Artist ED MIRZA in conversation with Sophie Lévy Burton on the outside tables at Rocca, 73 Old Brompton Road, South Kensington. October 19th, a warm afternoon in London. It’s half term, the kids are out, everyone seems in a good mood. Ed arrives effortlessly cool in a tee shirt, jeans and a spot of paint.
WHEN I WAS 18 I lived with my grandparents in Oxford. My grandfather had an old book of the drawings of Raphael and I started looking at these drawings, in fact I became quite obsessed with them, and I noticed something unusual about them. I remember the moment exactly, everyone asleep, almost midnight, and I was downstairs poring over the book: and thought I must learn to draw like this…
Day after day after day I trained myself… I worked late, until 2am getting up at 6 am, doing it all day long until I fell asleep; I was drawing meticulously from plants, from my own hands, from my own body; I went to the Ashmolean for the round classical statues, to their print room to handle the Raphael prints, their original Michelangelo prints. It became a driving-lust, an all-consuming obsession. I was intensely trying to teach myself, and in that way you could say I’m self-taught.
What I had noticed so extraordinary in Raphael was the line, the figurative line, the classical line. It’s almost like a lineage itself, the idea of the line through drawing, a quality of draftsmanship.
In drawing you have to be smart at your work – it’s like a martial art like that, a physical experience, you can feel the process work up your hand, wrist, arm, your shoulder and your pectoral muscle, right down just below your belly button. In the same sense of martial art, the repetitive process of refining the line can change the body… It’s the hand training your motor skills, formalising them but also dealing with the subtle centres. The process involved repetition, refining the line. It can from that point of view change the energy and focus of the artist himself, like a meditation. Focusing, centring… My identity was already a painter I would say…
I moved to London. I took up a foundation course and I was lucky enough that my tutor Nigel Oxley was into the line, and had a highly formalised training in Florentine linear draftsmanship… My practice of the line got deeper, more formal.
Of course it’s all about Florentine draftsmanship, the figurative line – the classical method sees you draw the main shape first, a broad outline then you work in the detail. Arguably it’s intuitive, macro to micro. Simply the broad shapes first…In Florence they used line to create tone. It’s a linear tone, a quality of line, it’s not about economy of line or you could do it quickly… it’s about the quality, as few a lines as possible achieving as much as possible –speed, accuracy and an economy of means but there’s also an energy there – what I call a grain to the line– energy as a word is too much of a description, it covers too much – this is the problem with language when describing drawing, painting… like the word ‘soul’ its just a word, not satisfying. So – I go back to grain– these are words that point to ideas, its frustrating sometimes, especially in the language of painting.
In Raphael there’s a grain – a certain palpable quality of the artist himself, which is set apart. You see someone like Rembrandt for me lacked that controlled quality in the line, he didn’t have it. It’s simply not as alive or refined. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, they have the line, this outstanding quality of grain in their line… It’s a quality, like listening to the quality of a stroke on the violin.
Some people call it the calligraphic line… all these different words pointing the same direction – like Hogarth who talked about the serpentine line but really that was just an elegant curve, but with both of these be careful, I don’t believe that’s what it is all about, this line… In calligraphy you’re not strictly observing something, you’re repeating shapes that are stylised and abstract.
This is the lineage, a line of painters who I feel have this grain…
Look at Picasso, so mysterious, I immediately cheer up ontologically even, when I see his work, because he gets it, a certain warm reassurance that he gets humanity on a deep spiritual level… even the way he’d draw a jug – you feel everything’s alright because of the way he’s drawn it, it’s a reassuring thing for me. It’s deep, a philosophical response to this sense of line. It’s something vital – a human expression. It’s like an almost impersonal expression of the co-ordination of nature in his body through his draftsmanship– his lack of sentimentality, his rawness. It all becomes part of the way he expresses objects both from memory and imagination.
It’s not just about it being elegant, you’re teaching your arm to describe a calf muscle, a thigh muscle – the centre of western art seems to focus on the figurative line describing bodies. It’s not linear like that – in the Victorian academies they didn’t do this that much; in London now you can find smaller private schools that teach the line, a revival of the classical method, returning back before 19th century, Neo-Classicism; it all stopped with the reject art show in Paris, the Impressionist show.
Oddly in Outsider art it’s also to the fore, it’s more obvious, why is that I wonder – this certain grain. Perhaps there’s a certain freedom there maybe.
You know my father was Pakistani and whilst I haven’t looked into the calligraphic line, the Arabic line, I think its true I believe in the idea of the collective unconscious, culturally specific unconscious, a genetic memory… it’s not supposed to be a figurative art or a figurative line, a calligraphic musical stroke with a pen, it’s not figurative or realism or a realistic line…who knows perhaps one of my Persian ancestors was a calligrapher…
Sometimes I get suspicious of my own painting…
At the moment I’m drawn to Francis Bacon. Arguably you want to be in a dialogue with great painters – I can’t draw like him and I don’t wantto draw like him, but I’m always looking at the line… there’s figurative lines in there, he talks about the body – in fact he’s in direct expression of direct lineage about the same human body and the same line, a continuing narrative… I don’t even like to say the word Renaissance anymore but it’s so obvious, everyone knows about it… what we’re talking here about is a heroic body, the heroic human body – some people say it’s a magical thing but it’s not anything more magical than humans being interested in themselves.
I even trained my left hand to do the same thing as my right – almost as well as my right hand. Shapes, description came easier with the left hand; my grandfather was a neurologist and I remember thinking ah, the right-brain deals with shapes and form and the left-brain deals with numbers and language… I need to warm up my left hand before I use it, then I don’t need to do that again. The left hand is less worried for example, that’s what I’ve noticed; there’s no difference between a line and a tone – a tone is just a thick line – an observation of mine – a line is a thin tone – all these ideas are grey of course, they all melt into each other with the vagaries of language, these words used to describe the describing of art, what can you do… that’s why it makes a difference when you train your hand.
Selling is not my first thing, I draw because I enjoy it, I want them to be seen but money for me is just an unfortunate reality of our world; money is an unfortunate detail, an abstract addition to the world. Of course I want money to make me free.
You ask about the psychology involved in a painting… not to be able to finish them sometimes, there’s frustration there – afraid to finish them and because then someone says they’re not very good, if they’re not finished then they can’t be good or not.
My drawing Metamorphosis came about from a commission of a friend who was interested in shamanism. Her animal familiar was a wolf. The idea that this wolf passes through her, masculine energy to balance it out.
And in fact…
Perhaps art is a sort of shamanism, a charm, an emotional exchange of some kind.
I could compare it to an actor on a stage… in order to draw a mood of any kind, any kind of emotional description of any kind, imagine yourself… a work of the imagination… there’s a sense that there is a state that I like being in… it relates to an image and I felt the need to create the image and create the world that I can get in to the state that I feel. Like a séance maybe. Maybe … if your painting is working, you see somewhere you’re in a conversation with your audience, like being on stage but if it doesn’t work, there’s no one there, there’s no one in the audience. It’s about that connection.
You see in my works on paper I draw Gilgamesh a lot. Gilgamesh felt important to me. At college I got stuck creatively and at the suggestion of my tutor I prepared a huge canvas– he told me just do a giant canvas and just don’t care what it looks like. Just start, just do it. I chose Gilgamesh and then – suddenly it just flowed.
You know Gurdjieff wrote a book, Meetings with Remarkable Men. It’s about Gilgamesh. My grandmother lived with Gurdjieff for a while in Paris, she was one of his acolytes. He was a seeker and mystic. My way into a lot of thinking and ideas about god, spirit and unconsciousness is through Gurdjieff. This book – Meetings with Remarkable Men– is about Gilgamesh, you know a middle-eastern myth that was lost and then found, finally they’re able to translate the cuneiform tablets in the British museum, the idea that the past came to life and a bright light came from ancient Sumeria. Really they found Sumeria in the 19th century… In fact my godfather Robert Temple translated it, a powerful story that I find personally effective, a striking idea, an epic, archetypal, echoing through the Bible, the Koran, Hesiod’s Theogeny and of course Abraham was born in Sumeria –the ancestor hero. Finding a heart –the emblem of Gilgamesh, a compact heart, the founding of the cradle of civilisation– a tantalising, astonishing set of stories, which is a relief from the Greeks. And it’s to do with my identity, I’m Middle-Eastern.
When I drew my Gilgamesh series, it resonated deeply, it felt personal, as if I was making something of myself, I felt an authority there over western classical Roman mythology which is in the direct line for me.
You ask if I’m religious or have a spiritual practice. As a child I was both Christened by a Christian priest and blessed by a Mullah. Is that even legal? My grandmother was Greek and Russian Orthodox, she just changed because she liked it better. She and my great-grandfather were members of the Society for Psychical Research. Possibly these things occur to me whilst I’m doing line drawing, they are all in the background. Years ago in my formative art training years let’s say, my mentor in London was a Sufi. He trained for ages in a monastery. He was also deeply and personally into Gurdjieff and Jung. The witness of the self; the importance of relating to others in the development of one’s own psychology, but also centring physically, before re-opening the heart – which closes at adolescence. He guided me through all these ideas, my thirst for them.
Last year I went to an Osho camp in Dorset, in fact a friend bought it for me. Maybe she thought it would help. Depression is collapsed anger and anger is frustrated desire and desire extends from childhood fear of being alone, an easy logic – depression is frustration – these were Nicholas my mentor’s ideas. Osho has exercises where you’ll go about shouting you’re angry, literally just saying it, so you get it out; you realise everyone is on the same page. Can art help as a therapy? Can it consciously deal with anger and manifest it, so alleviating depression… I don’t know. My own work is very controlled and formalised. It’s repetitive; I’ve trained myself to do this. It’s not spontaneous expressive like that, like Pollock. I’ve almost trained out the possibility of using anger in art, my art process. I can imagine the Neo-Classical painter Bougeureau – if he was told to do a painting from an emotional space, anger – then he would do a perfectly exemplary neo-classical form. But Pollock – anyone can get a bucket of paint and throw it at a wall. But he was doing it again and again – so he got that style perfectly, he’d formalised his energetic angry expressions –or despair – it’s an old question, what is freedom – Gilgamesh is quite an angry character – so maybe in drawing him I was getting out some anger… maybe that was a way of dealing with not having a father because I didn’t know my father, I tried to identify with Gilgamesh – but it would be calligraphic anger – but that doesn’t make sense – I’ve just trained my hand to a formality of drawing.
My spiritual practice… I try to do half an hour every day in the morning, the lotus position. Centring myself, opening my heart, staying with it but it’s not easy. In fact it’s the second most difficult thing I’ve done – next to learning to draw.
As told to Sophie Lévy Burton
November 2018 MONK