Focusing on the male form
The current exhibition presented by Henry Miller Fine Art in London is a showcase of the work of artist Michael Leonard.
I caught up with Henry Miller for a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition.
When did you first encounter the work of Michael Leonard?
I don’t recall how I first became aware of Michael’s work, however the lasting memory is a feeling of being moved when I did so. For me, growing up in the 80s - which was a very different time, culturally - Michael’s male nudes were an oasis of beauty and tenderness, defiant in their outlook, executed with sheer brilliance. The more I saw of Michael’s work, the more I became conscious of the breadth of his range.
What was it about Leonard’s work that you felt that you wanted to showcase in an exhibition?
The main reason I staged the exhibition is that I’m a huge fan of his work. It’s timeless, and the work of a true master. I met Michael about two years ago. It’s been a great honour to get to know him and to finally see his work in person.
It occurred to me that he hadn’t had an exhibition in London since 2004, and that it was time for his work to be shown again. Many people had either never seen his work at all, or only in reproduction. As most of his work is in private collections, gaining access to it is often impossible, but we managed to get a great selection together.
Leonard has explored a wide range of styles throughout his career - how did you select the pieces to be featured in this exhibition?
The exhibition contains a mixture of works that are for sale, and others that are on loan from private collections. The selection process was very hard. There’s very little work available for sale anywhere - this is the largest collection of his work for sale in London for the past 15 years - as people who have bought his work, tend to keep hold of it.
I’ve been very fortunate that private collectors have allowed me to borrow their pieces for the exhibition. It enabled me to curate a proper retrospective spanning five decades and including his different styles and periods.
The exhibition specifically focuses on Leonard’s celebration of the male form - what are some of the influences or styles that we can see reflected in Leonard’s depictions of the male form?
Michael is someone who is extremely well versed in the history of art. His paintings are inevitably influenced by classicism and old master pictures. His work is also informed by his training and career as a commercial artist.
After training at St Martin’s School of Art, he produced illustrations for newspapers, magazines, and books. His paintings therefore always appear to contain a narrative, which I think adds to their appeal and popularity.
Would you describe the work as erotica?
Not really. The purpose of the paintings is not to titillate - they’re a celebration of the male form. People find some of the pictures in a small way sexually charged, but that’s a secondary function of the pictures.
Which are some of the stand-out pieces in the exhibition that we should be looking out for?
‘Changing’ is, in my view, one of his best works. It hasn’t been seen in public since it was first exhibited in 1981.
‘Passage of Arms’ from his 1979 Scaffolders series is also a pretty iconic painting that people may be aware of but have never seen in person.
There is also a selection of drawings on display, one of which, “Change into White’ from 1994, is an absolute beauty and a perfect example of Michael’s talent.