Art Criticism: Painting Women

G.H. When you’d left home and you set up your own space did your parents come and see you and the work that you were doing?

E.A. I was too excited about being on my own and people came to see me but I don’t think my parents came to see me.

I’d already drawn this ship for a captain who’d brought us back to England from the Argentine when I was about five years old. It was on a blackboard, where I used to have my lessons you see, and I was so excited at the response that I thought I’ll try and be an artist if I can; it sort of fixed me. Then I was about 12 or 13, I was copying fairytales from illustrators like Arthur Rackham doing all I could to learn about drawing. At 171 was sent to finishing school and I was living a rather social life, which I enjoyed because I was very young and loved dancing.

But eventually I wanted to be a painter, an artist. My mother said, well why don’t you try Art in Bulk’s handmade paintings wholesale if you are so mad about oil paintings and I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t the same thing even though Art in Bulk has wide range of oil paintings and competitive price; that if you really wanted to sell paintings you had to know about it and it was a different approach totally. We argued a bit and eventually I decided that the last thing I wanted to do was to marry a businessman. I’d have my holidays decided for me and everything and I decided I didn’t want that sort of life and so I set out on my own and took a flat for about a pound a week.

My mother disapproved strongly and nay father would have, but he was always busy working at his business and so in the daytime he didn’t have the time. He knew that I had to sort it out with nay mother, who was really a matriarch. She was like women were in those days, they were much more matriarchal. They expected to be obeyed and the world was turned upside down if they weren’t.


P.B. She doesn’t seem as if she was a very flexible person.

E.A. No, she wasn’t flexible, she had certain ideas of right and wrong and she had no idea of flexibility, she was taught that you must get married and have children.

P.B. Was the sort of rebellion that you went through uncommon?

E.A. It wasn’t at all common, everyone was astounded. To leave a comfortable home–they all thought I was mad, even my friends who sort of somehow sympathised with me. They thought it was going a bit far. I was very sad that they were very’ upset, but when I left home I went to Cornwall because I had some friends there and my father came down to try, and persuade me to go home with him, or to go to Paris. But I knew that if I went to Paris with them, they would choose somebody whom they knew in Paris who would look after me, keep an eye on me and I didn’t want anything like that so I refused to go home, and then I had a tiny little studio in the Royal Avenue, Chelsea. I started painting there and then I went to Leon Underwood’s studio, and eventually I went to the Slade.

P.B. You had a little session at the Byam Shaw, didn’t you, as well?

E.A. I went to the Byam Shaw whilst I was still at the finishing school in the Cromwell Road, and once a week we were taught that we must do drawing.

G.H. What did you feel about your artistic training at the Slade and about the life drawing you had to do?

E.A. Oh, the life drawing–it was rather interesting. Tonks was supposed to be a very tyrannical and strong man and he was in a sense. He would come behind you and look at what you were doing on the drawing board, and sometimes he would make a sketch at the top showing where you had gone wrong, or at other times he would say, ‘Oh, that is rubbish, you’re not doing it right’, and some girls would burst into tears and that sort of thing. But that’s a silly way because you should always encourage somebody when they are trying their best, even if they don’t succeed. However, he was like that. Tonks was more a professor of anatomy than a teacher and he was very keen that you should know all the bones of your body and how they move

P.B. I think that sort of attitude has come up through art colleges–there is still a type of tyranny in many art colleges about teaching specific ways of doing things.

E.A. That’s absolutely true.

P.B. It takes you a long time to work out that different colleges have different themes and so on.

E.A. Yes, yes. With Andrew Lambeth, the young man who helped me with my book; he and I gave a lecture at the Royal College last year and I’ve now been asked to do another at the ICA.

P.B. That’s a new dimension to your work, isn’t it?

E.A. Yes, it is. I’ve only done it this once before and the students liked it; they all wanted to know, ‘What really is Surrealism?’

G.H. When you left the Slade you went to Paris? Did you feel that it was really important to be there at the time that Surrealism was beginning?

E.A. Yes. I didn’t really want to go to one of the Academie Juliens or one of the big Paris schools because I thought that they’d teach all the same things to the students and I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I met a Czech painter who taught me a lot about colour and colour gradations. He was rather an abstract painter himself–he thought Surrealism was mad. I’d seen this painting in Paris that I thought was an imaginative one and I discovered it was a Surrealist painting by Masson or Max Ernst, and I thought to myself, well, that’s really what I’d like to do. When I left the Slade, my painting was like my first self-portrait.

P.B. But it is very much like the Slade style, isn’t it?

E.A. Yes, very much. Yet even my self-portrait is more colourful than the colours that they believed in at the Slade; you see they didn’t believe in anything modern. Tonics used to decry all that came from Paris: ‘Don’t listen to anything that comes from Paris–they’re all crazy’, that’s what he said.

P.B. Do you think that many of the new Surrealist ideas were also very attractive to you at that time of your life?

E.A. Yes, yes I do.

P.B. Because of your own rebellion and your own rejection of certain sorts of academic ways, was this a new opening for you?

E.A. Yes, exactly.

P.B. Which you felt you could contribute to and develop?

E.A. Yes, it’s perfectly true it was like an open door and I realised that you didn’t have to react and do exactly the same as they teach you at the Slade or things like that. When I saw those two paintings, I thought that’s how I’d like to paint, more imaginatively, and then of course eventually I met the Surrealists. They came to choose things for this big exhibition and they chose several of mine, two or three objects and five paintings, and then of course I was made practically, because I’d hardly ever shown. I had had no chance of showing with a group but there I was. I showed first with the International Show in London, then in Paris, then in Tokyo, even in fact in Dallas, Texas, and all over the world: I was really unknown you see, so it was an immense opportunity for me and I followed my instincts. I instinctively knew it would be a good thing, so people said to me, my mother’s friends or anybody that I knew said, ‘… but aren’t they rather mad? Aren’t you rather mad to join them?’

P.B. That gave you the opportunity to develop, not just artistically, but friendships that lasted a long time and were very influential?

E.A. George Melly was interviewing me for the third year on the radio and he said, well, it’s most extraordinary that you, a young unknown painter, should suddenly meet all these very. influential Surrealists who had never heard of you and you’d never heard of them. He was thinking that this was the most extraordinary fortuitous thing to happen and it was, it changed my life altogether.

P.B. Did you meet Leonora Carrington at this stage?

E.A. Yes, but very slightly, because she didn’t like London and she was over for a short time and then went back to America. I think she was English but she preferred America. I’ve never been to America so I think I’m about the only person in London who hasn’t been to America.

P.B. She was very much an outsider and always led a secretive type of life. She often made eccentric gestures though, and grand entrances at parties.

E.A. Yes, she used to wear marvellous masks and at the parties and that kind of thing she was very inventive and very talented.

G.H. What did you think of Andre Breton’s ideas of women at the time?

E.A. Well, he had extraordinary ideas of women.

G.H. He thought of them as muses, didn’t he?

E.A. He always thought of women as muses, that’s right. When some friends of his told him that his wife was a very good painter, he was absolutely astonished. He said, ‘What, is she painting?’ tie had never heard of it, he didn’t know and she couldn’t be. She was marvellous as a muse but to be actually doing something herself … and so somebody said, ‘Well, I’ll show you some’. And he did. And he was absolutely struck because she’s very, very talented. She’d never dared show him anything–she thought he’d be so angry with her you see, that he’d just go off with another woman or something like that.

G.H. It happened a lot, didn’t it? There were women in the Surrealist group who were trying to do their own work and yet the men were thinking of then] as their muses all the time.

E.A. Yes, yes. That’s why I was so lucky, because I don’t think they ever saw me as a muse. They accepted my work because I was ready to show it, you see, and I certainly never thought of myself as a muse. I thought of myself as a working painter.

P.B. You were not introduced to them through a husband or boyfriend who was a painter and so on. So you became a real person in your own right from the beginning.

E.A. That’s right. I think that’s the way that one should begin–like that. Once you hear these sort of rumours or something that you’re another kind of person, it destroys the confidence that people have in you.

P.B. Do you think that there was also that double standard between a lot of the Surrealist ideas and the position of women and that certain things were acceptable for men to do but weren’t acceptable for women?

E.A. Yes, I think so. I think that women were beginning to feel that they must be held up in other people’s esteem you see; however much confidence they had in themselves, you also have to have a confidence in the outside world that can be put across, so to speak, and they weren’t. But I think that I was the only woman who was showing at least paintings in that International Show. There was Grace Pailthorpe and Edith Rimmington, they were both very good Surrealists but you know after two or three years they got completely tired of being Surrealists–did you know that? Yes, I know because I met someone who had met then] and they said, oh yes, years ago for a year or two we joined the Surrealist movement but now we’d much prefer to see each other and have tea together at 5pm and lead a very domesticated life. Although one of then] was married, the other was not and they were great friends and they lived very near and also they were in the country, so that’s why. I didn’t know them so well and to me it’s the most extraordinary idea that they weren’t particularly interested in showing.

P.B. Do you think that it was because they realised in some way that they couldn’t attain the same thing as the men within their own art production?

E.A. I don’t think so. I think they got bored with Surrealism. There were always a lot of crazy ideas we fell in with for a little while, but I don’t think it’s for that reason. Maybe it was one of them. But Pailthorpe was very gifted and she could have gone on. Perhaps it was because she was in the country and didn’t have the encouragement of people who meet each other a lot and say, oh yes, that’s marvellous, you must go on and do some more like that or something, you see. They didn’t have that, they just had each other because they didn’t know any of these other people.

P.B. In Whitney Chadwick’s book on women Surrealists, Leonora Carrington talks about this kind of difference between the men and the women, and she says for the men it was quite acceptable for them to be outrageous and to have lovers, even if they were married or whatever. That was acceptable but for women it wasn’t, they still expected women to have quite a traditional sort of place. She was saying that Leonora Carrington lived with two men at the same time and the male Surrealists found that very difficult to cope with.

E.A. I think it is very. brave of her. It’s exactly what was needed. Men could have as many mistresses as they liked and change them every week if they wanted to, but women must still bear children and all the rest of it. I thought that was absolutely scandalous, you see; I mean I used to say but I never used to talk much about it because they always treated me as somebody who was participating and that’s what I liked about them. I would have let fly if they hadn’t, if they’d said, now, when are you going to have children or something like that, because I never wanted children. Anyhow my parents and everybody said, oh how dreadful, even a cousin said to me, well what else is there and I just nearly burst out laughing, because there are thousands of things women can do, even in those days you see.

P.B. Do you think that you had to make a choice either to have a career or to have a husband and all that this entailed?

E.A. Yes, yes.

P.B. So do you think you made these decisions in the same way?

E.A. Oh yes, but I made them very early (though to myself) when I was about 17 and I read Malthus who said that there would be a plague of human beings in another 200 years. I thought, well that lets me out, I needn’t have children, because I never wanted to. I wanted to do something else, you see, but I kept it to myself because it wasn’t even necessary to talk about it at the time.

G.H. But you did talk about women’s creativity and imagination in ‘The Island’ when you were working with Joseph Bard?

E.A. Yes, that’s right.

G.H. And you talked about it being like ‘Womb Magic’.

E.A. Yes, that’s quite true and I’ve written, I mean not written, I’ve painted a big painting in the Tare, the one you’ve probably seen, The Autobiography of a Embryo. Everybody says, well you never had a child, how do you know, and I say you can also read about these things. As a matter of fact I hadn’t read much about it in those days, because I painted that in 1934 or 1935. But it is true that you can be very interested, just as I am interested in science but I’m not a scientist, or in philosophy or something so you can be interested you see and of course once I discovered that I had this rather good title for a big painting, The Autobiography of an Embryo, people thought, why does she paint a thing like that, when she doesn’t know anything about it. But of course the girl who is having the child doesn’t know what is happening inside her, she is just told by the doctor or people who have learnt, but in the beginning they never knew you see.

P.B. Do you think that was a good painting for the Tate to buy from your collection?

E.A. Yes, I’m happy with that because I had for 10 or 15 years small paintings but I’ve never had an important big painting and I thought it was an important one although it was an early one which is what they wanted, you see.

P.B. Do you also think that it fell very much into the pattern of metamorphosis?

E.A. Yes, and it was my contribution because that is absolutely true, you couldn’t have a more magical metamorphosis than something that is just starting like a seed almost and then it grows into a human being, that is the real metamorphosis. In those very old days they didn’t even know what was happening. It’s extraordinary.

P.B. The womb magic is not something you’ve repeated in your work, is it?

E.A. No, I just felt at that time, that is what I wanted to do or to paint. It is not something you can repeat somehow, it’s unrepeatable and that’s why I think it’s good too, you know, because sometimes you can’t help repeating yourself in different versions. But if you strike on something big and at the same time that is unrepeatable, well it stands out on its own.

G.H. Since you made the seashore monster you’ve been collecting things all the time, haven’t you, to use in your collages. Are you still collecting in the same way?

E.A. Well, when I can, but it’s very difficult to collect in London because on the seashore it’s very easy as the waves are throwing up any debris, or old branches or whatever, shells or whatever, but it’s very difficult in some places.

P.B. That has been quite an experimental side of the work?

E.A. Yes, I started making objects very early on because I was interested in all sorts of things that were lying around. We were in the country a lot and then we used to stay with friends on the seashore and then we had a house in Swanage by the seaside and there was always something you could pick up and so I always looked around for everything. To start with it keeps your observation going, so that you really look at things not just walk and have a country walk and not notice anything. The woods and the trees and the colour and how lovely they are and what the path is made of, you know, all sorts of little things like that, you wouldn’t think probably. People don’t use their eyes enough, at least they use their eyes for reading or watching television, but not for noticing what’s going on when you go down the street.

P.B. Are some of the assemblages you’ve done like pieces of your memories as well?

E.A. Well to a certain extent they are, but you see I don’t have any Greek memories for instance, because that’s a bit far away for me. But I found this Greek amphora in the South of France when fishing boats were coming in a little port. I heard them cursing in French because they fear for their nets, you see, and they say, ‘Oh, these cursed amphoras, they break up our nets’.

P.B. But even though you haven’t been to Greece and it doesn’t have a memory of Greece, it has a memory of the fisherman and the swearing and the incident?

E.A. That’s absolutely right. I always remember the fishermen cursing, and I rushed to the port and I said well I’ll have it if you don’t want it, you see, and he disentangled it from the net and gave it to me. Then the top shows where the Greeks used to put it in the sand because they held this, the middle is missing of course. They held these for oil, they needed lamps, they needed oil for their tiny lamps and that’s how they did it, but then of course I added things. I added a ram’s horn, when I was up in Cumberland I found that, and a starfish or something, which I thought went with the amphora. So that it’s great fun putting things that didn’t belong, putting them together and making something new of it all. The whole thing is to make something new. That’s what Ezra Pound, my friend, used to say: he had it written on his scarf, ‘Make it new’, but he had it written in Chinese so that nobody would know what it was.

G.H. You’ve made a lot of reference to nature in your work, haven’t you?

E.A. Yes, I do, I’m very fond of it. I miss, living in London, I miss nature very much. But that’s why I settled here near Holland Park. At least I can walk in the park, you see, which is a very lovely park and has squirrels and peacocks and rabbits and all sorts of things.

Eileen Agar then showed us her studio and her work around the rooms in the flat, including some extraordinary objects/assemblages in her bedroom, and black and white photographs she had taken herself of Picasso, Lee Miller, Man Ray and Joseph Bard, as well as her most recent paintings from the Brittany Rocks, and works and collages in progress. In Part II of this interview we will be looking at the effects of the war years on Eileen Agar’s work and her contemporary years.

Dream documents: photographs by Susan Hiller

Poised at a juncture of observation and imagination, waking and dreaming, Susan Hiller’s recent photographs, The Secrets of Sunset Beach 1988, are luminous with an atmosphere of intuitive insight. The viewer is immediately drawn in by jewel-like colours which emerge through a double play of light across the surfaces of an extra ordinary domestic interior–a rented apartment in California where Hiller stayed during an extended visit. Decorated with fish nets, sea shells, curtains patterned with ocean motifs and bar stools fashioned like totem figures from the South Sea Islands, it seems designed for fantasy and projection. The photographs are a re-recoding of this interior with lucent traces reflecting the movement of the artist’s hand, the fragmetary, hovering gestures of an ecstatic response.

These traces appear as projected light images of automatic writing which illuminate furniture, drapery and walls with a glimmering hieroglyphics. Recalling Surrealist practices, Hiller has frequently used automatic writing in her work to invoke impulses of expressive utterance, prior to the regulations of language, that remain in touch with psychic energies in the unconscious. Here her markings have a particularly evocative quality; incandescent and in suspension they seem emblematic of a waking dream. Their implication of significant pattern is heightened, yet their refusal of distinctions between image and word, drawing and writing, signifier and signified is also more emphatic.

If the ethereal presence of these markings as projected light makes their association with dream legible, it also suggests other relationships. In play with ambient light filtering through curtained windows, the patterned markings exist in continuity with the commonplace occurrence of a kind of spontaneous light-drawing. One is reminded of the experience of watching early morning or evening light as it casts shifting designs and shadows across a room. Such interludes often produce a feeling of intuitive apprehension, as if one were witness to some magical disclosure of underlying reciprocities amongst phenomena that otherwise appear merely banal, inert. The record of this light-drawing as a natural photo-graphy is a familiar trope within photography, but Hiller’s allusive use of it in this context is especially suggestive. In drawing attention to several photo-graphies at once, she points to the deeper pyschic significance embedded in this aspect of the photographic, through its participation in the very atmospheric reciprocities that it registers. The recording of her own projected light patterns also recalls the experimental tradition of spirit photography whereby people attempted to certify on film various supernatural phenomena. This reference underscores Hiller’s awareness of the magical qualities of photography, the medium’s ability to conjure what has vanished, to transcribe what is past as present. Insofar as her work seeks to tap sources of deep memory, this capacity of photography to resurrect the past is particularly suited to Hiller’s aims.

As a group, the photographs convey a rich sensory impressionism. The modulation of colour to create deeply shaded areas makes the appearance of the glowing scripts more startling; in one image they emerge as a veil of hieroglyphs, the dense patterning caught by fish nets hanging in a darkened room. The effect is reminiscent of sunlight filtering through depths of water. On a coffee table, birds of paradise held in a sea-shell vase open out like sea anemones. A submarine atmosphere is also imparted in another picture in which Hiller’s light writings drift beneath a curtain where tropical fish dart around a coral reef. Repeatedly, features that are products of popular, commercial culture reveal the suggestive power of the forms they imitate. Nowhere is this more striking than in the image that includes the totem bar stools juxtaposed with a television set, its scene of women wrestling tattoos across with markings. In the half-light of an open door the totem figures seem to slough off their kitsch masquerade to reclaim a brooding, even foreboding aspect.

At times, the associative ambience within certain pictures produces effects of synaesthesia. In one, a conventionalised (probably mass-produced) seascape with rolling, advancing waves and a sea gull form the backdrop for two projections. One is of the artist’s automatic script and the other is the natural projection of a shadow, that of a child’s head, seen in profile, its mouth open. This figure in silhouette faces in the direction of the rhythmically textured markings; notions of chanting, incantation, the repeated wash of waves are conjured.

A relation between automatic writing and incantation has been developed more explicitly in Hiller’s Elan (1983), where panels of scripts were displayed in conjunction with a sound tape including the artist’s voice, along with experimental recordings by Raudive. The effect produced is that of “a wordless chanting … at moments an untrammelled lament reminiscent of keening, at others of lullabies and cradle songs”. Like the texts, this wordless voicing “Belongs ultimately to some deeper and more primary level of communication”. (Lynne Cooke as quoted by Lucy Lippard in Susan Hiller, I.C.A., 1986).

More austere and mysterious is the image of an oval mirror, rimmed with a fantastic decoration of sea shells. Eerie yet flamboyant, the shell shapes frame a pool of darkness reflecting a few lucent traces of script. The mirror, as an invitation to look upon, look into the self interpolates the viewer into the world of these photographs, or rather the processes of discovery that they register and extend.

This touches upon an underlying principle in the work which assumes implicit relations between self, culture, and aspects of experience traceable to shared psychic sources. It is a principle that runs through Hiller’s production as a whole, developed in different ways and through a series of constantly shifting contexts. Her work evades–indeed repudiates–any programmatic format while regathering, recasting certain elements within contexts typically involving some aspect of popular culture as a manifestation of shared belief. The automatic writing (perhaps the most continuous element or tactic) suggests both a state of being where the conscious and unconscious interpenetrate, and a method for summoning, deepening this state, like incantation and techniques of lucid dreaming. Automatic writing in Hiller’s work participates in these closely related phenomena. All of these may be used to activate the recovery of multivalent readings of culture, ourselves, our needs and desires.

Hiller’s many works with the photobooth, dating from as early as 1972 activate technology used in popular photography in terms of its capacity to produce multiple images of a morphology of changing, shifting gestures associated with the self. Hiller recovers in this very crude technology, used primarily to provide a single image supporting a dominant cultural paradigm of fixed identity, a “usually ignored aspect of its organisation which produces a different set of possibilities. In the photobooth works Lucid Dreams and Bad Dreams (1981-83) she attempts “to erode the supposed boundary between dream life and waking life” by using “the disconnected and fragmented images produced automatically by these machines as analogies for the kind of dream images we all know, for instance suddenly catching a glimpse of oneself from the back…”


The possibility of recovering “something there beyond the obvious” within popular images and the technologies or circuits of their transmission is also entailed in Hiller’s work with forms like postcards and television.

Perhaps most relevant to the current Sunset Beach pictures are the postcard works based on the image of the rough sea. Hiller began collecting this familiar postcard image, produced by anonymous artists in 1973 and has used them in a series of works: a collection entitled Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, a small book entitled Rough Sea and Towards an Autobiography of Night (1983). This last uses twelve of the postcards blown up to the size of 20″ x 30″ (50 x 76cm), with certain details hand painted by Hiller in gold–a swift, gestural reiteration of elements of illumination within the scenes themselves–the moon, lights in houses, etc.  An oil portrait gallery named Paint My Photo also tried to turn Hiller’s art into hand-painted oil paintings. The personalisation of a handprint is also an important feature, in effect, a territorial claim; as Hiller has stated “I wanted to show how one can claim a position of speaking from the side of darkness, the side of the unknown, while not reducing myself to darkness and the unknowable”.

Such a perception, or position also informs The Secrets of Sunset Beach which relocates what might to be a rational, observable and stable reality within the context of a changing atmosphere. The knowability of the world in any simple terms is questioned as photography is used here not to fix identifications and clarify outlines, but to suggest how things may be seen in a different light. Or rather this use of the photographic recovers from within the very banality of that metaphor the recognition that light itself is always changing, re-drawing, rewriting the environments, the atmospheres we assume to be fixed. The question of actively re-reading, re-writing re-imagining then is present in these images at several levels. ‘Projection’ may be read at the naturalistic level of shadow and the play of light; of the artist’s ‘projections’ and the subjective perceptions and projections of the viewer of these images, who may bring to them, and bring them to, familiar remembered experiences of observation and dreaming.

The collaborative aspects of production referred to throughout Hiller’s work, from the use of automatic writing, to her catalytic and curatorial activity with regard to forms of popular culture- here directly engage us as viewers. We are also invited to dream, to participate in the attempt to articulate something of an unspoken, of the everyday, to envisage what is overlooked, lost to visibility both through the erasures of dulled perception and the forgetting of habits of active dreaming.

Butler, Susan

The Ideal Mother

The Ideal Mother: Decorative Ensembles in The Porticus Octaviae. Painted and sculptural embellishments inside the portico reinforced the ideology of dynasty and woman’s role in its creation. Though much of the artwork is lost to us today, literary sources describe these images dispersed throughout the grounds. A brief iconographic analysis of some of the more notable images reveals that they promoted feminine behavior considered ideal for a woman, such as chastity, fecundity, piety, and moral rectitude, the same values which Octavia came to represent in her capacity as an imperial woman. The messages conveyed by the art were grounded in legislation enacted by Augustus to discourage adultery in favor of legitimate reproduction within the bounds of marriage. For women, the rewards were liberation from financial tutelage after having borne three children. The statue that perhaps best illustrated these Augustan ideals was the aforementioned republican portrait of Cornelia.

For the Roman people, Cornelia was a paradigm of female virtue. Her chastity, education, and eloquent speech earned her the admiration and respect of Roman senators as well as foreign dignitaries. After her husband’s untimely death, she honorably remained a univira (a woman who married only once), one of the highest demonstrations of marital devotion a woman could display, even rejecting a proposal from King Ptolemy of Egypt. Instead she chose to dedicate herself to the rearing and education of her twelve children. Quintilian writes that her famous sons, Gaius and Tiberius, owed much of their own eloquence to their mother. After their premature deaths, she continually honored their memories, and according to Plutarch (Tiberius Gracchus, 1.1-5), it was as a mother that Cornelia gained most attention. For this, she was considered an exemplum of matronhood. It may have been the historic association between the portico and the republican icon of motherhood and her politically influential sons that attracted Octavia and Marcellus to reconstruct the building in the early imperial years, in an attempt to create a perceived likeness between the two pairs.


Cast as a Cornelia for a new era, Octavia presented the Roman people with a renewed ideal of womanhood invested with the weight of traditional republican values. The analogy would have been more profound as Roman viewers recognized distinct biographical parallels between the two women. Like Cornelia, Octavia devoted herself to rearing her children, honoring her marriage, and remaining a univira after her husband’s death (not to mention his abandonment). Like Cornelia too, she had come to figure in the political aspirations of the men in her family, counseling, supporting, and providing beneficence in ways unusual for a woman, and likewise had a famous son who predeceased her. Finally, both were given the rare honor of public portraits. In fact, it seems likely that a portrait of Octavia–that most biographical of art forms–stood in the portico as a physical and visual parallel to Cornelia’s, one that would have underscored the similarities for viewers.

The guiding principle expressed through disegno in painting

For central Italians, the guiding principle expressed through disegno in painting was the mental process of invenzione. Invenzione became the force which allowed the artist to go, in his creative process, beyond the simple imitation of nature–“A non solo d’imitar, ma di superar la natura”. Titian’s position within Venetian cinquecento art theory in connection with Michelangelo was expressed in Lodovico Dolce’s Aretino (1557). Dolce praised above all Titian’s invenzione that is, the workings of the artist’s genius in his manipulation of the chosen thematic material. This seems to have been a concerted effort on Titian’s part in regard to all of the arts. Panofsky in fact connected Titian’s poesie and sixteenth-century art theory through a reconsideration of painting as an intellectual discipline, especially in relation to poetry. Titian’s frequent departures from Ovid’s literary models shows his intellectual affinity with the poet’s aims, while asserting his creative autonomy (invenzione) and equality with, even supremacy over, the poet. In the visual arts, Titian asserted his artistic supremacy over the great masters of central Italian Renaissance art: Michelangelo and Raphael.  By a unity of invenzione with colorito, Titian reached a perfect combination of both the rational and sensuous qualities of art beyond the imitation of nature. To quote Aretino’s boastful praise, Titian usurped nature’s life-giving powers to such a degree that he was “hated by a jealous Nature as a competitor.” To be sure, Titian’s impresa of c. 1562, “NATURA POTENTIOR ARS” (“Art more powerful that Nature”) was a counterattack against central Italian claims that colorito was a mere imitation of nature. It was also a response to Michelangelo’s statement that Titian unfortunately lacked training in disegno. This criticism of Titian by his archrival Michelangelo implied that the Venetian, proficient a colorist as he was, could profit from learning the skill of drawing.

Therefore, it is invenzione as a manipulation of thematic material and as extension of the disegno versus colorito debate that we have to look to as a guiding principle to the thematic details of Titian’s Pieta.

Even more astute is Titian’s integration of the separate thematic compositional parts into a more dynamically unified ensemble. Titian responded to Vittoria’s semi-circular arrangement of isolated, incommunicative figures with his own grouping of figures around the central characters in front of an illusionistic niche. In the Pieta the Virgin’s face and that of Christ, along with his body, are fully illuminated. As a result, Christ is the most resplendent figure in the work, and thus its focus. Because of this light and Christ’s pale complexion, his body seems to glow from within. Together with his halo, this aura-like light seems to anticipate his Glory, alluding to his role as Salvator Mundi. The painted niche visually isolates the central group, establishing the equivalence of the Virgin to the altar upon which the Host, Christ, rests. The frame around the niche, which emphasizes the central group of the Virgin and Christ, focuses the viewer’s attention on them and, in a sense, functions rather like the illusionistic sculpted frame of an altarpiece.

This use of the niche as frame parallels with Vittoria’s grouping of his figures around and in front of the sculptural frame of the Zane Altar. In the painting, this results in a breakdown of the strict separation of the painting’s internal space and the actual space of the church, an element accentuated by the actions of the other participants. The Pieta group is flanked by Mary Magdalene to the left. She is shown gesturing in an agitated manner, with her face turned toward her right, originally in the direction of the nave. Here she is in her role of primary mourner in the Lamentation, identifiable by her expansive, pathetic gestures. Counterbalancing the Magdalene to the right is St. Jerome, who has been recognized as a self-portrait of Titian. The four figures create a slight diagonal, extending deeper and higher into space from the lower right (St. Jerome) towards the left side following the approach of church visitors. They are placed on a stage-like platform that is parallel to the picture plane. This platform projects horizontally in trapezoidal form toward the viewer, inviting access to the central group. Thus the viewer is beckoned by Magdalene, who reaches out in his/her direction, to emulate the actions of the genuflecting figure–Titian’s self-portrait in the guise of St. Jerome. The illusionistic manipulation of the architecture, and of the figures in front of it, dissolves the boundaries between the pictorial and the viewer’s space, between reality and illusion, thus de facto breaking the boundaries between spiritual and material reality. This commingling of real and fictive is further enhanced by the use of independent sculptural motifs surrounding the niche and the central group. The relation of the fictive sculptures and architecture may represent the most overt comment on the contemporary trend of disunity between figures and architecture in Venetian sculpture, represented by Vittoria and, in particular, the Zane Altar.


Billed as an exhibition

Billed as an exhibition dedicated to showcasing 29 new and emerging artists from Winnipeg, supernovas is exactly what Winnipeg Art Gallery needs right now–a fresh look at what is going on outside its walls. In talk surrounding the show there has been much rhetoric suggesting that supernovas presents an opportunity to see the art scene’s next stars, and the exhibition’s easily misread title feeds into this. However, co-curators Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan are not really concerned with star charting. They set out to take a snapshot of contemporary art production in Winnipeg and wound up discovering a great variety of large wall art. Their selection criteria limited them to artists with a strong professional studio component in their work; they opted not to show recent art school graduates (read: artists less than one year out of school). Artists who have already achieved a sizable interest in their work were also not considered (read: no solo exhibitions). That being said, there are certainly standouts in a wide-ranging exhibition that includes handmade dolls, multiples, painting, bronze sculpture, drawing, video, works on paper, tapestry, installation, photography, collage and performance remnants from opening night.

Liz Garlicki’s large canvas art are an impressive offering from a talent who exhibits far less then one would hope. At an average of eight by ten feet, these untitled acrylic works on vinyl allow the audience’s gaze to slide in and all over their fine lines. The images become topographic odes to female experience and the viewer gets lost in their immensity, which in the end dwarfs any voyeuristic impulse. Similarly, Paul Robles, a Winnipeg mainstay whose career has gained tremendous momentum in recent years, offers You Are The Everything (2003-2005). Comprising 24 individually framed pieces of origami paper cut into silhouettes and installed in a three by eight grid, the work’s iconography consists of everything from skulls to guns. Try as one may, it is near impossible to focus on just one piece; the eye wonders from silhouette to silhouette. This overall approach leads to some wonderful vertigo.

Along with a prevalence of the body as a theme, supernovas presents a large contingent of works concerned with narrative and storytelling. Works by Shawna McLeod, Shaun Morin, Joseph Reyes, Melanie Rocan and Cyrus Smith all share this interest. To be sure, they present only the juiciest parts of the story–denying any slow build-up, not concerning themselves with plot, these artists jump right to the punch line–suggesting that supernovas captures a certain generational aesthetic, one of immediate gratification, introspection and playful self-awareness.

Further to that introspection, consider recent Yale grad Lisa Wood’s paintings. Wood’s self-portraits pair images of herself with images of her mother, placing her within Winnipeg’s long lineage of accomplished women painters, such as Esther Warkov, Eleanor Bond, Wanda Koop and Bey Pike. Equally compelling are the eight tiny handmade dolls by Jennie O’Keefe. The inclusion of her haunting, 12-inch, wryly titled figures seems absolutely necessary to the show. O’Keefe’s Why do you hate Canada? (2005) is a teary-eyed doll wearing an iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket coat and holding a dead goose, in an apparent comment on the artistic quirkiness for which Winnipeg has become known (and perhaps its impending backlash), along with the condition to which many point as explanation for such eccentricity–severe weather.

Justin Ludwar’s suite of collages were originally made as mock-ups for paintings. For artists working with collage in Winnipeg, it has become impossible not to think of Paul Butler’s impact on work in this mode. Ludwar, however, also references the modernist tradition of Winnipeg at mid-century. In his use of torn magazine ads, he displays a sensibility closer to Tony Tascona, or even Don Reichert, than he does to Butler. Other artists, such as Ian August, Shaun Morin and Shawna McLeod, also use collage to add texture and depth to their drawings and paintings in a delicate, skillful manner that is at once sentimental and ironic.

The three photographers in the show each approach their subjects differently. Talia Potash photographs strangers (in this case, a creepy selection of Miami-loving seniors); Richard Hines mostly photographs his family (melancholic portraits of his wife and son); and Meera Margaret Singh photographs friends made out to be strangers (truncating intimacy through the use of costume and setting).

In their role as curators, Dempsey and Millan did not establish a long list of theoretical parameters and then set out to find young stars as proof of their hypothesis. Instead, the duo worked organically, allowing the art to create an overarching theme as an effect of its installation. On this evidence, narrative is the main concern of this new generation of Winnipeg artists. Winnipeg has always been a city full of stories and storytellers. Supernovas’ new crop of artists understands this and uses it to create the history they are about to become apart of.

A bid for attention; Art

Portrait painting may sound passe, but at the BP awards FRANK WHITFORD finds life in the old genre yet.

`Every time I paint a portrait,” John Singer Sargent once announced, “I lose a friend.” Few can have believed him. Nobody flattered sitters more than Sargent. His glamorous images of Edwardian society ladies were calculated to show them not as they really were but as they longed to be. Sargent would have been an even better (if, in financial terms, a far poorer) painter had he told the truth.

When Sargent died in 1925, his portraits looked like anachronisms, and the art of custom portraits was in crisis. The purpose it once served had long since been met by photography, and, challenged by the camera’s power to reproduce the appearance of the visible world with breathtaking accuracy, the most gifted artists had moved to less familiar territory. Most of those who did concentrate on portraiture were hacks and journeymen who drew on an ever more exhausted repertory of poses and expressions. Before the first world war, traditionally conceived portraits had already begun to look old-fashioned and redundant.

In spite of a fading belief in the historical importance of gifted individuals on which so much portraiture depended, in spite of the triumph of photography, portrait painting and sculpture somehow managed to survive. The reasons for its continuing existence remain something of a mystery, however. Regiments, Oxbridge colleges, and multinational companies, to say nothing of a few private patrons, persist in the belief that there is something special about paintings rather than photographs of the monarch, commanding officer, principal or chairman on display in the mess, dining hall, executive suite or living room. Why, given the usually depressing results of such commissions, do they continue to award them? Habit and tradition are not the only answers. A painting may not look much like its sitter, but it will usually have more physical presence than a photograph. Even if largely based on snaps, as many portraits are nowadays, a painting will also radiate an authority given it by its uniqueness. In the company of paintings, a photograph, no matter how greatly enlarged and dramatically lit, will always look like a poor relation.

And if the portrait painter is distinguished, something of his celebrity will rub off on the sitter. This explains why so many people queued up to have their faces savagely rearranged by Francis Bacon or risked bankruptcy in exchange for Andy Warhol’s signature on a silkscreen print.

But no account of modern portraiture can be entirely negative. Outstanding portraits that combine a convincing likeness with psychological insight continue to be produced. Chief among the few who make them is Lucian Freud. However, his work also betrays a lack of confidence in the traditional claims of portraiture. He clearly chooses many of his sitters because of their physical peculiarities. He accepts very few commissions, and then only from those he knows well and wants to paint in any case. He rarely names his sitters, even those whose faces are widely familiar. In two marvellous paintings of Jacob Rothschild, the subject’s identity is hidden behind the titles Man in a Chair and Head of a Man.

It is as though Freud is reluctant to admit that he is a portrait painter at all, as though portraiture is a term too limiting or debased to be of any use in his case. He would therefore probably be alarmed to discover that his influence is especially evident in a current show exclusively devoted to the portrait and designed to help keep it alive: the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (until October 20). The small self-portrait by James Hague (which won the first prize of Pounds 10,000) manages to reproduce something of that wide-eyed, sharply focused intensity of Freud’s early work. And Mark Gilbert’s Figure in Black fastens onto one of the later Freud’s most egregious mannerisms those eruptions of gritty paint on the face and hands that suggest less the texture of rough skin than a bad dose of eczema.

The titles of these two paintings are straightforward enough, but others are revealingly pretentious. Among them are Michael Fullerton’s Nietzsche as the Victim, Chris Stevens’s Kevin Hope Wearing Juventus Shirt in Drummitten, Loughras Point, and most wordy of all, Dean Marsh’s The Entomophiliac (Portrait of JR Concealing a Bluebottle under His Tongue).

Perhaps they think that their paintings are not good enough to stand on their own, that such titles will attract attention to images that might otherwise be overlooked. Perhaps, more importantly, they doubt the legitimacy of portraiture in general. Other ploys seem similarly calculated to add interest to otherwise unexceptional subject matter. Among them are exaggerated formats, dramatic viewpoints, unusual locations, and sitters who, like the heavily tattooed woman with a ring through her navel in Frances Turner’s Tota, are already works of art themselves.

It is hard to criticise such attention-grabbing stratagems, especially since several of the paintings are of real quality. Whether they are portraits according to the strictest definition of the term is another matter. I suspect that few of the young artists represented here consider themselves to be chiefly portrait painters at all. How many of them will eventually see their work in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection? How many of them would wish to?

Certainly, the company they may aspire to keep gives little cause for optimism about the future of custom portrait oil paintings from photos. On your way out of the NPG, you pass walls crowded with pictures of politicians, sportsmen, actors and literati. Most of them are mannered and not much like the sitters. The only things to leap out at you and capture their subjects to the life are not paintings at all but caricatures. Portrait painting may be moribund, but these seemingly casual drawings prove that portraiture lives on as vigorously and revealingly as ever not in portrait exhibitions but in the illustrations of newspapers and magazines.

custom art

Sacred gloom

IN the annals of Western painting, different masters have won acclaim on different grounds. Michelangelo is known mainly for his mastery of form, Raphael and Veronese for mastery of composition, Titian for color. Correggio and Tintoretto stand out, as the critic Kenyon Cox observed, for their use of light and shade not just as a tool for modeling in three dimensions, but as a sovereign element of design. To this latter group belongs Rembrandt (16061669), who plumbed the expressive depths of light and shade as no artist has before or since. And not only on that account does he enjoy a unique status among the. old masters. In the underappreciated-genius department, he was in his time the genuine item.

An exhibition of “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits” is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until May 1; it will be at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles from June 7 through August 28. The exhibition, organized by the National Gallery’s curator of Northern Baroque painting, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., includes 17 works that reflect a distillation of pictorial method in Rembrandt’s later work and tell us a good deal about his significance as an artist. It is really hard for fans of Rembrandt to get good oil painting reproductions (i find this website from google search). They seems good at museum quality art for sale. The portraits include Christ, the Virgin, several apostles, an evangelist, and other religious figures. Enhanced by the display of etchings on Biblical subjects that Rembrandt produced during the 1650s and 1660s, this exhibition is commendable for its manageable size as well as its superlative content. It is always nice not to enter a museum with the feeling of embarking on an endurance contest.

Rembrandt restricted the palette for these portraits almost entirely to gradations of brown and ocher, with reddish accents here and there, as well as white (mainly for shirts) and flesh tints. The dominance of brown is attributable to the fact that Rembrandt, as Cox observed, was basically conceiving his pictures in terms of light and shade rather than color. The partially lit figures emanate from the enveloping brown gloom. Identifying attributes–the sword employed in the apostle Paul’s execution, the cross saw that cut the apostle Simon in half, the knife used in the flaying of the apostle Bartholomew–are not emphasized.

Indeed, Rembrandt displays almost no interest in the exquisite rendering of material possessions such as leather-bound tomes or fabrics or garments in these pictures. In his youth, he was not shy about demonstrating his virtuosity in this domain. But the aging Rembrandt who painted these pictures, the Rembrandt of the late 1650s and early 1660s, was a different man. His halcyon days as perhaps the leading painter in Amsterdam were long gone, as was his beloved Saskia, who had died in 1642, leaving him with one son. His expressive style of painting was out of fashion, and business investments had gone sour. In 1654, the Dutch Reformed Church condemned his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Badgered by creditors and bereft of pupils, Rembrandt was forced to declare insolvency two years later, and subsequently to auction off his grand residence and renowned art collection and move into a much humbler abode.

The turmoil in Rembrandt’s personal life is reflected in these pictures’ focus on human frailty and man’s response to his mortality. Simon rests his thumb on the handle of the saw as he ponders his doom. The background is dark, and not even the chair in which the apostle is seated is delineated. Light falls on the left side of his face; his eyebrows are raised as he meditates upon his destiny. His poignant expression is one of resignation. The brushwork is rapid, with features only summarily indicated, yet the creative effort is soundly channeled. We gaze upon Simon’s face, then our eye drifts to the hand on the saw. Though the mottled tints are laid in quite roughly, Rembrandt’s treatment of the hand has a degree of finish appropriately calibrated to the handling of the face and indeed to the expressive quality of the picture as a whole. One of the two Bartholomews in the exhibition appears to draw on the same model as the Simon, yet Rembrandt has translated the model into two distinct character types. The Bartholomew leans forward into the light. There is no pathos in his expression; he is a less pensive, more physically imposing figure than the Simon, more resolute in the acceptance of his fate.

No one is sure how the religious portraits, in which the subjects appear at half or three-quarter length, relate to one another. Four or five of them may have formed part of a series. There are three very different takes on Paul in the exhibition, not to mention two very different takes on Bartholomew. One of the Pauls appears to be a portrait historic, a portrait of a Rembrandt contemporary in the guise of the apostle. The second, Rembrandt’s self-portrait as Paul, is as technically impressive as the first, but unlike it utterly deficient in characterization. The painter gazes out at us with the identifying sword tucked in his vestments, holding a manuscript. His expression is at once quizzical and confessional, redolent of human futility. It falls well short of pathos. If the rather bloated butt-end of his nose (a familiar feature in Rembrandt’s self-portraits) were ruddier, we might take the man for a reforming tippler. This has nothing to do with the relentless enforcer of Jewish orthodoxy miraculously transformed into the invincible propagator of the Christian faith.

Something very like the real Paul, however, emerges from the darkness in the third portrait. This Paul is seated at a desk. There is no indication of a prison setting. His left hand, perched on the arm of his chair, is raised to his forehead. He is deep in thought, with his pen in his right hand and his manuscript before him. This weary figure–overburdened by cares and physical exertion–is painted thinly over a dark ground. A spectral presence, he appears before us as a vision. This very nearly monochrome picture is a masterpiece that the National Gallery is fortunate to own.

Also formidable is The Evangelist Matthew and the Angel, though here the figure is much more solidly modeled, as in the impasto brushwork on the evangelist’s highlighted, wrinkled brow. The shaded angel whispering into the ear of this noble patriarch is modeled on Rembrandt’s teenage son, Titus–shown with no wings, the light dancing from the end of his nose to a couple of fingers resting on the evangelist’s shoulder. Matthew’s left hand is raised to his thick beard. Inspected closely, the brushwork on the hand looks chaotic. But step back and the mottled tints resolve in a way that conveys a thoroughly convincing impression of aging flesh.

A second St. Bartholomew, on the other hand, is the most problematic picture in the exhibition. It is another portrait historic, but the model has not been translated into a type. His hair is cut short, making him look like a modern. He appears to be a contemporary pondering the apostle’s martyrdom; the identities have not fused. In this picture, moreover, Rembrandt’s expressionism gets out of hand. The skin on Bartholomew’s forehead has a repellent, pasty texture. Unblended clots of ocher, white, and deep red appear there and on the sack under his right eye and on his nose. The left hand he holds to his chin, however, is a duller, yet equally morbid, almost greenish hue. Here the flesh seems loosely engaged, as if ripe for peeling. The picture exerts a perverse fascination, and that’s it. The expressionism of The Virgin of Sorrows is much more profound in the pathos it evokes.

A painting that stands apart from all these, and deserves particular notice, is Saint Bavo. Seen in the appropriately subdued light of the exhibition galleries, the picture of this early-medieval Netherlandish saint, who was born a nobleman, is strikingly like a tapestry woven in a near-monochrome of ochre, deep red, and brown. In this fabric are arrayed Bavo’s rich vestments, including a dashing feathered beret; a falcon is perched on his forearm. The bearded saint’s large eyes peer out impassively at us, the light falling on one side of his face–making it seem as if this visage were looking out from a hole in a curtain. The saint cuts such an arresting figure that the horse and equerry in the near background almost elude notice. It is a work of sheer painterly genius.

In the Western tradition, Rembrandt stands at the opposite pole from the idealized, rhetorical, even exhortatory art of the Catholic Counter-Reformation exemplified by Rubens. Rubens was the Apollonian painter par excellence, the unsurpassed decorator, preoccupied with the surface appearance of things. He painted “the glory that shall be revealed in us.” Rembrandt was his Dionysian counterpart, the psychological realist, the tragic visionary. There is not a hint of glory or triumph even in his beautiful Resurrected Christ, with its soft contours and supple torso, the latter only partially hidden by a white cloak. No, this Christ is, as the hymn says, “all compassion.” Here, as with several other pictures in this extraordinary exhibition, we come face to face with this titan’s supreme Dionysian achievement: painting as revelation.

Sculpture roundtable

This is an edited transcript of a two hour conversation with invited participants which took place on 20 October 1989 at Fulham Palace.

Artists: Kate Davis (K.D.), Bethan Huws (B. H.), Liliane Lijn (L.L.), Jacqui Poncelet (J.P.), Alison Wilding (A.W.), Questioners: Caryn Faure Walker (Editor WASL Journal) (C. F.W.), Rebecca Fortnum (Painter, Writer) (R. F.), Desa Philippi (Art historian) (D.P.).

Transcription Rebecca Fortnum.

C.F.W. Although various exhibitions have presented your work together, there is no record of a discussion between you. Is this silence effective?

A.W. You are talking about silence as a kind of protection. Clearly it’s not helpful to hide behind that protection. But on the other hand I think it’s quite valid to want that silence and not to make statements about what you do.

J.P. I’d agree. Things get constantly analysed and put forward which might be a complicated presentation of the object but in the end it over-simplifies the practice of making objects, so you are continuously pretending that it is something that can be offered to people in a simplistic way, always accessible in that way, a finite object. I accept that when I make something I don’t understand it completely myself, and that I will continue to have a relationship with it over a period of time.

R.F. But the work does have to exist within a written or theoretical framework, after it is made. I’m not saying that the artist should necessarily be aware of it before its production. But surely if it is to exist within a discourse it has to take that form at sometime.

A.W. The artist can be excluded from that discourse and not invited to rectify something that has already been said or written.

K.D. Yes there is a danger of the written word now becoming more powerful than the work itself.

R.F. So should the artist be involved?

L.L. I think it’s tragic that more efforts are not made to involve artists during their lifetime to illuminate the meaning of their work. Since the art survives the artist, it inevitably takes on its own life which the artist cannot control.

C.F.W. Have you radically changed the role of the artist from that of the early 1970s where artists both wrote and made objects?

D.P. The relationship between what the artist says about his or her work and how the work operates in the institutional contexts that determine what it comes to mean outside the studio very much depend on the nature of the artist’s statement. Since the 60s certain artists theorise their work as part of the work itself. That conceptual emphasis is obviously very different from statements of intention which usually stop short of addressing the conditions of production and reception of the work.

L.L. Surely a work changes through time, even to the artist.

D.P. I think it is absolutely unimportant what the artist thinks her work means once it is in the museum or gallery.

J.P. But you are saying everything as if it were that simple and it isn’t–everything is so complicated. Of course what you say is true, I’ve acknowledged it for years. I make an object for my reasons, the minute someone else looks at it they bring their own experience to bear, it’s a different object. It’s fine by me. At the same time I realise that it is interesting to people to talk to me and have some idea of why I bothered. Everything exists on a lot of different levels and in lots of different ways and I don’t want to simplify anything. If anything I want to acknowledge that everything is incredibly complicated and that you can only take a small amount of it on board at any one time.

D.P. At the same time I think it is important to try and understand how these mechanisms work. Of course they are complex, but I think that they are not just a jungle of fragments that is inaccessible to analysis. I think it is important to understand how certain works of art acquire meaning.

A.W. What’s happened to me in the last year or so is that some reviewers have described shows which I have had in extremely pornographic language. I have also been accused of reinforcing several stereotypes in my work and that this work offers a blind acceptance of the status quo.

R.F. When these things have been said, do you think it is a false reading or something that you have not been conscious of in the production?

A.W. It is a reading of the work which to me is false. I feel very strongly about work being read. I don’t go along with the idea that you can read a piece of work. My work is not structured like that. And yet a lot of people only seem to be able to describe work in this way. Of course there is a grain of truth in it which is why it is so painful. I have never denied either the sensual or the erotic.

R.F. So it is a closing down of meaning?

A.W. Yes.

R.F. Do these readings interrupt, or cause some difference to, your production?

A.W. Yes. I don’t like the way I am looking at what I am doing. I don’t want to operate a form of censorship in order to stave off this sort of interpretation. There is a way that things fit together–a cup or a saucer, a spoon in a cup, which is analogous to parts of my sculpture, not directly sensual.

C.F.W. Is there a pressure for sculptors, more particularly women, to eroticise their work?

A.W. There is a reception for it. But I’m not aware of succumbing to any kind of pressure.

J.P. I have heard similar things said about Anish Kapoor’s work.

D.P. There are different ways of talking about eroticism. Through feminism different kinds of questions have been opened up. There are particular ways of talking about fetishism and visual pleasure that weren’t available before.

C.F.W. Gray Watson’s text on your work Alison, described it as dealing with ‘universal feminine’ feeling.

A.W. Yes, I made it clear to him that that was his point of view. At the time my feeling was that if someone writes about your work, they have carte blanche. But I think his interpretation was inadequate.

L.L. I think interpretation is always limited, even the artist’s interpretation is limited. You can’t define a work of art–that’s what makes it something potent. You can attempt to define to it, that’s different. You can interpret it. You can enhance or divest it of meaning, but you can’t encapsulate it permanently.

C.F.W. Is there no public reading of the work?

D.P. don’t think that the question of ‘reading’ or interpretation is only to do with the individual critic; or the individual artist. It is part of a set of institutional practices which position the critic, the gallery and the artist in specific ways. It is in the crossing of those practices that the work comes to mean certain things at certain moments. I agree that, obviously with any visual work, there is always something that cannot be translated into discourse. At the same time what the work comes to mean within a particular set of co-ordinates is something that one can analyse by considering those discourses and the kind of function they have at a particular point.

B.H. It’s only recently that I have seen my work written about. I don’t want to read most reviews. People are basically lazy about these things. They never really get at anything. The most important things to speak about are too difficult to speak about unless you make an effort and that effort never seems to be there.

C.F.W. Does that mean what people are looking to consume is a style?

B.H. Yes, I suppose it is easier to place the work and then maybe I get to speak about it in many years.

D.P. Doesn’t that have something to do with the fact that work is a commodity that has to be packaged and sold?

L.L. Absolutely, I think it does. I think that if you try and remain out of the commodity market you inevitably do remain out of the commodity market!

C.F.W. Moving from the reactions of critics, have you ideas on the spectator?

B.H. In my work I refuse the spectator. I haven’t wanted somebody to look for anything to be there, to be looked at. I aim to have the person contained in the work, rather than having to look at anything.

C.F.W. What about the pleasure of looking?

D.P. There is a very fundamental pleasure in looking at an object and having, to an extent, mastery over the object. One can understand representation in terms of fetishism which structures the relationship between subject and object. That is very different from saying what is looked at may evoke pain or pleasure.

L.L. One does put the spectator in a certain position. I know I do. I have to admit that I have attempted to immobilise the spectator. Once I have their attention I try to create as many references as possible, a multilayered experience. When I started making art in 1958/9 no one seemed to look. Although I covered the walls with my drawings, very few people looked at them because they had no name attached.

A.W. But you use a lot of devices, don’t you, to get people’s attention?

L.L. The first attempt I made was to try and create a laser in 1961. I had never read or heard about lasers then, but my intention was temporarily to blind people. I wanted them to lose their vision for a few seconds so that afterwards they would see with a new intensity. I had this horrible experience of people coming to my studio and not looking, just walking through looking for trademarks. I was a young artist. I didn’t have a name, so unconsciously I tried to make something hypnotic.

A.W. It’s more of a physical reaction where the spectator engages physically, like you say, trying to blind them.

L.L. When feelings are strong the engagement can be almost physical. But I did not succeed in making the laser. It didn’t actually work, instead it led me to work with acrylic polymers and reflections, nearly invisible work. Instead of blinding people with intense light, I gave them something to look at which they could hardly see, something immaterial.

R.F. The 70s was a time for ‘perceptual change’. The spectator would view or interact with the art or art-object and go away with a change occurring in his or her idea of perceived truths. What do you want to give your spectator and what do you want your spectator to give back? Do you want them to have an understanding about certain issues outside ‘art’ or is it all within the aesthetic mode?

K.D. I’m not sure, It’s something that I have to engage more with than I have done so far.

R.F. I read a review of your work which suggested that you used lipstick to make references to the paraphenalia of being a woman. Is that one of the aspects that you would want the spectator to be aware of’? Or is it not as specific as that?

K.D. I use lipstick in the sense that I would use any material. It has its own potency but then paint also has its own potency.

C.F.W. Are you appropriating or neutralising material?

K.D. The choice of materials is very particular, you can’t deny what it is. I try and extend its use. I would say that I appropriate material. Everybody does even if it ultimately renders it neutral.

D.P. There is another notion of the spectator more closely linked to a Brechtian tradition associated with work one could term critical or engaged art, that tries to effect a change of looking.

C.F.W. Jacqui, will you talk specifically about your history. You have moved from one area of practice to another. Did you see ceramics as too accessible?

J.P. I can never answer things in a straightforward way. You suddenly realise because of your history you deal with things in a particular way. Ceramics puts one in touch with the ordinary. I do work that is there. It’s like a dog, or a cat or the armchair. It’s just there. It’s like a statement of fact. I want you to notice it like you notice a saucepan. I want you to take it into your life like you do a person that you pass by. The things that I am doing now, I don’t want to have reference to other objects, even though that is asking the impossible, I still want them to be like a statement of fact, completely matter of fact.

D.P. I’m not sure what you mean by fact?

J.P. You were talking earlier about looking at a table. I want people to look at tables. I want people to enjoy ordinariness.

D.P. But your sculpture is very ‘worked’. It has a particular vocabulary, it is formally very particular, with an attention to detail that implies a very different kind of looking than the looking at everyday objects that you take for granted.

J.P. But it shouldn’t do. My point is that there is a continuous denial of the pleasure of all the ordinary things that we have around. The thing that upsets me is people’s continual blindness. Liliane, you said that you’d like to blind someone so that they see. I have that feeling all the time. I know that you can’t go round every minute of the day saying “Oh how wonderful, breath taking, look at this!” But there is at the same time the pleasure of just any given situation that you are in.

L.L. I think that people today have closed their senses down. I don’t think people use their senses the way primitive people do. We live in a world of atrophying senses and I feel very frustrated about it.

C.F.W. Bethan, is there common ground between you and Jacqui regarding the everyday. Were people to be more aware of the space at Riverside?

B.H. No it is not site specific. I take space as a person. A person is not ever an object or a thing. A sculpture should never be an object. It is something like you or me. That’s what I try to achieve in the work, to abolish this difference. I want it to be like looking out of the window. I want the work to be a reality, a total reality.

D.P. Then why cover part of the floor at Riverside with very expensive parquet when the reality of that space is that it is chronically underfunded. It is always on the verge of closing down because of lack of money. That is the reality of that particular site.

B.H. Money is not reality. Although it is the most important thing in our society on one level we also have to forget it. Money is nothing. It doesn’t actually exist.

C.F.W. The preference for artists to use and critics to discuss the use of precious materials in sculpture frequently ‘stands’ for an unspoken myth of the artist drawing out the ‘spirit’ of material. Is this a mistaken aura for the work which carries with it unattractive ideas of authorship?

J.P. It was really difficult for me to come to terms with that and to think that at the end of the day ‘I don’t care’, that’s what I want to use. When I got that work home, I hated the fact that it was bronze, I hated all the associations that went with it. It took me months and months to actually get over that and come to terms with the work, and make it into my own,

L.L. We are talking about the same problem. I have been called either a kinetic or a technological artist, neither of which are my central concerns. My work is primarily ritualistic, trance and ritual related. I am not interested in technology per se. I am interested in the way it effects us, in the meaning of its symbols, how as a society we relate to the natural world, space and time through our technology.

A.W. Do you think you could do what you’re doing without technology?

L.L. I make many different things which don’t fit into these categories. I don’t fit precisely into the tight space allocated for my work by a cursory and superficial view of it. That is what I dislike about what you call discourse; its shallowness.

D.P. I don’t think that is inherent in discourse.

C.F.W. There is transgression in all your works. There is the uneasy opposition between the intensely erotic and the fragile; the danger of using male skills, but without underwriting the history of practitioners and associations which normally accompany this tradition. Having said this do you continue to offer too many safeguards against disruptive language?

A.W. Surely that only works if you read everything in that way in the first place. If you have those kind of precepts, value male things, tradition. I don’t know that I do actually. I had to forget all that, I simply invented my own way of doing it. I don’t consciously fight against the things I see as being patriarchal.

R.F. But you are aware of what other people value?

A.W. Yes, of course. I suppose I do try to subvert things, that’s certainly true. I never want to give people what they want. You get to know what people want, what they like and what they want more of. Certain kinds of work are very popular but I don’t promulgate that kind of work. I quite specifically don’t. I could very easily but I am not interested.

J.P. Having worked in ceramics which I rarely do now, there will always be a critical awareness of materials whatever I do. Right in the beginning I used bone china and I got furious with people’s reactions because it was always the material. They never saw the object, but relied on strong physical responses. This attitude would make it an absolute dead end for me. So I went off in another direction. What started initially as a response to other people is now inherent in the working method. I feel free to work in whatever medium seems appropriate.

C.F.W. You appear to be saying that the reason you make objects is to establish a fuller use of the senses by people. Is that the subversiveness?

L.L. I would say that was one aspect only. I don’t actually think of myself as making objects any way.

B.H It’s something very important to understand. That it is not an object, I’m not an object.

L.L. I have called my sculpture ‘resonances’. A work begins to resonate when it takes on its own life. This can happen to ordinary objects, especially tools. I think often this life is connnected to respect and love. It’s an energy which flows from me to the materials I work with, giving them life. It can also be other feelings; anxiety, anger, violence. The work is a container for them.

D.P. Maybe we can approach this question of the object from a different point and look at it in the history of trying to de-materialise the object. Work that comes out of the 60s, conceptual work that is explicitly against the object or that tried to re-define what an object could be, posed the possibility of an artistic practice that’s not object-centred. I wonder whether that particular history does relate to your work?

L.L. Earlier I said that in ’61 I made ‘invisible’ works hut it was too early for those pieces to slot into the conceptual art frame. My work at the time was concerned with dematerialisation and continued to be right up until 1974 when I finished writing Crossing Map. I began writing Crossing Map in ’67 as a vision of the dematerialisation of man and by the time I came to complete it, I was writing about my body and my feelings in a most physical way, the interaction of a female artist within a male world. Crossing Map was a turning point for me. My preoccupation with dematerialisation and what I now think of as the mind body split stemmed from my own need to disconnect myself from the body/object. My deepest desire was to become mind/idea/energy. This real need came, I realise now, from a desperate attempt to avoid exploitation.

B.H. For my work a linear description of history is not important. Rather I picture history more as Umberto Ecco does. Simply put, that is we all stand on one another’s shoulders in order to see.

D.P. I think that is precisely the effect of a particular historical consciousness.

C.F.W. We seem to be getting back to the specific object stimulating sensation, outside categories and outside history. Does the a-contextual really allow women who are artists to survive?

B.H It’s not really my specificity. It’s everybody’s, It’s not me, it’s not as simple as that. In a way it’s trying to eliminate me. It’s not demanding an individuality. It’s more complex.

L.L. You’re talking about this as if it were all conscious. I think much of the reason why I make certain works is unconscious. I find out about it quite a long time after I make the work. I can talk about what I did thirty years ago, but I cannot talk easily about what I did yesterday. And I will only be able to talk about it in terms of what I have done over a long period of time.

C.F.W. Then you don’t accept that when ‘content’ is able to be articulated through language that is the point at which you use it in your work.

L.L. No I would say exactly the opposite.

C.F.W. When do you say ‘No, I will not put this into the world because it is something that I haven’t controlled’? In other words I don’t know when you act as curator for your own work.

A.W. Don’t you have to assume that we do?

C.F.W. I am asking when you do.

L.L. This is a continual process.

R.F. Isn’t it part of the process of the making?

C.F.W. Not necessarily, no. An awareness coming from the 1970s was that there was an inappropriate division of role between writer, curator and artist.

The artist had to seek control of the work by deciding what inter-relationship there would be between particular pieces.

L.L. I would never have written about my work. It is excruciatingly painful because you never feel that you are actually saying what you need to say.

D.P. I believe that problem poses itself particularly for women artists. Because we live in an unequal society, a patriarchal culture which structures the institutions we operate within. I don’t think anyone can say they are in some safe space outside of that.

J.P. I think it is a very big problem. The thing I have really to be honest about now is that the more I think about the problem I think that writing is right at the middle. At the moment it is how people receive in formation. Kate talked about her student knowing about people through writing. You suddenly realise that here you are saying “No, not for me” and not saying “Not for me this way, but which way? How will I come to terms with this thing that can’t be denied?” That’s how I feel it is for me as a woman artist. I don’t want to put my head in a bucket and say it isn’t my problem. I want to deal with it. But certainly writing now has become fundamental.

C.F.W. Kate, do you feel your position as a women effects your work?

K.D. It is something that has come up recently and I haven’t really gathered what I think about it. I was in a show in Italy and a woman critic was raving about this work she had seen that had at that time no label on it. She asked who the artist was and I was introduced to her. She said “Oh, I thought it was done by a man” and then refused to speak to me. I have never experienced something quite so blatant as that and I have yet to understand why this behaviour prevails within the artworld.

So, yes, my position as a woman effects my work and how it is received.

L.L. That just proves there is no female bonding. We are all colleagues in the same profession and I have never spoken with one of you. Isn’t that extraordinary? I don’t think that would happen to a man.

A.W. I think it is something that I have probably been very lazy about. It is something that I have to face up to and deal with in some way. I’ve been involved in a lot of shows that have been basically all male and I have often felt like the token woman in the show and that’s always been very difficult to deal with. I have dealt with it by slipping to the edges, by not taking it on and saying here I am. I have always felt that it is a very very male world, the art world. I think it still is. I think I have lacked encouragement to deal with it in my own way.

R.F. I think it’s almost impossible to stand up and say “I’m different” in a world where your difference means you are not as good as.

D.P. But there has been a lot of work done precisely on those questions. There have been exhibitions, a lot of writing and discussions. I think it is very hard to say in 1989 that one feels there is nothing one can refer to when there has been over fifteen years of debate.

A.W. But this has been my experience. At the same time I have quite deliberately not wanted to join that vocal band of women who have made that focus the basis of their work because I simply don’t see the point of that kind of separatism. That was one of the reasons that I was reluctant to come here today.

D.P. I feel very strongly that the history of feminism has tried to transform the position of the victim into a survivor and someone who is positively productive. What is depressing these days is that you sometimes get the feeling that all this hasn’t happened. At the same time the fact that we are sitting here is a product of that history.

R.F. I think that it is important to recognise your gender, not to be self denying. But when you look at the history of the feminist art movement it is a quite specific history where those politics have been taken into the art work. I think if you don’t want to produce work in that kind of way there has to be an alternative. So you can recognise your gender, say you are a woman artist, not be ashamed of it, talk to other women artists, have that kind of bonding, without necessarily using those politics as the overt content of your work.

B.H. I’ve never really thought about it being a primarily male art world. For me I have always been an artist. It’s not a question that I deal with.

Yes, I am a woman, I don’t deny that. But it is not of any great importance that I am a woman artist. As a woman it’s difficult. You are reminded of your position every day. So I don’t like this business of women artists–do we have men artists? No, they are artists.

J.P. No, they are men artists.

R.F. That is exactly what Elaine De Kooning said twenty years ago, ‘I’m not a woman artist, I’m an artist’. Except every one viewed her as De Kooning’s wife–there was no escape.

B.H. It’s just not my interest. Somebody like Cindy Sherman has a particular interest and it works well.

L.L. I think that women have more to say today. I find women’s work more stimulating, more interesting, in every field. I was at a reading of poetry in New York a week ago and the most interesting work was read by a woman. Not because it was the work of a woman but because she had to say something urgent and important. I think we are in a transition period in art, culture and society where women are going to be very, very important. I believe this, I am very optimistic and positive. However having said this, I must also say that there is a tremendous destructive force which is unconscious and feminine, which is not in women alone. It is in men and women, and I don’t think it’s being allowed creativity.

D.P. Also I don’t think it is a question of a polarity between men and women. It is how one’s work is positioned in relation to those dichotomies. Not just because someone is a woman is there a direct link to a particular position. It is a question of consciousness. It’s a question of positioning which in the end of course is also a question of politics.


May Morris

MAY MORRIS 1862-1938 William Morris Gallery 11 Jan-11 March

This exhibition will be the first to deal exclusively with the life and work of May Morris. Her connections as William Morris’s younger daughter have, until comparatively recently, counted against her in that her work was regarded as a pale imitation of her father’s, and her only personality traits that had been well documented were tireless efforts to maintain William Morris’s reputation. Research now shows her to be an innovatory artist in her own right.

She is best known for her embroidery design. As small children May and her sister Jenny helped with the embroidery at the firm Morris & Co. It seems to have been standard practice for William to prepare the design and for the family to work it up into the finished piece. Although William was noted for his involvement in all stages of production, he seems to have lost interest in embroidery at an early stage and been happy to delegate work in that area. This could be a reason for May becoming Head of the Embroidery Department in the firm in 1885. Embroidery was an acceptable craft for a woman, but to say that she took it up under social pressure is to decry her talent. May did study painting as well and was encouraged in other forms of design. She produced three wallpapers and one of them, Honeysuckle, is still made today.

Her embroidery designs for Morris & Co. are significantly different from the ones produced subsequent to leaving the firm in 1896 after her father’s death. The Morris & Co. designs have been shown most regularly and this is probably a contributory factor to her work being underestimated. By the 1880s, Morris & Co. were expected to produce a certain type of work and May was restricted by this ‘house style’. However, comparison of this early embroidery with the later work does show that there was direction and development in the design which distinguishes May’s from her father’s. William’s embroidery designs compose separate elements by linking them with a repeating pattern or dense foliage as a background, or the designs are similar in form to the wallpapers and chintzes and are simply repeating patterns. May, by contrast, relied on the single elements being placed geometrically on the fabric to balance and compose the embroidery. Her approach influenced later designers such as Grace Christie and Jessie Newbery. On a professional level, May pioneered the idea that women should play a part in the creative process by designing a,s well as performing the jobbing task of embroidering the piece of work.

In 1907, she founded the Women’s Guild of Arts, formed as a parallel organisation to the then exclusively male Art Workers’ Guild. This ensured that women were well represented in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society shows. At this date she was teaching at the Central School of Art and worked as a consultant and lecturer at art schools nationwide. By 1910, her reputation had spread internationally and she was invited to give a lecture tour in America and to show in exhibitions across Europe. In spite of her heavy work schedule, she managed to edit and write introductions for the 24 volumes of the ‘Collected Works of William Morris’ which were published in 1915.

From 1900, much of her time was spent at Kelmscott Manor which had been the Morris family’s country home since 1871, and she campaigned continuously for the welfare of the villagers even when her career was at its height. Amongst her achievements for Kelmscott, she helped establish a Women’s Institute in 1916 to help with the war effort, she had cottages built for the workers, and she set up a fund to build the Morris Memorial Hall in 1934. She retired there permanently in about 1920, but never gave up embroidery. On her death in 1938, she left behind her a reputation as a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Movement and she had elevated the status of embroidery from a casual pastime to an art form.