In conversation with Annie Kevans

By Rosie Campbell for ArtVerve, August 2017

 

A painted portrait has always had the power to grab my attention – and often to hold me by the lapels till I’ve addressed, quizzed, interrogated, decoded…even then, I’ve often been left confused, full of questions. It almost doesn’t matter the painting age, style, medium, subject, or even artist – there is just something about a human face reinterpreted for a third party gaze, that compels…

In the case of Annie Kevans’ work, I am almost helplessly drawn to her paintings. She paints solely portraits; they are frequently highly challenging, always raw, stripped of artifice, painfully human, and often violently emotionally-charged.

Over the past decade and more, she has focused on challenging the ‘expected’ images of famous people, shocked by her reframing of infamous tyrannical adults (Hitler, for example) as helpless and vulnerable children, and given a spotlight to artists, notably women who have previously been denied the visibility she feels they deserve.

In all, her work challenges conventional assumptions about the work lives, the desires, the public faces and the media-created images of public as well as notorious individuals. She is more accurately a ‘character painter’ than a portrait painter.

I am lucky to own a portrait of Britney Spears by Annie; it was an impulsive, and compulsive, purchase nearly a decade ago – and worth every penny I paid.

It has become not only a talking point in my home but also – bizarrely – something of a ‘child’ of mine. Britney Spears’ evident vulnerability has turned me into her defender, her support, her mother… She is doe-eyed, childlike, yet looks – worryingly – as if she’s emerged a bruising long night of self-abusive revelry…

 

Britney Spears - Annie Kevans

Britney Spears (2008)

 

The conversation that follows constitutes a discursive interview conducted online, with Annie, and I hope a fire-starter for a longer piece as well as further exchange.

Rosie I was drawn to your paintings immediately, and I’m lucky enough to see your ‘Britney Spears’ almost every day. She has become a kind of Mona Lisa in my house, her eyes following every passerby, her sadness forever fighting her sexual allure. I have hung her just at the bottom of my stairs …she is somehow inviting you upstairs….

How would you comment on my feelings living with one of your ‘famous people’ paintings?

Annie I think owning art is a very personal experience and no artist can anticipate the effects their art will produce on those who own it and live with it, especially when the work is of a famous person, because people will also have an opinion on the subject of the work.

I use our familiarity with famous people to highlight issues that are so common they are seen as normal.  The phenomenon of creating child stars to sell anything from music and films to alarm clocks and shoes, is so prevalent that we barely notice it.  By focusing on the overtly sexual poses of these children, I wanted to bring to light the double standard evident throughout the media which, on the one hand, continues to create the current atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion with regard to images of children, while at the same time disseminating sexually provocative images of young girls and child stars.

 

Olson Twins - Annie Kevans

Olsen Twins (2009)

 

By displaying the Girls series unframed, like posters, in the setting of a little girl’s bedroom, complete with toys and home furnishings featuring child stars, I wanted to draw attention to the messages relayed to children through the media and, thus, to highlight their invasion of the home and their part in dictating the roles which children are expected to play.

Rosie Can you comment on how you settled on portraits; what you feel this genre allows you to do..?

Annie In my second year of college I tried to paint some ‘evil’ children (Adolf Hitler, Fred West, Mary I and Al Capone) but I wasn’t happy with the results and decided to focus on photography.  I thought about creating the series using this medium but it involved finding children to pose for the photos and, strangely, the work wouldn’t have had the same ring of truth about it as the paintings do.  By that, I mean that I would have had to create photos that looked like genuine ones and this would have seemed deliberately deceitful.  I decided to return to painting and narrowed down the series to political leaders. Finally, I decided that the series worked best on oil-painting paper.  Painting gives me freedom to explore ideas in a way I found impossible to do with photography.

Despite contemporary interpretations of the portrait, there is a general acceptance and knowledge of what portraiture is, or should be, about: capturing the likeness and personality of a person.  By using the traditional painting format of portraiture, I use people’s familiarity with the genre to imbue my works with truth and to explore difficult ideas.

 

Marilyn Monroe & Joan Crawford (2009)

 

Rosie We are very interested in women’s suppressed and too-often ‘forgotten’ artistic lives, and I know you are too… to the point you created an entire series based on women artists who hadn’t had the – art historical/critical – prominence they warranted – what was your plan for this series, and how did you choose those to include?

Annie As is often the case, the series started with my interest in a few people and grew into a large series.  I originally created a small series depicting four female Impressionists.  They were displayed at an art fair under the title ‘Impressionists’.  This simple title was enough to make people think in a completely new way about an art movement they felt knowledgeable about.  Some of the female Impressionists exhibited in every single Impressionist exhibition but where are they now in those big blockbuster shows?  They had no idea they would one day be dropped from the programme.  The problem has been with their legacies and with the recording of the history of art.  This is why I called the series ‘The History of Art’ because that’s really what it’s about.

 

Sonia Delauney & Kathe Kollwitz (2014)

 

The History of Art series features women in art history who were once acclaimed in the art world – some were even international celebrities – and whose history and significance have been gradually eroded so they are ultimately forgotten to a modern audience.  I was astonished to learn throughout the course of my extensive research that, despite the massive obstacles in their path, many women managed to have successful careers as artists as early as the 16th century.  Although some have been championed in the last decades having been ‘rediscovered’ by later art historians, these women still remain separate from mainstream art history. Their work is consistently sidelined in major exhibitions and women artists are deemed only worthy as subjects within the secondary realm of feminist art history.

 

History of Art Series - Annie Kevans

Women Artists from ‘History of Art’ Series (2014)

 

The more research I do, the more women I find who deserve to be studied, exhibited and remembered.  There are probably around 100 artists who should be in the series and maybe I’ll be able to complete the series one day.  I never know when I embark on a project how big it will become and who will form part of the work.  This is why I say my work is concept driven because the subjects of the works are unknown to me when I begin the series.

Rosie What is it about recognition and the face that feels important to you?

Annie I think people will always be interested in looking at others (it seems so obvious, it feels ridiculous to point it out!), which is why the depiction of humans in art will never disappear.  There are always people proclaiming that portraiture and painting are ‘dead’ and yet relevant artists keep on depicting other humans in their work.

Rosie Your style of painting is very identifiable and leaves brushstrokes very ‘naked’ . Can you talk about how you paint…?  Is the act as spontaneous and swift as it appears?

Annie It is spontaneous and swift, although it takes me time to get to the point where I can paint like that.  I often work intensively for several months and then take long breaks.

 

Robert Mugabe (2013) & Kate Moss (2014)

 

Rosie You are on the record talking about the practical and cultural hurdles and barriers women face being ‘artists’ throughout history – and also still, these days. Can you talk a little about the fact of being a woman and your own creative practice?

Annie There are depressing statistics on the disadvantages faced by women in the art world.  You only need to look at any commercial gallery website, or even institutions like the Royal Academy, to see the gender imbalances.  Auction results show how hard it is for women to attain the same prices for their work as men.  Without the backing of the big commercial galleries, life can be very difficult, especially if you’re not from a wealthy background.  It takes a lot of money to pay for a home, a studio, materials, international travel to exhibitions, and, as I’ve recently discovered, the cost of self-publishing books (big publishers are only interested in you once you’re showing in big museums).  Childcare costs in the UK are astronomical but I get irritated when I hear people saying this is a problem for women.  It’s a financial problem for people who don’t have a lot of money.  If you’re a person with a nanny, then having children isn’t going to stop you being an artist, a writer or an actor, whether you’re a man or a woman.  The fact remains that the obstacles facing women are more to do with the lack of support from museums, curators, writers and art historians.

 

           Hari Nef - Annie Kevans

Hari Nef (2017)

 

Rosie You are described as an ‘acclaimed British painter’.  Are nationality, home, studio location important ?

Annie I think when you realise you have so many obstacles to overcome, you have to give yourself as much of a chance of success as possible.  I believe you are more likely to succeed in a big city with a thriving art scene.  I benefited from graduating from a well-known London art school because our degree show was very well attended by curators and collectors.  As our tutors told us, a London degree show is probably the best-attended exhibition most artists will ever take part in.  Location becomes less important as you become more established and gallerists and curators care less where you live.

 

Jean Paul Gautier - Annie Kevans

Jean Paul Gaultier Muses show, History of Art (2014)

 

Rosie Do you feel free or trapped by descriptions such as ‘acclaimed’, ‘painter’ ‘woman’..?

Annie No! I take those descriptions as compliments.

Rosie What can you say about feminism and art, or feminism and painting..?  Are you a feminist painter?

Annie I’ve always believed in equality between men and women so I’ve always been a feminist.  I expect all women artists are feminists and, as I’m a painter, that does make me a feminist painter.

Rosie Which other contemporary women artist/s do you feel inspired by, who’s work you would most like to own, are you most excited by at the moment..?

Annie I feel inspired by many women, including Paula Rego, Cornelia Parker, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Marlene Dumas, Cathie Pilkington, Tracey Emin, Rachel Kneebone, Tessa Farmer, Karen Knorr, Rebecca Warren and Kate Lyddon.

Rosie When you look ahead what kinds of projects and ideas are you mulling?

Annie My main goal at the moment is to work in different media and on a different scale.

 

RA Summer Show (2017) – Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy & Robert Mapplethorpe in drag

 

 

All images © Annie Kevans, kindly reproduced with permission.

All rights reserved, 2017.

 

 

LEONOR FINI: Artist, Libertine, Provocateur

By Melissa Budasz for ArtVerve, June 2017

 

Leonor Fini - cat

Portrait of Leonor Fini by André Ostier (1951)

 

“I am independent. I am free. I am not a surrealist and beyond classification.“

Leonor Fini (1982)

 

Unconventional, free-thinking and experimental, Leonor Fini was once the ‘it-girl’ of Paris and was one of the most photographed women in the art world. Known more perhaps for her flamboyant nature and penchant for dressing-up and cross-dressing rather than her painting, she had an illustrious career in theatre and set design, illustration, product design and film too. However, it is her status as a painter that needs to be examined so we can appreciate her unique influence on 20th century art history.

 

finicostume

Fini in Corsica (1957)

 

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1907) to mixed Argentine, Spanish, Italian and Slavic blood, Fini fled with her mother at two years old to Trieste, Italy, to escape her father. There are stories of her father’s plots to kidnap her, and Fini was disguised regularly as a boy. As a teenager, she spent months with her eyes bandaged whilst suffering an ocular ailment and when they were eventually removed, started expressing her inner thoughts and visions through painting. Her rebellious spirit led her to be expelled from several schools with no formal training in art. Much of her art was exhibited in surrealist art exhibitions in the 40s and 50s, but although her painting had elements of surrealism she refused to be labelled a surrealist or a feminist – she was too aware of the complex ways many of the surrealist male artists conceptualized and identified women. She once said of her painting process,

 

“I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms things I like.”

 

le-carrefour-dhecate-med

Leonor Fini Le carrefour d’hecat (1977-78)  oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 39 ½ inches. Photo image from Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, USA

 

She arrived in Paris in 1932 and quickly broke into the avant-garde art scene, becoming like several other important woman artists of the time loosely associated with the Surrealist movement at a time of its ‘golden age’ when it was becoming more visible to the public at large.

 

Salvador Dalí was once quoted, in a blatantly misogynistic assessment of her work, that she was, “better than most, perhaps. But talent is in the balls.”

 

This was a stereotype of the time and creativity seemed to be a male attribute and right, therefore women were instantly excluded from the domain. This perhaps explains why Fini and many of her female contemporaries distanced themselves from the Surrealist movement so that they could relate their own ideas about female sexuality and the expressive representations of women by refusing to be the object of another’s desire. Fini subverts preconceived gender roles and social codes – the women in her paintings point to empowerment and liberation. She is (whether she admits it or not as she adamantly refused classification) a feminist, and her idea that woman is complex and ambiguous creates a fluid and more open identity for women to explore.

 

Gala-Salvator-Dalì-Leonor-Fini-André-Pieyre-de-Mandiargues-by-Stanislao-Lepri-1940

Gala & Salvador Dalí, Leonor Fini & Andre Pieyre (1940)

 

Fini knew and became friends with many of the early 20th century Surrealists – Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali.

 

She was said to have once brazenly asked Picasso why he kept doing “the same old shit.”

 

Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller and Dora Maar were some of the photographers that captured Fini in print – portraits with masks on, in elaborate costumes and with her cats (she had up to 12 cats at one time and over 20 in her lifetime). She was the ultimate cat queen, the shape-shifter and erotic seductress who was thought to have been the influence for the conclusion of The Story of O, the erotic novel published (1954) by the French author Anne Desclos. Fini intoxicated those around her with her intelligence, fearless wit and creative energy.

 

Leonor Fini -sphinx

Leonor Fini, Chthonian Deity Watching over the Sleep of a Young Man (1946) oil on canvas, location unknown, © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012/Scala, Florence.

 

“Have we not known for a long time that the riddle of the sphinx says much more than it seems to say?”

André Breton, View (1942)

 

In her paintings, she reversed the male gaze and reassessed power boundaries. Fini was possibly the first woman artist to paint an erotic male nude in her painting Sphinx Amalburga (Sphinx Amoureaux) (1942). She produced a series of paintings in which she would take the form of the sphinx watching over sleeping young men who had an androgynous beauty, emphasising the role reversals at play; her work challenged the patriarchal and focused on the matriarchal.

A predominant theme in Fini’s art is the complex relationship between the sexes, primarily the exchange between the dominant female and the passive, androgynous male – connecting her with other women artists that have focused on this shift of power and subversion of the male gaze, for example Sarah Lucas, Kiki Kogelnik, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.

 

“I see my work as a series of attempts to ruin certain representations and to welcome a female spectator into the audience of men. If this work is considered incorrect, all the better, for my attempts aim to undermine that singular pontificating male voice-over which correctly instructs our pleasures and histories or lack of them.”

Barbara Kruger

 

Fini also made a series of erotic drawings and lithographs with men and women and women with women as well as self-portraits as a sphinx. She was known to have had many lovers and found it hard to part with old loves. The interplay of her life and art was vital. She said,

 

“Marriage never appealed to me, I have never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – a big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.”

 

Her work connects women to the universe, to the land and to myth. She rejected the idea of being anyone’s muse. Her figures – the sphinxes, cats, nymphs, priestesses, nudes – are all bold declarations of a woman’s sexuality that convey a powerful feminine subconscious. The myth of the sphinx offered surrealism many narratives, from an exploration of desire to existential anxiety. In Fini’s work the sphinx questions gender stereotypes, from the muse to the maternal, and offers an iconography which goes beyond woman as the source of male creativity or as a source of procreativity alone. The sexual hybridity of the sphinx as half animal/half woman and the role of the sphinx as guardian/protector, reinforces Fini’s vision of a natural and erotic feminine force, in charge of her powers.

 

Fini-sphinx

Leonor Fini Sphinx Amalburga (Sphinx Amoureaux) (1942) oil on canvas, 15 x 18 inches. Photo image from Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, USA.

 

Fini was also renowned for her theatrical set-design, costumes and posters which she often did not get credit for. She designed costumes for ballets and famously fell out with Dame Margot Fonteyn who refused to wear the cat mask Fini had designed for the ballet in Paris (1948), “Les Demoiselles de la nuit.“ Even though the set collapsed whilst Fonteyn danced, the two women made up and remained friends for years. She also designed the costumes for Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954), was one of the costume designers for Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 ½ (1963), and designed the costumes for John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968) staring Anjelica Huston. Fini’s design for the bottle of perfume Shocking by Schiaparelli (1937) later influenced Jean Paul Gaultier’s design for his own perfume (1995), a bust-shaped bottle etched with a corset. The shoe designer Christian Louboutin has also designed and named a pair of shoes in homage to Fini.

 

perfume

Shocking by Elsa Schiaparelli (1937) perfume bottle & packaging designed by Leonor Fini  Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House, London to 17 Sep 2017

 

In 1965 Fini was given a retrospective in Belgium, then Japan (1972) and in Paris (1986). Since her death, she has had retrospectives in Trieste (2009), New York (2010), and in Sweden (2014). Despite the mark Fini left on those around her she has often been relegated to the footnotes of articles and books on Surrealism along with many of her female contemporaries. Unfortunately, this story is one we are familiar with, there are too many examples of important women artists that have had to be unearthed again and their names put back into the history books –  Artemisia Gentileschi, Ana Mendieta, Camille Claudel, Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis, to name just a few that have been rescued from obscurity. It seems that a woman who, through the strength of her personality and her art, succeeds against the odds, is then erased from view as soon as she dies.

Fini’s work is included in three shows currently – a solo show at Galerie Minsky in Paris, and her work is included in a group show at White Cube Bermondsey, Dreamers Awake, works of up to 50 women artists from the 1930s to today exploring the influence of Surrealism. The perfume bottle Shocking she designed for Elsa Schiaparelli is currently on view at Somerset House’s exhibition, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.

Leonor Fini’s legacy is immense as she did so much in her lifetime personally, professionally and artistically. She is an inspiration and beacon to young women artists and her work must be evaluated, celebrated and enjoyed.

 

© All images Estate of Leonor Fini.

 

You can see Leonor Fini’s work in the following exhibitions:

Leonor Fini Exhibition, Galerie Minsky, 37 Rue Vaneau, 75007 Paris – until 29 Jul 2017

Dreamers Awake, White Cube Bermondsey, 144-152 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3TQ – until 17 Sep 2017

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA – until 17 Sep 2017

 

References

  1. Leonor Fini, Surrealist Sorceress – by Dr Sabina Stent – Treadwells Bookshop – London, 19 May 2017
  2. Leonor FiniSurreal Thing by Sarah Kent – Telegraph, 30 Oct 2009
  3. How to be a Surrealist Queen, according to the artist Leonor Fini by Priscilla Frank – Huffington Post, 13 Nov 2015
  4. “The Problem of Woman”: Female Surrealists and their Unique Brand of Mystery by Sian Folley – Sotherbys, 3 Nov 2014
  5. Dada & Surrealism, by Alyce Mahon – digital.lib.uiowa.edu
  6. weinstein.com/artists/leonor-fini
  7. Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset Housen – London to 17 Sep 2017
  8. Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini by Peter Webb, The Vendome Press, 2009, ISBN 10: 0865652554 & ISBN 13: 9780865652552

From One Tip of a Diamond to Another

by Moira Jarvis for ArtVerve, May 2017

 

IoW

Ridge 2 by Caroline Underwood (digital print on aluminium, 50x50cm, 2015) 

Caroline Underwood, Jackie Brown and Moira Jarvis share a strong desire to connect with the natural world and recently met up in the Isle of Wight to walk from the most easterly point of the island to the most westerly point across the chalk ridge. This 26.5 walk was in aid of Earl Mountbatten Hospice and as the island is the shape of a diamond, the walk was from one tip of a diamond to another.

Although Caz is still based in London, her new home sits in the centre of the island. From her house she can easily reach the coast in any direction. As an artist this has become a catalyst for her work, setting off ideas as she literally sets off to the sea. She calls the top room of her house the crow’s nest and aims eventually to develop this space to accommodate an artist in residency scheme, initiating ideas from land to sea and giving visiting artists the opportunity to connect with the natural world.

Over half the Isle of Wight’s landscape is recognised as an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with miles of breath-taking Heritage Coastline. It is also of great geological interest. Quay Arts, a twenty minute walk from Caz’s house is an impressive focus for resident and visiting artists. It is currently showing an exhibition by Richard Long called The Isle of Wight as Six Walks. Richard Long is an artist who embarks on long distance walks to create work. For this exhibition, and documented in a wall piece, he walked across the island, vertically dissecting it from north to south. His flint floor sculpture was like bones from the earth and contrasted with the more ephemeral fluid marks made by hand and mud from the river that literally runs through the Quay Arts building.

Equally impressive was work made by school children in the education department which caught the essence of Long’s work. These beautiful tactile pieces with minimal mark making and an innate understanding of the use of materials showed very personal responses. Both exhibitions echoed our own experience of walking horizontally across the island, in our case from east to west.

We aim to continue the conversation for some time.

 

Quay Arts Sea Street Newport Harbour, Isle of Wight PO3O 5BD

Richard Long: The Isle of Wight as Six Walks – Exhibition continues till 1 July 2017 FREE