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Epitome of ‘Cool Britannia,’ Julian Opie’s highly stylised blend of Pop Art and minimalism has made him a key player in British contemporary art. The minimal style of his digital artworks was synonymous with the ‘Cool Britannia’ scene of the 1990s and 2000s. Today, his practice includes paintings, prints, sculpture, LED lights and more.
Born in London in 1958, Julian Opie grew up in Oxford, where he became fascinated with art and antiquities in the Ashmolean museum. He soon found that he loved drawing and making art, seeing his practice as 'a diary, a way of dealing with the world. Otherwise I feel you’re locked here, behind your eyes.'
Opie’s father was an economist and his mother was a self-taught artist. His parents held strong socialist opinions and his father wanted him to go into politics, but Opie fought to study art.
In 1982, Opie graduated from Goldsmiths School of Art in London, where he created a series called Eat Dirt, Art History involving copying famous artworks, acting as a comment on the 'hopeless position of the art student in light of art history' as well as a 'rallying call not to feel overwhelmed by it.'
Opie’s tutor at Goldsmiths, the conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin, heavily influenced Opie’s understanding of art and representation. Opie explored these interests through a reductive approach: his images of people were as much influenced by traditional portraits as they were by the universality of toilet signs.
Opie started to exhibit with Lisson Gallery in London in 1983 and later emerged onto the London art scene as a member of the New British Sculpture movement, which also included figures such as Tony Cragg and Anish Kapoor.
The success of Opie’s 2000 album cover for English rock band Blur propelled him to international fame. He went on to create portraits of very prominent figures and patrons, including inventor James Dyson, Formula One driver Jacques Villeneuve and rock star Bryan Adams.
While Opie’s best-known artworks are of people and faces, his minimal signature style has made his other subjects – including landscapes, cityscapes and wildlife images – all equally and immediately recognisable.
Read more in Julian Opie’s Most Famous Portraits And Artworks.
Opie takes inspiration from sources as varied as billboards, classical portraiture, Japanese woodblock prints, Tintin comics, Egyptian hieroglyphs and road signs; turning to a vast array of media and technologies to connect the visual language of modern life with art history.
Much of Opie's work, like his series Japanese Landscapes (2009), is indicative of the artist’s extensive knowledge of Japanese art, taking inspiration from the woodblock prints of the Ukiyo-e school. Opie consciously reflects the work of Utagawa Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro, identifying that this aesthetic holds a sense of stripped-down flatness and lends itself to reproduction. The work of the Ukiyo-e school shows an apparent simplicity that is attained from underlying complexity, something that governs Opie's style.
His simplified forms are iconic for their thick black lines, which are filled with solid, flat colour. This can also be read as an homage to both Minimalism and Pop Art. Opie draws particular influence from Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon and comic book imagery, Andy Warhol’s commercialised style of portraiture as well as Patrick Caulfield’s bold outlined style.
Like his artistic style, Opie’s chosen mediums also combine tradition with technology in the form of paintings, prints, LED displays and digital video.
Many of Opie's works depicting people are created using photographs taken by the artist, from which each print is manipulated and reduced to a matter of simplified shapes and signs to represent a figure. Producing anonymous ‘passers-by’ to populate his world, Opie’s figures are not devoid of personality thus maintaining a sense of individuality within multiplicity. Opie's figures are defined by their clothing, the items that they carry and their posture. Reduced to ‘types’, Opie's figures prompt the viewer to think about how we relate to and resemble one another.
Now in his sixties, Julian Opie lives and works in London. He has four children: three daughters and a son. His wife Aniela is a frequent sitter for his portraits.
At auction, Opie’s most expensive painting sold for ₩250,000,000 with fees (£160,750) in Seoul in March 2021. His prints can sell for up to €60,000 with fees (£51,560) on the secondary market.
Opie’s paintings and limited-edition prints can be found in many important collections worldwide, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the National Museum of Art in Osaka and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has also produced a number of public artworks that can be found on the streets of Seoul, Zurich and Dublin, among other cities.
Walking in Sadang-dong in the rain © Julian Opie 2014
Opie has often used pedestrians as his models, and Walking in Sadang-Dong in the Rain is a perfect example of why. The crowded composition is offset by the fact that these people don’t seem to look at or even acknowledge each other - they allow for the artist to stare and visually record without any performativity. We can also see here Opie’s working technique, which involves simplifying photographs into their most basic elements, while retaining a level of individuality in each figure - just as we see in the different outfits and umbrellas held by the people here. Sold for £160,750 at the Seoul auction on March 23rd 2021, this painting epitomises Opie’s fascination with the balance between individuality and universality.
Woman Posing In Underwear. 1 © Julian Opie 2003
Depicted in paintings, sculpture, prints and moving LED lights, Opie’s artworks of nudes and women undressing are among his most frequent themes. It is also the most popular subject with his collectors: Woman Posing In Underwear 1 stands as the most expensive work by Opie at auction. When it was offered at Christie’s in New York on 1 March 2018, it achieved over four times its high estimate. Previously owned by a California-based collector, the painting is also a rare example of Opie’s artwork offered outside of the UK – all his other top prices at auction were achieved in London sales – which suggests the artist’s growing international appeal and market.
Red Socks And Chanel Bag © Julian Opie 2015
Alongside nudes, Opie’s depictions of people walking or running are among his best-known works. The artist has captured pedestrians around the world, from London and New York to Melbourne and Seoul. Often hiring a photographer or asking his assistants to photograph people on the street, Opie is attracted to the unpredictability of the characters he will come across. “Each one throws up surprises and opportunities that I could not invent – a tattoo or a tasselled dress, a goatee or the logo on a T-shirt,” he has said.
Red Socks And Chanel Bag, painted in 2015, was donated by Opie to Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction in London on 2 July 2015, with proceeds going to benefit Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. The painting sold for over three times its high estimate, possibly aided by its provenance and charitable cause.
People 21 © Julian Opie 2017