Jonathan Yeo

Mariella Frostrup

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In Conversation with Jonathan Yeo - From 'You're only young twice'  2008

MF: Of course we know you primarily for iconic portraits of well known people.  So what first interested you in cosmetic surgery? Was it when you had that big exhibition on the West Coast?

JY: I actually had the idea for doing these at the same time as I started the collages.   Maybe it was because I was getting tired of the repetition of doing portraits, although I love doing them and always will, but I was looking for ways into it from new directions. The collage project started off with the picture of Bush, which was really just a one-off humorous riposte to someone messing me around, but from there it snowballed.  Firstly that picture had a huge, rapidly international following of its own thanks the internet. But also the more I explored it, the more I realised what different resonances that pornography has for different people. It occurred to me I could riff off personalities who traded off their sexuality in some manner, or use the nudes or "leaves"collages as a way of referencing the proliferation of porn in our world at the moment, especially in advertising and the mass media. And it also coincided with having two young daughters, so maybe I was more aware of how it seemed to be creeping into every area of our culture.

MF: But it does sort of connect though because it’s interesting that 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, the equality business and the feminism of the 70s we now seem to be in the situation- and these paintings relate to it as well – where women are more concerned than ever with outward beauty and a very misogynistic, objectified image.

JY: I think that’s right. One of the things that came out of the porn work was that, by trying to make faces out of skin tones, I realised how difficult it is to find real skin tones in that type of magazine. It became obvious that you couldn’t just use the top shelf of the newsagent because, in all those overly glamorous mainstream American magazines, everyone looks so unreal. They’ve all got fake tan, it’s all photoshopped, it’sHollywood style, and everyone’s waxed to within an inch of their lives and it’s a totally unnatural look. So to create the same illusion as a painting, you end up going to "reader’s wives" and homemade, amateur, outdoor, or anything where subjects are lit and look like normal people. And you realise actually that mainstream porn isn't actually sexy at all because it doesn’t bear any relationship to your own experience.  What’s genuinely interesting and erotic, if anything at all, are images that remind you of things you know.

MF: And it’s so far removed from the reality of your life.

JY: Maybe that’s because we only came to this kind of porn relatively late. It's very different from the material we used to read as schoolboys.

MF: Amateur Photographer and all that.

JY: Yes, even National Geographic. It was anything you could get hold of. But this generation now is growing up with easy access to the most explicit kind of LA porn and I think it is affecting people, not least making them feel they should look the same way in order to do those things.

MF: As a painter I suppose you’d notice it more, but the objectification of women just seems to be at epidemic levels. I just went to Chester University to watch my husband get an Honorary Degree, and I was watching all these 21 year old girls go by in black gowns. And they were wearing shoes that, when I was their age, would only have been the preserve of porn stars.

JY: Yes, it does seem to be happening.  I worked with a number of surgeons on this project, and assumed they get a lot of businessmen paying to get their girlfriends breasts enlarged, but actually it’s relatively unusual and when it does happen they try and discourage them.   So apparently most women who are undergoing surgery are actually doing it for themselves.


MF: Or other women.

JY: Yes, and no doubt it reflects current fashions and what people’s ideal body image is. I can see how it might only take one person to laugh at some aspect of your appearance when you’re 15 and it stays with you for years.   You can end up blaming all kinds of other things that go wrong in your life on that.   Whether it’s the bump in your nose, the shape of your chest or because your ears happen to look funny to someone.   And while there's obviously no direct connection, in some cases it actually makes people's lives better because they've fixed something which they obsessed over and assumed was holding them back. But in most cases it’s not really going to make much difference and even make their faces less interesting.

MF: But isn’t there something terrifying as well,  as a person who spends his life studying people’s faces, the idea of this kind of generic, homogenised face?

JY: Yes certainly. I was thinking about how in the past you commissioned a portrait painter to make you look more like whatever the contemporary idea of beauty was. Gainsborough’s faces all look incredibly similar because everyone wanted to look a certain way, yet it looks slightly ridiculous to us now because it’s not what we find beautiful.

MF: Like the Leonardo da Vincis that are just now at the National Portrait Gallery.

JY:  Exactly. So in previous centuries it would have been the portrait painter’s job to fix people. But my current job turns out to be that of scientifically recording what the surgeons are doing. They’re really the artists. They are sculpting real faces and bodies into this season's look. On top of which many of them are artists in their spare time and some even trained as sculptors.  So part of the reason for leaving their actual markings on the patients was to allude to the artistry of what they do.

MF: It’s almost tribal isn’t it?

JY: Yes tribal in some, abstract in others. To the surgeons it’s not. To them it’s very scientific and precise where they’re going to be cutting someone up. Where there’s this wonderfully casual savagery you know, a squiggle here and there, ten minutes later they’re going to be putting a knife through those lines.


MF: They’re very interesting the images because they’re incredibly vulnerable aren’t they? There’s nothing empowering about those situations.

JY: That’s why I left the faces in some of them, just because I was struck by how prone people are. We’re used to seeing people before, and usually quite a few weeks or even months after, when the swelling, the bruising and any other sort of damage has receded, which sometimes can be quite quick, sometime take a very long time. So we're used to seeing see a slightly sanitised version of it.

MF: Do you feel like you’re making judgements?

JY: The intention at the outset was not to make judgements. Most of the conversation about this that goes on in the media is obsessed with if it's right or wrong. You know, should she, or shouldn’t she? Is it cheating, do they look ridiculous? It’s all so judgemental. But at the same time most people have made up their minds about whether they think it’s a good or bad thing. And so I didn’t think there was much point in setting out to change people’s minds. It’s happening anyway and will carry on expanding probably faster than any other area of medicine. Yes what's being largely ignored are the other insights it gives us, not least about the psychology of people doing it.  What it tells us about current body fashions. Apparently only about five years ago most girls would go in saying "I want to look like Jordan". Now, they’re all saying "I don’t want to look like Jordan". They want to look as natural as possible.

MF: Oh the vagaries of fashion?

JY: Yes, and in the past those body image changes might have taken a generation or longer to turn over. You think of Rubenesque women for instance... And now it’s happening in less than a decade.

MF: But do you see it as a form of artistry? I mean those who are very generous about it might say that these are women exploring and sculpting their own bodies and it is the ultimate artistic expression. I wouldn’t say that personally but...

JY: It’s such a dangerous area to go down, especially when you start making changes to the way your facial muscles work. As human beings we read other people’s faces more precisely than probably anything else we look at, because we’ve got to size someone up on first glance. From that we assess intently whether they’re a potential friend, threat or even sexual partner, and all the further information that tells you about them, from their age to their personality, what sort of mood they’re in and what's going to happen next. All this comes from the face, and mostly from eyes and corners of the mouth. So changing the structure through a facelift can be a bit like like putting all the verbal intonations in a sentence in the wrong place.   We’ve both been in situations where you bump into someone you know who looks really surprised about something and then you realise…

MF: It’s just their new face…… But is there something slightly Stepford Wives about it as well because the surgeons do seem to be mostly men and they’re sculpting this kind of female ideal that, as you say, hundreds of years ago would have been achieved in a portrait or in a painting, but no one would have imagined literally performing it on a human being.

JY: Yes, it is interesting that. For this exhibition I’ve focused mostly on women partly because I think it’s the thing people talk about most, but also women are much more open about talking about it. I believe ten years ago around 99% of cosmetic surgery procedures were for women.  Now it’s about 90%. So proportionately the number of men doing it is massively on the increase.

MF: Have you painted any men?

JY: I haven’t for this one, partly because it’s really difficult to find ones who’ll agree to it. They seem a lot more coy about it than the women. I get the impression women see themselves much more critically than men, who romanticise how they look.


MF: But it’s much more culturally acceptable as well for women to aspire to beauty isn’t it? If a man is overly concerned with his appearance we sort of dismiss him as vain and vacuous, whereas it’s almost expected for women to invest a lot of their time and energy into achieving this kind of outward beauty.

JY: I think that’s probably been true but maybe it's becoming less so. And things seem to be evening out.

MF: You mentioned that this idea came at the same time as the pornographic images. Was there a connection?

JY: The idea for this really came out of some long conversations with a surgeon friend of mine, Martin Kelly, who asked why there wasn't more art around engaging with this subject. I assumed there must have been but I looked into it and, apart from a few early Jenny Saville paintings, and the work of French performance artist Orlan, there seemed to be very little. I was aware of work relating to reconstructive surgery and similarly more worthy subjects involving more complex issues. And there was a certain amount based around gender transformations and that kind of thing, which are also fascinating subjects and are also evolving very fast. But the area which is most interesting to me is the medical procedures which are basically unnecessary. When you’re not being rushed into hospital to have an operation, you’re going in there voluntarily for massive surgery, there must be a big mental process that gets you in there.

MF: And how did you feel observing the operations? Although you’re not making any judgements you’re still a human being.   You must have had a sense of emotionally how it was affecting you. Did you feel this is crazy, did you feel sorry for the people you were painting?

JY: As a portrait painter I had always been curious to go and watch a facelift. Yet it hadn't been part of my plan for this project to observe the operations at all. I was wary of making the paintings overly graphic as I thought that would detract from the complex narrative we've discussed. But on reflection I realised it would be useful to go and see some, even if I wasn't planning to use any of the images for painting. People say to you beforehand, ‘you sure you want to do that? You’re going to pass out or be sick’ yet the reality is that you're just so fascinated by the artistry of the surgeon doing it. I went to see a face lift, Jan Stanek who’s done two thousand of them and works so incredibly fast and so precisely that it's like watching some sort of master craftsman. It made me feel very clumsy in what I do. I make mistakes and I can paint over it. They make a mistake and the patient could lose the use of one side of their face altogether.

MF: You talk about the artistry of the surgeon, but then you have that painting of the woman who’s had a face lift and there it’s very hard to consider the artistry. I thought it was someone from a Chinese province or perhaps someone who’d been injured in the Vietnam War.  And actually the woman is not even Asian!

JY: I liked that ambiguity. The idea was to acknowledge the scale of the operation, how much it distorts someone's face and how it doesn't go away quickly. Plus I thought there was something about the bandage that added to the shell shocked and vulnerable look.

MF: It’s dreadfully poignant though, because what you do is you start wondering what this woman is thinking to put herself through that for the sake of something that really is unattainable, which is the preservation of youth.

JY: That's what she believes but it’s really just borrowing back a short term rewind, a quick hit of how she might have looked a few years before. And it's a quick fix that’s all, which all too often people then do over again until the whole face ends up getting pulled too far one way. It’s not going to stop the aging process because you’re still going to get older. You’re just going to get older in a slightly weirder way.

MF: And you could argue that it’s actually just a new kind of beauty, because actually you don’t look younger, you look like an older person who’s had a face lift, don’t you?

JY: And I think this is the thing that’s particularly fascinating about this moment in time. A hundred years ago this wasn’t done at all. In the future so much money and energy and resources and expertise will have been poured into this area of research because there’s probably nothing more lucrative than vanity. And the result will be that itwill almost certainly be done so much better. So this curious point in our evolution where people are prepared to spend a lot of money subjecting ourselves to something which is painful, risky, takes a long time to recover from – assuming you recover at all - and even when it goes right it’s quite often obvious that you’ve had it done, will seem completely insane. It may even be seen as barbaric and lunatic as doctors using leeches seem to us now I think.


MF: And how did you work? You worked off photographs?

JY: By the end of the project i had started taking the photos myself and going to the operations. But it started off by going and looking through the archives of the surgeons because they have images of (anyone who’s happy to be photographed) as their case studies. Then i had to figure out what areas were most interesting to me and which might also work as paintings. And finally you have to go back to the patients and get their permission for me to use them. So it's a rather slower process than just picking up a brush and painting something off the top of your head. In a way it was actually a very useful process because there's so many directions this could go and i needed to sort between the stuff that's interesting but which I can’t really depict it in this way. It forced me to decide what I was most interested in and which stories I can tell in just one or two images and what’s much more complicated than that. I found the most interesting images were often the ones with the markings on, partly because you’re alluding to the artistry of the surgeon, but also because you have the before and after narrative in a single picture. Plus the violence of the actual operation is implied rather than graphically shown.

MF: Yes, there's a sense of expectancy of its what’s to come. A sort of edge of your seat moment as you look at them and wonder.

JY: But you’re absolutely right, there is something weird about this moment. I think that we’ll be able to look back in the future at this time, at the photographs and films and all the documentary images of people and be able to pinpoint to the decade they were taken, if not the year, by the unusual way people’s faces are moving. There may never be another moment in human history when we’reapplying quite limited knowledge to such dramatic changes to the way we look.

MF: What I find really interesting in them is that you’re marrying the most ancient of arts with the most cutting edge of our advances in what we might loosely call science. What you do is really very traditional in terms of the world of art. We’ve got 2012 coming up and Damien Hirst being the big artist of 2012 and it’s all quite bling, isn’t it? Do you sometimes feel that you’re ploughing an altogether alternative and less celebrated furrow in the art world?  This is looking at the sort of darker side.

JY: Yes, but I think what’s fun for me is that this is allowing me to do both. I'm painting faces and bodies, which is what I've always loved doing,  but with this subject matter I'm able to tell a far more conceptual story. And in documenting an area which, if it's being addressed at all it's largely through the much more immediate medium of photography, the simple fact of doing superficially classical portraits and nudes hopefully gives it a long term perspective. And hopefully reminds us that to people in the past, as possibly to those in the future, this moment would have looked very bizarre.

MF: Was it when you did the George Bush project and you married collage to a portrait that you got interested in more of a narrative story in your work?

JY: It made me realise that sometimes a message is more powerful when it's woven into something that's beautifully made or has a resonance on some other level because of the medium or context you put it in. And it made me realise it was time to use what I'd learnt in portraiture to explore some wider themes which interested me, such as this one. 

MF: Do you think that’s where the art of portraiture still ploughs its own furrow, still has its own domain because obviously photography has increased its sophistication and what it can doand the speed with which it can capture things and so on and so forth. And some people argue that in some way it’s competition for portraiture.

JY: The invention of photography made portraiture irrelevant at the time because suddenly you had something which couldn't be challenged. It was a scientific, mechanical documentary depiction of how someone looked, and for 150 odd years it replaced painting as the means of recording another human being. Yet something’s changed in the last 10 years with the proliferation of digital photography, and the invention of photoshop and retouching. In my childhood I remember always hearing the mantra, ‘the camera never lies,’ but you don’t hear very much anymore.

MF: No, because we know it does.

JY: You wouldn't look at a magazine cover without thinking, well, I wonder what they’ve changed on this?

MF: And also mourning the passing of the facial expression because if you take any of our biggest women’s magazines for example and you looked at the covers for the last year, the one thing that’s absent is any form of personality. And yet these are all portraits of women’s faces.  And it’s almost like our aspiration is this interchangeable bland beauty that conforms to a stereotype. It’s like we’ve developed a fear of everything that makes us human and individual.

JY: Yes, and I think it is worrying. I wonder if it’s a fashion which will pass or a direction of travel. People in the past used to see an image in a magazine and expect to be able to go and buy the clothes, the makeup and the hair. Now they can buy the whole face or body as well.

MF: But isn’t that what this exhibition’s about in a way because it’s exploding that beauty myth? It’s saying "okay, this is the process by which you attain this generic stereotype look"?

JY: Well I suppose so. I’m not trying to tell people not to do it but I am trying to make people ask themselves "is it worth it?"