When Jonathan Miller’s tall figure loomed into view he began talking straight away as though resuming a previous conversation. His wife had been bagging leaves in the garden when I arrived. Go in, she said, he’s expecting you. He had, after all, phoned several times to check I was coming. I had expected to be bulldozered by his formidable intellect but this was obviously not going to be a formal interview, we simply wandered chatting into the garden to take a look at the metal constructions that would form part of his show at the Boundary Gallery. He had been taught to weld in Santa Fe, he said, where he had been directing opera. He’d toured the local junk yards in a pick up truck then stripped to the waist and got down to work; a touch of Chillida here, a smidgen of David Smith there. Of course, as you can see, he insisted, I’m a Formalist, an old fashioned modernist. I don’t have much sympathy with postmodernism. Some people would probably say that what I make is derivative but all great artists – not that I would call myself an artist, more a putter together of this and that – are influenced by others.
Miller, despite his ageless appearance, is now pushing 70 and much less manic and more modest than I had expected. Yet his enthusiasm for all things philosophical, aesthetic and scientific is as intense as ever. Please don’t call me a Renaissance man, he said. It’s such a contemporary view to think it odd if one is interested in wide range of subjects. Yet his conversation is littered with verbal ‘foot notes’ as his mind races tirelessly from topic to topic; from Shakespeare to opera, from the unconscious and psychiatry to anthropology and his dislike of contemporary French philosophy – “Foucault fucking around”, he is an admirer of the Anglo-American school – stringing them all together as an accomplished composer might handle a complex melody or a conductor the different instruments in an orchestra. He still has the same intellectual curiosity that lead him, as a young boy, to discover the delights of biological symmetry which set him on the course to study medicine.
It was Beyond the Fringe, of course – that glittering revue of irreverent satire in the early 60s – that brought him to public notice. Since then he has directed theatre, TV and opera from New York to Florence, written and presented a series on the history of medicine and was executive producer of twelve of the BBC Shakespeare series and there was his delightful film of Alice in Wonderland. So why the art? Wasn’t all that more than enough for one man? Well, he has always made art. His father, a psychiatrist, was also a very competent sculptor, his mother a writer. He was brought up surrounded by books and paintings, many of which still fill, to bulging point, the Camden house he has lived in for years. The walls of the narrow staircase are crammed with prints and etchings: Piranesi, Greco-Roman columns and pediments, Muybridge’s photographs on the analysis of movement. You see, I just like form, he says as we climb another flight to look at paintings in the bedroom, photographs in the loo.
He also makes collages from bits of detritus. Mostly shreds of advertising posters scrapped off walls in NY or Italy. During rehearsing, say Tosca, he might be found during the siesta hour peeling choice samples from local hoardings. What he is interested in is the incidental, what is passed by. His art, if it is about anything, is about making the negligible visible. What Constable confessed to as a love of “old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork.” He talks of the pleasures of fiddling with bits and pieces, though his is, of course, a highly informed aesthetic. Whilst at Cambridge, amid the Footlight reviews and the medical exams, he found time to take in a good deal of art history. He draws on Kurt Schwitters, on Joseph Cornell and Braque. But the results are also very much Jonathan Miller; eclectic, idiosyncratic like that of a highly visual and literate magpie.
He is in the middle of filming a programme for television on atheism. Did he then, consider art to be the thing that filled the God-shaped hole in contemporary society? Did it perhaps provide the only possible route by which, in a post-Nietzschian world, we might momentarily encounter the metaphysical or the sublime? And then he was off again like a fox-hound that had sniffed its quarry. It was all to do with the expression of human co-operation rather than anything mystical. Co-operation leads us to have empathy with each other. Or to use the word he prefers, the word used by the philosopher Adam Smith, sympathy. But wasn’t that just too mechanistic a view to explain how we feel when we hear Beethoven’s Eroica or Bach’s St. Matthew passion or a speech by Shakespeare? And he starts to talk of his love of Lear, which he has directed many times, and as we sit in his homely kitchen drinking coffee at his long kitchen table next to the wall covered with children’s’ drawings, photographs of him with the young Alan Bennet et al, his children and grandchildren, he quotes Lear, who, when half out of his mind on the heath, turns to his daughter and says “I think this lady to be my child Cordelia,” and breaks down in tears. It is a moving moment. He is genuinely affected and takes time to compose himself. Now this is a man with an enormous mind. Yet at this minute, I can’t but help feel that he is wrong. That what he had just experienced is more than a highly sophisticated evolutionary response.
So we have another go at a definition, after he asks, with great curtsey considering it’s his kitchen, if I mind if he smokes. Is what he has just felt equivalent to what the poet Wilfred Owen called ‘pity’? Yes, that’s something like it. But it is a human pity. I ask if he accepts Melanie Klein’s notion of art as a form of ‘reparation’. This is a theory he rather likes, and later, as I am leaving, he tells me a funny story about an interview he did with Hanna Segal, the Kleinian psychoanalyst, on TV – it is easy to forget in all this cultural chat that he has a great sense of humour – though he doesn’t think much of Freud. Freud just got the unconscious wrong, he says. He prefers the views of the cognitive behaviourists; the unconscious not as a dark vault full of secrets but as an ‘enabling unconscious’, like a computer, where the desktop is too small to keep everything needed on it, so thoughts and information are stored in files and folders which can be accessed when necessary.
I try and bring him back again to art. Really it is shape and form that please him. He pops upstairs to bring down an antique cobbler’s last and an antique wooden beret stretcher and takes great pleasure in showing me how form has followed function. He talks of the delight of making, how we deeply underestimate the pleasure of doodling, and play. That’s what artists are good at, and through play they are able to take time to notice what is incidental and place it for a moment central frame. Think of Auden’s great poem Musée des Beaux Arts. How Brueghel places Icarus, falling from the sky, at the edge of his picture when the main thrust of life, the ploughman ploughing, the ship sailing seems to be going on elsewhere. Breughel makes us aware of the previously overlooked. Art can do something like that.
Jonathan Miller Metal, Wood and Paper Constructions at the Boundary Gallery from 26 September to 1 November 2003
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003
Images © Jonathan Miller 2003
Published in The Independent