A Life in Art Galleries

By Westwood, Vivienne | New Statesman (1996), July 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Life in Art Galleries


Westwood, Vivienne, New Statesman (1996)


I was born in a village in the Pennines, 12 miles from Manchester. From the earliest age I was allowed to roam the countryside. I knew the names of all the trees and flowers and birds. My mother was a reader all her life--me, too. But we knew nothing of art or music.

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When I was 17, my parents moved to Harrow where they were postmaster and mistress. My father thought his three children, of whom I was the eldest, would have more opportunity in London. Just before we left the north, I discovered there was an art gallery in Manchester: until then I hadn't known there were art galleries. I had heard of Picasso and Rembrandt, but I had never seen a reproduction.

At Harrow I went to the art school for a term. Once a week we went on the Metropolitan Line to sketch at the V&A, so full of objects--the extent of the beautiful jewellery collection alone!--and I got a feeling of history compressed in a monster-size building together with other monster buildings in a vast metropolis. When I went across the road to the Natural History Museum I was overwhelmed by a great knowledge, the same experience everyone must have on their first visit; the knowledge of the size of the blue whale, and of the dinosaur skeleton, and of the numbers of butterflies.

Museums were opening up the world for me. I went to the British Museum and on that first visit I saw gold, pure gold--the colour of it, the Incas and the worship of the sun. I came out at closing, reluctant to leave and in a daze; in a bookshop in the side street opposite I bought The Kon-Tiki Expedition, which had fallen into my hand. Oh, Atahualpa!--and the condor that glides the Andes!

I went to the National Gallery. It reminded me of a Catholic church and I ran out in anger. It wasn't just the recurring subject of the crucifixion, but the way the painting was done; the vermilion in the eyes was blood, shining not with life but with tears and agony. I was in the presence of devils and the Inquisition. I had been brought up a Protestant and I hated oil painting.

By the time I was 26, I had been married and divorced and I had two children and was living with Malcolm McLaren. The world at that time was politically charged for young people; the hippie movement had given us a lot of power and we all felt great solidarity with Black Power in our great cosmopolitan city.

Malcolm was at art school and was interested in the "underground"--a movement regarding new ways of doing art, "happenings", constructions, events. Anything that occupied space or time could be art. This attitude was of the kind which led to 1968, an attitude that rejected all tradition: a new age is dawning. I loved it all; I loved sitting in the Tate cafe--for me the Tate was full of colour, light and air. I still associated the National Gallery with tradition--and that for me meant privilege and superstition and ignorance. I associated this modern art with the modern dogma of automatic intellectual progress and material reward. I remember sitting in front of a canvas at the Whitechapel Gallery soaking up the red colour. …

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