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Essay | Personal Feeling is the Main Thing by Sue Hubbard

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Big blonde in Red Dress (2012) by Chantal Joffe, taken from the Victoria Miro website

By Sue Hubbard

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are rooted in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

Dan Eating a Banana by Chantal Joffe (2012) taken from the Victoria Miro website.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen. 

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

Self Portrait with Hand on Hip (2014) by Chantal Joffe taken from Victoria Miro website

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Mother and Child II (2012) by Chantal Joffe taken from the Victoria Miro website.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here

 

Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck

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Paul Cezanne, Three Bathers, 1879-1882. Reproduction courtesy of The National Gallery

The idea behind ‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’ is an exciting one, if a little difficult to communicate in a title. The exhibition explores the relationship between artists and the paintings which they owned: how they came to possess them, why they wanted them and the influence they had on their own art.

I wandered into the gallery from Trafalgar Square, so the subject wasn’t clear to me until I entered the first room in the S Wing and found that it had been laid out in a way that resembled an architect’s sketch of someone’s front room, with a portrait hanging over a shape that gestured at being a mantelpiece.

The front room was Lucian Freud’s and the portrait was Italian Woman by Corot, which Freud had gifted to the National Gallery in 2014 and which was the inspiration for the exhibition. Certainly, the portrait is worth building an exhibition around. In Corot’s hand this romantic, often saccharine genre becomes a stunning exercise in colour and shade. You can see how it appealed to Freud too, both in the ambivalence of the sitter’s expression and the physicality of her skin.

Freud’s room is rather sparse. We get a little illustration of his real room, which was also rather sparse. There is an ‘erotic’ Cézanne, a few other fleshy items and a stunning little Degas bust of a ballet dancer with her head pressed to one shoulder.

The exhibition then moves back in time through a number of masters until we get to Van Dyck. The curators have made sure that we are in the artists hands as much as theirs, which is inevitably a good thing. Matisse’s room is dominated by Degas’ vast, pulsating red La Coiffure, one of the galleries own pieces. Other highlights include two portraits by Picasso, one very funny, one grey and alienating, as well as more Cézanne. Everybody liked Cézanne. Matisse had long, personal connection with Cézanne’s Three Bathers – he used to wake up early in the morning to watch the light hit it.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Woman, c. 1870
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Woman, c. 1870. Reproduction courtesy of The National Gallery

The painters here acquired their works for a wide variety of reasons: artistic, personal, financial. At its best the exhibition is a fascinating insight into the artists’ lives and characters. Degas was such an obsessive collector that he gets two rooms worth of paintings. He bought more than he could afford. He swapped his own works to get his hands on other peoples. He gave the careers of struggling friends a little push by buying their paintings. He is very hard not to like. As for himself, he liked Ingres and his exacting neoclassicism, although there is plenty of Delacroix here too.

Degas also had brilliant taste in landscapes, despite not being known for them himself. Alfred Sisley’s The Flood, Banks of the Siene, with its simple French farmhouse wobbling in the distinctly unthreatening floodwaters is wonderfully wet. There is also a dreamy, violet valley by Theodor Rousseau, which Degas bought on mistaking it for a Corot: a happy accident, it turned out.

The curators were right to let the paintings speak for themselves. All the same, I did want to hear more from the artists. Had they made notes on their favourite pieces? Did they make records, lists? Even a purchase order or two would have been interesting. All we get is a photograph of the catalogue used when Degas’ collection was sold off posthumously.

More might have been said, too, about the way in which the artists displayed the works. Several of the rooms gestured towards recreating how the paintings would have been hung. I found myself wanting a room completely made up. Larger pictures of the rooms would have been nice in any case.

Exhibitions have to work with what the gallery holds but it remains a fact that these masters were all European men. The fact that they were men felt particularly urgently in need of addressing, given that one thing that almost all of these artists liked to collect was pictures of women, often in various stages of undress.

The question of the representation of women in art is hardly a new one and it is a shame it was not engaged with here in some way: the context of collection is especially illuminating. Corot’s Italian woman stares silently out from the posters and promotional material.

The reverse chronology means that the exhibition will be top-heavy for anyone who is not a dedicated fan of Reynolds and Lawrence, which I suspect is most people. Still, there is enough in the first few rooms to justify the entrance fee. The question of money lingers over the whole thing. The more modern artists appeared to have less of it, which I suspect is important.

Personally I was disappointed that the National Gallery is now charging £1 for exhibition postcards. 

By Jeremy Wikeley


‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’, National Gallery, 23 June – 4 September

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