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As London Fashion Week draws to a close, a familiar designer appears, but not on a catwalk. Nicole Farhi, who stood down from the label that bears her name two years ago is back, but this time as an artist. The French designer, who has resided in London for the better part of 40 years, is exhibiting a series of busts at Bowman Sculpture.
It turns out that Farhi has been sculpting in private for years, coached by artists Jean Gibson and the late Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. She tells Complex: “Eduardo was my friend. I met him at the foundry of the Royal College—he was teaching ceramics. He liked what I was doing, which was a very sexy piece of work, abstract, and he said, ‘I think you should come into my studio, and then I will come and see the rest of your work.’ It was just like that, after five minutes. He liked what I was doing, I was taking evening classes at the time with Jean Gibson, the sculptor, and he said ‘Carry on, show me what you’re up to.’ Over the months and years we became really good friends, and he was teaching me by taking me to galleries, to shows, to museums, and getting me books. He was doing files with cuttings to inspire me, getting me books on anatomy.”
She reduced her time in the studio when she met English playwright David Hare, who she married in 1992. “I didn’t have a block, but I slowed down sculpting, because I got married, and I was happy. I used to go to my classes two nights a week plus Saturday morning and [sculpt on] Sunday and Wednesday at home, and I had a full time job! So when I met David, I wanted to be with him onat the weekend obviously, and then Eduardo was quite upset, and he said ‘Nicole, you have to go back to sculpting.’ I said ‘Yes, yes, I know, I know,’ and he said ‘Well I’m going to come.’ And every Wednesday, which was my day off at work for sculpting at the studio, he came, and he said ‘You’re going to start sculpting in wax.’ So he came with wax and casserole [dishes] and a burner and showed me practically how to do it in wax and in plaster. He was working at the table next to me, and he was building stuff very quickly when I was struggling like crazy with wax that was melting, either too soft or too hard; I hated it! And then I went back to clay, and he was very happy. It was my medium.”
This is her first public exhibition, at a gallery positioned between the Royal Academy and Christie’s. “When I started doing portraiture, I was sculpting artists. I did Eduardo Paolozzi, then Francis Bacon, Freud, and Giacometti. When I met Robert Bowman [the gallery owner], he said he saw some of the portraits and would give me a show of portraiture. Now at the time, I didn't have that many portraits, so I said ok, if it's portraiture, I'm going to think who I can do that I know. Obviously it's much easier when you know your subjects, and I came up with some of the actors, playwrights, and directors I knew well, and then my little family came together.”
The sculptures are based on photographs of her friends, including actors Judi Dench, Christopher Walken, Bill Nighy, and Helena Bonham Carter, playwright Tom Stoppard, and the director Stephen Frears. She hasn’t entirely forgotten her designer roots though, including Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, as her sole representative from the world of fashion. Farhi reveals: “Anna has been behind me for many, many years, and we have been good friends. The one I really like is the one where she hasn’t got her glasses on, and I think she likes this one, as well, more than the one which is more of a stereotype of what everyone expects Anna to be—the glasses, the necklaces. I did that one for fun.” The gallery owner wanted the portrait with the sunglasses, but Farhi wanted the other one in the show. They agreed to show both, as well as The Mask of Anna, a thinner, translucent work made of glass.
Most of the works are cast in bronze, but the exhibition also includes works cast in aluminum and glass. She explains, “I work in clay, and then I do my first cast in cement, and then I cast them in different mediums. Last year, I thought, 'I’m going to start using aluminum, because Eduardo worked in so many different mediums; he worked in wood, he worked in aluminum, he worked in bronze, and in plaster.' I learned a lot from him regarding mediums meaning something different, and you know, you have to experiment! Then when I did Judy [Dench], I thought, 'I’m going to do Judy in glass, because there’s such a transparency in that woman, and a clarity in her, in her face.' She was my first attempt to work in glass.”