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Tale of a city: A life in art galleries

Vivienne Westwood on London's passion and fury.

I was born in a village in the Pennines, 12 miles from Manchester. From the earliest age I was allowed to roam the countryside. I knew the names of all the trees and flowers and birds. My mother was a reader all her life – me, too. But we knew nothing of art or music.

When I was 17, my parents moved to Harrow where they were postmaster and mistress. My father thought his three children, of whom I was the eldest, would have more opportunity in London. Just before we left the north, I discovered there was an art gallery in Manchester: until then I hadn’t known there were art galleries. I had heard of Picasso and Rembrandt, but I had never seen a reproduction.

At Harrow I went to the art school for a term. Once a week we went on the Metropolitan Line to sketch at the V&A, so full of objects – the extent of the beautiful jewellery collection alone! – and I got a feeling of history compressed in a monster-size building together with other monster buildings in a vast metropolis. When I went across the road to the Natural History Museum I was overwhelmed by a great knowledge, the same experience everyone must have on their first visit; the knowledge of the size of the blue whale, and of the dinosaur skeleton, and of the numbers of butterflies.

Museums were opening up the world for me. I went to the British Museum and on that first visit I saw gold, pure gold – the colour of it, the Incas and the worship of the sun. I came out at closing, reluctant to leave and in a daze; in a bookshop in the side street opposite I bought The Kon-Tiki Expedition, which had fallen into my hand. Oh, Atahualpa! – and the condor that glides the Andes!

I went to the National Gallery. It reminded me of a Catholic church and I ran out in anger. It wasn’t just the recurring subject of the crucifixion, but the way the painting was done; the vermilion in the eyes was blood, shining not with life but with tears and agony. I was in the presence of devils and the Inquisition. I had been brought up a Protestant and I hated oil painting.

By the time I was 26, I had been married and divorced and I had two children and was living with Malcolm McLaren. The world at that time was politically charged for young people; the hippie movement had given us a lot of power and we all felt great solidarity with Black Power in our great cosmopolitan city.

Malcolm was at art school and was interested in the “underground” – a movement regarding new ways of doing art, “happenings”, constructions, events. Anything that occupied space or time could be art. This attitude was of the kind which led to 1968, an attitude that rejected all tradition: a new age is dawning. I loved it all; I loved sitting in the Tate café – for me the Tate was full of colour, light and air. I still associated the National Gallery with tradition – and that for me meant privilege and superstition and ignorance. I associated this modern art with the modern dogma of automatic intellectual progress and material reward. I remember sitting in front of a canvas at the Whitechapel Gallery soaking up the red colour. I was happy. It filled me with a feeling – the paradise is coming: self-delusion.

While still a punk, and with my relationship with Malcolm practically over, I met Gary Ness. I judge myself by what I think; it is this that gives me a sense of continuity. My father’s idea was of “more opportunity in London” . . . I consider opportunity as the power to engage in the world I live in. My father’s hope was fulfilled the day I met Gary; he knew more about the world than anyone. Now he is dead. I would not be who I am had I not met him. Gary was an intellectual genius, a true sceptic; he opened my eyes to politics as well as art and literature. He had worked as a painter until he stopped through disgust at the art racket. I have some of his work which he still had; it really stands up. He edited Roland Penrose’s book on Picasso.

Gary’s view of modern art was that it was neither art nor modern; that at the beginning of the 20th century the shift had occurred: art need have no inherent value; the key to its value was in the opinion of the onlooker. Nothing is more modern than Leonardo or Tchaikovsky or Aeschylus. Gary laughed at the “spoilt kids” of 1968: they just didn’t want to study, just wanted to “do what we want”.

Art is timeless. There is no progress in art. But there is dimension; each masterwork adds to the tradition (this is the substance of T S Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”).

In particular, Gary opened my eyes to ballet,to French culture and to Chinese culture. London has to be the most important cultural centre in the world, but as far as I know there is no Chinese painting here – although you will find many in the New York Metropolitan.

The first thing we did was to visit an exhibition of 17th-century Dutch painting in the National Gallery. The originality shocked me into an excitement that has never left me. I now consider the National Gallery one of the wonders of the world. My view has changed 180 degrees from what it was. The art lover has an anchor in life and a grasp of reality. I take my model friends there.

Spirit level

I am attracted to my relationships according to my spiritual/mental needs. Andreas, my husband, is hypersensitive to the world around him; he seems to absorb knowledge directly through his eyes and ears. His observations make everything come alive. We must understand the past to understand the present. We go often to the theatre and to concerts of classical music. Art galleries are free and you can go to the Barbican for £10.

Aristotle said: “Man is a political animal.” I take this to mean man’s evolutionary achievement is the art of living in cities. I think in my case I became both an art lover and a political activist from my experience of living in London.

If we can stop climate change, then my vision of a greater ideal, following that of Aristotle, is of a whole world whose cities are in symbiotic cultural exchange with the peoples of the surrounding habitat who supply commodities and protect our wilderness.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue