Q&A with John Stezaker

John Stezaker came to prominence in the 1990s with his arresting photographic collages constructed from found images. Now internationally acclaimed, Stezaker’s work has been shown at biennials in Venice, Sydney, Paris and Ljubljana, and is held in public collections including Tate and MoMA.

The Worcester-born artist is now curating his first ever exhibition. Held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Turning to See: From Van Dyck to Lucian Freud’ presents photographic collages by Stezaker alongside paintings, prints, photographs, drawings and sculpture from some of the most celebrated names in art history.

The exhibition’s centrepiece is Self-portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck (c.1640), acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2014 and touring to public galleries across the UK, 2015-18.

Turning to See also features portraiture and self-portraiture by artists including David Bomberg, Helen Chadwick, Gustave Courbet, Lucian Freud, Sarah Lucas and Pablo Picasso, taken from the collections of Birmingham Museums Trust and the National Portrait Gallery.

John Stezaker, Mask (Film Portrait Collage) CLXXXV, 2015 © the artist, courtesy The Approach, London

I understand this is the first exhibition you’ve curated?
Yes, that was Lisa Beauchamp’s idea [curator of modern and contemporary art at Birmingham Museums Trust]. Collage is a way of collecting and bringing things together – it’s curating in a microscopic way. I enjoyed going through exactly that process with the National Portrait Gallery. It was extraordinary being able to say, “Oh, not that Rembrandt”. And then when I came to Birmingham, I couldn’t believe it – there’s a whole conglomerate of collections to access. I felt like a kid in a sweet shop and I went through an initial phase of pure enthusiasm for images.

And the van Dyck is on a national tour?
Yes, the National Portrait Gallery have allowed the curatorial decisions to be taken on by a bunch of hooligans – putting artists in charge! I’ve enjoyed the process but I do feel I’m treading on unknown territory. It’s an odd position to be in – that of a curator. I had a small reproduction of the van Dyke in my studio. From looking at that came an interest in ‘turning’ as a theme. There’s something strange about the work and it’s unlike anything else he painted. I think the two parts of the painting are the two parts of his valedictory statement. He is saying, “this is the dexterity with which I can paint, the legacy of my hand, and this is me” – there’s a tension at play.

Turning to See: From Van Dyck to Lucian Freud at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (28 May – 4 September 2016) © Birmingham Museums Trust

How have you selected works for the exhibition and how does this process relate to making your own pieces?
Well, curating is different from making work. I’ve discovered you have to do a lot of compromising when you’re curating and I don’t compromise in my work. It’s a different kind of process. You could say I’m using the eye I use for my work to select things but I’m trying to bring together pieces within a theme. This theme of turning very much relates to my work. My Marriage pieces all came out of looking at Pablo Picasso’s work of the 1940s. During the war he made portraits that involved three facets – face on, three-quarter view and profile – and Angus McBean likewise. I can’t work with three facets, only two. Two facets transform the face into something mask-like. I wanted to look at turning historically and within mythology, and to look at turning in different movements and directions, hence the inclusion of my good friend Helen Chadwick’s Vanity (1986). It’s kind of an awkward piece but very beautiful.

Are other works you’ve selected all long-term fascinations or newer discoveries?
There’s a mixture. I was completely guided by the image. If you think of the collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery you think of the Pre-Raphaelite collection and Edward Burne-Jones had to come into it. I wanted to show Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1894) by my favourite of all artists, Walter Sickert. Sickert does something amazing with this drawing. You can feel the self-consciousness and pain of the model in his partial exposure and awareness of us …

Read the Q&A in full on a-n, published 9 June 2016.