Rima and El Greco: An Interview with Tom Phillips

Tom Phillips Rima's Wall
Tom Phillips at work on Rima's Wall
Photograph by Anne-Katrin Purkiss, 1992

The following text first appeared February 2004 in The Sunday Times, Culture; Tom relates to interviewer Jane Ure-Smith his thoughts in anticipation of the opening of the National Gallery's major exhibition of El Greco, Spring 2004.

HEADLINE: Phillips uses drawing to get his bearings: the abstract, writhing Rima's Wall had a life of its own and grew to twice the length of his studio.

"I remember for O Level Art doing a pastiche of El Greco with twisted devotional figures winding up towards heaven. I got a pretty good mark for it. And I was borrowing from someone who was one of the greatest borrowers of all times.

What I didn't know then was what a terrific businessman he was too: he was always ready to sue when the fees weren't enough. El Greco was both tricky and devout: he embodied the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Being ambitious and a pretty brilliant painter, he wanted to get a foot in quickly. He was like a nun who leapt over the convent walls and, amazingly, he brought the whole thing off.

As I was working on Rima's Wall, I remember having distinct thoughts about El Greco. The problem was to keep things in a shallow space, but let them behave sinuously as well. I remember thinking that is what El Greco does and having the sudden thought that he made his figures calligraphically, something like those tortured versions of the name of the deity in Islamic decoration.

In the exhibition, I am eager to see the intimate portraits again. Last time I looked at one I noticed tiny specks of vermilion that brought the work to life. You can't spot those things without rubbing your nose on the canvas, which I hope the National Gallery will allow me to do."

See Rima's Wall in the Drawings section of this site.