Collaboration with Contemporary Artists
Beth Fisher: Setting Out, from the series Tilly in the Unicorn Tapestry
Beth Fisher's exhibition, Grisaille Legacy, opened at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in January 2010. The catalogue, Beth Fisher: Grisaille Legacy, was published by the RSA, and includes illustrations of all the works exhibited.
You can get some idea of how the show looked by going to the RSA’s website and following this link: http://www.royalscottishacademy.org/pages/exhibition_frame.asp?id=234
The review in Studio International is here: http://www.studio-international.co.uk/drawing/beth_fisher10.asp
Photographs of the installation, taken on the night of the Private View on 8th January 2010, are included in my Image Gallery. My own essay for the catalogue follows:
Is this a portrait I see before me?
The paragraph you have just read contains nothing surprising – it combines some personal details with a sketch of an artist’s career, and hints at the links between them. The obvious next step would be to go into more detail: to reveal further aspects of the artist’s life, to examine her work, and to explore how, precisely, she “draws upon her life in her work”. These moves, especially when deployed in relation to a woman artist, are familiar enough: Beth Fisher’s prints and drawings are manifestly grounded in personal experience. Her family lies at the very heart of the work. Close relatives provide its subject matter and its motivating impulse; hence she expects, even insists, that in some way viewers are biographically aware when they engage with her work. Her immediate family – parents, husband, children, children’s partners and pets – and they alone, people the images she makes.
For centuries, possibly forever, artists have drawn upon their own lives in making artefacts. This phenomenon makes viewers curious about those lives and about how they figure in works of art. Such curiosity is particularly understandable in our current context where it stems, at least in part, from celebrity culture. Artists have actively participated in this, often with exceptional enthusiasm, since at least the early nineteenth century, and arguably much earlier. People in general have acquired the habit of curiosity, specifically in relation to those who are in some way set apart from the rest, whether by virtue of birth, talent, wealth, notoriety or power. Ours is a nosy, intrusive culture, and when artists depict themselves and the people closest to them, that piques curiosity. Women artists seem to be particularly disposed to bring work and intimate life together, which I take to be an expression not of biology but of socially constructed gender differences, pertaining both to identity and to the division of labour. One result of this situation is that a significant number of women artists, such as the late Helen Chadwick, have stripped themselves bare, both metaphorically and literally, thereby meeting, perhaps even fuelling, curiosity about the life that is in the work.
Most works of art are intended for public display, hence when they use forms of intimacy normally associated with the home and with the most profound life events, the responses of viewers are likely to be strong, complex, even conflicted. It is precisely because matters such as sexuality, ageing and death, touch us so profoundly, that their use in the visual arts prompts an insistent curiosity, which blends with that elicited by the possession of uncommon gifts. The ability to excel in the production of images is just such a gift, and its bearers, like magicians, readily become the subject of special interest. Biography focuses and cultivates that interest. These issues are thoroughly familiar in the art world in the wake of the Young British Artists phenomenon, where art, celebrity, claims to special gifts, and autobiography were combined, especially by Tracy Emin. I am hinting here at the importance of gender issues, while insisting on how profoundly Fisher and Emin differ. One of the most striking features of the former is her use of long established methods, her commitment to the human figure, her sense of the craft of drawing and printmaking, and her deep engagement with art history.
The allure of some self-portraits, through which artists have become celebrities, exemplifies these points quite neatly. We peer at the portraits that artists of all kinds make of themselves, as if we were peering into their actual faces, and souls, forgetting that their makers are a kind of trickster – they know how to produce, through their ideas, skills and materials, certain emotional effects in us. The experiences of spectators are designed, if not fully determined by artists. Thus we are not actually seeing artists in their self-portraits, but the images they want or need or allow us to see. How, then, do spectators make sense of such representations? They readily turn to biography, which is in effect a move away from the magic of the image to the quotidian realities of life. This move holds deep appeal because it grounds the extraordinary in the ordinary, which is more readily apprehended. We perform similar moves unthinkingly every day in grappling with the mess, joy, turmoil, challenges, fears and possibilities of human existence. It is a question I cannot answer, but I still want to ask: what does biography actually explain? I do not doubt that it is one of the most important ways in which it is possible to think about the interpretation of artefacts and the visual experience of audiences. But it is also limited, precisely because it seeks to ground the results of manual skill and visual intelligence in the life of the maker, which is a kind of reduction. Art-works and lives are phenomena of different kinds, yet they are manifestly linked, if in formidably intricate ways. Self-portraits are particularly provocative in the ideas they spawn on how the life of a maker and what she produces interconnect. It is unsurprising that so many women artists turn to them, and that the results should be so arresting, and sometimes shocking, as they are in the cases of Frida Kahlo, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Alice Neel, for instance.
Transformations and Narratives
Powerful effects come, in the case of Beth Fisher, from the movements, the labour of her body. And in her case, even an untrained eye can connect the visible marks with the motion of her hand. A large measure of the appeal of drawing lies in the fact that viewers can so readily link the lines and shading that they see with manual skill. Beth’s prints bear the signs of intense physical work too, but the precise kinds, such as scraping away, which changes the texture of the paper, and making a number of impressions on a single sheet, require elaboration and explanation by the artist herself. It is possible to discuss those effects in terms of different print methods, and the ways they are combined with drawing. Conventionally we refer to such matters as ‘technique,’ which depersonalizes the skills involved. It is perfectly legitimate, indeed essential, that we ask how Beth Fisher achieves powerful effects and anticipate an answer that is, at least in part, ‘technical,’ in paying attention to the forms of printing that she uses, how she mixes them together, her approach to drawing and preferred materials. But the question “how does she do it?” could be answered quite differently, for example, by considering composition and the origins of her ideas.
Beth’s studio is full of postcards, books, and newspaper clippings, which contribute to the processes whereby she makes ideas visible. Once again transformative processes are involved, to which her many preparatory sketches stand testimony. I resist the idea that she is simply making portraits, whether of herself or of her significant others, even if they sit for her. Rather she is producing narratives, in the manner of history painting. In turning to historical precedents, whether they are myth, symbols or dense narratives, she is passing her experiences through an array of lenses, which, precisely, transform them.
History painting enjoyed the highest status in the hierarchy of artistic genres – it depicted important events in human and divine history, and did so in such a way that the story was legible. Thus, differentiating figures, giving them clear expressions and gestures, and offering other visual clues about the scene and the action, were vital. Beth sees her work in this context, and she is right to do so, with one significant proviso. The content of her work is personal; that of history painting concerned events that were political, military, national, and religious. Beth is a witness to and participant in the scenes she depicts and thereby interprets. So while she works on the scale and with precisely the expressiveness and narrative precision of history painting, the inspiration and subject matter are peculiarly intimate. Her work is not a record of her life, but a mediated response to it.
There is a double process here. Artists transform their experience into a material object; in and through those processes, they are bearing witness. For example, Beth’s work contains acts of burial in which she participated. She saw these events, which were among the most profound of her life, and then re-presented them in a radically different form. The images are, if you like, witness statements. Then they are seen by others, who become witnesses of another kind, through viewing and spending time with the witness statement. The second-order witnesses – observers of her art – thereby participate in the emotions deposited in the image, which mingle with their own ideas about, say, ‘burial’, and ‘death of a parent’. Observers’ ideas are a blend of personal experience, bits derived from other representations of similar subjects, together with information from history, newspapers, fiction, documentary sources and so on. In combination with the artist’s statements, a unique and totally personal experience results.
To be a witness is to occupy the position of privilege that comes from first-hand observation. Witnesses act on behalf of others, as the legal system makes clear, since those called to the witness box have seen things that touch the case directly and which are in the public interest. They are good citizens in being willing to testify, in assisting the judicial process. Artists, I am suggesting, occupy a comparable role, although what results is not an abstraction, such as ‘justice’, but visual experiences for audiences unknown, even unanticipated by them. It is the maker’s story, her vision, her version that is valued. Beth recasts her experience, using her artistry, while enjoying the privileged position of witness.
Other ways of telling
I have mentioned a number of big themes – love, death, myth, grief, femininity, for instance – that seem to me to be important in Beth’s Fisher’s work and in the process have alluded to a range of ways, such as biography, in which the visual arts can be discussed. I have also drawn on my direct knowledge of her and her work and reflected upon its impact on me. There are, of course, many other ways of responding to a body of artwork produced over a decade. I am a historian, and hence I could locate Beth within various lineages of women artists. During a recent visit to her studio I was struck that she had a postcard of Laura Knight’s stunning self-portrait with a nude female model (1913) from the National Portrait Gallery in London to hand. Knight was elected a Royal Academician in 1935, the first woman to join that august body since the two founding female members in the eighteenth century. In historical mode, I could also look for broad cultural ‘precedents’ for Beth’s work.
I have wondered about the Stabat Mater poem, set to music so many times, since it expresses a mother’s pain in the face of her child’s suffering, a theme so immediate to Beth’s own experience. Beth herself finds Mary’s stance too stoical and accepting, experiencing fierce grief and deep anger about her daughter’s serious illness. Nonetheless, I think it worth considering because the Stabat Mater, like representations of the Pietà, give status and respect to a mother’s anguish, with which readers, listeners and viewers are invited to identify. Beth herself finds elements of these themes in the Vigil II and Letting go series. Furthermore, Mary, mother of Jesus, is a special witness, and as such, together with other women, plays a privileged role in the story of the Crucifixion. Although Beth herself is not religious, religious traditions, as we saw in the case of the unicorn narrative, have offered rich resources for Beth’s art and, in this context, for its interpretation by others.
In considering historical and cultural antecedents, I might invoke the anatomical images, which show standing figures holding open their own skin, since these are, quite literally, self-revelatory in a way that chimes with the naked figures in Beth’s series – they are stripped bare. The link with traditions of anatomical depiction is particularly evident in Vigil I series, which shows a male body between head and knees, not in a lifelike position, but flat and passive: these images are raw, almost flayed and every one contains some red. Three contain so much of that colour that the association with blood and viscera is inescapable.
I am interested in, as well as disturbed by, the confessional culture in which we currently live. I could just as easily locate Beth’s work within artistic traditions that are ‘confessional’, which is to say that they reveal to viewers the maker’s own intimate experiences. Jo Spence’s unflinching photographs about her breast cancer are a case in point. The desire or willingness to tell all has played an important role in second-wave feminism, and thereby takes on political resonance. The use of personal lives, especially when it involves others, also becomes an ethical and more generally a philosophical matter. Do individuals ‘own’ processes, events, and experiences that happen in their lives? This question raises issues that come within the domain of philosophy, and other social sciences, since any answer hinges on an account of the relationships in which human beings are embedded. In the Christian tradition, suffering is not individualized, but fully transferrable to the whole human race. Beth appropriates this transfer for her own ends.
A connoisseurial reaction would be different again. It would stick with the images, the techniques by which they were made, and pursue close comparisons. It would, quite rightly, want to dwell with questions of scale, genre and medium, and move on to analyse the tones, textures, shapes, shading, and composition of Beth’s work. These ways of telling are not, I think, mutually exclusive, and it is wrong to prize them apart for organizational or political reasons. I could make the same point by referring to the practice of conversation, and its intricate relationship with the visual arts. Art prompts a range of responses that naturally take expression in conversation. Figurative art prompts conversations about people, with whose bodies the interlocutors cannot help but feel some affinity. Portraiture prompts conversations about the people depicted; self-portraiture insists that we speak about the artist. In both cases, story telling is involved. Conversations are not easily delimited, they flow, at least ideally, across subjects and modes of address. Art should, I argue, prompt both reflection and conversation, which run through political and personal lives, technique and iconography, history, philosophy and so on. It is eloquent testimony to Beth’s artistic achievements that her work can engage spectators in so many modes and registers.
Conclusions – Gender, Art and Autobiography
This essay comes out of more than thirty years of friendship, an interest in gender and representation on my part that is nearly as long, and a shared concern with feminist issues. As the mother of daughters I am constantly alert to differences and similarities between generations of women. And I feel a special type of anger when I see my daughters grappling with so-called ‘gender issues,’ especially in their working lives. All this is present in women’s existence, just like the complexities of ageing, with which Beth and I are both living, and forms a biographical context for her art and my reactions to it. To do justice to that work, which we can agree is visceral, other languages are required, languages in which sex, gender, anger and ageing also figure, without being treated as empirical, social phenomena, but rather as mythic and psychic ones. Just as the personal impulses for Beth’s art cannot be reduced to ‘biography,’ so the historical and imaginative ones cannot be turned into ‘influences.’ In both cases there is an implied sanitizing that I want, on Beth’s behalf, to refuse. I earn my living as an academic, and so I am well versed in the kinds of decorum, the distancing frameworks and polite ways of writing that are so common in that world. I have used some of them here. But, in the end, I want my readers to look hard at the work itself, to perceive its rawness, its fierce, unsettled emotions, its scale, its darkness, its lack of closure, to meditate upon it, but never to lose sight of it as a woman’s labour. You see her travail coupled with a formidable visual intelligence and draughtsmanship, which add up to that form of alchemy called ‘art.’ It is not a portrait I see before me, but blood, toil, tears and sweat, personalized history-painting, mythical scenes, primal unresolved narratives, new myths.
I contributed a catalogue essay to Gemma's exhibition Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists.
Gemma's website is here.
Her blog describing the development of the Patients and Psychiatrists project, which is supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, is here.
I contributed the following catalogue essay for an exhibition of photographs of artisans, which was shown in Rome in the summer of 2010. A selection of Francesco's photographs is here.
History, Photography and Skilled Handiwork
Francesco Filangeri has photographed artisans. He shows them standing in their workshops, sitting reflectively, engaged on an intricate task, posing just for him, another artisan. The label 'artisan’ is clearly significant, as are the settings in which these workers are shown and the labour they undertake. In one dictionary, 'artisan' is defined as 'mechanic, handicraftsman’, which conveys both the importance of skill and of working specifically with the hands. Although it does not make it explicit, the definition implies activities that are primarily coded as masculine; yet women have always undertaken skilled handiwork, such as lace-making. The term 'artisan' has a faintly archaic ring to it; it deploys a notion of 'art'- craft and skill — that is much less current than it used to be. It survives in popular books that explain 'the art of dressmaking' or 'the art of flower arranging'. Already I have deployed a number of Keywords in the sense Raymond Williams used the term, to refer to words that do a disproportionate amount of work and through which significant social and cultural shifts can be charted.
Present day artisans and their representation is a matter of considerable interest for cultural historians such as myself, one which touches on questions of class and status, the value of labour and skill, the markets for items made by hand, as well as apprenticeship, training and education. These are big issues, ones that concern the global economy as well as countries, regions, towns and villages. One question that this exhibition poses, then, is what role a suite of photographs of artisans might play in thinking about such issues. How might they work on those who see them? What do audiences need to know in order to appreciate the images that Francesco Filangeri has created?
I have already referred to him as an artisan, and one of his most striking images is of a grinning photographer next to his camera [it was used on the cover of the exhibition catalogue: see above], seemingly offering us, the onlookers, the chance to take a picture. It is an especially dense photograph. The camera itself is a lovely object, with its mellow wood and gleaming brass. It is manifestly not a modern piece of equipment. The man's face is crisply in focus, the hand that is thrusting out of the photograph, by contrast, is slightly blurred. He is looking straight at us, while his instrument is pointing away to the viewer's left. So what would a photograph show were the shutter to be opened at the very moment that he himself is being captured? Naturally we have no idea, only the sense that photography itself is doubly present here. The thought that one artisan is representing another surely runs through this series of photographs, which are deliberately presented with as little ancillary information as possible.
No viewer can come to these photographs cold as it were. We have all grown up with the ubiquity of photographs, with many approaches to documentary photography, and with photo-journalism. Recently there has been quite a vogue, for example in universities, for the publication of portraits of notable people within them, in book form, often with indicative accoutrements in the image. The resulting publications vary considerably in the extent to which biographical materials are also included. The linkages between portraiture and biography are very old indeed, yet Filangeri is not allying himself with these traditions, since the photographs are not supplemented with verbal accounts. His photographs are indeed portraits, even if we do not know the name or the age of the sitters. He provides their occupation, and their location is also given, and the place names conjure up rich associations, and lead the viewer to imagine the roles of artisans in Sicilian society, for example.
Since it would quite difficult to date the pictures from internal evidence, they are historically unspecific and conjure up ideas of long-established traditions of skilled handiwork transmitted across generations. I say "imagine" and "ideas" advisedly, because the kinds of knowledge and information these photographs afford us is not at all straightforward. While we know next to nothing about the people represented, the capacity of Filangeri's photographs to evoke other worlds is virtually limitless. Which worlds these are in each case depends, obviously enough, on the spectator in question and their relevant experience, and it also depends on the forms and contexts of display — the size and tones of the prints, their architectural setting, and any captions and panels provided. Thus although the possibilities of connecting these photographs to big themes is always present, whatever form they are presented in, commentators are necessarily bringing their own bigger pictures with them, perhaps even imposing their frameworks upon these works of art, while interacting, probably semi-consciously, with the setting in which they see them.
Arguably photography, and documentary photography in particular, has always suffered, if that is the right word, from such projections. We might phrase the same thought differently and say that these images warmly invite, even demand, considered responses and interpretation, that they permit, even encourage, diverse reactions. Thus however specific a photograph appears to be, and it is a feature of the medium that it claims to tell it as it is, it simply provides a spur, a provocation to those who look at it. We necessarily collaborate with the photographer: the less information that is provided about a photograph, the more viewers are in partnership with its maker.
I have long been interested in photography and its history, and especially in traditions of documentary photography. I am also interested in how work is visually depicted, not just because labour lies at the heart of human existence, but also because, at least in Western visual traditions, it has proved to be quite challenging to find effective and appropriate idioms for its representation. There are now many kinds of work that would be quite difficult to represent — a person sitting at a computer, who could in principle be doing any one of thousands of jobs - in a visually interesting manner. Perhaps the act of typing is so banal that it hardly forms a visual equivalent of artisanal activity. The computer is certainly a type of accoutrement, but it is not occupationally specific. Specialised tools are themselves the product of skilled labour, and prized in their own right, and Filangeri has given some of them their own portraits. There are pieces of equipment that have changed very little over many generations and been transmitted through families and working partnerships. In such cases a photograph of a workshop or a worker with tools would be extremely difficult to date accurately from appearances alone. Thus a documentary photograph, which might be thought of as the epitome of historical specificity, does not necessarily reveal the date of its taking to spectators. Rather it may evoke, especially when the print is black and white, some sense of traditions and skills that are out of time.
It is well known what a vexed notion "tradition" is, and how manipulatively it is sometimes deployed. Its allure, however remains undimmed and it is constantly appealed to in advertisements for commodities, such as foods, when established skills and materials are thought to be effective selling points. Thus photographs of artisans invite a range of responses to actual and imagined pasts; they tap into deep assumptions and longings about skilled workmanship and familiar values, and accordingly prompt equally complex reactions to our current situation.
The worlds evoked by photographs of artisans are economically marginal today, and by that token they may seem archaic to some people. Accordingly they could feed a sort of nostalgia. Such nostalgia even surfaces among professional historians for whom the very term 'artisan' is rich and evocative for sentimental as well as intellectual reasons. It is used of times when occupational associations of skilled men played important roles not only in the day to day life of towns and cities, but in the defence of traditional liberties and privileges. They have been given a privileged role in accounts of many revolutions. Artisans were frequently highly articulate and well travelled, with those who worked on precious materials, such as gold and silver, enjoying considerable prestige, local power and economic success. It was common for artisans to be attentive to the behaviour of their journeymen and apprentices, which was closely monitored, and in the process they exercised considerable amounts of social control. For those historians who work on popular radicalism, the artisan, mobile, alert to change, with his ability to express and act on grievances, occupies a special place.
All the ways in which historians understand artisans in fact depend upon their membership of collectives, such as guilds and workshops, which not only permitted group action and an awareness of shared conditions, but which enjoyed specific kinds of power by virtue of their economic contribution, their well-honed organization or their connectedness with local elites. By contrast, the majority of Francesco Filangeri's artisans, whether male or female, whether located in England, France or Italy, are shown alone. Sometimes we have a setting, materials or instruments that indicate their trade. In every case, however the emphasis is on a single individual, with the exception of the Roman wood restorers. These artisans are not proto-radicals, but people with whom the photographer has engaged. For me, the quality of his engagement is evident in the pictures. Furthermore, Filangeri's artisans are, if I may put it in American terms, regular guys, ordinary in the best sense of the word.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that in all the photographs, there is what I identify as a kind of modesty. This is not to say that that the individuals are modest about their skills. Rather it is to note that the settings are unpretentious, sometimes shabby, frequently cluttered; they suggest neither affluence nor wealth, and the workers' attire is simple. There certainly is evidence of pride in the work itself - consider, for example, the juxtaposition of sewing machine and musical instrument, one held in each hand of their owner, whose outstretched arms span the image and whose gently smiling face provides a focal point. Then there is the maker of model horses, seated behind his working surface, glancing up at the camera while holding one of his creations in both hands. He seems almost tentative, manifesting shy pride, possibly. In other photographs, even where subjects are presenting themselves more boldly and confidently, there is precisely this quality of modesty. And it serves to point up a particularly striking feature of some of the photographs - evident especially in the series depicting the Palermo cabinet-maker - the beauty of the raw materials, in this case of wood, brought out by the quality of the picture. Similarly, the Palermo carpenter stands next to his materials and gently touches the stack of wood beside him. An upholsterer in the same city sprawls in an elaborately carved and well-upholstered chair, with, we might infer, a special pleasure in his own finished handiwork. It could be thought a commanding image, with his legs apart and his arms across its arms. But he is wearing shorts and a polo shirt, whilst the wall behind him shows distinct signs of decay. He may look pleased, but there is no grandeur here, just pleasing modesty.
At one level, these are pictures of ordinary folk —the woman working in the window of a London tailor's shop, the Italian car body-maker squatting by a tree, the seat weaver gazing through the beginnings of a seat, and the stonemason sitting in a doorway. In these cases the viewer brings to the photograph ideas about the skills involved. Although it relates to everyday activities, "skill" is in fact an abstract idea, hard to express visually. Here is one of the most notable features of pictorial traditions depicting work - a term we use of an extraordinary array of processes — the virtual impossibility of representing it directly. Likewise, the skills that underlie labour processes are themselves invisible. So, how can "work" or indeed "skill" be made visible? Tools, settings and products can be used to evoke these ideas by means of association. It is also possible to use a frozen moment, an approach to which photography is particularly well suited. Again the viewer's contribution is vital, since that moment needs to be understood as part of a larger process, even if they are ignorant of its details. It is interesting that Filangeri rarely uses this device. In a particularly striking image, the Palermo jewel maker is shown doing something, but precisely what remains mysterious to the uninitiated. This does not matter, because the fact of him being mid-process is signalled clearly enough. The active positions of his hands, one of which holds an implement, convey the fact that work is in progress. Just as eloquent is the momentary glance up, which catches our attention, and does so most effectively because most but not all of his eyes are just but only just above the rim of the double spectacles. This is work.
Work has, as it were, many faces, including the look of intense, focused concentration that Filangeri captures in several photographs, and the raised arm of the blacksmith. Work can also be suggested by tools alone, with no human figure present. Yet this is an exhibition about people, their faces, hands, materials, and settings. It invites viewers to muse on activities most of which have been pursued over generations in strikingly similar ways. These artisans hover between past and present, and they can do so not just because of persistence of craft traditions, but because the idioms of photography, and especially the use of black and white prints, encourages ambiguities about time, and possibly about place. The effect is heightened by Filangeri's minimalist approach to ancillary information, which makes the viewer do more mental work, a complement perhaps to artisanal endeavour, where so much resides in the hands. The photographer-artisan, in creatively combining mind and body, can bring, with exquisite sensitivity, the worlds of artisans to the sympathetic attention of people who have become estranged from manual skills.
The catalogue of The Family of Man (New York, 1955), perhaps the most visited photography exhibition of all time, includes many images of people working (see pp. 60-87, and especially p. 73). Howard Guest, On the Shoulders of Giants. Portraits from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge. 2008) is an example of the use of photographic portraits together with mini-biographies to promote an institution and those who work in it. See especially the entries for Art, Class, Creative, Image. Labour, Mechanical, Status, Tradition and Work (there is no entry for either Craft or Skill), in Raymond Williams, Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London, revised and expanded edition 1983). On artisans, see James Fair, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914 (Cambridge, 2000).