The discovery of Sara Captain's art is shocking. Her brushstroke is able to represent the indefinable side of the human soul. Starting with her muse, David Bowie, we tried to find out more about his relationship with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Captain’s favourite painting techniques and all the amazing surprises her atelier has to offer.
I would like to start by asking you what you think is the link between David Bowie and the Pre-Raphaelites. Do you think the Brotherhood had a big influence on him and what should we expect from the video you are about to release on the subject?
The link is most obvious in the original sleeve of The Man Who Sold the World, where Bowie is pictured reclining on a chaise longue, with flowing golden locks, wearing a man’s dress and surrounded by Pre-Raphaelite-style furnishings and symbols. Of course the intellectual joke - a parody of Dante Gabriel Rossetti - was mostly lost on its audience. This visible influence only lasted for a year or two, mainly when Bowie was living in a sprawling Victorian mansion called Haddon Hall, which fed the fascination. But the key lessons from the Brotherhood stayed with him, becoming intertwined with his persona and running through his whole oeuvre. His image remained imbued with the marked theatricality and clever mise en scène that characterises the Pre-Raphaelites. Like them, Bowie rejected the idea of authenticity in art, seeing the fictitious as more real and powerful - not to mention more honest - than fake authenticity.
There are deeper personal aspects too: the presentation of love as dangerous or maddening, the parallel between Bowie’s relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry and Rossetti’s relationship with his sister, themes of androgyny and open challenge to established social mores. So there are a lot of things to say about this! In the video I’ll gather fragments of interpretation, drawing parallels where relevant, juxtaposing images of David or song lyrics with Pre-Raphaelite works. The whole thing is intended to have a rather Bowie-esque hermeneutic openness to it. I’m hoping to present something thought-provoking, fun and accessible as well as reasonably scholarly.
You are really interested in portraying people and their myriad of traits. How do you choose your subjects?
Any portrait painter is concerned with the visual in general and the outer appearance of people in particular. That can be fascinating for purely aesthetic reasons - some people are simply beautiful to look at - or because their appearance reflects what lies beneath the surface. So my subjects are often good-looking people who have accomplished something great. But they can also be people with extremely beautiful souls, such as Leonard Cohen or David Attenborough. In Bowie’s case it’s both!
There’s a sense of wanting to try and freeze in time the uniqueness of my subject, their mannerisms and characteristic expressions, so I tend to paint the same person time and again, or mini-series… like film stills of that person in motion. I also love painting people I know: if they’ll pose for me, I can use them for my own purposes: I may turn them into Saint Sebastian, or make a political statement. I’m drawn to people that simply, traditionally, make great subjects for painters - someone from a different ethnic origin than mine, or who is all muscles, nerve and sinew for instance. I guess I’m on a quest for some kind of beauty, whether it’s physical or spiritual… some kind of eternity.
David Bowie is of central importance in your works. Where do you think the eternal fascination with him resides?
I don’t know… I’m not quite sure I can fully explain why Bowie connects with me so deeply. As a teenager in 1983, I think it was simply how he looked and sounded: he was unlike anyone I’d ever seen before - or since. He was strangely magnetic, charismatic, yet had a certain sweetness and vulnerability. To me his face speaks of intelligence, open-mindedness, otherworldliness - as if he had a kind of divine spark. I could go on forever about how much I admire the way he broke boundaries, liberated people and fostered the acceptance of outsiders, giving them a safe space within his music. I could mention his refusal to be bored, confined within one style, as that too strikes a deep chord with me. His protean nature makes him a fascinating and malleable subject. But the truth is much simpler. It’s the way he pursed and licked his lips, or would suddenly burst into a shy, sonorous laughter. It’s just that he was a beautiful creature overall.
You express yourself in both figurative and abstract ways. How do you find a balance between them?
To me, figurative and abstract are two sides of the same coin. Portraits show someone’s inner world filtered through their outward appearance - something seen by everybody except the person themselves - whilst the abstract is exactly the reverse: it deals with the inner world known only to the person. It’s not possible to express everything through figurative painting. A feeling, a concept, a memory, an intention... the subjective, intangible, ineffable inner world needs its own language. When you’re starting out people advise you to ‘find your style and stick to it’, but I reject that limitation. I want full expressive freedom, and I think my work will be recognisable as distinctively mine no matter whether it’s abstract or otherwise.
What are the techniques you like the most when you are working on your paintings?
I always joke that I’m really just a draftsman who colours in drawings, not a painter with a capital P. Even though I’ve recently developed more ‘painterly painterliness,’ my artistic beginnings in comics and illustration show through. A good drawing always underpins my figurative work. I love confident, expressive lines. They’re like dynamics in music, like the foundations of a building. I use a special type of vintage American soft pencils and charcoal to allow me to modulate the line easily.
Since a painting is essentially a two-dimensional object of specified dimensions, there’s an also issue of economy: you have limited space and finite ways in which to make your statement. So there’s a process of stripping down, reducing the image to what I feel is essential to it, even to the point of leaving it unfinished, thus preserving the freshness of a sketch. Like a Frank Lloyd Wright of painting, rarely have I broken the ‘less is more’ rule. In terms of techniques, I think each image tends to suggest the medium it requires, like the genius loci inspiring the décor of a building, so it’s hard for me to say which technique I prefer. However, I do have a soft spot for gouache, oil painting’s neglected brother - it’s so rich in pigment and produces lush, luminous colours that almost glow. It’s perfectly matt, so it has a natural feel. Importantly for me, it’s also a fast technique. I have to maintain the initial mood when I’m painting, so I can’t afford to let something take months to complete. By the end of it, I would be in a very different frame of mind!
Could I ask you to tell us about your future projects?
The pandemic has put the brakes on several projects - hopefully temporarily - but flipside is that’s opened the door to some other projects that would have required more time. So now they might just happen!
My most ambitious project is to create an exhibition of Gesamtkunstwerks - total works of embracing several disciplines. It involves making a group of like-minded people coalesce around an idea, a mood, a central point. I can’t say too much about this, one thing’s for sure: the works won’t easily be contained within their frames and two-dimensionality. The public will be encouraged to interact with them, to be active and not passive in experiencing them.
As for my endless fascination with David Bowie, apart from an educational/charity project with a gallery in the Midlands involving sixth form students, a dream exhibition I’ve been planning for a long time is finally taking shape. Given the infinite array of fascinating, quirky, colourful characters among David Bowie fans, it felt natural to portray some of them alongside ‘their’ Bowies. What an opportunity for some great, unusual portraits, with the common denominator that they’re all outsiders united by a passion for another outsider! I think this will be a beautiful exhibition and will bring a lot of people together.
Apart from this, I have felt that the changes we’ve seen in our lifestyle lately mean that it’s harder to connect with much of the content of figurative art, as it’s often about things from which we’re currently precluded. There’s more focus on change, introspection and the bigger questions that unavoidable when faced an uncertain future… so many dying. So there will be an exhibition solely of abstract works, perhaps in a physical gallery or maybe online.
Finally, there’s been talk of a documentary about my work, which is very exciting, and you’ll see me lecturing or exhibiting at the Dublin Bowie Festival again, provided they’ll have me!