My Desert Island Artworks

In an interview a few weeks ago I was asked which five works of art I would chose to own if I was a collector. A work of art from any period in history. It sounded to me like my very own desert island discs hit list, the ultimate fantasy forage, despite the fact Kirsty Young wasn’t sat in front of me.

I am basing this on the radio show and so have chosen 7 works of art to take with me to put on display in my hand built wooden shack gallery space on my desert island. Here are my Desert Island Artworks:

1. Valentin Serov, ‘Ida Rubinstein’, 1910


Without sounding too cheesy, this is the first painting that ever caught me be surprise.I saw this painting at an exhibition in 2007 at The Royal Academy called FROM RUSSIA. In that exhibition my slight obsession with Russian modern art began. The exhibition comprised of both Russian and French modern paintings that had been brought over to England from Russia’s principal collections: the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. The exhibition presented a unique snapshot of the artistic relationship between Russia and Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Masterpieces such as Henri Matisse’s ‘Dance’ and Paul Cezanne’s views of Mount Sainte-Victoire were on display alongside Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square. (If you are interested in learning more about the exhibition there is an amazing audio introduction by the curator Ann Dumas:,574,AR.html )

In this painting Serov, famous for painting at times in the same manner as the French Impressionists, has created a simple nude portrait. The painting is captivating for the delicacy in which he treats the subject of the female figure. The palette is very simple but powerful as the dark blue accented by the green scarf contrasts with the off white of the walls surrounding Ida. I like the dark outlines Serov uses for the contours of Ida’s body which appear to be spontaneously drawn. This contrasts with the detail he uses on her face and dark curled hair. The deep red of her lipstick is eye catching and she becomes very seductive as she turns to look at us or away from us. Ida Rubinstein was a ballet dancer and actress and I think the way Serov treats her figure alludes to her elegant stature as a dancer.

2. Kasimir Malevich, ‘Black Square’, 1915

This is one of the most terrifying paintings of the early 20th century. The Russian artist Malevich showed this painting for the first time in 1915 at an exhibiton called ‘0.10. The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings’ in St. Petersburg. In this exhibition he exhibited thirty-nine paintings from the new style of art he created called Suprematism. This painting, the black square, can be described almost as the origin point of this new style. It is simply a black square, representative of a void of nothingness. From this nothingness Malevich believed he could create a new language of art.

The first world war broke out in 1914 and this had a huge impact on the artistic scene in Russia as all the artists that had travelled to Western Europe had to return home. Therefore there was an explosion in the arts as artists were united in one place. The first world war signalled a new era and the death of the old one and this translated into Malevich’s painting practise. Malevich decided he no longer wanted to paint objects and people in his art because that was linking him to the past. He declared in his new style of painting “all objects have vanished like smoke”, and they did into this black square – swallowed up. All that reappeared were brightly colored geometric shapes floating across a white infinite pool.

I like this painting because it is so pivotal in the history of Russian avant-garde art and it contains within it the fever of revolution that took hold of Russia at the time. When you are stood in front of it, the black square has an aura. It’s as if it is alive. It is both enchanting and horrific. Despite this, I want it on my desert island.

I need something a bit more upbeat and light-hearted.

3. Grayson Perry, The Rosetta Vase, 2011

I love Grayson Perry. He is a bit of an idol of mine. He makes me want to go and live in the mountains and be a potter. This pot was shown at his exhibition at the British Museum where he displayed his own work alongside works by anonymous craftsman he foraged from the BM’s collections. As an artist he is interested in traditional skill. He often speaks about today’s culture of what he calls the “Picasso napkin syndrome” where people will place value on a doodle he makes simply because he is the artist Grayson Perry. It’s the idea of artist as brand (ie. Damien Hirst) that he wanted to dispose of in his exhibition, placing the anonymous craftsman at the heart of it.

By looking at this pot you can see that Grayson has created a traditionally shaped pot based on the traditional skill of building up the vase using rings of clay. I like that his pots appear traditional from afar in their shape and decoration as he calls upon traditional methods. However as you get closer the imagery he uses draws upon modern society and themes like class, gender roles, politics and hierarchy. They are beautiful and discomforting at the same time. Its clever and I love him for putting skill and craftsmanship on a pedestal.

4. Kazuo Shiraga, Title Unknown


I saw this painting last year in Venice during the Biennale. It was on display at the  incredible Palazzo Fortuny as part of an exhibition on Antoni Tapies. The co-curator Axel Vervoordt collaborated with the Antoni Tapies estate to bring works by Tapies and works he collected during his life to the ethereal setting of Mariano Fortuny’s Palazzo. Fortuny had his own incredible collection and so it is beyond extraordinary to see the two collections housed under one roof in a Venetian Palazzo. I will never forget this exhibition. It felt like walking into into a different world for two hours. Picasso paintings hung next to death masks of the composers Beethoven and Wagner, opposite egyptian sculptures. This exhibition was intensely rich and surprising at every glance.

Shiraga’s large canvas had the biggest physical and emotional reaction on me. Hung in a near pitch black room with a light shining on is surface it almost punches you in the face. When I saw this I thought of child birth and new life but you can also see intense violence and aggression. Shiraga painted using his feet. He would hold onto a rope dangling from the ceiling of his studio and use he feet to push paint across the surface of his canvas. The effect is therefore very physical as they are performative works, often being referred to as “action paintings” or “happenings” – both referring to early performance art – a basis of the Japanese Gutai movement Shiraga was a member of. The paint on the canvas is so thick in areas that even today there would be soft liquid paint under the crusted surface. It still looks wet. The paint shines at you and has semi-dried into rippling patterns, like rivers of blood. It is entrancing. I could not take my eyes off it.

5. Anthony Caro, Orangerie, 1969

Another experience in Venice, I saw this at the monographic Caro show that was held at the Museo Correr. I really like the shapes used in the piece. I simply like it because it appeals to me aesthetically. It is about 6ft tall and wide making it immediately impressive. I know very little about Anthony Caro but after seeing this show I have become a fan of his work. It was very sad when he passed away at the end of last year. He made metal appear like something naturally beautiful. He was able to create elegant shapes and curving lines in his large scale sculptures. I particularly like that you can enjoy his sculptures from all angles as they change depending on where you stand.

6. William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1794

This is a very powerful image. And one of the most important in English history. William Blake was a crazy genius who hallucinated and imagined up an entire new universe parallel to our own based on a religion that stemmed from Christianity. He was a poet and printmaker and was able to marry the visual and verbal arts together in his books.

I could have chosen any number of his prints and watercolors but I chose this piece to take to my desert island. Here is a version of the old testament God called Urizen, creating the universe using a pair of calipers – a measuring devise. Blake abhorred the material world and believed in the immaterial world of spirits. Here he depicts a scary intimidating muscular figure creating and dictating the world of material existence. This is not a benevolent god but one who is confining existence to boundaries and forms. Urizen is a figure to be feared. It is a very simple image but there is so much force and atmosphere created through the colours and geometric shapes of the circular sun, the triangle of Urizen’s hunched up body and the shapes extending out of his calipers.

7. Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters,1608

I am a huge fan of Netherlandish art painted during the period of the Northern Renaissance. This painting hangs in the re-opened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I was lucky enough to see it last summer when traveling through northern Europe on a sort of art pilgrimage. I love the detail and intensely bright colours in Northern Renaissance paintings. Again I could have chosen so many paintings of this period because they are all so incredible: works by Pieter Bruegel or Jan van Eyck. They invented oil paintings and were unparalleled in mastering the techniques of manipulating it. I love the colours Avercamp has used and I never get bored of exploring all the action taking place in the foreground. I think this painting is magnificent.


Now your turn: what works would be on your desert island artworks list?

Please leave your list in the comments box below.


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