Reflecting

Self Portrait with Pink Hair

During a recent conversation, I was prompted to dig out an old self-portrait of myself, made in May 1994, when as may be apparent I was strongly influenced by the portraits of Lucian Freud. When I drew it I was still recovering from a serious case of pneumonia some months earlier which had seen me miss most of the winter term and had left me very thin and weak. It took me quite a while to recover my strength. In May 1994 Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. I had been in a state that I might call quasi-living – I only just managed to exist when I was ill and I think the illness made me recognise with some urgency the shortness of life. Certainly, as Heidegger suggests, my greater consciousness of death allowed me a greater consciousness of my free will and so it was that I decided to cut off all my hair and have it dyed pink and do other radical things in my life. The pink hair was partly in reaction to the death of Kurt Cobain and partly to the feminist texts I was studying, partly in reaction to a lot of the Riot Grrrl culture that was increasingly apparent and partly, it has to be said, inspired by a photograph of a woman with a pixie cut dyed pale blue in Parisian Vogue.

I didn’t have very much money so I opted for a £5 student cut at Vidal Sassoon in central Glasgow. I had very long hair and the girl was pretty nervous when I told her what I wanted and she kept saying “Are you sure”? “Are you really sure?” I felt a bit like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, when she repeatedly tells the reluctant hairdresser “All off!”

It took hours, first cutting the hair and then bleaching it – which took quite a lot as my hair is dark and then the dye. It was beautiful, she had mixed the bright pink with little marblings of purple. On my way back from the salon I popped into King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut where I had enquired about a job, Frankie, the bar manager, saw me straight away and I walked out with a job.

I drew this picture shortly afterwards. It was the beginning of a new and exciting phase of my life where looking back, I was incredibly brave. The shoulders look large because I was wearing my brother’s striped t-shirt and it hung off my shoulders, which are quite square due to my love of swimming! I wish I had worn something daintier now!

Hylas & The Nymphs

Up until I was 17 this was the only image I had ever seen of Waterhouse’s masterpiece, Hylas and the Nymphs. Even so it captivated me when I saw it and strengthened my resolve to become a painter. There was something so poetic about the half submerged forms, like classical statues in still, clear water. The non-verbal communication, the magnetic gaze of the nymphs, is so intensely powerful that it has a quality one usually finds in music or poetry. The black and white image is from a collection of Royal Academy annuals that belonged to my grandmother’s father. I would spend hours looking at the annuals on Sunday afternoons after lunch when we had returned from our usual Sunday walk with my grandparents.  Hylas and the Nymphs featured in the 1897 annual and the book was always my favourite because of this painting. As a result the year 1897 became synonymous in my mind with a type of velvet aestheticism, old gilt and deeply scented roses. Later when I was in Sixth Form the piece informed my A-level dissertation on Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement.

The annuals are filled with similar Victorian narrative paintings, such as La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee which illustrated the poem of the same title by Keats. Such paintings describe a type of sensuality typical of the late Victorian era. It is a type of wooziness first seen in the work of the Rossettis, in the poetry of Christina Rossetti e.g. Goblin Market (1859-62), and then in the paintings and poetry of her brother Dante Gabriel, e.g. Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70). This is what Jan Marsh in her excellent biography of Christina Rossetti calls “the dominant late-Victorian poetic mode, with its intense but dream like imaginative world.”

In Sixth Form in York I had a group of friends and we were all equally bewitched by this vein of painting and the poetry it frequently illustrated, e.g. Keats, Tennyson (especially The Lady of Shallot). We were of our time, Athena and other card and design companies had done much to boost the fashion for the Pre-Raphaelites in the late 1980s which also saw us grow our hair into Rossetti-like tresses and seek out the most Medieval looking clothes. We all related to Anne of Green Gables. One weekend this rather eccentric group of seventeen year olds made a pilgrimage to see Hylas and the Nymphs and other Victorian paintings at Manchester City Art Gallery (as well as the various alternative hip emporiums then to be found in the Corn Exchange). We all stood transfixed in front of Waterhouse’s work. I was the only pupil in my year to be taking Art at A-level and seeing the original painting after so many years of looking at it in reduced black and white print had a tremendous effect upon me, emotionally, intellectually and creatively.  I remember my eyes welling up at the use of greens and browns, the vividity and depth of the colours, the water, the green, green water, the passages of flesh so deftly rendered, and the overall effect of the painting which seduces the eye and bewitches, perfectly capturing the subject matter, the intoxication of the verse it illustrates. It is still in my mind one of the most beautiful paintings in the world.

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Quite naturally I bought a poster of the work for my room and it is the only poster that I have had professionally framed. With my wages from my part time job at a local bookshop I chose a dark wood frame carved with an Art-Nouveau pattern, and this is still one of my most treasured possessions despite the print not quite getting the colours right! It is redolent of a ground breaking moment in my life as a painter and a very happy day out with my friends from Sixth Form.

My last blog post on here almost anticipates my reaction to the grounds for the removal of this incredible work from Manchester City Art Gallery this week. Apparently this was a “creative act” by the “artist” Sonia Boyce, who sees the women as “pubescent” and the work as sexual. My previous blog was in response to the reaction to Emma Watson’s photoshoot for Tim Walker which I did not see as at all sexual or a reversal of her role as feminist ambassador. I consider myself a feminist but think Sonia Boyce’s recent intervention to be a clumsy ham-fisted reaction, one completely lacking in any discernment or subtlety.

In 2015 I submitted a proposal for a piece in the International Women’s Day event at Manchester City Art Gallery, “In Case of Emergency Break Glass,” a one day gallery takeover event. I wanted to make something in response to the Waterhouse but my proposal was rejected. I’m pretty glad it was because making the proposal and continuing with the work I had begun for it forced me to examine some delicate questions about my own reactions to this work and the real reasons I wanted to be involved. My proposal had centred on the notion of the femme fatale, of the woman temptress, who since Eve offered Adam a bite of her apple has traditionally led man to his doom. I was not angry about any sexuality present in the painting, and I think there is very little, but at the continuance of the myth that women are somehow an evil and unreliable presence in the world. An attitude I have sadly met with again and again in my relationships with men. One man likened me to a siren, a figure tempting him to his downfall and let’s face it, it takes two.

When the piece was rejected I continued with the work and the real reasons for my wanting to pursue the venture emerged. It was pure admiration of Waterhouse’s work, which is a masterpiece and nothing less. Copying a work forces the artist to recognise composition in a very physical way. In the pre-internet days of 1991 my mother had gone to extreme lengths to obtain an out-of-print book on Waterhouse by Anthony Hobson for my birthday. Hobson relates what he refers to as Waterhouse’s “key-hole” composition which he employs in several of his paintings, where the figures or a room encircle the protagonist. This composition format is employed in Hylas and the Nymphs. The gentle lilt and curve of the women amidst the repeated oval motif of the waterlilies does much to render music to this composition, a gentleness so precipitous of poor Hylas’s fate. It is so much more than a “nymph titty” painting as one of Boyce’s collaborators so eloquently put it on a post-it note that replaced the painting. My reaction to the removal of the work and its replacement with such ignorant commentary is pure anger. This anger stems not only from the removal of my favourite painting but an increased trend I see for eradicating the presence of talent and a celebration of the banal in the interests of some ill thought out “democratising” of the art world.

I don’t know but I suspect that Boyce comes from London where there is a wealth of painting to look at. Anyone who lives within affordable travel distance of London (from here it costs £100 for a day return) is enormously privileged in a way only those who do not can fully understand. Da Vincis, Titians, Waterhouses, Monets, Van Dycks, all within walking distance of each other. Art gallery collections in the North are miles apart from each other and a trip to each one a great excursion. If you remove a significant piece from any regional collection you are not democratising art you are robbing the demos itself.

International Womens Day 2017 #IWD2017

 In Defence of Tim Walker’s photo shoot of Emma Watson in Vanity Fair

Emma Watson recently caused a “social media storm” as an advocate for feminism and equal rights who nearly bared her breasts in a photo shoot for Tim Walker for Vanity Fair. There has been a steady volley of comment ever since, querying her actions and likening her to a Page 3 girl: “What is the difference?” they ask. After a short ponder and a cursory glance over the accusations levelled at Watson I came to these conclusions.

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Emma Watson by Tim Walker for Vanity Fair

Ms Watson does not equate to a Page 3 Model because although she may have voluntarily objectified herself, her reason for doing so was not to sell her body. That is not what is on offer. When any model models there is a wide spectrum of things they may be selling or offering: clothes, lifestyle, titillation, sexual stimulation – indeed the very extent to which women are objectified is manifest in this very argument.

Any midwife will tell you that there is a massive difference between a new mother bearing her breasts and feeding her baby and a girl stripping off in a nightclub. Nothing is for sale in the former, although the availability of milk is offered to the suckling child, and perhaps the innocence of the scene might be marketable. When a woman strips off on a stage or for glamour photography it is a very different story – the act, the pose, the address are all contrived to stimulate sexual desire.

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Mother and Child by Hugues Merle (1823-1881)

A woman’s breasts in themselves are not sexual, their reveal does not necessarily sexually objectify  their “owner” (and so it is as if it is written into our current environment that the tits themselves have some sort of agency in this, given that they are so often photographed by themselves and for their own sake, the identity of the model cropped off, the breasts are a separate saleable entity). Their reveal does not necessarily objectify the “owner”: it is the context, the motive and the composition of any situation or image that determines objectification. Clearly some photographs serve up breasts as desireable objects, part of a body to be enjoyed and used, their dominance in the scene  and their presentation, designed to remove identity, intellect and personality from the sitter who is typically sat mouth slightly open, gasping for penetrative sex from any man available.

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Emma Watson had the agency to choose how she was photographed and I imagine to some extent some control over the editorial context of her photoshoot – this is what an Agent protects, surely? However, once published does Watson then have the power to determine how the photograph is read? I would argue that her own lifestyle, morals and attitude are component parts of how this image is read, as well as its being the creative work of the photographer Tim Walker, because this photoshoot will be understood in the context of his other work. It is clear Emma Watson is not selling her body in a way that a glamour model may be. Emma Watson is an actress, a Good Will Ambassador to the UN with a degree in English from Brown’s University, and is not about posing in sexy underwear with a view to seduce, or establish a reputation as a Calendar Girl. The image may be found to be “sexy” but that does not necessarily equate it with photography whose sole purpose is that end.

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Emma Watson by Tim Walker for Vanity Fair.

Rather this image is confrontational. Tim Walker is one of my favourite photographers and artists. One might compare him to Cecil Beaton or to Angus McBean for his artistic and imaginative compositions. His book “StoryTeller” is one of my most prized possessions and it is in this context of narrative art work that the photographs must be understood and that is what this photograph must be read as – a piece of narrative.  One might compare the painting recently sold at Sotheby’s, an astonishing work by Artemisia Gentileschi, (a rare thing, a female painter), which was once owned by Charles I. The work was sold on his execution and bought by one of his household.

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Head of a Woman by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656)

 At some point a “prudish owner” cut off part of the painting which featured her naked breasts. There is not a doubt in my mind that the work would have been a magnificent portrait of a woman, who would have challenged the viewer in the same way. Her gaze speaks volumes. It is nakedness, but it is not seductive nudity as understood by male painters. Similarly, Watson’s gaze is not merely seductive, it challenges and defies you to objectify her. It expresses her personality, her history as a demure actress (everybody knows this is “Hermione” from Harry Potter), her current almost inevitable contextualisation now as the new “Helena Bonham Carter” (the hair echoes Bonham-Carter’s role as Lucy in the Merchant Ivory film “A Room With a View”) and her grappling with the identity of grown womanhood and as an actress in this context. The photograph does all sorts of things.

Does it perpetuate Rape Culture? I don’t think so. Although Watson is portrayed as delicate and naked, possibly slightly vulnerable, the photograph also demonstrates a certain trust in the truth. On International Women’s Day let us afford everyone a little more respect: only a tiny minority of men are actually rapists just as only a tiny minority of women are actually sluts!

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