The most powerful self-portrait in history?

March 20, 2018

​The 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi had a lot to be angry about.

Quick transcription of Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) c.1638-9

​As a teenager she was raped by her art tutor. She suffered the shame of a public trial. Art academies and guilds across Rome shut their doors to her because she was a woman. History shut its door to her too – despite forging a career for herself, until recently most of her work had been attributed to her father.

Her anger comes through in her paintings. In a 1621 work, two young women, having rolled up their sleeves, slit a man’s throat. The biblical scene, which depicts Judith killing Holofernes, was tackled by many painters including Caravaggio, but Artemisia’s is a particularly violent interpretation. Rivulets of blood spurt from Holofernes’ throat, the sword glistens in the light. It’s difficult not to see the work as pure, pointed, painted revenge.

But in my view Gentileschi’s 1638 self-portrait is more powerful for being less violent. Artemisia is alone this time. She has rolled up her sleeves once more, but not to fight. Wielding a brush in one hand and a palette in the other, she reaches up to paint on a prepared canvas, a look of intense concentration and determination on her face.  So often women depicted in paintings and poetry were silent muses, sleeping beauties, but here Gentileschi takes control of her own image, and the resulting painting is, in my view, one of the most powerful and singular in history. Where many male artists would paint themselves to elevate their social status, surrounding themselves with symbols of their wealth, Artemisia shares the painting only with the canvas she paints on. She shares it almost equally, in fact, suggesting symmetry between the curve of her body and the blank canvas. And where most painters look out towards the viewer, we see Artemisia in profile – a clear and unusual artistic choice which would have required meticulously positioning several mirrors in her studio.

But what makes it particularly clever – modern, almost – is that Artemisia uses the conventions developed by male painters to achieve something they never could. At the turn of the century, a famous emblem book titled ‘Iconologia’ translated abstract concepts into visual images. These allegories became commonplace and were widely adopted by many painters. One of them, ‘La pittura’ – painting – was allegorised as  ‘a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask’.

Artemisia consciously recreates this image in and as her self-portrait, her dark hair messily tied back and a mask pendant hanging from her neck. She is not only painting herself, then, she is painting painting – her self-portrait is also a personification of art. She becomes an embodiment of creation, conflating allegory and self-portraiture, which male painters had no choice but to keep separate. This is strengthened by the sense that she is really lurching, bursting, out of the canvas, just as, on a smaller scale, her thumb seems to burst out of the palette, asserting its vitality. Artemisia’s body is made of paint and comes out of painting. 

This self-portrait is a display of Artemisia’s strength. Technical strength shown in the painting’s composition and execution. Strength to turn away from the viewer, to paint herself, by herself, and for herself. The brush is mightier than the sword. It’s telling that Artemisia’s brush reaches the very edge of the self-portrait, as if she is literally defining her own boundaries, moving the goalposts. And of course, in her interpretation of ‘la pittura’, her mouth is not ‘covered with a cloth tied behind her ears’. Her painting is her voice, and she uses it to set the stage for her urgent, dramatic performance, articulating in paint what is difficult to articulate in words.

Something new or déjà vu? Revisiting ‘The Big Painting Challenge’

February 19, 2017

This week, for the first time, I sat down to watch ‘The Big Painting Challenge’ in a state of complete relaxation.

How wonderful, I thought, to enjoy the programme without seeing my own panic-stricken, paint-covered face staring back at me. And then, all of a sudden, I saw just that. “Jennifer has been working on the floor now for 45 minutes and still hasn’t made much progress” said the voiceover. “It’s gone a little bit too abstract at the minute” said the tutor. “I’m afraid it’s sort of meaningless to me” said the judge. As the finished abstract painting got slated, nightmarish geometric visions flashed before my eyes; memories of painting a rectangle on national TV and claiming in crazed sincerity that it encapsulated Britain’s sea-faring heritage came flooding back. I could hear the producers murmuring to one another to bring in more cameras, making sure to capture Jennifer’s tears in HD. That’s it, I thought, I can’t keep watching.

But I’m glad I did. This new series, as it turns out, has set out to nurture not narrow, support not suppress, helping ten amateur painters to ‘learn, improve, and grow’. In the first episode the contestants were under pressure to show they’d learnt a thing or two about perspective. And they weren’t alone:  the BBC itself seemed particularly eager to refine its previously limited point of view. Now alongside Lachlan “this is a kaleidoscope of calamity”  Goudie and Daphne “I snorted with laughter when I saw your work” Todd stands third judge David Dibosa, whose charisma and positivity is warmly refreshing. Then there are tutors Pascal Anson and Diana Ali who roam the studio offering advice and tuition to the contestants, not to mention the two new presenters Mariella Frostrup and Richard Coles. Just when you’ve got used to all the new faces, in charges the entire corpus of the British Textiles and Interiors Association, who are summoned to vote for their favourite of the artists’ paintings (the chosen artist is then granted immunity until next week). This multi-perspectival approach, while well-intentioned, feels a tad chaotic, and when Lachlan said of one piece that ‘things have got a bit muddy’, I couldn’t help feeling that the programme itself was in danger of becoming overworked.

Still, it is and will always be, fascinating to see ten enthusiastic amateurs bring their own approaches and experiences to the challenges. Former astro-physicist David offered an analytical, precise approach to drawing, while art student Rauridh  explained how being deaf has heightened his visual awareness. After being given a traditional still life to paint, the artists then produced their own interpretation of Van Gogh’s room, a reconstruction of which was set up in the studio. A particular highlight came when Jennifer, after the disastrous first challenge, started painting over handfuls of thick hair on her canvas (perhaps in a bid to upstage the sculptural masterpiece of a moustache sported by tutor Pascal). This quirky technique worked brilliantly and echoed something of the uncomfortable, unnerving strangeness of Van Gogh’s masterpiece. And thankfully, no ears were harmed in the making of this week’s art.

Looking back, being part of The Big Painting Challenge taught me more about pressure than it did about art. The judges’ comments often felt so sharp they could almost pierce straight through the canvas, leaving it, and our confidence, in tatters. But in this series the contestants seem to receive that bit of help and encouragement that would have gone such a long way back in 2015. Finally there is more room to be creative; the idea of having art tutors is a good one, and the artists are given a full day to develop and finish their ‘show-stopper’ style final challenge. For the first time, it seems the producers seemed to want to help the contestants make good art as much as good TV.

Despite the insistence on a more relaxed approach, though, that uneasy tension between helping people learn before unceremoniously chucking them out when they don’t learn fast enough remains. Early in the show we met retired nurse Lesley, who told us how much she was looking forward to learning new skills and get better at something she was passionate about. But one deviation from Pascal’s apparently sacrosanct advice in pursuit of her own artistic vision, and an experimental “floating” interior spelt curtains for Lesley’s future in the competition. The ‘one leaves every week’ format that proved so successful in the GBBO tent seems slightly out of place here. Without the fear of being thrown off each week, the contestants might start taking the risks and making the mistakes that are so vital to creating great art. This fascinating group of people is no doubt capable of doing just that, and I can’t wait to see how each of them grows and develops. Here’s hoping Jennifer’s inspiringly creative approach won’t just be hair today, gone tomorrow.

Wenny, widdy, wiccy

July 7, 2016

The one thing I am condemned never to forget is my own forgetfulness. I’m acutely aware of it now, trying to make sense in writing of a four year university degree which I have just graduated from and which has brought out the best and worst in me. Maybe if I were more of a […]

Kings Chapel from memory

The one thing I am condemned never to forget is my own forgetfulness. I’m acutely aware of it now, trying to make sense in writing of a four year university degree which I have just graduated from and which has brought out the best and worst in me. Maybe if I were more of a ‘dear diary’ kind of person I’d be less worried about filling this post with clods of clichés (I wonder what the best collective noun for ‘cliché’ is – a clique of clichés? A bouquet? A syrup?), but as things stand, it’s all a bit of a blur, and not just because hundreds of hours of reading have left my eyesight worse for wear.  

Graduation day was a Wednesday. What a day, Wednesday – neither here nor there, lost somewhere between Monday gloom and Friday euphoria. The weather was close, the sky dark with the threat of occasional downpours, making the atmosphere odd, almost more melancholic than celebratory. I couldn’t help thinking that, dressed in long black gowns and white hoods, stood against the tumultuous grey sky, we looked like figures in an old photograph – for me, there was a sort of fuzzy timelessness about this event which was supposed to be, in one sense at least, once in a lifetime.

The service itself was conducted entirely in Latin. It was strange to hear a dead language read aloud; I noticed that ‘v’s were pronounced as ‘w’s, so Caesar’s famous ‘veni, vidi, vici’ would have sounded more like ‘wenny, widdy, wicky’. We had to go up and hold the Praelector’s finger (lol so random) and he spoke some Latin. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I imagine it was something along the lines of ‘Look, I know how many late nights and jars of Nutella it’s taken you all to get here, but it’s all worth it now. Here’s the piece of paper to prove it’. And we bowed to the Master of the College who, between the Latin, mouthed a silent, illicit ‘congratulations’ to us and handed us our degrees. And I said goodbye to my teachers and my friends and cried and felt completely weird about the whole thing.

But after the open-ended strangeness of graduation, I did get closure – at the college open day I helped out at a week later. Gone were the gowns, in came the bright yellow Clare College T-Shirts, attractive to little black flies and, sadly, unattractive in most other ways. But sunny, nonetheless, like the weather that day. And like the mood – it’s always really interesting and inspiring talking to sixth-formers with bucket-loads ambition and hopes and ideas. And, thankfully, unlike at an open day several months earlier, I didn’t try to get a group of students into the library with a swipe of my Boots Advantage card. Answering questions, having asked similar ones when I went on the same open day five years ago, I felt like I’d completed the circle of university life. ‘Have you enjoyed your time here?’. Absolutely. ‘Will you miss it?’. Dreadfully. ‘What’s it been like studying history, Ella?’. It was at that point I realised there were two names on each reversible name badge, and I was wearing mine the wrong way round.

I didn’t pretend to them that Cambridge is all beautiful gardens and punts and fancy dinners, because it’s not. There’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure; it’s too easy to feel like if you’re not on the brink of a breakdown you’re doing something wrong, and this year in particular I’ve come far too close for comfort to the line bordering sanity and insanity. But I’ve been supported on all sides by the most amazing people. I’m infinitely grateful for that. And, who am I kidding, it’s all been worth it, and then some. I’ve spent the year getting to read and write about some amazing foreign literature, and have painted, drawn, illustrated, and designed all the while. I even got to write about Chardin’s paintings for my dissertation (which I’ll probably go on about in a separate post). As I walked back from the open day, I took one more glance at Kings Chapel. I lived next door to it, and passed it every day on my way to the faculty. It was different every time I looked at it, but I particularly loved it when a strong evening light would fall against the yellow stone, staging it against a deep purple sky. It always reminded me of Rouen Cathedral. Not the real building (never seen it), but Monet’s paintings of it. There are over thirty paintings in his series, each one an attempt to capture the play of light on the building’s facade with  infinite curiosity, urgency, and probably no small amount of frustration.

And so, with a tear in my eye (I did promise you clichés), I went home, and that was that. And now? After the open day, open doors? Possibly. But everyone knows that a door’s not a door when it’s ajar; it’s more like a BIG SCARY CHASM INTO THE TERRIFYING UNKNOWN. In any case, though, I’m going through it armed with a degree that at times I thought I’d never get. I did it. We all did. In three words: wenny, widdy, wicky. I came, I saw, I Wikipedia’d. 

V&… eh? Why should ‘undressed’ remain undrawn?

June 7, 2016

The decision to ban sketching at the V&A’s ‘Undressed: a brief history of underwear’ exhibition is sheer pantaloonacy. It might even be more provocative than some of the garments on display. The museum has justified the ban partly by suggesting that sketchers create unnecessary congestion, apparently upsetting the metronomic pace the V&A has set for […]

The decision to ban sketching at the V&A’s ‘Undressed: a brief history of underwear’ exhibition is sheer pantaloonacy. It might even be more provocative than some of the garments on display.

The museum has justified the ban partly by suggesting that sketchers create unnecessary congestion, apparently upsetting the metronomic pace the V&A has set for the masses. But if you’re going to make a point of exposing something which would otherwise be private, intimate, and ever so slightly naughty, it is contrary to enforce an all too brief encounter with it.

But what really gets my knickers in a twist is that the V&A’s sign, ‘No Photography or sketching’, tars photos and drawings with the same brush. Both, of course, can be forms of art, but in a museum context, one feels more obtrusive than the other.  Aside from the clicks and flashes of cameras, there is always the temptation to hide behind a lens, to capture something passively without really engaging with it. But to draw something, you have to open your eyes. Sketches are sexy. They leave something to the imagination, showing more and less at the same time. A sketch is never an exact copy, but an interpretation.

By refusing to allow people to sketch, the V&A risks trivialising its own exhibition. Of course, you might argue that an exhibition whose highlights include photos of a scantily clad David Beckham for an H&M campaign or Kate Moss’ famously see-through slip dress might not purport to be anything but trivial. Even if this is true (and I’m not convinced that it is), why shouldn’t it be celebrated, or even transformed, by art? Andy Warhol found his inspiration in a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup. Who’s to stop someone finding theirs in Jaeger woollen underwear or Queen Victoria’s mother’s pants? In fact, Warhol was once so enamoured by Jockey briefs that he used a pair as a canvas for one of his dollar-sign paintings. Whether it heralds the everyday, the saucy, or the soupy, art’s very foundations lie in a freedom of interpretation which it is dangerous to jeopardise.  

The museum was quick to point out that the ban would only apply to certain temporary exhibitions, and that sketching in the permanent collections was still welcomed. But could the move be suggestive of a wider hostility towards drawing in art galleries? While at the ‘Rembrandt: the late works’ exhibition at the National Gallery last year, I was told to stop sketching because I was being inconsiderate towards the other visitors. I was surprised; I’ve sketched in a lot of galleries, and people are generally more interested than annoyed. Personally, I love having a peek at other people’s sketches; in the case of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, they allow you to see what others make of Rembrandt as well as what the artist made of himself. The creation of multiple dialogues can only be a good thing, and in suppressing them, galleries are at risk of alienating the very people they should be encouraging. As one disgruntled art-lover tweeted in response to the V&A ban, “No memorising anything you see. Approved memories can be purchased in the gift shop”.

But perhaps the saddest thing about keeping drawers and drawings apart is that, historically, the two share a deep affinity. In the 18th century, underpaintings and undergarments existed to be covered up. Neo-classical art was characterised by meticulous control and precision, and, at that time, sketches were simply a means to an end, remaining hidden away in artists’ studios. Similarly, just as sketches would provide the architecture for a painting, painfully restrictive whalebone corsets would (almost literally) provide the architecture for women’s sumptuous dresses, but were never to be seen in public themselves.

Since that time, underwear has become outerwear, and sketches have become masterpieces in their own right. It was not until the late 19th century, when interest in outdoor sports grew, that the marketing of the “sports corset” allowed women to exercise en plein air. And it was around the same time that the likes of Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley ventured outside, making quick, lively sketches which caught changing patterns of light and movement, capturing the bustle of the modern city or the tranquillity of the modern garden.

Embracing a looser, more personal style, both art and underwear allowed for a little more room to breathe. But in both cases the transformation was controversial. For many, the idea of undergarments becoming more fashionable than functional was utterly contemptible. And at the Impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874, which included Monet’s famous ‘Impression: soleil levant’, the critic Louis Leroy sneered at Pissarro’s ‘palette-scrapings placed uniformly on a dirty canvas’, deploring the group’s ‘mud-splash’ brushstrokes and their lack of ‘respect for the masters’. This modern art was as crude and obscene to Leroy as sexy, revealing lingerie was to conservative critics.

Now, of course, lingerie and underwear can be fashion statements as well as commodities, and sketches and drawings are celebrated alongside paintings and sculptures in galleries.

Given that both sketches and underwear have experienced something of a parallel emancipation, it is a shame that ‘Undressed’ only celebrates freedom of expression and daring creativity on one side of the exhibition glass.  

Worse things happen at sea

March 23, 2015

What can I say? It’s hard to be inspired on cue. It’s even harder if that cue happens to be Dartmouth Royal Navy College and you are a twenty-year-old languages students with a striking disinterest in boats.  I didn’t once feel at ease at the college. Perhaps because one of my first words was “mess”, […]

The struggle for power between man and the sea. What do you mean you can’t see it?

What can I say? It’s hard to be inspired on cue. It’s even harder if that cue happens to be Dartmouth Royal Navy College and you are a twenty-year-old languages students with a striking disinterest in boats. 

I didn’t once feel at ease at the college. Perhaps because one of my first words was “mess”, I’ve always been slightly unnerved by the perfectly ordered and regimented. I felt a sense of claustrophobia and little else when exploring one of the naval boats, and was struck by the sheer lack of individuality in the dormitories. It was all very disciplined, very structured, very male – everything that I and my style of drawing and painting are not. Perhaps on another day, with another subject, I might’ve fared a little better.   

It wasn’t just the location but the format itself that I felt a bit constricted by. I couldn’t help thinking that, had this not been the paint-off but the bake-off, this would be our “show-stopper” (though as it turns out my painting was only a show stopper in that many people will’ve stopped watching the show at the sight of it), and we’d be given a bit of freedom, choice of medium, and time, to develop an idea. With the exception of the fourth episode, I’d also been told (far more than the final edit suggests) that my approach of making lots of sensitive little marks was not a good one, and in trying to change my style to please the judges, I began to feel I was losing the “me” in my work. But even if I crossed that fine line between bravery and stupidity, part of me is still glad I had the guts to go for it and rock the boat (sorry) a bit.

In any case, whether in an act of courage, exhaustion, protest, or minor breakdown, I ended up with that rectangle. And although I can try to excuse my four-sided f**k-up (which, I kid you not, left me with recurring nightmares about geometry), I have to admit that drawing twenty-seven cadets marching in formation in near enough as many minutes was a challenge too far for me; had I known what was in store I may well have cut out my rectangle and waved it as a white flag of surrender. Maybe that’s what it was in the first place – I don’t know. Hats off to Paul and Amy, though, who managed to create resolved drawings in that short amount of time. 

And so by the time it came to the seascape, I sort of knew I wasn’t going to win, but was determined to enjoy this final challenge at beautiful, sunny Dartmouth harbour. I decided to do my own painting, an honest painting, however long it took. And I really enjoyed it. No, it wasn’t the finished article, but neither am I – I still haven’t refined and developed my style. I never came to win, but to learn.

And learn I did. From the judges, the other contestants, and from each new experience, I was taught a great deal in a very short space of time. I feel incredibly lucky; I got to make nine wonderful friends. I got to hug Una Stubbs, watch a flamenco performance, and take a ferry ‘cross the Mersey. I got to see how TV is made, travel around the country, and have a microphone attached to me by THE SAME SOUND GUY WHO ATTACHED A MICROPHONE TO KEIRA KNIGHTLEY (claim to fame right there). I got a chance to show my “funny little marks” to people having spent years hiding them from those closest to me, becoming a stronger person all the while, and hopefully even inspire a few would-be painters. A massive thank you to everyone who’s supported me even at the toughest points. I didn’t expect it and am extremely grateful for it.

I am chuffed to bits for Paul. He was not only the most able, experienced, and hard-working painter among us but is also just a great person to be around. All the artists were, in fact. My hope now is that people were inspired and not daunted by the show, and that they don’t see the big painting challenge is an insurmountable one. Because believe it or not, art is not Richard Bacon telling you you’ve only got 10 minutes left to resolve a painting before it gets snorted at with laughter, nor is it desperately trying to draw without being distracted by cameramen or producers or by Lachlan Goudie’s trousers. Instead, it’s about taking your time, developing, and experimenting. It’s about reflecting, making marks and mistakes and learning from them. And most of all, it’s about getting to know yourself and the world a little better. 

I can’t wait to do more of that very soon, and I hope that goes for others, too. 

No longer Brave – just Tangled

February 6, 2015

Although Paul McCarthy’s infamous butt plug art installation erected in Place Vendôme has long since been deflated, Paris’ tourist hotspots have been thrust upon by another perhaps more imposing masturbatory device. You’d think it might be frowned upon to whip out your stick in a public place, but au contraire, the moment the selfie stick, […]

Self portrait, oil on canvas

Although Paul McCarthy’s infamous butt plug art installation erected in Place Vendôme has long since been deflated, Paris’ tourist hotspots have been thrust upon by another perhaps more imposing masturbatory device. You’d think it might be frowned upon to whip out your stick in a public place, but au contraire, the moment the selfie stick, or the “Narcissistick” as it has been dubbed, is protruded, it’s smiles all round. Not natural smiles, mind you. Because everyone knows natural smiles make your face look fat. Nothing screams ugly like genuine human happiness. 

The real smiles come later, I suppose, after the buzz of approbation on social media for those less real – and so despite being criticised for encouraging anti-social behaviour (eliminating the need to approach another human being to ask them to take a photo), the selfie stick actually heightens people’s dependence on others. We see to be seen, and to be seen in a way that we can control and distort as much or as little as we choose, building our Facebook walls high enough that we can safely hide behind them, and I worry that this combination of self-disengagement and self-promotion is beginning to threaten our ability to look at ourselves introspectively. Because it seems that keeping the self at arm’s length wasn’t enough; now the selfie stick distances us from ourselves further still.

I reckon it’s the fact that we’ve grown so accustomed to images being routinely edited, veiled, and falsified (so much so that #nofilter is a thing) that the recent “Rembrandt: The Late Works” exhibition in London was so powerful. I went in early January, and definitely came out feeling a little bit more human than when I went in. A good painting, like a good friend, is one you can have a good conversation with. It knows how to talk, but also how to listen, how to ask questions as well as answer them. Rembrandt’s work does exactly that, and as the artist becomes more acutely aware of his own mortality the expressions he paints become more enquiring, less self-assured. And man and medium go through the same transformation; as the physical body in Rembrandt’s self portraits becomes frailer, the brushwork too loses its smooth, polished qualities, taking on a rough, unfinished style. Whoever the subject may be – a religious character, a wealthy patron, the artist himself – you feel like you’ve known them all your life. The paint is applied with so much gentleness, humility, honesty, and humanity, that it’s as if you could just reach out and touch life itself in all its tragic beauty. 

Reading that paragraph back now, and seeing to my horror that I have just written the words “It’s as if you could just reach out and touch life itself in all its tragic beauty”, I will re-emerge from my own bottom and admit that the initial reason for giving self-portraiture a go wasn’t to discover life’s tragic beauty, nor its beautiful tragedy, for that matter. Instead, it was just to parody a Van Gogh painting – the self portrait with a bandaged ear – after I endured what felt like my own little amputation; that is, I had a haircut. Said haircut was prompted after the list of the Most Embarrassing Things That Have Happened To Me In Paris gained a new entry which soared straight to number one, beating a) going into a stationary shop and accidentally asking for a thong, b) being accused of stealing some mulled wine spice mix by a shop assistant who chased me down the street, and c) forgetting the word for “undergraduate” when registering at a Parisian library and therefore unconvincingly making up a Masters subject (“But I don’t understand – is it in French or Italian?” “… Both?”).  

So when I walked into a chic Parisian hairdresser’s with a compacted knot the size of a tennis ball and composed of half my hair, I was greeted by the incredulous and flamboyant “Ohh là là” of a male hairdresser (however much of a racial stereotype the image in your head is, times it by ten), was told that whoever had advised me that not brushing curly hair for months on end would be good for it was very wrong, and that I could have the knot “delicately” cut out for the small price of 20 euros. Perhaps I should’ve gone for it, because after I (less delicately) cut the knot out myself, leaving one half of my hair half as short as the other, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d just cut out a part of my identity. Someone had recently asked me whether it bothered me that people consistently reduced me to my hair. I didn’t know they did; what would I be without it? Not only that, but practically every time I struck up conversations with New French People had been when they occasionally approached me thinking they had once met me or seen me somewhere before. As it turned out, nearly every time it was just that they had recently seen the Disney movie “Brave”. Now I wasn’t even Brave – just Tangled.  

Sketch done at the Rembrandt: the Late Works exhibition of Self Portrait at the Age of 63

But maybe having a go at a self portrait is still a small act of bravery, in its own little way. After all, if Rembrandt’s work shows us anything, it’s that it’s not always easy, nor reassuring, to turn your gaze inwards. And I feel like I’ve learnt something about myself, even if it is just that I’m not very good at self portraits. At a time when it’s getting easier and easier to run from reality, perhaps it’s more important than ever to know thyself, not thy selfie.

The still life diet

October 12, 2014

“Baldrick, I’ve been meaning to ask. Do you have any ambitions in life apart from the acquisition of turnips?”“Err…no”. –Blackadder The Third. Though I’ve been in Paris but a matter of weeks, already I seem to be putting the “broad” in year abroad. The guilt of knowing that my waistline is widening faster than my […]

“Baldrick, I’ve been meaning to ask. Do you have any ambitions in life apart from the acquisition of turnips?”
“Err…no”. –Blackadder The Third.

Lunch, oil on canvas

Though I’ve been in Paris but a matter of weeks, already I seem to be putting the “broad” in year abroad. The guilt of knowing that my waistline is widening faster than my French vocabulary is starting to set in; the eyes and abs of Davina McColl stare out penetratingly through the glass of the empty Nutella pot that props up my dust-ridden aerobics DVD. Ok, Davina, I may have been neglecting “Body Buff”, but at least I’ve been resolving to walk instead of hopping on the metro. It’s just that all too often I hardly have time to quietly congratulate myself on making the healthier choice before the inevitable happens: I pass a boulangerie, and stop to have a butchers at the bakers. 

It’s the smell of freshly baked bread that hits you first. Then comes the agonising walk past the window – I’m hopelessly enticed by the seductive flan fatale, by the éclairs that have my name written all over them. Fromageries are even worse; never before had I truly empathised with Tim Minchin’s seven-minute fully orchestrated song “Cheese” (definitely worth a listen if you’ve never heard it) in which he describes the all-too-familiar pre-cheese temptation and post-cheese self-loathing. The time may have come for me, like Tim, to be “trying to replace my fondues with fon-don’ts”.  

But a couple of days ago, after going to the market at Place Monge for the first time, I stumbled upon what could be the perfect solution. Incidentally, the fact that I thought it was Place Mange reveals not only my newfound obsession with food, but also my poor command of the French language, since apparently there’s a clear difference in pronunciation between Monge and mange (Who knew, eh?! Oh – everyone? Ah. Ok, never mind…). I’d bought some fruit, cheese, and picked up a baguette on the way back for lunch, which was, of course, really tasty. But what was left looked so good that I thought I’d get the easel out and do a quick still life study (the one at the top of the post). This proved to be a great exercise in self-discipline; I wouldn’t be able to snack on what was in front of me else my wheel of cheese would soon disappear before my eyes (cue Countdown theme tune). But equally, and perhaps more importantly, having delicious food in front of me stopped me agonising over the painting – what a waste if I spent so long on it that the bread were to go dry and the cheese mouldy (mouldier, rather). A few hours later and I was finished, allowing myself to eat my inspiration as a balanced evening meal – the Still Life Diet was born.

But as well as stopping you snacking, the Still Life Diet also goes some way to regulate what you eat. This is the rule: Do not put into your mouth anything you would not put onto your canvas. By this, it should be pointed out, I do not mean to encourage a diet of oil paint. That would be ridiculous – do you know how many calories there are in oil?? But generally, if food looks nice, looks “right” in a still life, it’s probably quite good for you, or at least natural, simply because of the way we continue to interact with still life paintings. Their timelessness, stillness, the presence of nature but absence of human form puts us at ease. That’s why Chardin’s work, for example, often has a slightly blurred quality about it, as if you’re looking at the subjects not directly or intently but through your peripheral vision. It’s an ingenious way of making the viewer feel chez lui. 

I’d been nervous about doing the whole blog thing – and that nervousness turned into sheer terror after reading a frightening popular article on the Tab ( that screamed “So what?!” at the concept of a year abroad blog.  But I reckon the YAB loves “So What?” just as Still Life painting does. “Yeah, so what.”, they both retort.  Neither of them needs justification – it is enough for them to say “this happened”, or “these things were there”. No hidden meaning, no great raison d’être. Write about whatever you want and enjoy it. The mundane, after all, can be delicious.  

Turnips. Because Turnips. Problem? Tough turnips.