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Michael Kustow

Michael Kustow
oil on canvas
110.6 x 75 cm
collection: the artist

With the exception of David Rudkin (and, of course, my mother) I have known Michael Kustow the longest amongst my sitters. After a drawing or two and a fairly well worked on oil-study we decided to embark on a full-scale portrait.

For a long time the paintings of Michael and of Iris Murdoch ran in tandem. They occupied the same seat and shared the same basic background, a copy I had made specially for Iris's portrait of Titian's Flaying of Marsyas. Since it was Michael that had originally introduced me to Iris this seemed apposite especially as it allowed a wry variation. Whereas Iris is placed in front of the figure of Marsyas himself, in identification with the Artist, Michael is seen in the context of King Midas who judges the artistic event and is rewarded by Apollo with the ears of an ass for being right but on the wrong side. The role of aesthetic arbiter and dispenser of wealth echoes Michael's role as impresario of the arts on Channel 4. The other ironies of Midas' role have dogged his career both before and since the portrait.

However much we laughed and joked in the sittings Michael's face in the picture became ever more lugubrious hardly sharing the mood of the very bright green Armani shirt he had chosen to wear. A year after starting I was trying to 'close' the picture with things from the world which would both inform the work and help with its compositional mechanics: I hoped by such means also to cheer it up somewhat.

Since our first contact at Oxford had been through the theatre I had wanted to put in a mask: we thought of one from Peter Hall's version of the Oresteia which Michael had been instrumental in bringing to the screen. On a trip to Paris (where Michael had lived and studied before working at the National Theatre) I found instead at Senelier's on the Left Bank an art school plaster-cast of Comedy whose huge grin I naively thought would help to counteract the growing gloom of the sitter's expression which seemed now to bear the whole burden of Jewish history. Denise Gizauskas, my assistant's wife, marbled it for me, making it simultaneously more real and more fake, and on the level of image degradation linking it to my copy from a photo of Titian. The last element to be introduced was a reminder of our first meeting when Michael was acting in a production of Bloomsday playing plump Buck Mulligan (whom he has only just, more than a quarter of a century later, come to resemble). The thick green book familiar to all at that time who were obliged to have it on their shelves together with The Waste Land and Das Kapital, seemed the ideal occupant of the corner opposite the mask (for all now seemed a play on classical derivatives) and to relate to Michael's evangelism for the great classics on TV: it was he of course who commissioned myself and Peter Greenaway to make the television version of the Inferno. Thus the subject's own copy of Joyce's Ulysses provided the seal that now linked Greece and Italy with Israel and Dublin and Oxford, and united the new Fitzroia with a room grown rich in Peckham.

Work and Texts (1992),  p. 190-191

The Portrait Works (1989),  p. 42-43