A Portrait Of An Artist
Self-taught—it is adjective frequently appended to Jonny Yeo; frequently and perhaps ever so slightly erroneously, as, the way he describes his early steps as a painter, Picasso was at the very least a guide, mentor and neighbour. “My grandmother lived in Antibes in a house across from the Picasso Museum. I spent my summer holidays down there and when I was a student and teaching myself to paint, I would go and gather new ideas and come back and try and do what I had seen. He was a very strong and early influence.” Certainly, that influence is to be seen in Yeo’s “Cubist” collages of pornographic magazines—a style and a medium that one can imagine appealing to Picasso.
But it is as a portrait painter that Yeo is known, not least because, just into his early forties, the National Portrait Gallery offered him a retrospective. From Tony Blairto, Cara Delevingne, The Duke of Edinburgh to Idris Elba: in 21st-century Britain you do not exist as a public figure unless you have been painted by Jonny Yeo. Such is his standing that, were he not Jonny Yeo, he could take a seat in his own comfortably chaotic studio in Chelsea (above the smarter, more business-like reception rooms below) and paint himself.
However, his fame as a portrait painter and his attendant role as a validator of the fame of others in a fame-obsessed age, was born of necessity. “I spent the first 15 years of my life concentrating on portraits. That was a way of getting paid to learn how to paint—as I never went to art school—and getting through that period when everyone said painting was dead, let alone portraits, which were hopelessly out of fashion.”
Now, of course, portraiture is hopelessly in fashion. “The use of portrait images on Facebook and Instagram, the ‘selfie phenomenon’, is seen as a trivial aspect of daily life but it’s more interesting than that,” he says. “We are all becoming very adept at constructing compositions of portrait images of ourselves and other people, and reading other people’s images, because everyone is using images to construct identities of themselves. All of us are doing it in some way to enhance an aspect of our lives and make ourselves look more glamorous or more affluent, or more clever, stylish, artsy or interesting. We are doing it through images—with an immediacy and power that cuts across things and saves time. Without being aware of it, we have started to use and read narrative images, particularly portrait ones, in the way painters and art historians used to.”
So, no surprise when he says: “This year I am focusing on self-portraiture.” But he is working with something more sophisticated than a smartphone? “I am using this amazing 3D-scanning technology I have access to, and the virtual reality project I’m doing with Google, which is about 3D drawing—but now we are using it to make sculptures. I’m known for doing portraits on canvas so I haven’t done this before, and it works. I hope to encourage other people who haven’t had a go at it, too, and show how easy it is to do. You don’t need any knowledge.” Easily said by a man who was (self) taught by Picasso.