“…a rare thing, a true renaissance man.” Anna Wintour, Vogue Italia
Patrick Kinmonth is an Anglo-Irish opera director and designer, filmmaker, writer, painter, interior designer, art editor, creative director and exhibition curator. He is widely known for his many stage, costume, interior and architectural designs and recognised internationally for the breadth and depth of his creative interests. His many collaborations have yielded landmark opera, ballet and dance productions, books and exhibitions. Kinmonth’s earlier role as arts editor at British Vogue included creative direction for fashion and portraiture shoots. He is working principally as an opera director, and has been described as “one of the most indefinable personalities of contemporary art”.
Can we define Patrick Kinmonth? Is it true that you are a renaissance man?
No, because there is no Renaissance. The Renaissance is the period you live in, not the person you are, and I have been living in anything but a Renaissance. My diversity is the result of a kind of fear and a kind of guilt, the two things that are responsible for everything worth preserving in culture. I came from a medical family where the arts are not esteemed, in the face of ill-health the arts are quite irrelevant. You would give up all the Picassos in the world for air to breathe if you were dying of lung cancer.
Did your father encourage you in your talent?
Yes, but that was my decision. I decided not to go to art school and went to Oxford. My father went to Trinity Dublin and then trained at St Thomas’s and the entire rest of my family went to Trinity College, Cambridge. The decision to read literature at Oxford was a total break from my family tradition.
Did you want to be a painter?
I was always drawn to the visual. It has been my most active and coercive sense. I just love the visual world. My eyes are my most precious organ. In terms of losing one’s senses, blindness would be my greatest sacrifice.
You did so many things, and you are a writer and a painter, but you don’t like labels?
The problem is quite simple. I did have extraordinary talents, I was born very musical, very verbal, very physical. I was blessed.
Your first job was as art editor at Vogue?
Working with Vogue was a kind of atonement, a punishment for being talented. I put myself at the service of others in order not to be embarrassed at being good at things. I hope I have got over that. Instead of being the power behind everybody else’s throne, developing the skills of others, at the age of 60 I became an egomaniac. In any artistic field that I now work in, my vision is expressed upon my own terms for my own purposes. It took me a longer time than most people to give myself permission to be that kind of artist.
You graduated from Oxford at 20 and so at Vogue you were a very young man in contact with the most important designers and artists of the time, photographers like Cecil Beaton, Tony Snowdon, Mario Testino. What did all of these people teach you?
They gave me above all a huge amount of pleasure, because they were all remarkably talented in their own right. I didn’t have the courage to want to be like them. I was the youngest in my family of four children, and therefore represent no originality, as everything has been done by your siblings. My mother encouraged me to play the piano and enjoyed my character, but didn’t promote it or allow it to bloom. As a child I had an extraordinary musical gift, a stunningly beautiful soprano voice. I performed 500 times probably, I was a guest singer at the cathedrals of England, on the road as a baby star, but my parents only came to see me two or three times. I had a chaperone who was paid and I was left to get on with it. I am only now getting myself together.
Yet you have done so much in all these fields?
Tens of exhibitions, many ballets, more than 45, operas from Dresden to India, Brazil to China to Paris. If I look at it on the page it surprises me, it doesn’t look possible, yet I have really tried to do things well, including buildings. I made the Missoni flagship store on Rodeo Drive, and worked on the architecture and design of the lovely house South Wraxall Manor for John Taylor of Duran Duran and his wife Gela Nash, the founder of Juicy Couture, and subsequently have worked on other houses as well.
And you were called on to work on the redesign of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York?
It was a Vogue nexus of Anna Wintour, Hamish Bowles and the Costume Institute itself, who were interested in the work I had done in Europe and asked me to do several exhibitions at the Costume Institute.
Is there a ‘gestalt’ you have given to your life?
People say that in order to do one thing well you have to cut away all the weeds around it and concentrate on that one thing. My experience says there is another way to do things. If you respond to what the world offers you and say yes to projects you discover it is the same skills in a different area. In her defence Lila De Nobili, one of the greatest costume designers, is an example of someone who could have done many other kinds of creative work as a visual artist, but something in her character drew her to dedicate herself to costume but her paintings are brilliantly executed, as good as Longhi and Tiepolo. She learnt her craft and dedicated herself to costume, but in my world, by doing many things, I reassured myself that the process, in visual terms, is the same.
Your artistic career is somehow comparable for instance to the combined talents of the Russian ballet?
Comprehension and intelligence, perception and articulation are the tools that everybody uses as an artist. If you don’t have those things you are a primitive. If you are intelligent you can apply your skills as an intelligent person to any kind of problem, and solve it.
Today do you consider yourself principally a Director?
Not yet. The Director is probably an overrated character, just because he is on the top of the pyramid. In the creative process of visualising a production, the Designer is of equivalent or greater importance than the Director whose job extends to the concept of the production. But that concept very often has to be comprehended by the Designer before the Director can apply themselves to the problem. The design for an Opera is handed in a year before the production. The designer is the person who makes the shape of the production, which is why one would work with someone like Lila De Nobili, because she would bring an extraordinary articulation of the characters she was dressing.
So what is your job?
My job is to come up with the story that we are going to tell about a great work of art that may not have been seen in those terms before. I am working on Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in Karlsruhe, Germany and Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Cologne. By working with great directors such as Robert Carsen many of my designs have survived. In Brno we made a revival of our Káťa Kabanová, the very first opera I ever did the sets and costumes, in Antwerp more than a decade ago.
Soon you will revive it in the Teatro Regio in Turin?
Yes. I am going to show the revival of Káťa Kabanová there, which has now been seen in La Scala, Brno, all over the place. Every time you return to a work it’s different, because all the singers are different and I adjust the costumes as a result of their characters and how they colour the role. I influence the décor, because I do think in those terms. The conversation I have with myself is between the libretto and the music. My work is to make these stories as compelling dramatically as possible and to find the essence of the piece. When I direct singers I am very conscious of what they need physically to perform the music, because it’s an act of athleticism to perform these operatic roles, particularly Wagner which is so demanding.
Would you also like to be a cinema director?
Oh yes. I am obsessed by cinema and long to be a movie director.
What about directing comedy, or musicals?
The fundamental thing that moves me is the power to be emotionally moving. I am most interested in people going into these extraordinary buildings, mainly late 18th and 19th century, to have the opportunity to use these extraordinary institutions to express highly moving and emotionally satisfying about being alive as a human being. I would be unlikely to want to do a musical, in the end I like the great dramas. It’s the best material.
Are you curating any new exhibitions?
In March at Chatsworth House, home of the Dukes of Devonshire, there is an exhibition called “House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth”. It is about finding a more dramatic way of understanding the collections. To understand the carving of a Venetian collar of lace in lime wood, to find a new way through into the collections, we concentrate on these clothes worn by complex, fascinating characters. One of them was a great friend of Marie-Antoinette, and we see letters saying this is how people arranged the feathers in their hair in Paris. This is the thrill of rediscovering the essence of a character, as it is in theatre in general.
Although born in Ireland, are you now very English?
At this point I am, I have become English. I am by birth Irish. My father and grandmother could not have been more Irish, I have 32 first cousins in Ireland. When I started as a painter I obsessively painted 30 or 40 times a picture called “Wake”, with obvious reference to the night spent with a corpse as you do in Ireland, travelling by boat between one country and the other and not belonging to either. As I’ve grown up I have become more and more grateful to England for what it’s given me in my education and culture, and the more I travel the more I respect it and value its institutions.
There is a strong literary tradition of great Irish English writers like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce?
There is a quality of narrative in the speech of any Irish person which gives great honour and value to the tools and grammar of the English language. The Irish are amazing with the language of the English that they have appropriated. Look at Seamus Heaney, and Oscar Wilde was basically a Londoner.
Do you consider yourself a man of the present or of the past?
I am not remotely nostalgic. I am fascinated by the present. People say that I live in a 17th century house in North Devon, but if you understand the passage of time you don’t want to be constantly ripping everything down! I am more concerned about preserving atmospheres, a mediaevalist rather than mediaeval, as reconstructed in our character by the Victorians. My house is a statement of there is a way of being from the past as much as possible. It doesn’t contradict modernity. It’s now modern to think of the environment, but the Druids honoured every source of water and how the light moved. They made it a religion.
You have witnessed a very creative London of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the famous photographers. What’s the difference between then and today?
We are grappling with the dissolving of national identity and the effects of globalisation. Mutual dependence is optimistic, but also people are terrified of losing their identity. This connectivity tragically reduces variety. We see species’ extinctions and are constantly drawn into the row of globalisation which is very difficult to come to terms with, either as an artist or as an individual. Technology means all sorts of accelerations in possibility. The physical fact of communication is redefined on a monthly basis. I embrace and adapt as quickly as I possibly can.
Are you at peace with yourself?
No. I am struggling to come to terms with the issues that surround us, which are extremely complicated. The “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” of Dylan Thomas is attractive. I hope as a result of passion I will go on burning brightly until something cuts me down.
London, January 2017
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