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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

Lost Languages and Other Voices: Joy Gregory at the Exchange Gallery, Penzance.

In Penzance at the Exchange Gallery til May 6th, is an exhibition by photographer Joy Gregory, a major artist who came out of the Black British photography movement in the 80s. The show, which centres around issues of representation, race, history, gender and aesthetics, brings together 16 bodies of work spanning some two decades, and is a stark look at the construction of concepts of truth and beauty, all the more disturbing at this point in history as the world divides up once again behind walls both real and ideological, constructed from prejudice and fear. Rich and heavy with uncomfortable revelation, Gregory’s photographs pull in with beauty and pull up sharp with uncomfortable observations about marginalisation, power, identity, played out in objects, clothing, hair.

Objects of Beauty 1992-1995 is a set of twelve kallitype images – objects from the fashion industry, describing notions of ‘ideal’ beauty. Tape measures in some of the images referencing eugenics, anthropometry, underlining the inherent divisive narratives stitched within the construction of the clothing.

Bottle Blonde (c) Joy Gregory

Bottle Blonde © Joy Gregory Courtesy Impressions Gallery

Bottle Blonde 1998, a cabinet of medical sample bottles containing dyed blonde hair from different racial backgrounds – African, Asian, European – was made referencing photographic darkroom technology, times and methods used in the toning process. The ‘successful’ black and white print depends heavily on a proscribed aesthetic, a search for the perfect print like the search for the right blond. In Gregory’s words: ‘blond is western society’s iconographic object of desire.’

from The Handbag Project (c) Joy Gregory

Works in The Handbag Project 1998 – salt print photograms – draw in with their beauty and disturb profoundly when we learn that they are bags left in charity shops, sometimes with their original tags, unused, by wealthy white south African women during the apartheid years.

Loss is poignant, wry and familiar in Gregory’s Tales of Loss – small drawings made during a journey from South London to Hoy documenting the loss of tickets, money, luggage. In the series Sites of Africa 2001, the loss of history is disturbing, horrifying – her photographs of London locations associated with an African presence are at times overwhelming.

Only on til 6 May this is an unmissable show.

The Exchange
Princes Street
Penzance
TR18 2NL
Joy Gregory’s exhibition, Lost Languages and Other Voices 11 Feb – 6 May 2017 Cinderella Tours. An Impressions Gallery touring exhibition, curated by Anne McNeill.

‘With Space In Mind’

At the beautiful Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens near Penzance there is an exhibition of vibrant, energetic prints by Gillian Ayres upstairs in the gardens’ gallery. Downstairs, beautiful photogravure images by Cornelia Parker’s are part of a group exhibition, ‘With Space In Mind‘, works investigating the dialogue between two dimensional and three dimensional work, connections between objects in space and their representations on paper.

Gillian Ayres_Rhodiola_2015. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

Rhodiola 2015. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

Fiesole_2013. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

Fiesole 2013. Courtesy Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

Upstairs, Ayres’ prints, bold, blocks of intense colour sing of the elements of sea, sky, tamed garden, untamed landscape, a chorus of woodblock prints celebrating her very personal response to the place she has lived and worked in for thirty years. Titles of works – Rhodiola, Fiesole, Heligan – link the works directly to this peninsula of hidden gardens, wide skies, prehistoric monuments, beaches and a brilliant if unreliable sun. The conversation between landscape, memory and experience is boisterous, loud.

Cornelia Parker_Still Life with Levitating Grapes_2105_Courtesy artist and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

Cornelia Parker, Still Life with Levitating Grapes, 2015, courtesy Alan Cristea Gallery, London

Downstairs Craig-Martin’s bold outlines and colours suggest an uneasy familiarity with objects from the manufactured world; Gormley’s delicate but disturbing etchings observe a relationship with the built world, where personal and creative freedoms are compromised; and Nash presents a very personal relationship with the natural world, his pastel stencil editions referring to his sculptural forms, some of which reside outside in the garden.

Amongst these works, Cornelia Parker’s quiet photogravure shadow pieces, exquisite traces of the three dimensional reality of objects flattened to ghostly magical shadows, objects become spectres captured in the weave of the paper. The indexical link inherent in the photographic process bring us closer to the objects represented than is almost comfortable, tightening the dialogue between the object and its final resting place.

Both exhibitions are curated by David Cleaton-Roberts and Helen Waters of the Alan Cristea Gallery, London and are on til May 14th.

Tremenheere Sculpture Garden
nr Gulval, Penzance, Cornwall TR20 8YL
www.tremenheere.co.uk

 

 

Current exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery, until June 4 2017 Paintings by Vanessa Bell (1870-1961) and Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith

Paint brushes

Patti Smith, Paint Brushes, Duncan Grant’s studio, 2008, Gelatin silver print, edition of 10, 25.4 × 20.32 cm. © Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery

Patti Smith describes her photos as ‘souvenirs of a joyful solitude’. Her response to Bell’s personal albums is a series of contemplative black and white images of Charleston, now empty, once Bell’s vibrant home, a house filled with an extended family of friends, lovers, creatives and radical thinkers. Images of a now quiet house – Bell’s brushes, books, beds, are pages from a much bigger work by Smith, a vast body of photographic dialogues with history, art, friends, family and heroes.

As Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf puts it in The Waves:

We are creators. We too have made something that will join the innumerable congregations of past time…and make part of the illumined and everlasting road.

Photographic album page featuring photographs from Brandon Camp, August 1913- From top left: Julian Stephen, Daphne Olivier, Noel Olivier, Noel Olivier,  Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell
Photographic album page featuring photographs from Brandon Camp, August 1913- From top left: Julian Stephen, Daphne Olivier, Noel Olivier, Noel Olivier, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell
Brandon Camp, 1913. Photographs by Vanessa Bell and others, in Vanessa Bell’s album, Tate (TGA 9020/3) © Tate Archive, London 2016.

Bell, who studied at the Royal Academy and Slade schools and counted Sargent and Sickert amongst her biggest influences, moved to Bloomsbury in 1905 after the death of her parents, to live with fellow artists and intellectuals, a group of people who became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Clive Bell who became her husband in 1907 was a member, as were Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with whom Bell, whose artistic practice moved fluidly between fine and applied arts, founded the Omega Workshop in 1913.

The move to Charleston in 1916 was an expansion of the Bloomsbury model, and Bell’s family albums are full of images of a life embracing the same values. Here, with Duncan Grant, Bell was artist, homemaker, bohemian mother, opening the doors of their rural retreat to welcome a flow of alternative thinkers and artists, the spaces of the house providing a safe haven for gay friends, feminists, pacifists, and a place for unrestricted creativity and collaboration. Bell and Grant were the focus of a family defined by the fluidity of their relationships and their unconventional approaches to partnership, marriage, gender, sexuality and personal freedom. The photos reveal an environment full of ease, creativity and the visual noise of a perpetually full house.

Though separated by nearly a 100 years, the dialogue between Bell and Smith is timely. Bell is a pivot between the outspoken women of the Victorian era (her aunt was photographer Julia Margaret Cameron) and the new modern era of bold, boundary busting women at a time when un-propertied women under 30 were still unable to vote. Not until 1928 was the right to vote given to all women over 21 by which time Bell was already way ahead of the curve. Both were revolutionary in their lifestyles – Bell with Grant, Smith with Mapplethorpe, both also lovers of poetry, literature and visual art. Both walked the talk, creating and sustaining new frameworks for personal relationships, supporting difference and freedom. Both women pushed for outside to become inside, for the edges of experience to become the norm and made their lives into places and spaces of endless possibility, treating convention and category with the same disregard.

Patti Smith’s series of monochrome photographs, which come from her 2003 residency at Charleston, is a quiet but very intense and personal half of a long overdue conversation between two visionary and uncompromising women. Solitary objects and empty spaces untouched since 1961 invite us to start up the conversation again, to think about what they were once filled with, what they once represented, and how they fit into Smith’s bigger photographic conversation – with Brancusi, Rimbaud, Blake amongst many others.

This was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

One of the world’s most influential rock stars, and godmother of urban punk poetry, Smith’s poetic response is entirely in the same field as Bell’s aesthetic preoccupation – the focus is the link between structure and sentiment. Smith’s symbolist abstractions in her poetry (her photo of Rimbaud’s spoon and fork part of another of Smith’s photographic dialogues) mirror Bell’s constant reduction on the canvas, something Virginia Woolf, another voice in this conversation, described in the same novel as:

… a complete transmutation, a ruthless sacrifice of emotional values, even those most cherished.  She could not, she had formerly explained to William Bankes, make of Mrs. Ramsay anything but a violet shadow.  

Key 9 Virginia Woolf

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, c. 1912, oil on board, 40 x 34 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 5933. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Compatible visions, Smith’s photos are steps along a path of pilgrimage, celebrations of a spiritual view of life, where objects become relics, take on spiritual meaning, freeze frame significant moments.

Bell’s paintings – portraits, still life, design, landscape, domestic scenes, often informed by the photos in the albums, and the concerns with form and composition are the same in both. Clive Bell used the term ‘significant form’ to explain her work, lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions…, the ‘ah’ moment when form distilled from a recognisable reality becomes something ‘essential’.

For Virginia too, composition was a major preoccupation in her work, and Bell’s concerns are there too in Woolf’s novels. In To the Lighthouse, Lily, a painter, considers modifying the composition of her painting by moving a tree to the right, symbolically moving a salt cellar as she thinks about it, to a new place on the table. Later in the novel she has the ‘ah’ moment: In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me.

Key 104 Street Corner Conversation

Vanessa Bell, Street Corner Conversation, c.1913, Oil on board, 69 x 52 cm, Private Collection. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Colin Mills

Describing further the link between structure and sentiment, Virginia adds: For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle. Virginia Woolf

Form tickles the emotional response, its simplicity pointing to a familiarity, a closeness of subject, underlining at the same time the impossibility of knowing another’s subjectivity – faces are gone, spaces are taut and loaded. There is no revelation, scant narrative structure, but there is ‘relationship’ through shape and colour, subliminal ties to the world, to each other, made real through pared down composition.

Woolf described Bell’s work better than anyone, her conversation with her sister writ large in the pages of all her novels. Driven by their need to create, to question, to exchange, they both forged new frameworks, continuously assessing and reassessing where they might stand in relation to the world and to their work.

Smith’s response to the same conversation, and to her relationship with Mapplethorpe, asks the question again.

He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.

But who will sing of him?

Take your pick from any one of Bell’s paintings or leaf through Woolf’s novels to find the answer.

How strange to feel the line that is spun from us lengthening its fine filament across the misty spaces of the intervening world. He is gone; I stand here, holding his poem. Between us is this line. Virginia Woolf, The Waves

References:

Patti Smith, Meet Sylvia Plath: Rock stars who write poems by Meghan O’Rourke, Slate.com (2006)
A Look at Patti Smith’s First Major Photography Exhibition, ‘Camera Solo’ by Emily Temple, Flavourwire.com (2011)
On Show by Anna Bonita Evans, Black and White Photography magazine (March 2017)
An Intrepid Painter: Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) by Sarah Milroy, In View, Dulwich Picture Gallery Magazine (2017)