When Blur released their Best of album in 2000 they were propelled to the top of the charts once again but it was perhaps artist Julian Opie, who designed the cover, who benefited most from its success. He went on to achieve critical and commercial acclaim for his minimal portraits which have come to define his signature style. Here we take a look at some of the people behind his work, from inventors to oligarchs, rockstars to schoolchildren.
For Blur’s Best of album cover, Opie produced Warhol-style close-up portraits of each member of the Britpop band, and arranged them in a grid. Now housed in the National Portrait Gallery, the print series features the group’s lead guitarist Graham Coxon on an orange background, bassist Alex James on a deep blue, drummer Dave Rowntree on hot pink and finally lead singer Damon Albarn on green. While their faces have been stripped of tone and detail, their eyes reduced to mere dots, each band member has a unique expression and stance, demonstrating Opie’s ability to convey a sitter’s personality in just a handful of lines.
Created 10 years after the Blur album, Opie’s portrait of James Dyson shows a significant evolution of the artist’s style, with the famous British inventor’s face depicted half in shadow to create a chiaroscuro effect. While before Opie’s sitters would be depicted in block colour, here Dyson’s visage is given depth and detail. Not only does his skin show varying degrees of tone but his eyes and mouth are clearly defined. Now in his 70s, Dyson achieved fame for his vacuum cleaners in the 1990s and went on to become one of the country’s leading inventors.
One of the recurring themes in Opie’s full length portraits is the figure of the stripper. While the face in these works lacks features, Opie has said that these are in fact portraits of Shahnoza, a pole dancer originally from Tehran whom the artist came across in a Soho strip club, when he went looking for someone “who danced well” to pose for his paintings. “I’d bought the pole on the internet;” he explained in a 2011 interview, “I thought I could get more dynamic poses from models.” Shahnoza proceeded to spend the next two days dancing for Opie at his East London studio, where he took over 2,000 photographs of her from which to work. These images became a series of paintings, prints and LED animations which pay homage to the art historical tradition of the nude, as embraced by the Old Masters as well as modernists such as Henry Moore.
Opie’s wife Aniela is also known to be a regular sitter for the artist. This has resulted in a series inspired by Renaissance and neoclassical paintings of Greek goddesses such as Aphrodite, where the painter’s wife is portrayed nude, occasionally wrapped in drapery which has been reduced to its most essential elements, or holding a Grecian urn. In each her face is featureless, her body stripped to a handful of lines, however in later portraits Aniela is shown in close-up, with her face filled in. Here her personality is returned to her as light and shadow give life to her face and her confident expression gazes out at the viewer.
Following on from his success with his portraits of Blur, in the early 2000s Opie painted a series of images of Canadian rockstar Bryan Adams. Considered to be an homage to Andy Warhol’s Elvis, Adams is shown with a guitar, which is used as a kind of prop, because, as he explains, “Men are perhaps not intrinsically easy to look at, or are less easy about being looked at and need to be doing something.” The works came about as part of a collaboration with Adams who created a piece of music to accompany them. In 2006 Opie transformed his paintings of Adams into a monumental illuminated sculpture for the city of Indianapolis.
While not strictly a portrait, in 2005 Opie created a huge LED display that would form the stage backdrop for U2’s Vertigo World Tour. The work showed one of his signature figures walking in time to the music in a short sleeved white shirt and black trousers. Their face, as with all his walking figures, is blank.
The early 2000s also saw Opie painting a series of portraits of Formula One driver Jacques Villeneuve who is shown gazing out at the viewer, his head tilted slightly away from us, his face occasionally obscured by his helmet. In one variation of the portrait Villeneuve is depicted alongside an image of a road, which, according to the artist, is included in order to give movement to an otherwise still portrait: “The road is temptingly there. It was inspired by computer-game landscapes. I’m creating the illusion of movement.”
In keeping with his interest in Old Master portraiture Opie has also embarked on a series of commissioned portraits during his long career. Explaining his interest in the dynamic between patron/sitter and artist he has said, “It doesn’t just affect one’s understanding of the painting and the relationship one feels with the sitter but also seems to show in the poses and expressions. I find this interesting and it helps in my attempt to make these images feel like familiar, museum portrait paintings.” There are obvious monetary benefits to this kind of patronage as well; in a 2012 interview Opie declared, “It costs £25,000 to be my model for the day, and then you can buy whatever work comes out of that day for the usual price – about £45,000 for a [full length] work.” The resulting series includes portraits of bankers and oligarchs, as well as the children of his wealthy patrons, some of which are compiled in the limited edition book, Twenty Six Portraits.