We take a spin around Graham Knuttel’s most striking works.
Here we take a gawp through some of Graham Knuttel’s most eye-catching works, and learn more about this intensely successful modern-day Irish artist. Knuttel was born in Dublin, in March 1954. Below he tells of his childhood.
My parents came to Ireland in 1947 from Bedford in England where my father had served with the R.A.F. His father, Adolf Knuttel, was a stone quarry owner in Dresden but my father and his mother came to England after the 1st World War. My father is a strange eccentric man, but had nothing on his mother. I met her only once when I was four of five but the memory will never leave me. She was very tall and thin with a hook-like nose not dissimilar to my own. Her cheeks were hollow, whitened with powder and highlighted with rouge. She was dressed all in black, except for a white lace frill at her neck. The sight of her beside my father’s huge dark wardrobe sent me into a state of total hysteria. There being no one else in the room, she tried to lock me in the wardrobe. I can still hear her cackling and feel her long white claws at the back of my neck.
I often look at my drawings of birds with which I have had a long obsession and I wonder. I am glad that I managed to find some sort of humour in what I firmly believe was a very close call. I think she might easily have strangled me and possibly eaten me had not my cries been heard. She was returned that same day to Margate where she lived in a guest house surrounded by her collection of stuffed animals until her death in 1962.
My mother’s family were more normal. Many of my summer holidays were spent at their house in Northampton, then a small market town. My grandfather had been shell-shocked in Flanders during the 1st World War but the only manifestations of this that I could discern were a tendency to shout in his sleep all night and to cross roads as if he were in a trench, holding his hat, knees bent, gripping the wall firmly on the other side. He would take me to see my Uncle Freddie who was a municipal painter. Part of his brief was to maintain the various coats of arms and painted war memorials throughout the town. We would sit in the sun for hours watching him paint his bright rich reds and blues, and his fine and important gold leaf highlights.
We went to England two or three times a year and I remember the atmosphere of that journey very well. We took The Princess Maud, a steam-ship notorious for its creaking and rolling, packed as it was in those days too, with emigrant faces. We made the journey at night with a three hour wait at dawn in Crewe Station for a connection. Under the grime and soot it was a magnificent building with its ornate brickwork and cast and wrought iron. In many ways the scenes were reminiscent of the air raid drawings of Henry Moore. Today when I draw people, I draw in caricature railway porters I have seen asleep on mail bags, weary worried men and women busy and intent on that awful survival.
I never had much interest in junior school. I liked reading and writing and the playground. I loved drawing, I loved painting, I loved making things. Every day I really just wanted to get home from school to my room and start drawing my world – skyscrapers and fire stations, battle scenes, comic strips that told stories, strange animals, scary things.
I had a happy childhood and did all the things horrid boys do. My brother and sister were ten years older than me so I was left very much to follow my own destiny. I suppose my parents realised that children never turn out to be anything other than what they want to be. My earliest memories of my own work are of battle scenes: columns of soldiers advancing and retreating by the use of my rubber, explosions caused by splashes of red ink, generals promoted and demoted by addition and subtraction of medals.
My school days were not those of model student. In fact, few of them were spent at school at all. With my school bag safely hidden in a neighbour’s hedge, many mornings and afternoons were spent sampling the café society and pubs of Dublin and exploring the rocky coastline of Dublin Bay.
As my interest on formal education waned, my absorption in drawing and painting grew. When I was eighteen, I started at art school. My years of training had given me an insight into the possibilities of bohemian life and art school suited me very well. I had always had interest in figurative work, in the portrayal of the human condition, and from an early age I was familiar with the work of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso. In art school I was attracted to the life drawing room where I determined to develop my skills as a figurative painter. I found myself to be an intuitive painter. I had little patience with the intellectual processes and conclusions which were involved with abstract and conceptual art. For me, to paint what I saw or felt or imagined around me should be a simple affair, painted from the gut.
In 1976 I received my diploma for my exhibition of sinister moving wood constructions – a wooden bird, a portcullis, a shield, wooden machines reminiscent of medieval times – just as solidly built as my father’s wardrobe.
I developed a love for sculpture at this time and for some years worked hard in carving and construction. However through drawing and using colour in my sculpture, I gradually found myself returning to painting. Nowadays I work as both a painter and a sculptor.
For a young artist, the initial years are extremely tough and hazardous. The bohemian life can be often dangerous too. My observations of humanity led me down some very dark alleyways indeed during my wilderness years, and like my grandfather I am also prone to shout inmy sleep at my memories. At the beginning of 1987 I realised that I must mend my ways.
Overnight I became a workaholic with sensational results. Nowadays painting is an obsession for me. I have a strict discipline and I work from first light every morning until darkness, and beyond. As I work, I use as source matter my experiences as a younger man. I like to paint the human predicament as I have seen it. My figures appear in an urban landscape of which I am part. I try to use colour and form to express the emotion of my figures.
Every artist has to find their voice in order to be heard. It was during those hungry years that I found mine. I started to paint what I saw around me – the people and the situations they found themselves in, myself included – situations of despair and sadness and rage. I searched for the optimism and hope and humour that helps get us through when we find ourselves on the margins. Gradually, I came to understand what it was I was doing, and this gave me optimism and the strength to continue.
Now, when I paint, I paint the dead beats, the bar stool heroes, the women that I’ve met along the way. I look in on their world because I know it, and I try to show what it is I know. I try to show it to you in all its glory, all its colour and its pathos.
That’s my job as an artist. I look in from the margins and show what I see to you. I’m Irish, and we love to tell a story.
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