“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina. But what Tolstoy might, actually, have been implying is that the effects of happiness tend to be bland, the results ubiquitous. It’s those who are not entirely comfortable within the all-encompassing duvet of family life that prove to be interesting. Their quirks and idiosyncrasies lead them to become artists and writers or simply that awkward, interesting child who doesn’t want to join in but rather watch clouds, read a book, draw or make up stories. Tension and a degree of discord between siblings, between mother and daughter, father and son are meat to the creative juices. As the essayist and psychoanalyst, Adam Philips writes: “From a psychoanalytic point of view, one of the individual’s formative projects, from childhood onwards, is to find a cure for….. sexuality and difference, the sources of unbearable conflict… Adolescents,” he goes on to say, “are preoccupied by the relationship between dependence and conformity, between independence and compliance.”
It is these struggles for self-hood and authenticity, these deconstructions of old constructions, the fissures and cracks in the public face of relationships that Chantal Joffe translates with such insight in her picture making. In her studies of writers, of mothers and daughters, her canvases are a way of marking moments in the story of a life. Paint is the language she uses to translate these shifts and observations. Her daughter Esme is shown in that awkward transitional zone between puberty and womanhood, among a cast of cousins and friends who have long provided Joffe with her subjects. In this exhibition we see her transformed from little girl to awkward teenager. Watchful, defensive, full of adolescent antagonism. In Esme in Haggerstone, 2015, her green eyes dart defiant under the defence of a heavy fringe as she sets up emotional and physical boundaries. In New York, with one hand assertively poised on her hip, she stands in a checked mini-skirt, her sidelong squint avoiding her mother/artist’s gaze in a psychic retreat from childhood into sexual being. Her expression is quite clear. Her mother is barred from being part of the journey.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest?” Joffe’s Birthday Self-Portrait, 2015 (surely influenced by the semi-nude self-portrait of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn Becker, painted in 1906 on her sixth wedding anniversary) shows her naked from the waist up, dressed in an open flowered kimono, looking grumpily at the viewer. Despite the bare breasts this is not a sexual image but one that confronts the artist’s own slow erasure of youth and impending mortality. The daughter blooms as the mother fades.
While a student at the Royal College of Art Joffe was always trying “to inhabit” other artists. Like many young women she was influenced by the American confessional poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who studied under the poet, Robert Lowell, at Boston University. Lowell’s 1959 book Life Studies, which won the 1960 National Book Award, “featured a new emphasis on intense, uninhibited discussion of personal, family, and psychological struggles”. This was an inspiration and catalyst for Sexton and Plath. Both women were perfectionists and had complex troubled relationships with their mothers. Lowell’s writing gave them permission to mine their traumas and narcissism as subjects for verse. At the Royal College Joffe created a series of collages, superimposing her own head on the body of Plath kneeling on a beach in a white two piece swimming costume, and of Anne Sexton sitting in a car in her mother’s fur coat. A more recent (2015) painting of Ted Hughes and Plath, taken from a celebrated photograph, presents them as poetry’s successful power couple, glowing and smiling. Yet there is a stiffness to Sylvia’s awkwardly placed hands that gives a lie to this constructed public version of themselves which, as we know now, was damaged by her suicidal anger and depression and his compulsive infidelities.
Also at Victoria Miro are new works of Anne Sexton and her daughter Linda. Anne Sexton, was a troubled, flamboyantly confessional poet who underwent psychiatric treatment from 1956 until 1964, then died by her own hand 10 years later. She once described herself as “so oversexed that I have to struggle not to masturbate most of the day.” The painting of Sexton and Linda, where the mother holds the shoulders of the gawky bespectacled daughter, takes on disturbing reverberations when one knows the allegations of incest, a theme that repeatedly surfaced in Sexton’s work. She is alleged to have sexually abused Linda, whilst also claiming that she, herself, had been molested by her father, Ralph Harvey, and by her great-aunt. Another painting of Robert Lowell with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, and their daughter, Harriet (Robert, Harriet and Elizabeth 2015) presents a public face. Yet here, too, the tensions are palpable. After Hardwick’s death in 2007, The New York Times, in a very public portrait of the Lowell marriage and divorce, described it as “restless and emotionally harrowing”.
The photographic snaps of family and children that Joffe uses as the catalysts for her paintings are, in her words, “a distillation of the everyday.” But while, consciously, this might be the case what she produces are not simply casual paintings of family life. Like the seemingly innocuous Freudian slip, the gap between photograph and painting creates fissures through which deeper meanings leak. It’s as if the actual paint, diluted with thinners – the acid greens and flamingo pinks, the violets and aquamarines – applied so apparently carelessly with broad thick strokes, seeps out to reveal some concealed significance. Meaning is not overt but suggested by painterly distortions of the figure and the juxtapositions of tones, as in the bruised purplish flesh echoed in the red jumper in Joffe’s 2015 Self-Portrait.
Highly personal and individual, yet embedded within the sisterhood of other painters from Paula Modersohn Becker to Joan Eardley and Alice Neel, Joffe’s mark-making emphasises not only the psychological mood of her subjects but the materiality of her medium. Unlike her American contemporary, Elizabeth Peyton, whose work Joffe’s superficially resembles, her portraits are without irony or pop culture glitz. In her paintings of writers she reminds us, time and again, that paint is a language, one that she manipulates to create portraits that are often uncomfortable and uncanny. Although she paints quickly, the process is akin to a form of mining where she drills down through the exposed fissures and cracks of her subjects’ subterranean depths to reveal what is not immediately visible in the broad light of day.
Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London
© Chantal Joffe
Esme in the Beach Hut, 2015
Oil on canvas
45.8 x 36 x 2.5 cm
18 1/8 x 14 1/8 x 1 in
Anne in her Study, 2015
Oil on board
40.8 x 30.5 cm
16 1/8 x 12 1/8 in
Ted and Sylvia, 2015
Oil on canvas
50.4 x 40.8 cm
19 7/8 x 16 1/8 in
Victoria Miro, 14 St. George Street, London W1s 1FE
Until 24th March 2016
Published in 3 Quarks Daily