Category Archives: Research Point

research point

Reflect and analyse how the depiction of the male and female nude has changed over the centuries.


Across time there has been quite some back and forth as to what nudity signifies and what is deemed acceptable, but the overriding factor that strikes me most is the presentation of the female nude as passive and available. Not always, but often. And what I find really surprising is that this tendency continues today in my own weekly art class where our female models often assume a sexualised position while the male model  will lounge about just as he might at home.  And it feels like we don’t really stop to question these ‘norms’.



In Classical Greece, to depict a nude was to celebrate physical beauty, and most especially the heroic male ideal, though Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos introduced the idea of female beauty. Much influenced by the Greeks, the Romans continued this celebration, with a general mash-up of gender roles and sexuality. sleeping-hermaphrodite-ss-slide-2GVG-jumboI still remember coming across Sleeping Hermaphrodite at the British Museum and wondering if anyone had spotted what I had? Turns out that this sculpture was a popular choice for the gardens of the wealthy – it was considered amusing – perhaps the ancient equivalent of a herd of giant topiary elephants. However the curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Met, Mr Picón, warns that  “it would be a mistake to interpret the popularity of these works as a sign of ancient tolerance. The birth of intersex people was seen as a bad omen; those born with ambiguous genitals were usually killed.” (McDermon, 2017)

Medieval times were less playful however, and Christian art saw nakedness, and most specifically female nakedness, become a signifier of guilt, shame, vanity and sin. The Renaissance of course looked back to the classical ideal and we see the naked body once again representing the ideal concepts of truth and love while Leonardo da Vinci celebrated the perfect geometry of the male body. The female body was less celebrated and was often depicted as a deviation from the perfect male form – with comical add-on breasts and a strategic cloth or hand to cover the missing penis.


Angelica saved by Ruggiero
1819-39, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Museum walls seem laden with voluptuous naked women reclining on ornate sofas, admiring themselves in mirrors, or chained to rocks awaiting rescue by a hero – dressed, of course, in shining armour. They are all waiting to be looked at, just as the often-quoted John Berger, puts it: ‘…men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (Berger, 2008)

Meanwhile men are rarely depicted as passive, and if they are it’s usually because they have been made a victim, martyred or crucified.

Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe of 1862 and Olympia, 1863 seem to be the paintings most often credited with first challenging this perspective of an ideal fantasy woman, naked passive and waiting. Manet’s naked woman owns her sexuality, she is in control. But more than this, in each painting she has turned to look the viewer directly in the face – a direct confrontation.

Something I had never considered before reading Gill Saunders’ The Nude, A New Perspective (1989) is the frequent fragmentation of the female body in images, rendering it an anonymous ‘object’. Saunders makes much of this – especially those images without arms – describing them as ‘cropped and truncated’, ‘mutilated and thus literally powerless and passive’. (Saunders, 1989). It’s rare to see a male nude depicted this way. I’ve just done a very unscientific Google search of male nude/fine art and female nude/fine art. Of the first 22 images that appear, just one of the male nudes is ‘truncated’ while seven of the female nudes appear solely as torsos.

An artist who fragments the human body (often to abstraction) though does treat male and female bodies with equality is photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I will never forget stumbling upon an exhibition of his in Sydney. I had no idea who he was. My first reaction was to marvel at the beautiful forms he had created, my second was surprise…

The feminist art movement kicked off in the 1960s as an attempt to redress an art world that was seen as created by and for men. This was not just about the representation of women in art but the exposure of female artists.




McDermon, D. (2017). What the Sleeping Hermaphrodite Tells Us About Art, Sex and Good Taste. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Jun. 2017].

Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Saunders, G. (1989). The nude. Cambridge: Harper & Row.

Research point

Thoughts on art that depicts the human figure…

Thoughts on my own life classes and also notes on artists whose subject matter is almost exclusively the human figure – not asked for as part of this research point but I’m interested to see if they are driven by the same impulse.

The artists I’ve looked at most during this Part Four are: Freud, Bacon and Alice Neel and it strikes me that each has a different approach, or a different reason for painting people.

  • Freud paints almost exclusively nudes – mostly in relaxed positions, but sometimes contorted. They are often facing away from the sitter, or eyes closed. These images seem to be about his own attitude to the sitter, their body, the human body in general.
  • Bacon’s figures are mostly clothed and in an abstract setting. The focus of the image is the head, because for Bacon it’s all about what is going on in that head – it’s about his relationship with that person.
  • Neel’s sitters are mostly clothed and they almost always look directly at the painter. Her sitters are posed as for a traditional portrait, but casually so, as if they’ve just been asked to take a seat. While there is a clear sense of the contact between Neel and the sitter, the painting is about the sitter and their life – it feels more social documentary – she is capturing something about how their life is going at that point in time.

Portrait of PL, 1962, Francis Bacon

I’ve struggled with Francis Bacon’s work. I saw Francis Bacon and the Masters at the Sainsbury Centre in 2015, and two of his works have been shown in galleries near to me. I tried to give them time,  but found the work so uncomfortable I moved on faster than I should have done, my summary something like ‘distorted pulverised faces, trapped and screaming silently’. 

All I really knew of Bacon was that he was often obnoxious and drunk, and that he was very popular with art students in the 80s. No doubt these things lessened my interest in him.

The BBC documentary Great Artists in their Own Words: Out of the Darkness 1939-1966 helped me appreciate his paintings a little more. He had expressed the horror he had experienced (from helping in the war effort), but most importantly, he had done so in a new way.

Watching Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017) took my appreciation up a level further. It would be crazy if we had to research a painter’s life before being able to appreciate their work, but I think Bacon’s very public persona had repelled me in advance of seeing his work. Of course we learn about ourselves from our reactions to art and I suppose mine is rooted in fear – and add to that an unwillingness to delve further into the ‘why’.

Bacon however was willing to delve very deep. A friend of Bacon’s (in the documentary) describes his work as “the most extreme expression of what it was like to be Francis Bacon. He would almost empty himself of his bitterest thoughts on canvas and be purified” 

Bacon’s life was shaped by early ill-health and humiliation and later by violence. He was a masochist with a penchant for deeply macho men and it’s clear that the violent episodes in his life were the main inspiration for his paintings. Though his partners were often the subject, in his own words: “When you are painting anything, you are painting not only the subject but also yourself …”

His paintings turn us all inside out, exposing the distortion that lies beneath the skin. In the portraits of his friends, partners and of himself there is constant conflict: vulnerability, violence, anger, tenderness and where faces are partly missing, dissolving and contorting, the question is always ‘who are we, really?’


Esther, 1980, Lucian Freud

In contrast to Bacon, Freud appears to use scrutiny, analysis in a search for the underlying emotion of the human body – more hidden in his subjects, and certainly within himself. Whereas Bacon’s life was raw and exposed with violent emotion, Freud’s appears to be cool and controlled, emotions kept locked away. In his own words “I hoped that if I concentrated enough the intensity of the scrutiny alone would force life in to the pictures”

Revealingly it was Bacon (the two became friends in 1945) that helped Freud find a closer connection with his subjects. “I saw there was something wrong about the distance between how I felt and the way I was working….I realised Bacon’s work related immediately to how he felt about life” This is the point at which Freud changed from painting with such tight control to using a bigger brush and showing more emotional engagement with his subject.

Like many people who have some difficulty getting emotionally close to others, Freud had a deep empathy with animals, extending to an interest in biology.  He admitted: “I see as a biologist. When I’m painting people in clothes I’m always thinking of naked people or animals dressed”. This probably best describes how I feel when I see Freud’s paintings – that he has studied the body of his sitter as he might study the body of an animal, with a biological interest, he sees the bones, blood, organs – and how the skin changes as it runs blue or pink across those insides. He seems to capture instinctive emotions rather than anything running on the surface. Somehow he manages to explain to the viewer what it would be like to be in that body. He works on paintings for many many hours, often across years, so maybe over that time he strips away any superficially from the sitter – they are simply worn down to their basic self by the amount of hours they have sat!

His daughter Esther captures this well:  “He’s not trying to depict an image of me. He’s painting who I am. I wanted to be a great beauty. But there I was myself – my teenage self was disappointed.”


Pregnant Woman, 1971, Alice Neel (photo taken at retrospective)


My thoughts on Alice Neel are in this previous post

My Own Life Drawing Classes

For the past few months I’ve taken a weekly life drawing class during which it feels like a very specific part of my brain lights up. I am completely absorbed. Why is life drawing is so compelling? At first I suspected it was simply the romance of fine art – perhaps we feel we can channel the masters through our own struggles with a charcoal stub,  leaves of newsprint falling around our feet. But they in turn were compelled, and so it goes back throughout history, we have always drawn ourselves.

Then there is also the question of the nude. I say to myself that I am just as interested in drawing someone clothed. But then I think about all those folds of material hiding an extraordinary living being – and how I would miss that link from rib cage to arm pit, the challenge of clavicle and shoulder joint, the incredible strength of thigh locked into pelvis.

I’m interested in bodies and how we use them, our own relationship with them. I’m fascinated by how some people seem quite intimidated by their own body, fearful of twisting this or that, while others have deep understanding of how their body works and demand everything from it. And then there are those that treat it a bit like a handbag that can be changed when it’s worn out,  using it as nothing more than a receptacle for junk.

Our posture, muscle tone, how we sit, stand, walk – these things give so much away about how we live our lives, who we are, who we think we are.

I think about the models that have passed through our life class, some just once, others are regulars. From smiles and ‘how are you’s?’ the transition is swift and then they are skin, muscle, bony joints, jawlines. Sometimes as I draw I wonder what it is like to inhabit that body. How they feel in that body, clothed and out on the street, these people that I know nothing about. I think how different it would be if my friends came in and undressed each week. It would be wonderful actually, but so, so different.

I do wonder about the whole process of going to a room once a week to draw someone who has no clothes on. The state of being naked has moved so far from simply being our most natural state. The naked or near naked body is used to sell us anything from aftershave to ice cream to plain old sexual thrills. And all the while creating a new ideal for us to measure our own bodies up against. It is absolutely fraught!

Is the life class a way of removing ourselves from this commercialisation of the naked body? Is it a way of reminding ourselves who we really are? Studying the way the skin stretches taught over a knee cap but sags in the folds under the arm, or how a shoulder blade will slide around the rib cage, and a belly will settle in folds on the thighs.

Having said this, I do sense tension within our art class when it comes to ‘the pose’. There is no instruction in the class – the pose is agreed on and off we go – but there is a split in the group from those that hope for a natural pose to those that prefer what I can only call contrived – an arching back, head thrown back, whatever position will accentuate the curves of hip or breast – a position that invites the viewer to look. As Gill Sanders puts it in her book The Nude, A New Perspective ‘The nude female body is commonly presented as a sexual spectacle, the picture set up as an invitation to voyeurism’. (Saunders, 1989) I’ve drily noted that on the rare occasions we have a male model, he is never invited to display his body in such a way.

Is it possible to draw a nude without sexual connotation? Does it even matter? Surely what is important is that bodies aren’t objectified, aren’t considered a ‘thing’, submissive and available. And how do we do that? Does it come down to the intention of the artist, to the mindset of the sitter, or the viewer?

PS. Something I forgot to mention is that I usually find that it’s more satisfying to draw  a female body than male. I’m not absolutely sure why though I think it may be about curves. I’m tempted to suggest that curves are easier and more forgiving to draw than straight lines because actually the thought of drawing a beer-bellied man is more appealing to me than a super-athletic woman.  The essential curves of a woman make it easer to convey the body than that of a man where the transition of breast to waist to pelvis is more subtle and demands closer observation for it to make sense.


Saunders, G. (1989). The nude. Cambridge: Harper & Row.

YouTube. (2017). Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017). [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

YouTube. (2017). Lucian Freud a Painted Life – YouTube. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].





research point

Look at contemporary as well as historic artists who work on the face in different ways. Use the research to inspire your own experiments (Also: Look at Graham Little and Elizabeth Peyton)

Just listened to Maggie Hambling keeping the RA’s Tim Marlow well and truly on his toes in podcast Maggie Hambling in Conversation with Tim Marlow. Direct, honest and generous when she talks about her approach, I picked up on a couple of things she said specifically about portraits:

“Once the subject has chosen the artist then the subject must be in charge of everything the artist does. It’s dangerous if it’s the other way around. For example, if I were painting you (directed at Tim Marlow), I would have to empty myself for the truth of you to come through the floor of the studio and up through me and out onto the canvas. So you as the subjects were in charge of me”

She then quotes Brancusi: “It isn’t difficult to make a work of art, the difficulty lies in being in the right state to make it…being receptive to the subject”

In portraits that move me I can feel the artist getting inside the sitter, burrowing under the skin to find out who they really are, but I like the way Hambling describes this process so specifically. Alice Neel described a similar process, only she entered her sitter – only to feel emptied once her sitter had left.


Alzheimer’s Head 4, Lee Newman

Lee Newman works with ‘drypoint and roulette’ – a combination I’ve never heard of before but I find the results profoundly moving. This is from his series of portraits of Alzheimer sufferers. The marks appear as partly mechanical, partly by hand – giving a sense of control and loss of control. The figure is not quite in or out of the picture. There’s a feeling of slippage, of not quite being grounded.


Torso Masculino de Perfil, Antonio López Garcia (engraving)

This is obviously interesting – a portrait on its side. There are immediate connections to a morgue shelf, or perhaps an MRI scanner. The added lines are intriguing: scientific notches along the bottom, a scale, and then the freer lines that look like wire – perhaps torso with raised upper arm? Though it could also be read as a continuation of a funnel-like neck. It makes me think about what it is to be inside a body. The body is just our casing. We are something else that can be perhaps within and without of that casing? This feels like a photograph, a photograph that has been treated, or aged, overexposed perhaps.


Ginny Grayson

Reminds me a lot of Giacometti. There is a scratching away at the surface, a kind of burrowing down to find the essence, and as with Giacometti, the attention is on the centre of the face. Grayson does use softer techniques in some of her portraits – I would love to think she matches her mark-making to the mood of the sitter, because this sitter looks truly grumpy and those are irritable marks. I can’t find more information on this drawing, I would love to know exactly what medium she used.


Self Portrait, 1958, Frank Auerbach

Not sure how I feel about this. The harsh treatment of the media transfers directly on to the sitter. If it wasn’t a self-portrait I would consider the sitter broken, like the papers used to patch him together. As it’s a self-portrait it feels more as if this is the artist hiding behind his media, peering through, hiding.


Egon Schiele

I spend a great deal of time staring at Egon Schiele’s drawings, wondering just how he does it. There is such a scarcity of line and yet we know that this woman has wrapped herself up in a blanket, arms crossed and hands up on her shoulders. The head and the hair are quite unearthly and yet the whole just works. It was interesting copying one of his figures recently (in sketchbook). He seems to see in pure shapes.


Hartley and Ginny, 1970, Alice Neel

My head is somewhat full of Alice Neel right now, what with the retrospective of her work just down the road (still can’t believe my luck) in Arles. Like Egon Schiele, I find it hard to stop looking and wondering just how she pulls it off. Proportion is all over the place and though she can obviously draw ‘correctly’ she mostly chooses not to, or she mixes it up within one picture – perhaps a left hand anatomically perfect and the right hand added without a second thought.

I recently read Saied Dai explaining his approach to painting Sir Jonathan Miller and I wonder if Alice Neel worked in this way – using ‘distortions’ to capture the ‘unique persona’ (see extract below). Though at first glance both Hartley and Ginny seem to have been painted in the same way, with the same large green eyes and one-size-fits-all chin/mouth/philtrum (I had to look that up!) she has employed slight distortions that capture their personas. Ginny’s eyes stare straight ahead, with low dark brows. She focused on what’s happening, fully engaged. Hartley’s eyes are just slightly off to the side, his brows sit higher, indeed his eyes sit higher in his forehead. The effect is of someone relaxed, mind elsewhere perhaps. Maybe these aren’t distortions, maybe these are the tiny subtleties that capture the character.

45dd0a11821973da7e3399182386413eThis portrait of Sir Jonathan Miller is one of the very few that Dai actually referenced from photographs. Although he had observed Miller directly several times, often during lectures, Dai noticed that his brain exercised a remarkably kinetic effect on his face and body. As he spoke, Miller appeared to be in constant motion, and therefore not an ideal subject for any sort of static directly observed likeness. Instead, Dai employed subtle distortions of scale and physiognomy to capture an impression of Miller’s unique persona. “Real distortion actually becomes truth”, he explained. “That’s the paradox. When all the relationships are authentic, so too is the image. It’s essentially an architectural approach, and this is a visual idiom one can only achieve at some distance from your subject.” (, 2017)

NPG 6185; Harold Pinter by Justin Mortimer

Harold Pinter, 1992, Justin Mortimer

This is a very obvious portrait – Harold Pinter drowning in scripts – but I love its boldness. It really feels as if the tide is rising around him and yet we know he’ll be OK because of all that energetic red. Deep in thought, we can imagine that the red reflects the state of his mind – firing on all cylinders – creating. And yet when asked about sitting for the portrait – The Sitter’s Tale – he says “I just sat back and thought about life, death and everything; I was quite relaxed.” (MULLINS, 2017). The red was added afterwards by Mortimer and I find it interesting that the choice of red most probably changes how we read the portrait.


Portrait de Maria Picasso Lopez, 1923, Pablo Picasso

I came across this portrait in a quirky museum in Arles. It stood out like a jewel in a room with some sketches by Picasso that I want to say were pretty awful, but I’m not sure it’s acceptable to say such a thing. The lines are so deliberate and yet so delicate. The face is luminous, the expression wary. I can well believe that Picasso knows this face so well he can draw it from memory – it almost feels as if that is what he’s done here – the lines (especially nose through to mouth) look as if they have been done in one deft move.


Untitled, 2000, Graham Little


Craig, 1998, Elizabeth Peyton

I feel a bit ambivalent about these last two images. The course book asks us specifically to look at these two artists and these were my favourite images. Though I found their work very beautiful it feels close to fashion illustration. Elizabeth Peyton’s faces all get the same treatment of pointy chin, cheekbones and rosebud mouth. Of the two I prefer Graham Little’s images which feel like updated Romanticism. They are simply gorgeous to look at but they don’t leave me with any questions.

References: (2017). The Polymath (Portrait of Sir Jonathan Miller) – Messum’s | Fine Art Est.1963.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 May 2017].

MULLINS, I. (2017). The sitter’s tale: Harold Pinter. [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2017].

research point: john virtue

Try to find some information on the work he produced while associate artist in residence at the National Gallery. You’ll also find works he has made on site on the moors and at sea.

I was tempted to avoid this research point altogether. I looked at Virtue’s works on line, I bookmarked the page, I came back to them, I did a new search. There was nothing pulling me in , nothing led me to peer closer at the screen, to maximise the image.

I’m ready to accept that I might feel very differently should I see them in the flesh. I’ve had the same change of heart (in both directions) before, once I’ve seen something up close.


No 8, John Virtue, 2011-2013

Out of all the works I’ve seen online, Virtue’s series of the sea at Blakeney Point in Norfolk are the ones I think I might respond best to in person. For this series he walked and sketched the same stretch of coast each week. But I’m not convinced.


(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I’m wondering if I’m being unfair. Looking again at his works (online), I think I object to those with St Paul’s Cathedral in them. And those done with acrylics where the brushwork is more apparent (as with the sea pictures).

They just don’t feel very authentic to me. Though is it possible to draw these landmarks and remain convincing?


This work (right) I find slightly more intriguing but there is still something about all these works that pushes me away rather than pulls me in.

I’m trying to understand why. The place isn’t a problem. I spent most of my life in London, I love the city. Black and white isn’t an issue. I’m wondering if it’s the lack of tone that stops me ‘seeing’ and pushes back?


It’s not easy tracking down Virtue’s work online, much of it is on Pinterest without title or date.
This last image is via, but I can’t find more information on it.

However I do find it more intriguing than the others and I want to spend longer looking at it. It’s London again, probably St Paul’s at the right, possibly Nelson’s column to the left, maybe the gherkin centre? The bend in the river, wooden pier supports exposed at low tide? It looks like it may be a print? It has more range of tone than in his other works and a greater range of spontaneous marks.

I’ve been thinking about the black and white that Virtue uses, without much tonal range between the two. I wonder if it is this that stops me entering the scene? Faced with black and white, we make colour in our minds. But with Virtue I can’t do that.  His impenetrable  black shapes against flat empty whites leave me uninvolved and unengaged.

NB. This post has been bothering me, because I haven’t really tried to understand the painter or his work. And maybe if I give a bit more I will get more out. I’ve done some more reading to try and get into these works:

Virtue spends several years with each subject. Shortly before coming to London he was painting the Exe estuary. When he joined the National Gallery as associate artist, Virtue says he became mesmerised by the Thames – which led to the body of work he created during his time in London. He describes himself as having only a ‘tourist acquaintance’  with London before taking this position. I wonder if this is what I’m sensing. I’m interested in the connection we have to place, and how this affects our artistic response to a place. There is surely a huge difference in the response of the tourist or visitor to that of someone with the deep physical connection that comes from being born or growing up in a place?

This from Peter Kingston’s 2005 profile on John Virtue in The Guardian:

“The dynamism here is unique,” (Virtue) says of London. “There’s an energy and vitality – it almost has an organic feel to it. It grows and changes its form all the time.” Given this, Virtue’s rejection of the idea that the paintings record particular moments in a changing scene seems paradoxical.

“I want to move away from the notion of impression – a cold winter’s day in London, for instance. I work right across seasons, time and weather. I’m not interested in capturing a fleeting moment (Kingston, 2005)

This has really put my head in a twist. Virtue does not want to capture an impression of the city. Does this mean he is trying to capture its essence? the way it mesmerised him? its character through time? There is something timeless about these images, except the first shown above. Which truthfully reminds me of the paintings shown on the street along Piccadilly. Do I mean timeless, or do I mean traditional? River in the foreground, townscape behind? Am I looking at a ‘traditional’ landscape with some black smudges over it?

Oh dear, the more I think about these works, the less I like them. There is something mechanical about them. I go back to the black and whiteness of them. They feel like a ‘noir’ filter has been applied.

I think I have to conclude that I need to see these paintings in person for them to speak to me.


As a note to myself I’ve added this photograph of a Franz Kline’s Untitled, 1952, that I took last year. I was absolutely blown away by it. I could have looked at it all day. Kline has been mentioned as one of Virtue’s heroes – another who uses black and white alone.

Reference List

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Kingston, P. (2005) John Virtue: Being a professor is the new black. Available at: (Accessed: 23 February 2017)

research point: find examples of contemporary artists who ‘revisit the art historic subject of ‘landscape’ to offer insights into today’s fast changing society’

Rachel Whiteread


House, 1993, Rachel Whiteread (photo via Apollo Magazine)

Short on time, podcasts are becoming a great source for me. I can listen while driving, cooking, walking the dog, washing up. My husband thinks I’m daft to listen to podcasts about art, when I can’t actually see anything, but I find that I listen harder than I might if I also had the image before me. Then if something that has caught my ear, I look it up online as soon as I can. Recently I listened to Tate curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas talking about Rachel Whiteread’s drawings and when it was over I couldn’t get to a screen fast enough. Before this podcast, shamefully all I knew of Whiteread was her Untitled (House) 1993, which I had thought wonderful at the time. And now I’ve found her drawings.

Most of the drawings are not strictly ‘landscape’ though they are connected: staircases, mattresses, flooring- the interiors of the urban landscape – for Whiteread is interested in the insides and outsides of things. While her exterior images can’t really be called landscape – they are a tight crop of urban landscape – they do seem to be about the relationship of the subject to its surroundings, whether we see the surroundings or not.


Study for Village – 1st, 2004, Rachel Whiteread (ink, pencil and collage on paper)

Whiteread collects doll’s houses. Here they line up as if on a suburban street, their innards open for the world to see. At eye-level. They are empty, like the semi-demolished and derelict buildings of her other images. Have all the other houses in this street been obliterated already, or are these the first to occupy it? Where are they – is this AnyStreet in AnyTown? A dream? A nightmare?

A lightbulb is in the foreground. This plays with our sense of perspective – are the houses a long way off, and the lightbulb to scale, or is this the true size of real bulb and a doll’s house? And why the lightbulb – universal sign that someone is at home…lights are on but no-one home? Are the lights are out for good?

(This makes me momentarily think of a small row of houses I used to pass occasionally, where the lights were never on. And yet the occupants were home, it’s just that they were blind. At the time this felt spooky to me – people were moving around in side those houses – and made me acutely aware of how reliant I was on my eyes. Now I think how differently the space within these houses was being experienced – through touch and sound).

And then of course the ghostly inked shadow above the doll’s houses. Is this the reverse? The inside-out? Are the lights on here, or is this just a facade, hiding nothing?


Place (Village), 2006-2008, Rachel Whiteread (installation of doll’s houses)

“I didn’t think I was going to light it at first, but eventually it seemed to me that it was best to cast the spaces with light. I had wanted to make something that wasn’t sentimental, but would make children gasp when they saw it. When I first showed it at the Hayward Gallery a few years ago, it was extraordinary to stand there and listen to the noises. People often don’t make a sound when they see art, but there would be an ‘ah’, or an ‘oh’ – it was an emotional reaction, but not, I hope, in any way sentimental” Rachel Whiteread, in interview with Bice Curigar, Tate etc (magazine) Issue 20, Autumn 2010

What I find interesting in this quote is how Whiteread talks about casting the spaces with light – not lighting up the insides – but casting them. Sometimes she works with plaster, sometimes resin, sometimes light.


House Study, Grove Road, photograph in four parts, 1992

I can’t find much information on this, though I have to assume it is preparatory drawing for House, which was indeed at 193 Grove Road.

I find it fascinating that the simple whitening out of parts of a photograph manages to do so much: creates a drawing, raises questions, makes us think. Think about the presence of houses, their footprints, the space they occupy in the landscape, the history they hold within their walls, the people who were sheltered by those walls. What remains of all this when the house is gone?


Dog Leg Stair, 1995, Rachel Whiteread (correction fluid and ink on graph paper)

Graph paper! This was what really got me running to a screen to check out these drawings. I had been thinking about doing my Assignment 3 on graph paper when I heard that Whiteread had used it for some of her drawings. And then she uses Tippex.

Wonderful Tippex. Who hasn’t blanked out half a page of an exercise book when bored at school, and used it to draw? My kids don’t know the joy of Tippex with today’s flashy erasable pens.

Tippex seems to be the perfect choice: utterly opaque, matt, white and dry. In my own experiments white acrylic didn’t have the same opacity and wrinkled the paper with its wetness.

The combination of graph paper and Tippex is nostalgic for some of us. They speak of 1970’s math classes.

I feel that the media alone sets the tone of something past, a memory, plans, things covered up, missing. Then drawings themselves ask questions. The perspective is not quite ‘right’ on the stairs, they seem to be lifting up and towards us, and it’s not clear how the stairs relate to the box they sit in. But it is these things that make us wonder.


Drawing for Water Tower VI, 1996 (varnish, ink and pencil)

I do seem to have a bit of a thing for this old yellow. I’ve used it in a couple of drawings so far on this course (next to charcoal), and here it is, applied I think as a varnish. It is the colour of things faded – plastic, linen, paper.

Though the description here is varnish, ink and pencil, it does look like collage in the background. The drawing was preparatory work for a casting made of the New York water tower. The tower had been made in cedar wood and the casting was made in resin.

In this simple drawing, the cedar tower becomes elegant and ethereal, it almost glows. Its function as a water tower was all of these things – an elegant solution to bring life to the city. And yet on the rooftops these towers were lost, disappearing in the urban landscape.


research point: compare the approach of contemporary artists with those of earlier artists

Marcelo Moscheta and Caspar Friedrich


33 Mountains, 2010, Marcelo Mosheta

Funny how art loops around itself, criss-crossing, sometimes doubling back, threading its way through time and minds like a very long shoe lace. In Vitamin D2 I came across Marcelo Moscheta’s 33 Mountains which jumped out at me because of the recent work that artist Annette Lemieux had asked the Whitney Museum to turn upside down in protest of Trump’s election (Dunne, 2016).


Left Right Left Right, 1995, Annette Lemieux

Simultaneously it had me thinking of Vija Clemins and Tacita Dean (whose work has been highlighted on this part of the course), Caspar Friedrich and John Ruskin. John Ruskin because I’d been dipping in and out of Simon Shama’s Landscape and Memory, and Caspar Friedrich because the result of a clear-out by my father in law is a pile of art books on the kitchen table that includes Friedrich.

33 Mountains is a collection of drawings in graphite on PVC board, each drawing mounted on iron posts and in Vitamin D2 is shown leaning against a wall – an installation of drawings.

I’m wary of looking at art in a book if I’ve never seen it for real. In Vitamin D2 the work is on a double page spread, so that helps. Snapshots of mountains like this could come across like someone’s holiday snaps – hiking or skiing in the alps. They are all cropped images of mountains, it’s hard to gauge the scale of the rock we’re looking at.


The overall impression is of the oppressive presence of mountains, a slight feeling of claustrophobia. The cropped images are glimpses, and this is how we see the mountains when we are in them. Unless we climb to a viewpoint or take the chair lift to the top, we are in the valley and catch glimpses. They loom up behind buildings, behind forests, behind other mountains. They suddenly appear above the top of low cloud, around a bend in the road.

Moscheta’s mountains are white out of black and the sense this gives of night time intensifies their massive and eternal presence. They are there when we go to bed, there when we wake. They were here before us and they’re not going anywhere soon!

33 was Moscheta’s age when he completed this work. Maybe each mountain is alluding to something more personal but as a viewer looking in a book the overriding feeling I get is the simple overpowering presence of the mountains. In Vitamin D2, Jacopo Crivelli Visconti writes about 33 Mountains (2010) and Atlas (2011): “In both works it should be noted, drawing is still used as a measurement system. In the first case, the number of mountains alludes to the are of the artist himself when the work was done, while in the second the size of each planet is correctly proportioned in relation to the Earth….It is the clash between the desire for accurate measurement and the fascination with the unfathomable immensity of the world that the core of his work resides. In this sense, the work is part of the great Romantic tradition of confronting humanity with the vastness of nature.” (Price et al., 2013)


Wanderer above the sea of fog, c.1818, Caspar Friedrich

Looking through the Friedrich book, the works that carry the same sense of the presence of mountains are obviously Wanderer above the Sea of Fog but also The Rock Gates of Neurathen and The Waltzmann.

However!  Following an online trail I came across a work by Moscheta in which he has rendered Friedrich’s The Ice Sea in graphite. (At this point I’m tempted to write WTF?! what are the chances of that?) I can’t quite believe this full circle loop of my  research. This doesn’t really make the comparison between the approach of the two more straightforward, but it gives me confidence in how I’ve read Moscheta’s work. I wonder why he has done this. It makes me think back to Vija Clemins and how she wants to give something back to the object that the photograph has lost. Is there something similar going on here?  Is Moscheta pushing this painting into a photograph? Is he rendering the original painting more real? Is he undoing the process of painting to find the original?


The Sea of Ice, 1823, Caspar Friedrich


Friedrich, 2008, Marcelo Moscheta

The similarities and differences between the work of Moscheta and that of Friedrich:

  • capturing the absolute dominance of the mountains – their massive and undeniable presence – they don’t do a song and dance to get noticed – they are heavy and quiet.
  • with Friedrich, the mountain takes centre stage, it’s in the middle of the image. It sits within its landscape, whether we have come across it or gone to a view point to see it, Friedrich has led us to this point and we are looking out at the scene. He uses a foreground and middle ground, the mountains are in the distance.
  • Moscheta crops his image quite close, there is no sense of the landscape around – to me this helps the get a sense of the mountains, we way we tend to see just part of a mountain. It gives more a feeling of being ‘in’ the scene than looking out at it.
  • Friedrich’s work is traditional – painted on a flat surface to be hung in place. Moscheta has turned his drawings in to installation. Though I’ve only see them in this formation, presumably they can be moved about, like placards. I wonder if there is meaning behind this – the placard is synomonous with protest – the obvious connection is climate change. Are these mountains silently protesting man’s presence on this planet?
  • In 33 Mountains there is more of a sense of chance, a looking around and catching glimpses of these forms, always there, over our shoulder. I wonder if this approach is down to photography’s existence? We have become more used to seeing many different angles of the same subject, and cropped.
  • Moscheta works in black and white, in graphite, and Friedrich in oils.  It’s been hard to pinpoint Moscheta’s technique on 33 Mountains, and not being able to see the marks up close doesn’t help. Lillian Rodrigues of the Anita Beckers Gallery in Frankfurt describes the technique:  “he covers the PVC support with graphite and then carefully works in subtraction – taking away the material to leave the image”.  This process seems to echo how mountains reveal themselves to us – from cloud, from mist – first just a vague shape of two dimensions, slowly revealing itself. In the very way Moscheta draws he is also describing the mountains.
  • Friedrich’s works are considered part of the movement of Romanticism and he has without doubt romanticised his subjects.This was a time when succumbing to the sublime was all the rage, and Friedrich’s works are full of the wonder of it all, nature swathed in poetic mist and pretty colours. Though Moscheto still gets across this feeling of the sublime, his images are pared down, black and white, less chocolate box.

It’s been interesting looking at these two artists – to my eye they have both worked to explain similar feelings about the landscape but in different times. Friedrich was working pre-photography and pre-winter breaks. Moscheto in many ways has to work harder – we are familiar with the mountains even if we’ve never been – we’ve seen photos, documentaries, the ski-chase in The Spy Who Loved Me. We know the deal, it is not enough to paint a pretty picture of a mountain, that isn’t enough to fill us with awe. We need to be spooked by these monsters that appear out of nowhere, just around the corner and in 33 Mountains I think he’s done just that.



Price, M., Cashdan, M., Krause, C. and Godfrey, T. (2013) Vitamin D2: New perspectives in drawing. London: Phaidon Press.

Dunne, C. (2016) In Response to trump’s election, artist asked the Whitney Museum to turn her work upside-down. Available at: (Accessed: 12 February 2017)

(No Date) Available at: (Accessed: 13 February 2017).


Research Point: Historic and contemporary artists who work in series with the landscape: Peter Lanyon,

“The green field for me is the essential reality”  Peter Lanyon, 1959.

Coast 1953 by Peter Lanyon 1918-1964

Coast, 1953, Peter Lanyon

Lanyon’s ‘green field’ was not a landscape to look out at, it was not simply the scenic backdrop to his native Cornwall. What mattered to Lanyon was the history of the land and its relationship with the people that lived on it and off it.

(Lanyon was from a mining family, but in Cornwall this industry was in steep decline as Lanyon returned from the Second World War – service industries were taking over – and for Cornwall that meant tourism and retirement.)

Headland 1948 by Peter Lanyon 1918-1964

Headland, 1948, Peter Lanyon

Lanyon’s works move me. My birth certificate declares land-locked Surrey but my heart has always been in Cornwall and in particular Lanyon’s western Cornwall. His works don’t sit with the picturesque paintings of wobbly villages, winding lanes and blustery clifftops.

When I look at Lanyon’s drawings or paintings I feel he has taken his hand and plunged it deep in to the soil, he has felt the structure of the rocks under Cornwall  – where it has broken, where it has come together – he has traced his fingers along the scars that mining has left, felt the rusting metal. All this and the contours of the land we see, the forces of the winds. He’s taken all this that he has felt with his hand, and put it on to a flat surface. It’s exhilarating.


Portreath, 1949, Peter Lanyon (photograph from book)

Porthleven 1951 by Peter Lanyon 1918-1964

Porthleven, 1951, Peter Lanyon

Lanyon is maybe best known for his glider paintings. He had always explored Cornwall so as to see it from all possible angles. He travelled it on foot, motorbike, by car. He rock-climbed and was fascinated with the cliff edges – where two elements met – and also by man’s fragile existence within the landscape. He began gliding to see the land even more completely, striving to capture with paint the land below and the air above and how it was to be in that place.

Reading List

Causey, A. (2006) Peter Lanyon: Modernism and the land. London: Reaktion books

Images via