Hugh Mendes Talks to Artlyst About His Preoccupation With Death And Memento Mori

Hugh Mendes is a German-born British painter. He graduated with an MA in Fine Art from City and Guilds of London Art School,  in 2001 after reading a BA (Hons) in Fine Art at Chelsea School of Art 1975-78. Mendes’ work has been shown globally at Museum shows and it is in prominent private collections including that of Peter Nobel, Jerry Hall, and Bill Wyman. His latest exhibition ’The Death Of The Artist’ is at Charlie Smith London from Friday 14 October until 12/11/2016.

AL: What inspired you to start painting your obituary portraits?

HM: I can’t honestly remember. I was already working with newspapers as source material. I remember it started with two drawings of Spike Milligan and Princess Margaret, who died in the same year and I thought they made a nice pair! Also, I used a particularly beautiful portrait of Margaret by Lord Snowden, which you could say inspired me…

AL: How do you find the right image to reproduce.

HM: Originally I would faithfully use the image as it appeared in The Independent. All my early Obituaries came from that source. Then at some point, as that newspaper evaporated and the Obituary department jumped ship to The Guardian, I went with them, but I also started looking for other images that would work better as paintings. I remember going to their offices and going through their archives. They suggested I become their Obituary picture editor, which of course I could not do. So when I am looking at images I look for what is perhaps an ‘iconic’ image, or one that I find particularly beautiful, or as I say, will translate into paint. Sometimes I have to adapt an image to work for me…

AL: Do you have particular sources for the portraits such as favourite photographers or periodicals.

HM: As mentioned above, I start with The Guardian these days, certainly for the text. Then if I can find a better image through the internet, I do…

AL: Tell me about your practice .

HM: It has been developing for about 15 years since my MA, graduating in 2001. It is within the context of Still Life, Trompe L’Oile. Vanitas. It started off more politically, as a direct response to 9/11 and the images of that. Sept 11th, 2001 was actually my graduation day. It was two years later that I started painting Obituaries. The people and images somehow reflect our time and the people we esteem. They are our icons, etc. I have always particularly enjoyed painting dead artists because they are close to home. They are some of my personal heroes, people I have admired and respected over the years.

The other thing to mention is that I am a painter. I enjoy paint and painting. I use very traditional materials and methods. For instance, very high-grade portrait linen and the best oil paint money can buy… I teach painting at one of the London Art Schools (City & Guilds of London), which keeps me on my toes.

AL: Which artists do  you admire and count as your influences.

HM: Vermeer, Warhol, especially his disaster series and newspaper based work, Richter, especially his early works… They are the ones that immediately come to mind. Obviously, there are a lot of other artists that I admire, but are not necessarily a direct influence…

AL: Where to you see the direction of your work developing ie.  scale change, colour, texture or subject matter. 

HM: It has slowly but surely developed into the Obituaries of Artists, kind of presupposing my own… This has taken place over quite a lengthy period of time and I am very happy where it currently lies. Also towards this forthcoming show which will put all my recent Obituaries of artists together for the first time… I hope it is a worthwhile contribution to our view and reflection upon the lives and works of some of these great artists…

I think the scale has to remain on the scale of the newspaper originals, for that element of trompe l’oeil to be effective. The limited colour palate I use has again been developed over quite a lengthy period. I mainly use three primaries and mix all my colours from there. It means I have a lot of control over colour harmonies and so on. The texture is just sufficient to make it obvious upon close inspection that they are indeed oil paintings. I use a combination of soft synthetics and hogs to retain some brush marks.

Subject wise I have recently returned from a residency in California where I painted found objects on a table top, but I think that was a bit of a ‘one off’.  Probably remaining with the newspaper as found object, I will continue with the Obituaries, while perhaps bringing back some more politically based works. We certainly are in a political mess right now and I do see it as part of my job as an artist to reflect upon that, as well as a general sense of mortality, beauty and poignancy….!

Visit the exhibition at Charlie Smith London


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