the characters I portrayed were dramatis personae without the narrative drama, but like the Marquis' they were stylised actors and actresses in a diary of isolation.

Breakwell considers the series title to be ‘equivalent to the name of a newspaper at the top of the front page' and it is positioned accordingly either in the centre or in the top left corner in the manner of a tabloid newspaper logotype. Breakwell himself was a reader of the Daily Mirror at the time.

While the title of the series was conceived in advance of the works, the phrase ‘keep things as they are' was only thought of as Breakwell was working on the first picture. This slogan

originates from the time of the General Election called by Edward Heath in response to the miners' strike (1974). The government's insensitive confrontation tactics reduced the country to a 3-day week punctuated by power cuts and the escalating disruption of industry and public services. At the time it was difficult to imagine the nation being in a worse state (little did we know). So a friend of mine, John Lyle, the editor and publisher of the surrealist magazine TRANSFORMACTION (to which I regularly contributed) printed up some Tory-blue election leaflets with the ironic slogan: VOTE CONSERVATIVE AND KEEP THINGS AS THEY ARE. I did some door to door leafleting of them, mainly in the Wolverhampton area where I was working at the time. And that's where the phrase comes from; I borrowed the second half of the phrase eight years later when, taken out of context, it had less specific and more ambiguous meaning: it is simultaneously a phrase suggesting safe reassurance, but which issued like a command has undertones both of threat and desperation.

For further discussion of the political implications of this phrase see Lewison 1983 (p.14)

The first six works in the series are characterised by their rough surface, often tentative drawing and crudeness of execution. T03937 and T03938 are numbers three and four in the series respectively. The seventh work in the series, ‘safe and secure' marks a change in style, the surface becoming smooother and less heavily worked. Furthermore, the tendency to allow the head to dominate the entire height and width of the sheet, which first occurred in the fourth in the series, now becomes a regular occurrence. The works were ‘started in the sequence subsequently arrived at' although he often worked on more than one at a time. They were exhibited in the final order for the first time at the Tate Gallery.

The artist has stated that the second half of the title, which often commences with the word ‘in', would suggest itself to him as the ‘portraits developed; they are oblique, evocative, not literal.' Referring to the title of T03937 he has written that it is ‘as if you can see through the skin. Chance chemical reactions between the unusual mixture of materials causes changes in the face, and this one disintegrated at one stage and was reconstituted, like plastic surgery, but still in a state of flux in ironic contrast to the caption.' In addition to the title, the work is inscribed with the following phrases set out across the surface from the top of the work down to the shoulders of the figure:

in the morning
in the evening
in the day
time in the
night time
in the spring
time in the sum
mer time
in the winter

The artist stated that the title of the work may have come to him as he was writing these phrases which were, for him, the equivalent to the expression of a stream of consciousness. In the case of the inscriptions above, the words and phrases are interrupted either by the head itself or by the edge of the sheet of paper.

As in T03938 the background of T03937 is collaged with pages taken from a calendar indicating the date and day of the month from 1 January until July 13 continuously (in the case of T03938 the dates run continuously from 21 January until 23 March, one further date being indecipherable). The passage of time, which in T03936 is indicated by date stamps rather than calendar pages (running from 1 January-30 October 1981), is an ironic comment on the exhortation to ‘keep things as they are', for it was the artist's intention to indicate the impossibility of preventing change. The diary pages and date stamps also make reference to Breakwell's activity as a diarist; he has kept a diary containing writing, drawings, photographs and newspaper cuttings since 1965, extracts of which have been published in a series of publications (see entry for P77032-77041). In addition, between 1975 and 1978 he made a multiple part work entitled ‘The Walking Man Diary' (detail repr. Lewison (ed.) 1983, p.9) in which photographs were combined with pages from an almanac.

Commenting on why he employed date stamps rather than calendar pages in T03936 the artist wrote:

I can't remember why, it may have been an aesthetic decision that the bold red/black/white diary pages would visually jar with the subtle colours of the face; or it might have been practical, because the diary pages on previous pictures in the series kept coming unstuck and I got fed up with pasting them back on and retouching; or maybe I just fancied a change. Other, later pictures in the series use date stamps e.g. ‘Until the Dawn', and even though obliterated underneath ‘As The Curtains Open', ‘As The Curtains Close', ‘In The Night', and ‘Last Act'; maybe I just ran out of diary pages!

The decision was therefore improvised just as, in general, was his working method. Breakwell has described how events beyond his control often played a role in determining the outcome of these works:

KEEP THINGS AS THEY ARE: IN SILKEN CHAINS...is the third, and pivotal picture in the series. The face was originally quite different; it was in half-profile, the eyes askance, conventionally modelled in charcoal; the cheekbones, eyes, mouth and jaw all indicated a woman of strength and character. Then, one day, trying to open one of the studio windows I knocked a gallon of white paint off the window ledge, spilling all over this face, wrecking it. And the more I tried to get the paint off the more it settled on the face like pancake make-up, until the idea of paint on a face being like make-up began to interest me. So I changed the highly detailed hair to solid black like a wig, and changed the face to a bland, sugared almond complexion mask. A face carefully prepared to face the day with. Yet when I had completed it I could still see, in my mind's eye, that other face underneath, and I began to wonder if it was possible to hide a character beneath a mask and still imply the character behind that mask. And that theme is developed in the rest of the series.

The early works in the series, in which the paint surface is fractured and disturbed, give way to a smoother paint surface as the character of the figures becomes increasingly masked. The head in T03936 reminds the artist of ‘a suave stage magician'. Breakwell has had a long interest in the theatre and had previously made a work entitled ‘Circus' which incorporated large images of a clown's head (repr. Continuous Diary and Related Works 1965-1978, exh. cat., Third Eye Centre, Glasgow 1978, p.35). According to Lewison ‘The obligation to play roles is fundamental to Breakwell's outlook on life' (p.17), a theme which Breakwell explored further in a series of works which developed out of ‘120 Days' entitled ‘Acting' (repr. Lewison 1983, pp.46-52). One further work by Breakwell is closely related to ‘120 Days', namely ‘Estate' 1971-6 (repr. Lewison 1983, p.15) in which large photographs of heads are accompanied by texts indicating what may lie behind the face/mask. In ‘120 Days', the artist maintains, ‘it is up to the viewer to imagine what might be behind the masks, and the captions only give ambiguous clues to interpretation'.

Regarding the brick rubbing which forms the background to T03936 Breakwell commented that ‘the picture became so dark that I moved it from the concrete wall below window level to a higher wall beneath a skylight where I could see to work on it better; the face then picked up the brick texture of this higher wall.' The first seven works in the series were exhibited at Kettle's Yard Gallery in 1981 but the complete series was shown in the dining hall of King's College, Cambridge in December 1981. Asked by the cataloguer whether the distinguished portraits in King's College had in any way inspired him to make ‘120 Days' the artist replied:

It was not (with a few exceptions such as Reynolds, Romney, Lawrence) the King's portraits which were distinguished but the sitters. The brass label on the bottom of the frame identifying the portrayed person's status and period of tenure seemed more important than the picture. Whereas my ambiguously captioned portraits were of imaginary, anonymous characters: the realisation of that difference (after I had begun my series) was then influential. The only pictures in the King's hall which visually resembled mine were the three archaic, stylised portraits of Henry V, VII, VIII, which were in April 1981 stolen from out of the oriel window in the west wall: it was their absence which gave me the idea of exhibiting my portraits alongside those already there. After some initial expressions of shock at things not being kept as they were, there were some warm and positive responses to my pictures, and several people commented that they had also made them look afresh at the permanent portraits.

The works were not hung in King's College hall but were propped against the wall behind the high table.

Although the artist insists that the portraits are imaginary, he concedes that the second work in the series, ‘In Control' (repr. Lewison 1983, p.33 in col.), is broadly a self-portrait. However, in 1982 he submitted a slide of T03936 for the Imperial Tobacco Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery,

together with the name of the sitter as specified in the rules: the sitter's name I supplied, Younis Trentamo, was an anagram of Anonymous Sitter, and had the joke got past the initial selection stage (which it didn't) the idea then was to hire an actor who would have been made-up to look like the portrait in order to supply the stipulated photo of the sitter and ultimately appear in person at the exhibition opening, to make a good-natured jest about the assumption that a portrait is based on a person rather than vice-versa.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

T03938 Keep Things As They Are: In Silken Chains 1981

Collage, charcoal, pastel, chalk, pencil, red ink, emulsion paint, gouache, tempera and oil on wove paper 1516 x 1395 (59 3/4 x 54 7/8)
Inscribed ‘120 DAYS' t.l., ‘Keep things as they are' along top edge, ‘in silken chains' along bottom edge and ‘120 Days' | Keep things as they are| in silken chains |Ian Breakwell 1981' on back towards bottom, left of centre
Exh: Ian Breakwell, Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge, May 1981 (no cat.); King's College, Cambridge, Dec. 1981 (no cat.); Ian Breakwell, Tate Gallery, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (4, repr.); Ian Breakwell: 120 Days and Acting, Galeria Fernando Vijande, Madrid, April 1983 (4, repr.)

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.110-14

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