Following my reflection, I wanted to explore the push gesture in water. I feel that I may be preparing for a performance at the moat at Berkhamsted Castle, but I want to develop my idea further before doing so. I chose to investigate the water butt in my garden, since being so deep it offered the same darkness/contrast in reflected light that the moat itself has. This limited the extent of the gesture I could adopt here, but it was interesting to explore the ripple effect and methods in video editing in Premiere Pro, since the uni have now had the Adobe suite made accessible from our home computers.
I chose to accentuate the effects on the water by slowing down the movement. The accompanying audio becomes quite mesmerising, and the shifting water creates some very interesting warped abstractions. Here are two videos I made of the footage, one in black and white, and the other in colour, zoomed in so that the edges of the water butt are no longer visible.
I especially like this decontextualised view of the water, further abstracting the reflected imagery. The light dances.
It would be interesting to repeat this on a larger scale – perhaps in the moat itself, though I am unsure if this would be possible within the current lockdown (or if it might break any rules more generally on site).
Water itself has some intriguing connotations – life-giving and preserving, cleansing, and appears in various rituals (washing of feet, baptism, blessing etc.) and routine behaviours primarily associated as women’s work, such as laundry, cleaning/scrubbing, washing up. There is also a sexualisation of water when applied to the body – think of wet t-shirt competitions and the car wash.
It too reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais, depicting the tragic character from the play Hamlet. She falls into the water but continues to sing, unaware or uncaring of the danger to herself, before drowning herself. The painting is rich and verdant, the figure appears floating and as one with nature, but it is eery too – her face pale and close to death, her palms upraised in surrender, mid-song.
Researching this briefly, I came across an article about the significance of water in this Shakespeare play, which too looks to where else this symbolism is seen (excerpts below).
Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.
Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows, is action.
A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have, the epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the protagonist’s contemplation of death drives him to the ends of the earth in an unsuccessful pursuit for immortality. The myth of Narcissus and the pool depicts the same danger of excessive introspection in a more direct and literal manner: Narcissus, enraptured with his own beautiful appearance in the pool, leans in too far and drowns.
Water is both a powerful danger to be feared as well as a necessary agent of changing ourselves. We don’t want to stagnate and rot like a corpse, after all.
It seems then that water is a very apt element for me to be exploring as part of my theme of self-expression, being a tool of introspection and something we both seek out and shun through action. It’s interesting this too should harken to the flaw of narcissism in considering the self too much.
In order to kickstart my final major project, clarify my aims and plan for the weeks to come, and contextualise around it, we were tasked with drafting our project proposal and action plan, and creating a Pecha Kucha presentation to share our initial research. A Pecha Kucha (aka a 20×20) is one primarily composed of images, spanning 20 slides, each of which is shown for just 20 seconds, meaning that the full presentation lasts just over 6 minutes. Below I summarise the contents of my presentation, and so the research I conducted in the first two weeks of my project.
Reflection on past work
First I reflected on some of the commonalities/themes I have previously explored in my work that have driven my interest in the topic of my FMP: expression. This related to the work in Futures project, where my future self-portrait and the navigating space/grid cell/instruction work has commonalities of i) an interest in perceptions of self/observation by others. ii) Behaviour and body language. iii) Psychology, consciousness and identity. iv) Manipulation, instruction and expectation. v) interaction. Thus something around behavioural expressions/externalisations of our inner psychology and how this is expected/observed by others would be a natural continuation.
Also too that in previous Unit 2 work I was interested in gestural and expressive mark-making, and the notion of automatic drawing or writing. I have not yet taken this into the action itself as a performance, as opposed to a work produced from it, so would be interested to explore this in my FMP.
I was keen to contextualise the notion of my performance of expression within what might be interpreted from it – and the problematic biases of my being a woman artist. I saw this being across multiple facets. One being narcissim/vanity. Autobiographical work by women is interpreted as superficial or vain, self-obsessed, while autobiographical work of men can access universal themes and move beyond the personal. I linked this to the works of Helene Schjerfbeck who I went to see back in 2019.
Too, it is a paradox for women artists that in portraying their subjective reality/perception of themselves they are colluding in their own objectification. I related this to the Ways of Seeing I researched previously, as well as Tracey Emin’s self-portraits which evoke her subjective sexuality, but at the same time could be objectifying and eroticising herself.
I was conscious too that in externalising my emotions, I could be pervading the prejudice that women are ruled by their emotions, and the problematic connotations of this in relation to hysteria. I discovered that hysteria (back when it was treated as a psychological disorder), was specifically seen as the height of female sexual expression in a world of repression and strict social behavioural restrictions.
The surrealists were particularly interested in this – as an expression of the subconscious sexuality of women. This brought me onto another problematic context for the performance of women – that women’s performance takes place within the asymmetric power relationship between men and women. The surrealists choreographed/instructed a performance (below) by the dancer Helene Vanel to simulate hysteria – sexualising and objectifying her.
Another such problematic performance, which explored the body and gesture in performance art, was Yves Klein’s Anthropometries.
Here naked female models were instructed to cover their bodies in Yves Klein’s blue paint, and place themselves against surfaces in ways instructed/choreographed by the artist. He clearly objectified them here, calling them ‘living brushes’, though later the models have claimed they were collaborators in his work.
In considering female performance art, it is also important to contextualise this within the gender theory of philosopher Judith Butler – that gender itself is performative and we identify someone’s gender from the repetitive behavioural characteristics that we attribute to certain genders. This is evidenced in the performance of drag – whereby someone identifying in one gender performs the characteristics of the other as an illusion/subversion of such gendering. It’s easiest to see the skill involved in this, and thus the nuances of behaviours we interpret as gendered, by comparing an experienced drag performer with a novice who has had a makeover, in the makeover challenge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race (below)
So one theme I explored was resistance and women’s rage. I discovered that just as long as women have been resisting, they have been using their bodies to do so.
I also looked at how other artists have sought to express through suggestion or absence of the body, but where the works themselves have been created with the body or with interaction with the body in mind.
I also looked at artists who have used performance as the work itself, or in the creation of works, where abstract gestural mark-making has been utilised.
And works where the gesture itself is fully expressed in the mark/performance, and repeated.
The taking on of gestures/expressions of others as a suppression of self/ventrioloquist expression.
This is by no means an exhaustive line of research, and indeed since compiling this I have already found more lines that are of interest and relevant to this work!
I already had established I wanted to explore self-expression in my final major project, but I needed to get a broader view of what directions I might explore. I began by considering the different associations of the inner and outer self, to understand how I might investigate their relationship.
It seemed to me that there were lots of ways in which the outer self can make known or express the inner self – e.g. through behaviour, gesture, grooming, ritual, touch etc. But too there were some elements relating to the outer self that might frustrate or obscure this – such as cultural norms, comparison with others, beauty standards, restrictions, and indeed gender. Reflecting that, if I am to explore self-expression I would need to do so as myself – a woman – I wanted to explore too the factors relating to identity in this gendered case.
I feel I barely scratched the surface (and this by no means counts as some proper feminist/gender theory – merely a brain dump in the moment). But it helped to coalesce in my mind that there are various societal structures that obscure the female self. Who am I really if I stripped away the gender roles and behavioural conventions expected of me? How would I act? How much of my personality has been shaped irrevocably by the expectations and experiences of my gender from early childhood?
So it seemed that to adopt a gendered lens to my exploration of self-expression might be an interesting path to pursue. But I was keen to move beyond the male gaze topic I had previously explored in my contextualising research of earlier units, and not only explore literal self-portraiture. I want to explore expression specifically – of thoughts or feelings – to make the inner world apparent.
I knew this would bring me back to the world of abstract expressionism, where I had previously learnt of Lee Krasner in particular. I was excited to learn that there was an exhibition on the 9th street artists at Gazelli Art House in London, who I had been reading about back in Unit 1, so went along to see some of their works for myself. Below are some of the works I liked most from that exhibition:
It is intriguing that several of my preferred pieces were by Grace Hartigan, she seems to here have particularly intriguing use of colour.
This coincided with a performance I learned of through an instagram post (below). The idea of natural barefoot dance defying the social norms of the day intrigued me, so I decided to attend the performance!
It was fascinating to learn about this pioneering woman, whose tumultuous life was immortalised in film, who led a sea-change in the approach to modern dance. She was opposed to the unnatural restricting and painful movements imposed on ballet dancers (who are intended to produce the appearance of floating on air), and instead sought a freedom of movement that expressed the innermost spirit, hoping to inspire individuality and authentic movement for all. As such she was a proponent of improvisation in dance, and was often danced in response to great musical pieces.
She was inspired by ocean waves, and the poses of Ancient Greek sculpture – from which she also derived her flowing fabric costumes.
There were 3 performances at the Barbican that night. One was a restaging of an original Duncan choreographed piece – The Dance of the Furies (with 5 dancers). The Second was Five Brahms Watzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, a choreography by Frederick Ashton that took on the style of Duncan (A solo piece). The final piece was a new work developed specially for this Barbican bill, which was inspired by this technique, called Unda (with 6 dancers).
It was entrancing to watch these dancers across the various pieces. I was particularly moved by the solo piece, in which the expression of the dancer was most apparent.
The group pieces were fascinating, though I found it more difficult to glean perhaps a clear expression in the Unda work, it seemed more of a narrative to me (around friendships forming, routine, death and loss). There was an interesting use of water in it – dripping from above into large washing bowls placed around the set. The finale of the piece involved the dancers ‘washing’ themselves and then splashing the water around using their hair and limbs. IT was quite interesting to see these precise movements interacting with the liquid.
The Dance of the Furies was intriguing, the movements used by the dancers were forceful and directive. That they sometimes ran across the stage, and moved aggressively really brought out the sense that these were human movements – heavy and earthy. I was particularly drawn to a repeated motion of upraised forearms (with the elbows bent) as though beating an invisible surface with the underside of your fists. There was often too a sense of undulation – the bodies rocking to one side and then retreating, much like waves. It gave a sense of being cyclical or inevitable.
They were evoking the mythological Furies, the goddesses of vengeance from Ancient Greece. They feature in the opera by Gluck of Orpheus and Eurydice, from which the music was taken that they danced to in this piece.
I am intrigued to pursue the notion of expressive and improvised dance for myself, and experiment with the movement of my body, to hopefully inform gestural mark-making in my work. It could be also interesting to understand how gesture and movement express within the convention of performance art and whether there is crossover with the world of modern dance.
I felt my experiment in the future self-portrait (capturing the view of self when we are able to see through the eyes of others in a telepathic future) was successful, but I wanted to think more around this notion of self-image and how we are concerned and influenced by how others perceive us. This had me think back to previous research of mine around the male gaze and female depictions of themselves . This seems to be a recurring concern of mine!
I was aware of a new BBC series presented by Mary Beard around the nude in Western art, and was particularly interested to take a look as I knew that as part of this she had explored being the subject of a life drawing study. She was driven to do this from the sense that ‘I am still looking for a naked portrait of an older woman who looks like I feel.’, and from using an example from Rodin that typical mainstream western art uses the naked form of an older woman as a symbol of what has been lost (the beauty of youth), and not depicted in a sympathetic way as we do see with nude depictions of older men.
She wanted too to put herself in the position of the people she has been studying throughout the two programme series (the nude models). There is a self-consciousness though to this and it’s interesting to hear the feelings she had around this situation and her own perceptions of self in this scenario. She simultaneously casts herself as old (in her physical appearance) and adolescent (in her psychology).
I do feel a bit apprehensive about this – I think oh, I hope I don’t look too fat you know it’s a terrible kind of, well, adolescent vanity really.
She asks Catherine Goodman, who has agreed to draw her nude, if this is a common apprehension in her models. The artist answers that actually many of her models enjoy the gaze of another, the opportunity to just ‘be themselves’ for a short while. This is intriguing I suppose. It’s a unique sort of situation in the modern world, to be looked upon naked without judgment or sexualisation. This is perhaps the draw of nudism. But I am less interested in the impulse to be seen naked as the desire to understand how others perceive us per se.
Mary is still aware that some viewers are going to think ‘Did she have to?’ about her being a nude model – implying again that she feels herself an undesirable sight, “whereas I feel quite sort of, slightly brave about doing this”. It is literally bearing all in front of national television after all! Something I think many people would outright refuse to do. But it is interesting she is surrendering to this vulnerability and displaying that most private view of herself. Having sat for Catherine twice, on her third visit Mary allowed the cameras in, and admitted to being nervous.
It’s funny not having seen anything that you’ve done… of me I mean. It’s funny because I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me. Which is really what it is, isn’t it.
This is a curious phrase I will return to below, but particularly since Mary Beard is a familiar face on our television screens now, presenting many documentaries and now regularly appearing as a presenter on Front Row Late. Indeed, her first documentary series caused a stir from some quarters, as trolls and commentators such as A.A.Gill felt her unapologetic aged appearance should have no place on our screens. So she must be aware of how some view her, but perhaps the intimacy of life drawing is affording for her a glimpse of the view of someone with a deeper (and more human) understanding of her. We then see Mary’s nudes and hear her first reactions to them, alongside Catherine.
Oh wow! I thought I’d be a bit horrified of them. And I’m not remotely horrified by them and I think that, you know, the fleshy over-60s bits kind of work fine. I look at myself and I don’t think ‘Oh god she should lose a bit of weight’, I think ‘that’s me‘. And you know to some extent, I feel happy with it.
I notice I wasn’t much looking at you. You know, we were chatting quite a lot but I wasn’t looking and well I saw you looking at me and thought you are actually trying to work out how to do my tits.
So she was happy with the result, and seems she came out of the situation feeling good about the depiction of herself by another. What most interests me though is what she said prior to seeing these drawings. “I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me.”
This is intriguing to me, because the role of the artist here can only approximate or mimic how someone might view us in real life. In this modelling scenario, they are manufacturing an intimacy that would not otherwise exist, and therefore the view of the model is not a real one from their own lives. Yes, the artist can and often does seek to establish an understanding, a relationship with the model to more accurately capture their perception of that person, but the perception itself is not natural, it is not quite the same kind of perception that the people in our lives will have of us (beside the fact that each person in our lives probably has a unique one). This I suppose has parallels in the research problem, and the observation effect. It is impossible for us to observe or research naturalistic behaviour because the very fact that we are observing them warps the results.
There is a deeper problem however, to do with whether someone could accurately depict how they view another person. So imagining that a person in our lives was an artist, could they draw how they see us? This is the problem of validity in self-reporting – if we were to ask someone exactly how they viewed a person, even if they were fully compliant and adopting a ‘no-holds-barred’ response (throwing social convention bias to the wind), we would not get an accurate response, because this is something they are making conscious and rationalised which would otherwise not be. We simply cannot escape the cognitive biases that oversee our rationalisations to give a pure answer (though one question to consider is if we in fact do want to know how people see us through this cognitive lens)
This can be considered with allusion to identity theory accounts of how self-reporting of individuals around their own behaviour can be inaccurate. An oft used method is to ask people (through a self-administered survey) how much exercise they perform, and then compare this to direct observation of their exercise (unknown to the respondent) – for instance we might see someone over-report how much they exercise in a week. Answers usually reflect not only the actual self that we observe ourselves, but also the self that we wish to be (ideal self – reflecting the people we aspire to be), or the self we feel we ought to be (ought self – reflecting the internalised norms we have identified from the behaviours valued in our society). It can therefore make sense for someone to pep up the account of their exercise routine to paint a picture of themselves that is more flattering to their idealised or normative perceptions of self.
So wouldn’t these idealised and normative notions of identity also play a part in how someone consciously describes another person? If we are incapable of reporting our selves devoid of such influence, it is dubious we could do so for reporting of another. The act of portraiture in this sense is a projection of the values of the artist. We can better understand under such terms the male gaze in art, though perhaps not excuse it. The male has internalised norms around the female – what is valued (sexual appeal, physical beauty, submission, virtue, etc.), and so depicts or judges models based on this – hence how Rodin’s elderly woman is seen in terms of the loss of such qualities, rather than a more sympathetic depiction.
This reminds me of the famous destruction by Winston Churchill of the portrait Graham Sutherland created of him in his later life, now dramatised in the series The Crown. He reportedly said that it made him ‘look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand.’ and fought against it being publicly presented to the House of Commons for being unsuitable. It is therefore not always to our benefit to be shown how others see us, as it might well conflict with our self-perception in a way most unnerving.
It too has echoes in the early Dove real beauty campaign adverts – where the comparison was drawn in the forensic sketches drawn based on the physical descriptions of individuals and a stranger who had met them. The point drawn here was that we have less flattering self-images than a stranger would and should be more accepting and less judgmental of our appearance.
It’s interesting how none of the sketches actually bear much resemblance to the models though! A little like the exercise we had back in unit 1, describing an object to another person. Translating what we visualise in our minds into words so that another can visualise it accurately is very challenging! It is challenging enough to translate our mental visualisation into a visual representation on paper.
So all this means I come to some key questions. Is it ok that when we see a portrait/self-portrait we are not seeing an exactly true representation of how someone is immediately perceived, but something filtered through the artist’s own values (shaped and influenced by the time and place they are in). In fact are we seeing that person at all or is this a depiction of what they signify based on the artist/society? Or is that actually how we see the world – would an ‘exactly true representation of immediate perception’ actually not relate to the human experience at all, and this signifying and valuing actually be closer to the truth? When we want to understand how others see us, do we instead mean how do they place us within the world we live in based on these values and signifiers, or do we mean how are they immediately perceiving me? I think it might in fact be the former – we want to understand what we mean to people, not solely what we look like. Am I beautiful on a deeper level to you, not only superficially?
And this is where it becomes so emotionally charged – we find it tangled with the ideas we have ourselves of our actual, ought and ideal selves. Will you flatter me by reassuring me that I do conform to some of the characteristics I hold in the idea of the ought and ideal? Is my perception of my actual self accurate to how you view me? Or worst of all, do you reject all these views of myself and see me as something utterly different to my self-perception?
I suppose in my ‘future self-portrait’, under this identity theory, the ability to view ourselves through the eyes of others, and fully grasp their perceptions (not only immediately but alongside the value judgments and signifiers they see) might distort all sides of our self perception – the actual, ideal and ought. We might find these perceptions merge with that of another, or contrastingly experience a visceral disconnection when observing ourselves through their eyes – an ultimate outer body experience. That we do not naturally consider these 3 separate elements of self perception as distinct in our minds makes me think that this process too might be unconscious and hard for us to fully comprehend.
It could be interesting to ask various people in my life (from different social groups) to provide their perception of me, in either drawing or description. Of course, this self-reporting would be highly flawed, but perhaps as I have just discussed, we are more interested in this flawed lens than the pure view. That it would be moderated by social conventions, and likely a sense of not wanting to insult or embarrass, could be interesting to explore. It could also help to combine my instructional work with this other avenue of exploration which I have continued to be interested in.
On this visit, I encountered several of his bronze cast sculptures dotted around the estate where he used to live and work for the majority of his career, as well as the various studios he had there. There was also an exhibition being shown cataloguing his approach to drawing and how their role in his artistic practice changed over the years.
I was excited to discover the sculpture after being encouraged to get ‘hands-on’ with the outdoor ones and feel their texture when purchasing my entry ticket.
I found it really engaging to be encountering sculpture at such scale and so personally – it seemed an artform made for human observation and interaction. Many of them I could step into, and touch, and peer around. They offered interesting changing forms when you looked at different angles, as you walked around it. The sculptures themselves bear the marks of their making – the above piece is smoothed but also deliberately etched into.
The above piece shows clearly defined grooves that I believe have been made by the artist’s own hands – running my hand along it felt as though I were running it through carved wet clay.
The above work had intriguingly distinct forms from different angles.
The pieces I found less intriguing were perhaps the ones he is best known for, the reclining figures.
I found some of the forms here interesting, but I couldn’t get past the fact that these were staging the female nude as object. The figure is uniformly passive, and static. She is reduced to her ‘primary function’ as childbearer. This could only make the contorted forms and exaggerations of fertile hips etc seem exploitative for me.
John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ was released in 1972, ahead of all but one of the sculptures shown above, and in episode/chapter 2 he dealt with the problematic obsession with the female nude in art history. This feminist perspective may not have been taken seriously by Moore etc however, with contemporary reviews in the industry literature dismissing Berger as ‘a committed leftist who poses as the antagonist to all received knowledge about the arts’ (J.A.Robinson writing in the Journal of Aesthetic Education Oct 1974) – with no direct mention of the feminist argument he had been making. Indeed the modern movement was less under scrutiny here than mass media imagery for Berger, but that the passive female nude and mystification as the Great Mother could be still so primary to an influential artist like Moore at this time suggests perhaps it should have been.
This episode was aired just at the start of a great feminist movement in art history, which was kickstarted by Linda Nochlin’s article from the year prior ‘Why are there no great women artists?’. I am interested to read more into this subject and hope to start with some writings by Griselda Pollock.
One of the aims I had for this course was to get more confident in my drawing, and for this to become more instinctive for me. I have enjoyed as part of that exploring the one line drawing style of Calder, but here follows some more descriptive drawing that I have completed first in a recent workshop, at a life drawing class (my first!) and a cast study I did in the RA recently.
Here we were given a few hours to really study and work into our drawing – I had not before used this technique of building up a layer of charcoal to begin with, but I enjoyed how this made the process somewhat more malleable – it was forgiving to making adjustments along the way. I enjoyed also using chalk and different charcoals to add further depth and texture here. I found it difficult to get the perspective quite right on this and I think the top of the foot (the concentric circles) are not as occluded as they ought, but I am overall pleased with this work.
I chose this slightly altered pose for the object so that I could focus more on the interesting texture and tone of the top of the foot (the more interesting element for me). I felt that otherwise my work would be too generalised to warrant the length of sitting!
I enjoy working with charcoal for the responsiveness to weight and immediacy you have with it.
I enjoyed the life drawing class, though found it very hard going! Working at pace in quick succession was quite the challenge. I enjoyed experimenting with the soluble graphite stick (which I had not previously used) for the tonality you could achieve quite quickly and the sketchy quality you still achieve. I am most pleased with the 10 x 2 min sketch charcoal piece though. I think this allowed me to release my inhibitions somewhat and be more confident in my lines firstly since there was a time pressure, and secondly since I knew that in overlapping them any ‘errors’ might be obscured. I enjoyed in this experimenting with dynamism and scale and the more successful elements are towards the bottom of the work I think where you see the legs. I’d be interested to try this approach again but using the one-line drawing method.
I am pleased with the tone in this piece, though I think here too my perspective could have been refined (i.e. more hunch to the left side/proximity of the torso to the thigh). I perhaps self-edited here once more and did not fully capture the tonality of the genital region..! I was a little conscious of being in public at that point.
As I was leaving the Collection having completed my study of the torso, I was struck by this painting for depicting what I had just done myself!
I was particularly interested to read here that women were not allowed to draw from life at the time of this painting, and so had to study from casts of classical sculpture. This would certainly have been a hindrance to the development of their craft. I would be interested to learn more about the challenges women faced in art history and the broader picture of why they went unrecognised.
This weekend I visited the RA to see the retrospective on Helene Schjerfbeck, the first solo exhibition of her work in the UK. Born in Finland in 1862, she was an active painter until her death in 1946.
I was keen to visit this exhibition, to continue my run of women artist retrospectives in 2019, begun with Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. This is motivated by various reasons for me – to do what I can to ‘vote with my feet’ and support the rewriting of art history to include women who deservedly should be included within it, in the process educating myself and reflecting on their practice, and further because something about observing depictions of female subjects devoid of the male gaze is palliative and reassuring to me in some ways. I have often felt very uncomfortable in the more historic wings of art galleries, filled with idealised and sexualised female forms, and while some women artists have continued in this convention in the hopes of subverting the narrative, I find it most interesting seeing depiction go beyond this.
The exhibition itself was divided into 5 sections, split across 3 rooms, suggesting that the curator could have filled a good number more rooms if given the space!
Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”
I think this artist held a deep emotional intelligence, and conveying complex emotional narratives in her work. I will highlight the works I found to be most interesting here, in the order in which they were presented in the exhibition.
For this painting, Schjerbeck had set up her easel in a working bakery but chosen not to depict the bakers who no doubt would have been present at the time. In this sense she is already subverting the conventions of naturalism. I found this painting a little unsettling, and reflected on it for some time. The scales, just off centre, are unbalanced. We see a large table filled with fresh baked buns, just laying there (the perspective of this feels like it is exaggerating the size and dominance of this in the space). There is a sense of stillness and murkiness in the room, which is contrasted by the vivid light from the furnace emanating from around a corner in the distance. It implies for me a sense of waste, empty endeavour, inequality in a land of plenty.
I was intrigued to see this painting in the exhibition, following my own thinking around depiction of shadows and impermanence. For me, this painting was interesting as she had taken great care to depict the detail of the young branches on the foregrounded tree, to a very fine degree, but the subject of the painting itself, the shadow, contrastingly feels slightly sketchy or blurred. I wondered if this could be defying the convention of the object of focus being also the main subject of a piece (as in photography for instance). The effect is such that it is as though we are only seeing the shadows in our peripheral vision, as though they are some ever-present looming darkness. I think this must be the intention, since the landscape itself is fairly sparse, and the space taken up by shadow is quite large, you cannot focus on the tree without seeing it.
There is an interesting quality of light in this painting, her blue dress and delicately lit face contrasting with the plain dark background. The shape of her long neck and sloping shoulders makes her look ethereally elongated, and removed. Again here a sense of stillness and reservation – even regret from the downturned eyes?
This room was dedicated to her self-portraits, painted throughout her life. Her style became more abstracted over time, and she confronted her mortality and the deterioration of age head on, with the final works completed within a year of her death at 83.
I found it quite a challenging room to be in, and felt that not only was she exploring that physical change she was seeing over time, but also capturing perhaps her self-perception and attitude towards herself. It is not a sympathetic view of aging we see in her final works, the figure abstracted to almost not being human. I wondered if here the figure of Nosferatu from early cinema might have been an influence (the film was released 20 years prior) – if so characterising oneself as a monster is certainly suggesting a troubled internal world.
Schjerbeck’s technique involved applying paint and then scraping it off or rubbing it back. She repeatedly reworked surfaces with a brush, palette knife or cloth and even sandpaper. The layering and erasure emulate the effects of time in paint. In some cases, parts of the canvas are deliberately left bare, using this texture as part of the picture.”
RA notes – Helene Schjerbeck exhibition
I was interested to read about her techniques with paint – she used oils which I am not familiar with but if applied thickly I imagine a similar effect can be achieved with acrylic? Could be interesting to experiment with this.
In this room, we saw more of Schjerfbeck’s portraiture, and here her style has developed further. She is using a variety of source material, including the latest fashions from Marie Claire and Chanel, as well as using her own memories and imagination to influence her work. This results in something more abstract and generalised, and though here again there is a woman with downcast eyes, here it suggests a sort of melancholy or regret for me, with a sharper light being cast on the figure.
Her still lifes are for me really interesting. The exhibition notes stated that she would work on multiple canvases at a time, doing these as a counterpoint to the many portraits she did. As such I think she may have been a little freer here and we see her particular approach to painting clearly evidenced.
I especially liked seeing the variety of marks she used for the pumpkin still life and how the intent with these marks is not to recreate/emphasise what must have been a very rounded shape.
This exploration and experimentation with abstraction did not quite take her far enough in my view, and I left feeling like if only there had been a further section to her working life we might have gotten somewhere exciting. It left me somewhat unsatisfied, having seen the broad experimentation of Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. But I certainly enjoyed seeing the depths of emotion contained within her works nonetheless.