Reimagining Art History: marrying the past and present
Upon research and several gallery visits throughout the term I started to question why I paint the way I do, and why I feel so attached to historical aesthetics that are so contradictory to the direction painting has taken in the contemporary art world. Why am I drawn to figurative painting, and making work that looks like it could be from another time? If I am making work about my experience of anxiety, what are the biggest contributors not only to my anxiety but a collective anxiety, and how does being faithful to art historical aesthetics relate to this at all?
I have always been interested in people, stories and objects that seem a world away, or far removed from my contemporary reality, which is ultimately where my anxiety exists. In the digital age we live in, people’s anxiety levels are higher than they have ever been before, and my return to traditional practices such as glazing and figurative realism is somewhat of a rejection of society’s obsession with newness. This word “rejection” came up when I was running critiques with the third years and one of the post graduate students from the Slade School of Art used it when regarding a student’s life drawings that seemed out of place within his practice. He said the act of making figure drawings in this generation is "bold" or "brave" and it is like a "rejection of the contemporary expectation to be groundbreaking." I applied this perception to my own practice and thought about what it means to be merging contemporary subjects and anxieties with old methods of painting and drawing that reference the historic treatment of painting. I used to think that painting modern subjects in a classical style was a juxtaposition, but now am starting to think of it as a marrying or a consolidation of the past and the present. I think making work in this way allows me to distance myself from the prevalent digital world that functions at the expense of highly anxious people.
In the glazing and indirect painting workshop, it felt almost like going back in time, grinding the pigment and building the glaze up from scratch was a means of physically distancing myself from from the present world, where my anxiety is rooted. A great deal of my anxiety specifically is worsened by and stems from the ability and subsequent need to have access to any piece of information at any given moment: a dependance on technology. Therefore, the art historical element of my painting practice is a form of escapism, and the fact I make work about anxiety is a way of processing my lived experience. It is an active decision to be an oil painter in a world that in many ways has moved on. I found the word escapism while researching William Morris, and while I had always been fond of his craft and design, reading about his beliefs around art making and work led me to make several connections between his philosophies and what I have subconciously manifested in my practice.
William Morris was a historian, poet, and a craftsman most famously known for his textile designs that see the natural world perfected in intricate, symmetrical patterns. He criticised industrial capitalism and had strong beliefs about art being defined as the expression of pleasure in labour. (McAlister, 63) His Pre-Raphaelite poetry and fine art making was escapist in its nature, and he found history to be the solution to the obsession with progress,(McAlister, 7) returning to medievalist ideologies surrounding the value of craft (N.M Wells, 12).
My exploration of craft began when I unravelled my large scale canvas, and braided the frayed material to make it become like a tapestry. The laborious process was exhausting and painful as I plucked at each individual thread with a pair of tweezers. I wanted to think of the canvas as a metaphor for a psychological space and what it would mean to physically unravel it and then seal it off again. This act of being the one to unravel the canvas or "mind" and then attempting to seal it again, was an exercise of taking control or gaining control over one's own mind. I also recognised that once the canvas had been unravelled like that it could never be returned to its original state, but it could be held together in a different way, the same way the mind, once it has experienced an intense psychological experience cannot go back to how it was before. Since this work is an extension of me, or of my mind, the fact that I am the one to close off the ends was an acknowledgement that I am the only person who can gain control of my anxiety.
While I have been looking at patterns as a way of visually describing patterns in anxiety, the physical process of braiding and repeating a task over and over again, and painting the patterns by hand was me literally performing the pattern. It would be a lot easier for me to have used a stencil or some kind of printing aid to paint my patterns, or buy a piece of a rug that was already braided and ready to attach, but I believe there is something therapeutic and satisfying that comes from painting every flower and closing off each braid myself. I am choosing to maintain that quality myself, rather than being dependant on a piece of technology or mechanism to aid me. This is the fundamental idea that Morris was thinking about; that labour and fulfilment in art should come together to achieve a higher quality of work, and redefine the meaning of fine art. I see a connection to mental health and labour in art and craft because creating something from start to finish is the ultimate exercise of control, which is intrinsic to understanding anxiety. Wells highlights that the struggle in the labour of creating something was an essential contributor to the craftsmen's sense of self worth, as he "gained control over his materials tools and time". (Wells, 63) This idea of controlling materials and tools and time is something that is becoming lost with all of the overwhelming developments and new technologies that are dominating the world today, and contributing to a collective anxiety. I therefore have made the comparison between the industrial capitalism that Morris rejected and digital age that exists now. The overuse of technology is changing what it means to be an artist, as it also a contributor to anxiety levels in our generation.
Upon trying to describe my own experience with intense anxiety and derealisation, I have appropriated one of Morris's designs and used it in my current painting, and I understand that my work now takes on his history, so thought it important to make these connections.
Anxiety in Poetry
In my research of poetry in relation to themes of mental health and anxiety, I found that many of the most famous poems did not describe the actual physical feelings that come with it. So I have become more interested in contemporary poems about anxiety, as I find them to be more raw, and urgent, perhaps because anxiety levels during this time are higher than they have ever been. It is terrible but it has become this thing that is now connecting people to each other rather than isolating; perhaps one of the positive things that has come from the digital world. It is interesting to think that the very cause of many people's anxiety is part of the solution to fixing it, or understanding it. While the treatment of poetry used to be out of reach, it has now been reimagined and I have become interested in the people who write their mental health poems anonymously online in interest groups with the goal that people will read them and relate.The poems that resonate the most with me are not the ones that are heavily metaphor dependant but the ones that are immediate, direct, and have nothing to hide. I have been writing my own poems to try and describe my own experience of anxiety and derealisation to accompany my paintings. Liminal Entity speaks to the feeling of being trapped in one's mind, completely aware that your anxiety is something that you technically should be able to control, but you are unable to. A Poem From the Hospital refers to my experience and not wanting to admit the extent that I had departed from reality. Take You Anxiety on a Walk is about the sensory experience of losing touch with reality, and grasping for physical experiences to bring me back.
My happiest hours, aye ! all the time,
I love to keep in memory,
Lapsed among moors, ere life's first prime
Decayed to dark anxiety
-Charlotte Bronte, The Teacher's Monologue, p.107 1816-1855
It is absolutely terrifying
the kind of deep suffering
the happiest people
are able to hide inside themselves.
You may see me
But I’m not here!
I’m in intricate patterns and plain walls
I’m in thick fog and a clear place
I’m in explosions and jarring stillness
Chaos and Calmness
Love and Loneliness
Trapped behind, and on the other side
Of this glass cage
I exist in my madness
And I live in your reason
A perpetual in-betweenness
- Breanna Gordon
A Poem from the Hospital
You float through white hallways
You follow white coats
They take you to a room with white walls
A grown man weeps in his best suit
He stares as you walk by
His eyes are lifeless but they tell you everything
You don’t know yet that they’ll haunt you forever
Now you’re in your own white room
Just for you
White paper on the bed crinkles when you sit
Everything is colourless but you're blinded
Eyes aching, you squint
Even with the doors closed you can hear the crying from the hallway
Their screams echo in the back of your skull
But they’re drowned out by the heartbeat in your ears
Deep breaths and shaky exhales
Things have been moving for a while now
The white walls wobble
Patterns fill your mind
You touch the white paper to check its real
You pinch your hand to feel
Do your eyes look like his did?
But you’re a better actress
You don’t belong here
The white coat takes a seat
You were only tired.
Take Your Anxiety on a Walk
I turn my head to see you
Tuck my hair so I can hear
I reach out to feel the branches
Had to check that they were real
I lean in to smell the flowers
They're moving in the ground
I pick one from the earth
And touch it gently to my mouth
If all my sense is working
Why am I still unclear
Don't know how I can escape this
The veil is getting sheer
The Embedded Self Portrait
I think of the role self portraiture has within my practice. I think of the work of Artemisia Gentileschi and there is something very brave about using her own likeness in the context of other characters or biblical subjects, and I in my work tend to want to ignore the fact that my paintings are essentially self portraits. They are about me and my experience but I do not wish to put myself in such a vulnerable position as having myself be recognisable, as I'm attempting to view my work as a portrait of an experience or a psychological space. This is I suppose an anxiety in and of itself. My tendency to hide the face. While Artemisia's depictions of herself elevate her persona and actively provide agency to her self, there are paintings that contain embedded self portraits that do the exact opposite of flatter, such as Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath. David Stone suggests that Caravaggio, contradictory to the psychoanalysis applied to his painting, that Caravaggio was in complete control of his persona. I explored the idea of ogni pittore dipinge se stesso, which translates from italian to "every painter paints himself" (Stone, 37) in a previous essay I'd written called the Manipulation of the Artistic Persona in the Self Portraits of Caravaggio and Artemisia. This phrase was coined in the 15th century and rather than referring to literal self portraits, it refers to the translation of the artist's feelings, thoughts and being onto the canvas, regardless of their subject or composition. There is something interesting consciously making a work about a personal experience, and being aware of this idea, and controlling what my audience will know about me based on my work and what I choose to reveal. The idea of ogni pittore dipinge se stesso was thought of as something that just fell out of artists unconsciously and revealed their inner psyche. Historians went so far as to attribute Caravaggio's dark mysterious treatment of his biblical compositions to his dark and turbulent reality and physical features.
Returning to my interest in craft, Anna raised an interesting point while relating self portraiture to the idea of craft, and craftsmen historically not been given the same agency as the "fine artist." So in painting a self portrait that acknowledges craft as a crucial part of the art making process, it is like I am giving agency to the idea of craft, but I myself am almost still remaining anonymous within the self portrait.
Charlotte Bronte, (1816-1855) The Teacher's Monologue.
David and Goliath (Caravaggio, Rome) (no date) Articonog History of Art. Available at: https://www.articonog.com/2020/05/david-and-goliath-caravaggio-rome.html#:~:text=A%2015th%20Century%20concetto,painter%20paints%20himself’%20in%20English. (Accessed: 19 May 2023).
David M. Stone (2006) Self and Myth in Caravaggio's David and Goliath.
Morris, W. (1984) William Morris Today: 1 march-29 April 1984. Institute of Contemporary Arts.