Paul de Monchaux

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It may have been a sculpture he made at the age of eight – of Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini – that set Paul de Monchaux on the path of a lifetime in art; but it took another 70 years before his first solo show. With his second solo exhibition now on at Megan Piper Gallery, Hole & Corner shares some of his thoughts on work and creativity...

Featured In the Changes Issue

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At the tender age of 80, sculptor Paul de Monchaux might be excused for putting his feet up, switching on Test Match Special and taking a long deserved rest. Despite – or possibly because of – entering his ninth decade, the artist is still propelled by the compulsion to get up every morning and create. And having had his first solo gallery show in 2013 (at the Piper Gallery) aged 78, De Monchaux can freely comment on a life in art. He can join the dots between private and public art. He sees how the wheels continue to turn, stretching back to antiquity and into the future…
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On working
‘I’m eager to get to work,’ he confides from his study in his South East London home, where a happy balance of ordered chaos seems to reign. ‘Whereas most people my age are ready to… die. I’m very lucky indeed. Anyone that has something to do even when they’re beginning to collapse is lucky.’
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On finding his calling
‘I think there was a crucial moment when I must have been about eight,’ he recollects. ‘I went to this class in Rochester, Upstate New York, and we were invited to paint a rabbit in a cage. And I remember trying to do it and getting very distressed because the colours all turned to mud. I couldn’t handle it at all. In order to keep me quiet the teacher gave me some clay. I immediately got going on it and produced a head of Mussolini, because I remembered his great jaw from photographs. A very shrewd teacher got the class to stop what they were all doing and come and admire the Mussolini. And that was it. I’ve not tried to paint a picture since.’
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On his time at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1950s
‘I was like a duck to water,’ he says. ‘It was a great time, because the New York school had been pretty ragged, pretty sloppy and amateur in comparison. And the Slade under Alfred Gerrard’s leadership [as head of the sculpture department] was highly disciplined and very demanding.’
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On re-appraising his working methods
‘I think it was John Cage who said that chance is interesting by chance. So after a year or two of allowing the clay to speak for itself I realised that this was the case. I began to think that my work needed more structure. So I went back to life study really.’
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On geometry in sculpture
‘It has no significance unless used in combination – and the combination is what has the significance not what it is representing. It was a bit of the clearing of the mind. I had always used geometry – anyone that’s ever sculpted gets to know about geometry. The invisible space, the space inside things… so I came to the realisation that that was what I was interested in. I was more interested in the process than the subject, so that was a highly important threshold.
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On improvising
‘What I’ve learned very slowly, over many, many years – I’m a slow learner – is that you have to have two things. What amounts to a score or a script, and then improvise around that. So the idea, I suppose, to continue with the musical reference, is you take an old standard, which is anything you know, and you develop it and do variations on it and the chances are that you’re going to come up with something that you have never seen before. Whereas you’ve heard the old tune, but the development of it remains out of sight and because it remains out of sight it remains interesting. If you ask me why I make a sculpture I say nowadays to see what it’s going to look like.’
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On joining the creative dots

 ‘I’m much more conscious of those links than I used to be. And the idea that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants is very present in my mind all the time. So I find that as I’ve got older the more I see the art of any period as being all the same – there are certain qualities that persist. When you’re young you think you’re somehow striking out, finding new territories, but the older I get the more I see these connections.’
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Read the full interview in the Changes Issue

Paul de Monchaux, Ten Columns at Megan Piper Gallery
24th November 2016 - 13th January 2017
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Interview Jim Butler
Photographs Christopher Sturman