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Peter Cooke: what is important is ‘an integral curiosity’

For our ‘Careers in the Arts’ feature I interviewed French lecturer Peter Cooke who specialises in nineteenth-century French art. Being fascinated by his brilliant modules over the years and soon to be graduating myself, I was intrigued to find out more about his career path. I wondered how the art world has changed since he embarked into the world of work and if he has any tips as we anxiously leave our student days behind us.

Graduating from Oxford with a degree in French and Spanish, Cooke always had an interest in art yet it was his thesis on Gustave Moreau that truly inspired his passion. Having no formal qualifications in History of Art I ask whether he considers himself self taught, he smiles and answers “we are all self taught”. Cooke’s fascination with Moreau stemmed from his year abroad in Paris with days spent in the ‘Musée Moreau’ of unsupervised hours in the archives and even in Moreau’s house itself, where he sat “encapsulated, surrounded by his paintings, reading his manuscripts”. He announces that his new 120,000 word book, a lavishly illustrated piece on the life and work of Gustave Moreau of course, is the highlight of his career thus far as he believes it’s an accumulation of 20 years of hard work. He admits he does not follow modern art with the same ardour yet he has noticed how tastes constantly change; “art has basically come off the painting and onto the floor. Traditionally art on the wall remains in its own space, but modern art has invaded our space as spectators”. I am impelled to ask if he has any tips for graduates who want to pursue a career in the arts, unfortunately there is no short-cut or easy answer as he tells me “the prerequisite is that you have to love art, it also helps to get to know the right people.” It seems not much has changed for humanities-based jobs as networking remains the only way to work your way up. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that these days a specialised training is expected and a “learn by doing” in the art world is not as easy to accomplish, yet above all what he believes most important is “an integral curiosity.”

Peter Cooke’s Top 3

‘La Salomé’ by Gustave Moreau – “I was very privileged to see it before it was opened to the public and the reproductions just do not do it justice. It is totally unique; I’d never seen anything like it and I was instantly captivated.”

‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ by Rembrant – “Rembant’s work speaks of a deep humanity and compassion that comes across very strongly. His paintings are intensely human.”

“La Countesse d’Haussonville’ by Ingres – “I love Ingres’ portraits and this one in  particular is mesmerising; what a simply magnificent ice queen!”

Peter Cooke is co-curating an exhibition, ‘Picturing Stories: British and French Romantic Illustration’ in John Rylands Library which opens in August.

Tags: Art Galleries and Exhibitions, Gustave Moreau, Ingres, interview, peter cooke, Rembrant

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