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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

 

Review | Rainsongs, by Sue Hubbard

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Sue Hubbard’s Rainsongs has a unique and beautiful emotive quality that shines through its delicately constructed prose in a love-letter to Ireland, memory and parenthood, taking advantage of its mature narrator to speak with resonance and depth. In a contemporary world of instant connections, Rainsongs returns to an age just prior to the boom of social media – 2007 – in an exploration of what it means to be truly alone.

Rainsongs is a book filled with characters who are alone, by circumstance and by choice. Martha Cassidy has lost her husband and only son; twice-divorced Eugene Riordan and farm devotee Paddy O’Connell eschew relationships, finding they are happier living on their own. Accounts of community, large families, childhood friendships, are all recalled, dreamlike, from a distant past. Permanent loneliness haunts the narrative as a threat, but it is from solitude that the most beautifully haunting and thoughtful reflections in the book arise. Whenever Hubbard’s varyingly anthropophobic characters do enter a social setting, such as Eugene’s New Year’s Eve party, Brendan’s funeral, or the various local pubs, bars and restaurants, other people in the crowd are sketched accurately but unflatteringly, reduced to their worst.

However, as the supplies in Martha’s cupboard dwindle at the beginning of each chapter, the unsustainability of hermitage becomes clear. Paddy ends up in hospital by attempting to pull a heifer out of a ditch alone, an impossible task. Martha, despite her disdain for the pity she detects in all her interactions, is forced to ‘stay connected’ by the PhD student who rents her top room, and even out in the country cottage in the middle of nowhere finds herself mobbed by undesired visitors, local families, Eugene. It is impossible to stay alone forever, as the monks who travelled out to the Skelligs found all those centuries ago.

Estranged from and disliking most other people, it is through writing that Hubbard’s narrator first finds community. The intertextuality of Rainsongs is established from its very beginning with opening quotes taken from Woolf, Shakespeare and Irish proverbs, which inspire and in some cases structure and speak through the novel. Martha Cassidy cannot relate to anybody around her but finds a companion in Mrs Ramsay, and notes that despite her childlessness, Virginia Woolf ‘understood’ her loss. Similarly, she finds that Shakespeare ‘understands’ the utopian promise of a desert island in his Tempest. Although this promise of utopia, as of the trip to the Skelligs, is ultimately empty, Martha discovers the possibility of human empathy and companionship through text.

Brendan, perhaps the only extrovert described in the novel and hauntingly absent, is only present through the words of his remaining diaries and letters, which open up a previously closed side of himself to his wife. This allows her to connect with him in a way she never could when he was alive, revealing his secrets, and highlighting her loneliness even when she was with him. Her burgeoning relationship with the young Colm Nolan hinges around the reading of his poetry, again providing an elsewhere non-existent insight into his true feeling. Still grieving, complicatedly, for Bruno, Martha unconsciously seeks out a boy protégé in Colm, much as Brendan did – without her knowledge – in his lifetime. In continuing his mission of getting his poetry published, she is able to complete their foreshortened joint parenthood, relating to Colm as the adult that Bruno never became. Hubbard handles the development of their relationship so sensitively that the questionable circumstances of their intimacy – the age difference, Martha’s recent widowhood and maternal void – do not cast a shadow over their relationship, rather illuminating a pure, emotional connection. It is poetry that acts as the catalyst for this, as the publication of Colm’s work, dedicated to Bruno, effects a change in Martha, allowing her to finally achieve closure. Eventually, she is able to reconsider her future, deciding to build a life teaching English to young refugees, refilling her role as teacher; the element of selfhood that she has been completely without for the first part of the novel, existing only in relation to the deceased men of her life. When she finally returns to the Skelligs, she is not alone but accompanied by her healed memories of Bruno and her newfound human connections, again effected through her language.

The subsequent self-awareness of Hubbard’s own writing as a mode of release lends it an especially powerful emotive quality. Her noted poetic style brings a unique rhythm to her prose, well suited to the romantic descriptions of the Irish countryside, but she is also a gifted storyteller. The combination of endearing details such as Paddy having used the same comb since childhood, together with eye-watering descriptions of the new-money luxury spa that Eugene plans to build and a cutting turn of phrase that sketches a couple as ‘the director of a string of local supermarkets and his heavily Botoxed wife’ bring two very different realities together at once, painting a convincing portrait of pre-recession Ireland. Politics barely surfaces, just existing in the background as Republican flags wave in pubs and children wear orange, white and green T-shirts to watch a football game; Hubbard is more interested in the everyday lives of her characters, and drinking champagne instead of Guinness becomes a motif that is aware of its own ironies. Empathy for refugees past and present targets questions of compassion and connection more than it does government quotas, and the EU is a seemingly independent fluctuating circumstance in the lives of the locals.

Hubbard’s book is about city and country, home and identity, love and loss, but it is in its traversal of the shaky balance between solitude and loneliness that it finds its unique voice, and champions the role of literature in an increasingly disconnected modern world.

Rainsongs is available online and in bookstores now.

Leah Shaya

Review | Keith Vaughan: On Pagham Beach, Photographs and Collages from the 1930s

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Keith Vaughan, Boy in Fishing Net, 1939 © the estate of Keith Vaughan, Courtesy of Austin : Desmond Fine Art

 

It is hard for those brought up in a world of gender fluidity, with debates about who has the right to use which bathroom, to imagine the veil of secrecy and repression that prevailed during the first half of the 20th century around sexual encounters between men. The Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 did not become law until 1967. A full 13 years after the Conservative government had asked a committee, chaired by John Wolfenden, to look at legislation that related to homosexuality and prostitution. It had taken more than 80 years for the notorious Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, introduced by Henry Labouchère, in response to largely beefed-up tabloid ‘scandals’, to be repealed. Section 11 had prescribed 2 years hard labour ‘for gross indecency between males in public or in private.’ Oscar Wilde and the brilliant Enigma code mathematician Alan Turing were both tragic victims.

For the artist Keith Vaughan, as for most ‘ordinary’ homosexuals during much of the 20th century, life was lived between two worlds – the closet and that of fleeting, furtive, sexual encounters. Vaughan learnt early “the fear, tension and repression that surrounded everything to do with sex”. For a high-society set it was somewhat different. The ‘eccentric’ behaviour of those who were ‘artistic’ – the photographer Cecil Beaton and his circle, which included the actor John Gielgud and the composer Lord Berners, and the left-leaning group of poets and musicians who gathered around Auden, Isherwood, Spender and Britten – was largely tolerated. A love of the ballet was shared by many homosexual men, allowing a safe milieu for the contemplation of beautiful male bodies. ‘Is he musical’ became something of a code for assessing someone’s sexuality. Vaughan, an accomplished pianist, developed his love of ballet after seeing Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes production of Prokofiev’s Le Fils Prodigue at Covent Garden and becoming close friends with several prima ballerinas. Yet he never quite fitted into these homosexual elites, remaining something of a loner and an outsider.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight and left with his convent educated mother and timid younger brother Dick, he was bullied and miserable during his time at Christ’s Hospital School. Later he would become openly attracted to younger working-class men with a rough edge (echoing Francis Bacon’s sexual preferences). Those such as Len and his brother Stan, the grocer’s boy Percy Farrant, and the small-time criminal and boxer Johnny Walsh, would become his photographic models.

After leaving school Vaughan joined Lintas (Lever International Advertising Services) the advertising department of Unilver which, during the depressed 1930s, attracted a number of talented artists, including Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and John Banting. Vaughan had already started to take photographs while at school with a medium-format reflex camera and by 1932 had set up his own dark room in the family home. As a trainee layout artist, he was persuaded by another member of the team, Reg Jenkins, to buy a Leica camera. It’s this he used over the years to shoot ‘hundreds of feet of camera roll’ of both the ballet and Pagham beach. It was his affair with Harold Colebrook, whose aunt had a converted railway carriage at Pagham, that led to this piece of West Sussex becoming his own prelapsarian playground.

Just before the outbreak of war, at the age of 27, Vaughan decided to keep a journal, which he did until his suicide some 40 years later. Edited by his close friend the painter Prunella Clough and the one-time editor of The London Magazine, Alan Ross, who published an edition of Vaughan’s Journals and Drawings in 1966, it gives insights into many of his concerns, though the diaries sadly postdate the period of the 1930s covered by this exhibition.

But what we do have in the Austin/Desmond exhibition is the photographs. Full of silver grey tonalities they exude a utopian sense of optimism and freedom. Often only of postcard size, they tap into a nostalgic sensibility that has all but been lost in our modern world; a mixture of childlike innocence and homo-eroticism. The boy standing on a rock with his back to the camera holding a shrimping net might, almost, be Christopher Robin. Reminding us of the complexity of J.M Barrie’s own relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys and the idealised, often repressed relationships between many other men of that era for whom the most ‘real’ relationships – in a world of public schools and the armed forces – were those with their own sex.

Of course, these photographs of boys wrapped in fishing nets, sprawling naked, except for ‘posing pouches’, on the shingle, doing acrobatics on folding deckchairs or standing godlike beneath the rusting hulks of ships were not taken in naïve isolation. Vaughan displays an obvious awareness of current contemporary social and artistic movements. During the 1930s nude photographs were often published in ‘respectable’ body building or naturist magazines such as Health and Strength and Health and Fitness. This interest in nakedness – as an expression and symbol of freedom from bourgeois social constraints – was not simply a homosexual obsession. It was just as much a cult among Rupert Brooke’s mostly heterosexual Neo-Pagan’s who saw nude swimming and sunbathing as a way of asserting their bohemian credentials. While in Germany naked gymnastics held in the open air was considered to be beneficial in alleviating the effects of urban poverty on children and young people. In1929 Adolf Koch organised the Congress of Nudity and Education. Though his work would soon be banned by Hitler, the cult of the body beautiful still infiltrated Third Reich ideology through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl and an obsession with the perfect Aryan Olympic athlete. Naturism had long been valued during the 19th century as part of traditional male bonding, a philosophy that was revisited by the Wandervogel – a back to nature movement – which exalted in the cult of body-building and mass displays of gymnastics. Without any sense of irony, the approval of these ‘homoerotic’ events, in which the male body was on public display, sat alongside more punitive views about degeneracy and sexual ‘inversion’ to create a complex binary tension.

It’s not possible to be sure whether Vaughan took these photographs simply for his own enjoyment or as part of his studio practice, as aides-memoire for future paintings. A standing nude posed as Michelangelo’s David, and the shot of a bather throwing a ball in which the angle creates a dynamic heroic image, suggest that Vaughan must have been aware of the photographic propaganda from the new USSR and the work of photographers such as El Lissitzky and Rodchenko. His use of collage, as well as his tendency to draw directly onto his photographs to create surreal spatial and perspectival contradictions, indicates an interest in the possibilities of the medium in its own right. What is clear is that his artist’s eye led him to experiment with different photographic genres: the close-up, the body in movement (which surely must have been influenced by looking at Eadweard Muybridge), the action shot, along with the occasional still life. But, above all, what the camera seems to have given Vaughan, the young man who found ‘fear’ ‘tension’ and ‘repression’ in ‘everything to do with sex’, was the chance to look, to be a voyeur. As a natural outsider the camera gave him protection, gave him permission to be an observer. As Prunella Clough commented: “when Keith had a camera fixed to his eye, it legitimized his gazing at another unclothed human being”.

What Vaughan presents in these photos is a kind of nostalgia. One that records the ‘pagan’ pleasures of sun-worship and nudity, the hedonistic delights of young men at play. They are extremely British. Nothing is really outrageous. Nothing is there to shock. Of Len, Vaughan would later reminisce: “I could only touch his body through the lens of my camera…he liked to know the importance of his body and sunbathed for this reason…Len stripped and moved about with his copper-varnished limbs. I followed with my camera obsessed with the colour and the intangible beauty of the scene.”

In these interwar years photographic portraiture was still largely portrayed in terms of class and status. The subjects of Cecil Beaton stood in obvious contrast to the working-class subjects of Brandt or Bert Hardy. But Vaughan’s youthful subjects, near naked and stripped of any identifying social accoutrements, offer something more classless and democratic. What they encapsulate is youth, desire and the freedom to be oneself; qualities that as the 20th century progressed would become the hallmarks of a more liberally permissive society.

See More…

by Sue Hubbard


Keith Vaughan: On Pagham Beach: Photographs and Collages from the 1930s at Austin/Desmond Fine Art. Free. From 25 October 2017 to 8 December 2017.

Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. Her new novel, Rainsongs, is due from Duckworth in January 2017.

 

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