After that triptych, you started to paint in a more figurative way: was it more out of a positive desire to paint figuratively or more out of a feeling that you couldn’t develop that kind of organic form further at that time?
Well, one of the pictures I did in 1946, the one like a butcher’s shop, came to me as an accident. I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And it may have been bound up in some way with the three forms that had gone before, but suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.
Did the birds alighting suggest the umbrella or what?
It suddenly suggested an opening-up into another area of feeling altogether. And then I made these things; I gradually made them. So that I don’t think the bird suggested the umbrella; it suddenly suggested this whole image. And I carried it out very quickly, in about three or four days.
It often happens, does it, this transformation of the image in the course of working?
It does, but now I always hope it will arrive more positively. Now I feel that I want to do very, very specific objects, though made out of something, which is completely irrational from the point of view of being an illustration. I want to do very specific things like portraits, and they will be portraits of the people, but, when you come to analyse them, you just won’t know – or it would be very hard to see how the image is made up at all. And this is why in a way it is very wearing, because it is really a complete accident. For instance, the other day I painted ahead of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I’d got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, nearer, and I lost the image completely. Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.
In painting this Crucifixion, did you have the three canvases up simultaneously, or did you work on them quite separately?
I worked on them separately, and gradually, as I finished them, I worked on the three across the room together. I did in about a fortnight when I was in a bad mood of drinking, and I did it under tremendous hangovers and drink; I sometimes hardly knew what I was doing. And it’s one of the only pictures that I’ve been able to do under drink. I think perhaps the drink helped me to be a bit freer.
Have you been able to do the same in any picture that you’ve done since?
I haven’t. But I think with great effort I’m making myself freer. I mean, you either have to do it through drugs or drink.
Or extreme tiredness?
Extreme tiredness? Possibly. Or will.
The will to lose one’s will?
Absolutely. The will to make oneself completely free. Will is the wrong word, because in the end you could call it despair. Because it really comes out of an absolute feeling of it’s impossible to do these things, so I might as well just do anything. And out of this anything, one sees what happens.
If people didn’t come and take them away from you, I take it, nothing would ever leave the studio; you’d go on till you’d destroyed them all.
Can you say what impelled you to do the triptych?
I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me, they belong very much to the whole thing of the crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs, which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the crucifixion. I know for religious people, for Christians, the crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a nonbeliever, it was just an act of man’s behavior, a way of behavior to another.
But you do, in fact, paint other pictures which are connected with religion, because, apart from the crucifixion, which is a theme you’ve painted and returned to for 30 years, there are the Popes. Do you know why you constantly paint pictures which touch on religion?
In the Popes it doesn’t come from anything to do with religion; it comes from an obsession with Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X.