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'I always felt something was missing'

The designer Nicole Farhi is working full-time as a sculptor - something she yearned to do for more than 35 years

    Nicole Farhi:
    Nicole Farhi: "It is nice to undress people now as I have been dressing them all my life"

    As she speaks, Nicole Farhi's hands rest below her chin, only occasionally moving to stress a point or to single out something in the room, before effortlessly retreating to their former position.

    She is telling me that you can tell a lot about a person by studying their hands, and so I am looking for a non-verbal cue - a nervous twitch or an animated gesticulation. But, instead, hers convey a sense of calm and assuredness; indeed, they are perfectly fitted to a woman who claims to be "more at peace than ever before".

    But then, this is unsurprising. As an artist, Farhi's hands are her most vital instruments; and now that she is working full-time as a sculptor - something she yearned to do for more than 35 years - they are finally and consistently being put to the task they were made for.

    "I always had the feeling that something was missing," says the former fashion designer, who stepped down from her eponymous clothing brand five years ago to concentrate on her art.

    "I was sculpting at home, of course, but I felt frustrated that I couldn't spend every single day doing it. I wasn't necessarily unhappy, but I didn't have the peace that I have now."

    Violinist from the show undressing the Violinist's hand
    Violinist from the show undressing the Violinist's hand

    The French-born 70-year-old is speaking from London's Bowman Sculpture Gallery, where her second solo exhibition has just been installed. The title and subject matter, fittingly enough, is The Human Hand.

    "My first show was all about faces," she explains. "This time, I wanted to say something about what can be another portrait of a person. You can hide your feelings with your face, but hands are really expressive. I also wanted to show people who live by their hands - who work with their hands to create something."

    Featured among Farhi's sculptures - the majority of which are modelled in clay and then set in bronze or glass - are a pianist, a prima ballerina, a conductor and a baker. Unlike her first show, From the Neck Up, which featured pieces modelled on famous faces (and close friends) including Anna Wintour, Dame Judi Dench and Helena Bonham Carter, these works are simply labelled by the subject's profession.

    It is only when you go downstairs at the gallery and view the photographs she commissioned to use as points of reference that you learn her subject's names. Many are highly illustrious figures in their fields, including the violinist Anthony Marwood and the philanthropist Jacob Rothschild.

    It is an intriguing insight into Farhi's notion of identity. With a name still so closely associated to a fashion label to which she no longer has any connection and which went into administration after her resignation, she prefers to identify herself first and foremost as a sculptor; her name is, by and large, irrelevant.

    For her, you are what you create. It is an inherent and intrinsic part of the self. Her craft, she adds, is especially self-revealing: the hands of the artist featured in the exhibition are indeed her own.

    "There is no disguise with sculpting," she says. "It is not about adding superficial layers, like designing clothes. It's actually quite nice to undress people now, as I have been dressing them all my life."

    There is a sense of intimacy in her new exhibition, I say, perhaps owing to the fact that hands want to be held; visitors must want to reach out and touch the hands on display. "I like the intimacy," she says. "That is why I don't know if I will ever stop using humans as subjects.

    "When I first start working on a piece, I mimic their hands' positions. I stretch my arms to make sure that I am getting the muscles and veins in the right places. It almost feels like I become them briefly; there is certainly a feeling of osmosis when I am working."

    That sense of proximity to her subjects is even more evident in that the Writer's hands are those of her husband, playwright Sir David Hare, and the Maman is indeed her 100-year-old mother.

    "Both my mother's and my hands are live-casts," she says. "I wanted to remember my mother's hands exactly as they were, with all their veins and wrinkles, playing cards, which she still does every day."

    The notion of permanence, of creating something everlasting, is extremely significant for Farhi, who spent the majority of her adult life working in an industry where things never stop "going out of fashion". Her aforementioned peace, she says, is largely due to the fact that she finally feels that she is leaving her mark.

    "When I was working in fashion, I always said I felt as if I would leave nothing behind," she says. "There would have been nothing to show for something I spent my life doing. But, with sculpting, I really have the feeling that I am creating something permanent."

    Her next show's subject, she confesses, is still a mystery but will more than likely focus on another part of the human body, something that causes her endless fascination.

    With that, we part with a handshake; the artist's imprint is embedded in the palm of my hand as we wave goodbye.

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