In Conversation with Ken Currie

In spring 2021, the National Galleries of Scotland unveiled Unknown Man (2019), a stunning large-scale new painting by the artist Ken Currie.

On long-term loan from the artist, the poignant painting depicts the preeminent forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black alongside a clothed cadaver. It has received its very first public showing in our current The Modern Portrait exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Marking Professor Black's major societal contributions made throughout a highly-distinguished career, its creation arose from Currie and Professor Black meeting on on a BBC Radio discussion panel several years ago.

In this feature, we host Ken Currie for a conversation on his art and practice, the painting itself, and what lies ahead for the artist…

Hello Ken. So we’ve shared how you and Sue first met, but could you describe your later meeting with Sue at the Centre of Anatomy in Dundee, and of the moment you knew you were going to paint her, and why?

KC: Yes, I met Sue again at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee and she showed me around. I should say a further radio programme was being recorded about our meeting so I had a BBC recordist with me at all times. She took us into the dissection room which was full of young medical students hunched over numerous dissection tables. Once they had left she showed us a dissected cadaver - in considerable detail, both tactile and visual. She explained with great care and concern the importance of those individuals who had left their bodies to medical science, without which the teaching of anatomy would be impossible. It was clear she had tremendous empathy for both the dead and the living and her passion for her chosen field was compelling.

It was like the Anatomy Lesson of Professor Sue Black - and it reminded me of paintings from the past, like Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. I suppose I knew there and then, as she stood at the dissection table presiding over the body of an unknown man, that I was going to paint her.  Sometimes in these moments it’s not a good idea to grasp why you want to do something. You just trust the force of your instinct and go with it.

Ken Currie and Professor Dame Sue Black in front of Currie's portrait Unknown Man in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Neil Hanna. Artwork © Ken Currie

During the creation process of Unknown Man, Sue sat for you in your studio and you also took her life mask, which you’ve done with many sitters. You’ve made many paintings of life masks, and have previously said that you don’t paint portraits from photographs because photographs pre-empt your image. What is behind the fascination with life masks? And in the case of Sue, was the life mask taken to help with the portrait, or for other reasons?

KC: Well first of all I should say that I do use photographs in my work, quite extensively in some cases, and I have done so from the very beginning. It’s not unusual for painters these days to work from photographs but the critical thing is how you do it. 

KC: There are painters who literally copy photographs - you might call them photo-realists and others for whom the photograph is simply a reference point, full of useful information, like a sketch and I tend to follow the latter approach. In this instance when Sue came to my studio I made sketches, took photographs and took her life mask.

I actually more or less set the pose up as I saw it in my mind, with lighting and the props you see in the finished painting. She was only in the studio a matter of hours but I had all the information I needed to go forward and the life mask was a great help in understanding Sue’s facial structure.

I can’t really pin point my interest in life and death masks - they are haunting objects, like sculptural photographs - the likeness of the person, dead or alive, is simultaneously present and absent.  There’s something quite uncanny about this.

At the painting’s launch, you spoke of how Unknown Man is inspired by a death mask in the Scotland’s national collection, also called Unknown Man. Can you share more about this inspiration? 

KC: The Unknown Man in the Portrait Gallery collection has a rather sorrowful emaciated head.  He is surrounded by death masks of the great, the good and sometimes the bad, whose names we know. His anonymity is compelling - who was this man? In my original conception of the painting I would have liked the Unknown Man death mask to be positioned directly in front of the portrait, as though Sue was looking at it. One of the departments she oversaw at Dundee University was in the area of facial reconstruction from human remains, once again hopefully restoring a name and identity to those who have disappeared, often in tragic circumstances. In this case we will never know who the Unknown Man was and his identity is lost in time.

Much like Sue’s, your work is unflinching. You’ve also recently spoken about the ‘thinly-veiled’ separation between beauty and horror. Can you elaborate more on that separation, and how this comes through your work?

KC: Twenty years ago I went to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee to watch the oncologist surgeons at work. Before my eyes they opened up flesh to expose the innards upon which they were about to operate. Part of my mind was revolted and repelled, the other part fascinated by the incredible colours and textures - oranges, purples, reds combined with the almost sensuous liquidity of the tissue. You could say what I saw then was simultaneously beautiful and horrific. It was a sight that was both shocking yet deeply sensuous in a way. 

I suppose it comes through in my work when I attempt to paint something horrific beautifully. I often think of Jacque-Louis David’s eighteenth-century masterpiece Marat Assassinated as a great exemplar. We see a corpse lying in a bath with a knife wound just beneath the collar bone and the bathwater is red with blood but it is painted exquisitely, like some great religious work. This contrast is the key to its shocking power. 

Ken Currie Three Oncologists (Professor RJ Steele, Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri and Professor Sir David P Lane of the Department of Surgery and Molecular... 2002 © Ken Currie

How long did Unknown Man take to create, and were there any major challenges in creating it?

KC: When I had assembled all the information I needed from Sue’s studio visit I then began to work on various ideas. The central image in my mind - the one represented by the painting in the Portrait Gallery - remained very strong but I wanted to explore various options and try out different ideas. I was kind of testing the strength of my initial idea with other contenders. None were satisfactory and the more I rejected these possibilities the stronger the sense of purpose I had in pursuing my first instinctive response to Sue.  There are obviously a lot of visual possibilities in Sue’s work - skeletons, anatomical specimens and so on - but I wanted to strip all that away and focus on the essence of what she does and the great passion and determination with which she pursues it.

KC: In many ways the painting was resolved the moment Sue revealed the body to me on the dissection table in Dundee in autumn 2017. But a process had to be gone through that took me until the spring of 2019 to complete. I should say I was working on many other paintings at the same time though. The actual painting was completed in a matter of weeks

You’ve spoken about Unknown Man having clear continuity with your Galleries commission Three Oncologists, one of the most popular paintings in Scotland’s national art collection. There’s been 17 years between the two paintings. Did you ever consider or plan to create another work with continuity with the Three Oncologists, or did this manifest naturally, in the case of with Sue?

KC: I didn’t have any plans as such. These things happen completely spontaneously. After the Three Oncologists painting I did a portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs a few years later. That came out of the blue as a commission for Edinburgh University. I don’t really do a lot of commissions and the Sue Black painting is certainly not a commission - the whole thing was entirely my idea. Obviously there is a link between the two paintings - the Sue Black one and the oncologists one, particularly the connection with Dundee. It would be really interesting to hang them together in the same space at some point, to see what the resonances are. You could even add the Peter Higgs painting - I could see that really working - like a big scientific/medical triptych.

Thanks Ken. So last but not least, after two years since its completion, it must have felt great to see Unknown Man finally on display, and in the Portrait Gallery too. But what’s been, and what is, next for Ken Currie?

KC: Yes it felt great, but what is next is what there has always been - the daily routine of painting, work and more work - thoughts, ideas, experiments, drawings, paintings.  Who knows, maybe down the line another portrait idea will crop up!

8 June 2021