Saturday, January 10, 2015

Leaving the best till last? Goya, Klee and Matisse

What comes to mind when you think of disability?  Perhaps the child born with a genetic condition, or the person in the prime of life who becomes spinal cord injured.  But only 5% of children and only 10% of working age adults are disabled.  The majority of people become disabled in later life, and artists are no exception.  What interests me is how personal experience of illnesss and impairment is often ignored when it comes to thinking about creative people.  The lives of three artists in particular show how restriction created by ageing or disease can open up new possibilities.
Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate.  The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity, if a talented individual is forced to concentrate on art.  For example, David Hockney has said that his deafness makes it easier for him to concentrate on the visual.  But isolation can also lead to frustration and resentment.  I think this phenomenon may have contributed to the greatest works of one of the nineteenth century’s most dramatic and influential painters.
Francisco Goya was born in Aragon, Northern Spain, in 1746.  For most of his first fifty years, he mainly painted society portraits, light-hearted studies, historical scenes.  Then two things turned his world upside down.  First, Spain was torn apart by the conflict and cruelty of the Napoleonic wars.  Then, his life was changed by the deafness that he experienced after an illness in 1793, which might have been meningitis or possibly the effect of lead poisoning from the paint that he would have ground by hand.  Whatever the cause, the symptoms must have felt like a nightmare.  He suffered constant noise in his head, his balance was affected, and he was continually nauseous.   Either as a consequence or by coincidence, he also seems to have suffered a period of depression around this time.  He went to Cadiz, in Andalucia to convalesce at the home of the book and art collector Sebastian Martinez.  A benefit of this visit was that it gave him the chance of looking through his friend’s vast collection of prints – which probably included work by Blake, Hogarth, Gainsborough that would have been a revelation.
Deafness deprived Goya of music and conversation, two parts of life that he greatly enjoyed.   In the early years of the new century, his wife and his best friend from childhood both died.  He was also hauled in front of the Spanish Inquisition to justify his famously erotic painting of the Naked Maja.  As a result of this increased isolation, he seems to have become more introspective.  His work now includes new elements that suggests he was having some morbid thoughts.   He was still painting the portraits of Kings, Duchesses and Ambassadors.  But in the 1790s, he also depicted prisons and house-fires and shipwrecks and lunatic asylums and witches Sabbaths.  Then he made the Caprichos series of acquatints, most of which are savagely satirical and which consequently caused grave offence to the church.  The Blowers, number 48 in the series of 80, shows people being tortured by the noises of animals and witches, perhaps reflecting his own experience of tinnitus.  Around 1808, he engraved his great series of Disasters of War etchings, photojournalism before the invention of the camera, testifying to the atrocities committed by both sides in the Peninsular conflict.
In those first years of the new century, it’s hard to know whether it was the dreadful political situation, or bereavement, or deafness which contributed most to this new, darker Goya.  Nor should we ignore the wider context of Romanticism that saw artists and writers turning away from the rationality of the age in favour of raw nature and emotion.   Goya called a 1799 print “the sleep of reason produces monsters”.  It was in this context that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816. Goya’s own most famous contribution to the horror genre came with the so-called Black Paintings, murals with which he decorated the country retreat outside Madrid he bought in February 1819.   That villa was called Quinta del Sordo, ‘the house of the deaf man’, not after Goya himself, but because a deaf farmer had previously lived in the district.    It was here that the 75 year old Goya painted 14 separate paintings over a total of 55 square yards of wall,. The subjects include a witches Sabbath, a pilgrimage, scenes of the Fates flying through the air, another picture of two witches flying towards a huge mountain, while down below two Napoleonic soldiers try to shoot them down.  There are a lot of haunting eyes in these scenes.  Black is the dominant colour.   As brilliant and original as these paintings are, it’s hard to understand why Goya wanted to fill his summer house with such darkness.  The most famous and harrowing image is of Saturn eating his child, crazed with fear and despair.
The precise interpretation of these scenes may remain a mystery, but their impact on the history of art has is undeniable.  The paintings were removed from the walls, and exhibited in Paris in 1878, when they were considered the work of a madman.  However, the Impressionists admired them greatly.  The influence of these coruscating paintings can be seen in Surrealists like Salvador Dali, in the work of Francis Bacon, and in other twentieth century expressionists.
A year after that exhibition of Goya’s paintings in Paris, the artist Paul Klee was born in Switzerland. I love his paintings, and when I worked in Geneva at the WHO, I went as often as I could to the Zentrum Paul Klee on the edge of Berne.   For me, Klee’s work is associated with delicacy.  His watercolours seem suffused with music.  It was Klee, after all, who described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’. His paintings give me a sense of joy.  He once wrote "the picture has no particular purpose. It only has the purpose of making us happy". 
There’s a photograph of Klee from 1935 which I really like. He is standing next to his wife Lily, wearing his dressing gown and holding his pipe. He has the trace of a smile on his face, and his cat, Bimbo, is climbing down from his shoulders.
But 1935 was the year that Paul Klee suffered two disasters.  The first came as a result of the Nazi rise to power.  Klee was dismissed from his post as a Professor of Art at the Bauhaus school of art, and the school was closed down.  Paul and Lily emigrated to Berne, Switzerland, leaving friends and artistic colleagues behind.  Afterwards, he was labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and his work compared to that of people with schizophrenia.
Also in 1935, Klee contracted measles.  By autumn he was suffering the symptoms of scleroderma. The condition is a chronic systemic autoimmune disease, predominantly affecting the skin, but also the heart, lungs and kidneys. The stress of his treatment by the Nazis may have contributed to the disease.  In that era, there was no treatment available, although Klee visited several health spas to try and relieve the illness.  The scleroderma would have caused him considerable pain, and it meant the end of two of his favourite occupations -  playing the violin and going for long walks in the mountains.  
In the initial health crisis, Klee's creative output fell away.  In 1936, he only made 25 works.  But astonishingly, by 1937, his health had stabilized, and he was able to work again.  In 1938, he made 482 works and in 1939, he made 1, 253 pictures.  It was as if he was racing against time.   As he wrote in a letter to his dealer, “As I’m no longer young, I would like to realize whatever I can.  This requires a constant willingness to avail oneself of every opportunity. In short, utter concentration.” 
This final flowering of Paul Klee’s art was different.  He made fewer paintings, and more drawings.  Some pictures still retain his childlike experimentation, for example  "Children's game".  But many of these late works feature thick black hieroglyphs, which in a letter to his son he called “secret codes”.   Whereas before, all was fluid and graceful, now the rhythm is more ominous. The lines are hobbling: no longer do they go for a stroll.   Maybe this comment from Klee is relevant:  “He has found his style when he cannot do otherwise”.
The subjects are darker too, with a preoccupation with fate and illness.  For example, in his last year, his "Eidola" series of drawings depict archetypal figures existing in a realm between life and death. A photograph of Paul Klee from February 20 1940, a few months before his death, shows how his skin has been affected by his disease, his mouth is set in the tight line of one suffering pain, and there is a haunted look in his eyes.  With his shrunken, masklike face, he looks much older than 60.  A self-portrait drawing that he did at this time, probably taken from this photograph, was entitled “Endure!”.  Another drawing shows a person with the crippled hands and masklike face of someone with scleroderma, although the title “A Creator” shows how Klee maintains his identity even under the onslaught of chronic illness.   One of his last works “Death and Fire” shows a stick person grimacing, his face white against an orange red sky.   The lines that form his eye, nose and mouth also spell out the German word Tod, for death.    As with Goya, we can’t be sure whether this powerful image reflected Paul Klee’s personal suffering, or his anguish at the destruction brought about by war.   
So far, these stories of late onset disability have been all about horror and pain.  But here’s a more optimistic engagement.  Earlier this year, I managed to get to Tate Modern on the final day of the exhibition of Matisse cut-outs.  Half a million people visiting this blockbuster dedicated to the joyful, lyrical dancing figures and patterns that were the work of Henri Matisse’s later years. 
Earlier in his career, Matisse had used cut paper to help with colour choices for a mural, and in 1936 he made a cut paper cover for the magazine Cahiers d’Art.  But his adoption of cut-outs as his medium in the post-war period was necessitated by his health, not freely chosen.  Aged 71, he had undergone surgery for cancer in 1941, resulting in a colostomy and the loss of stomach muscles.  From then on, he spent much time in bed, and relied on a wheelchair to get around.  This meant that it was impossible for him to paint freely as he had before.  Faced with these restrictions, he turned again to the decoupage technique, first painting and then cutting shapes, which his assistant could pin and re-pin to the wall of his room, until he was satisfied with the effect.
In a 1952 interview, Matisse explained: “You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… there are leaves, fruits, a bird”.  His cut paper took the form of undersea creatures, stars, as well as abstract compositions.    This work is full of life and joy, although it has sometimes been dismissed as being more about decoration than art.  Some have seen the cut-outs as no more than a delightful distraction from the real paintings.  To me, this seems snobbery.   There is a direct line from the famous 1909 and 1910 pictures of Dance, with those red primeval figures cavorting in a ring, to the Acrobats and Blue Nudes which Matisse cut out in the 1940s.   He is still making very careful choices about line and shape and above all, colour.   Every child has now made a cut paper picture in nursery school, just as a mobile hangs above her bed.  But this does not make the Matisse cut-outs or the mobiles first designed by Alexander Calder any less original or significant in the history of art.  
From his hotel bedroom, Matisse designed the Chapel of the Rosary for a community of Dominican nuns in Vence in the south of France.  He did the stained glass windows and the murals and the bell tower and the altar crucifix and candlesticks and the holy water stoups and even the firework patterns of the priest’s vestments. This huge undertaking of his final decade, which he made so feverishly, was no less intense and no less important than his early paintings.   In his swansong, he achieved a new boldness and simplicity, forced to concentrate on the things that mattered – line, shape and colour.  With his dressmaking scissors, he cut as deliberately and as carefully as he had once painted.  The success of 83 year old Matisse’s new approach to making art reminds us that often the adversity of disability can prompt resourcefulness, and that adaptation can generate new possibilities.
For Matisse, a different creative technique, forced on him by his disability, opened up new possibilities for creating joy in old age.   For Goya, isolation imposed on him by deafness combined with the revulsion he felt at conflict and corruption to generate the horrors of the Casa del Sordo.  For Klee, pain and suffering could not stop him painting and drawing, but his work became heavier and more deeply felt than before.  Each artist was forced by age and illness to do things differently.  All of them showed how wrong it would be prematurely to write off disabled people.  This is what Desmond O’Neill has called the art of the demographic dividend, and it should give us hope for our own old age.

Lucy Jones (1955- )

Lucy Jones may well be the best British painter who you’ve never heard of. There is no doubt about her disability, because she was born with cerebral palsy.  But she has no intention of identifying as a disabled artist.  She is a simply an artist, and a very, very good one at that. 

I hadn’t heard of her either, until a friend of mine tipped me off about her show last year at Kings Place, London.  The next chance I went into the Gallery to see it and it blew me away, walls full of vibrant self-portraits and landscapes.  Lucy Jones is an expressionist, oozing hot Mediterranean colours that we would normally associate with someone like Matisse or Derain.  Her canvasses are full of  energy.   I was so excited that this painter was doing work of the first order, had never been part of the disability arts world, but was a leading British painter, that I tracked her down to discover more.  I met her in Newcastle, where her show transferred after London.  We had dinner with mutual friends, and then met in a tea shop in Whitley Bay to talk some more, dragging our wheelchairs and walking frames behind us.

Lucy Jones was born in 1955.     She told me about her early years, crawling around after her dad, painting the skirting boards.    While her sister went to ballet class, she went to the Byam Shaw Art School  in Notting Hill from age 7.    When she won a prize for her work, her mum was gob-smacked, she said.

Lucy went to Cheyne Walk Spastics Centre, and then to King Alfred’s, a progressive school in North London, “the only one that would have me”, she says.  There, her humiliations were about dyslexia.  Nobody could understand why she couldn’t read.  Luckily, there was a very good art department.  Even more fortunately, she got an amanuensis when she reached O levels, and suddenly she could express by dictating what she could never have written down.   Having only ever got an A for effort, now she was getting good grades and feeling like a real person.   Geography at Durham University beckoned.

But Lucy Jones chose art school, and went back to Byam Shaw for a couple of years , where she says that the best thing she was taught was colour theory.  Then she went to Camberwell School of Art, where she got a first, and to the Royal College for her MA followed by the Rome Scholarship for Painting, which took her to Italy for two years.  After that, she taught at Chelsea College of Art and the Slade.  But she never became part of the metropolitan art scene.  It was an old boys network, she told me.  It was all about going to the pub – she couldn’t get into the pub, being disabled, and partying till the early hours wasn’t for her. She pursued her work in a cold, East End warehouse studio until she was spotted and taken on by a West End gallery.

Ten years ago, she moved to Shropshire.  With her family, she had often holidayed in South Wales.  One of her earliest memories was of being sat in a rock pool on Pembroke beach and nearly drowning, only noticed by her Dad after her screams and she was saved. She would sail with her Dad in a boat, outside in all weathers, feeling in the moment.  Now, after moving away from London, she felt rebalanced, with her own garden and allotment:  “I can crawl from weed to weed pulling them out hour upon hour.  I can eat what I grow – gorge myself on fruit so good that it lies beyond the dusty expectations of London, as does the landscape, and evoke memories of the occasional taste, as a child, of the perfect strawberry.”   Lucy and I now exchange regular email updates about the progress of our gardening, our successes and failures.

Where previously her landscapes had shown Thames views, now they depict parts of the countryside around Ludlow where she now lives.  They’re vast and bright and absorbing.   She talks about  “depicting the surface memories of life, perhaps with some nostalgia, as if we see the world not as it is - but through our projections and hopes.”

She says that in order to paint, you have to inhabit the landscape and become part off it.  She gets out of the car and kneels on the ground, doing a preliminary watercolour.  Or she crawls into a field.  She’s out there to record what she feels and sees, not sketching but using paints or pastels.  She’s trying to cram a 3 dimensional experience into a 2 dimensional space.   She’s cold and wet and doing the only thing she can. 

Back in her studio, she selects something on paper, and makes a painting of it.   She told me “I have not got a natural facility.  Every single brushstroke I have to fight for.”  She creates rhythms and vibrations of colour, like Matisse or Derain.   Being in the country after London, she had to make her peace with green.  There are no figures in her landscapes, no narratives, because she doesn’t want baggage.  Just a vivid presence, a real sense of place, a heightened sensibility to movement and colour.   The critic Matthew  Collings talks of her saying “a fond yes to landscape, to the uplifting feeling of being out there in the atmosphere, loving its effects: light, wind, heat, the constant changes, the sense of timelessness.”

The canvases are huge.  She has many of them going at once.  She works on them flat on the floor of her Ludlow studio, and then props the work in progress against the wall to have a look at it.  Often, she goes back to paintings a year later and reworks them.  But she says, the responsibility of the artist is to know the right moment to stop.

I’m awed by the physical efforts and the integrity which goes into the landscapes, but it’s the self-portraits which I am particularly interested in.    Describing them, she says that: “Painting is like slowly taking bits of myself out of a box and beginning to examine them...  I use myself to find out about the funny and surprising, the awkwardness and ambivalence of looking and moving differently.  I look at the hidden parts, which cannot be seen by the outside gaze.”

Her series of self-portraits began when she went to work in Rome.  It was cheaper to paint herself than to use a model.  Now she has two full length mirrors in her studio.  But it’s not an egotistical interest. I think it’s more like research into the awkwardness of being human, a kind of reconciliation with her condition.  The portraits are very expressive,  powerfully emotional, with piercing eyes always looking straight out at the viewer.  Eyes are very important in self-portraits, she tells me. 

These days, she writes a lot as well, using software for people with dyslexia, and sometimes text creeps onto the painting, perhaps lettered backwards.  Sometimes the work is funny too.   One typical portrait is a metre and a half by more than two meters, and shows her in a striped black and red top, like Minnie the Minx, above light blue trousers.  Her head is tilted back.   Her hands are grasping her walker, the mobility device she needs to get around.    The background is a deep indigo, against which her green face draws the attention, with those powerful eyes.  It’s called “Lucy in the sky”, an example of her habit of choosing wry titles for these works.

Her images are unflinching about her physique.  A rear view shows her bottom jutting out with the distinctive posture caused by her cerebral palsy.   Her head is often angled on one side.  We see her in her bra, or naked.   She seems to be daring us to be embarrassed.  Over and over again she is trying to communicate herself, capture herself in those vivid colours.

Some self-portraits show some of the everyday paraphernalia of impairment.  A walking frame.  A walking stick.  In one painting, a stick is hovering near the bottom of the blue canvas.   Lucy, in bright red trousers, is walking down the right hand edge of the picture, eyes fixated on the stick ahead of her, and glasses falling towards the bottom.  The title? “It’s a long way to the bottom of this canvas.”  I am currently negotiating with her gallery to have this image as the cover of my new book on disability.

But what does disability mean to Lucy Jones?   It’s not much mentioned in her exhibitions or brief  biography.  She tells me about being on holiday in Penang, Thailand.  She saw a disabled man in a pen, segregated and powerless.  She had a moment of recognition, when she thought that in a different life, that would have been her.   The vision haunted her, and a year later, she went back to try and find him, without success.     She also talks about a sense of disjointedness, of being the only one like her, of not fitting in, but never talking about it.  She is wary of people taking control, of taking her over or putting her down.  She has ploughed her own furrow, and fiercely defended her own vision.  She’s been married for a while now, which has made her life richer, and I think calmer.  Her husband is an accountant.   He says he knows nothing about art, but he’s obviously quietly supportive of her work.   They seem to be true partners in a shared enterprise of life.

None of the other artists I have discussed in this series of essays would have identified as being disabled.   Most of them lived at a time when the category “disability” did not even exist.  For them, illness and impairment was just a part of life, not a key to identity.  For Lucy, it’s different.  There’s now a disability movement out there.  People are wheeling down the street, with banners and songs and pride.  This opens up new ways of being a disabled person, and it also changes the possibilities for being a disabled artist.   Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a new breed of disabled artist emerged, people who were making work about struggle or self-consciously using art to challenge oppression.  I did it myself, standing up on stage to make jokes about social workers.  The best of these disabled artists have gone beyond this agit-prop approach and are now doing great work.  But disability arts is still very much seen within the disability niche or the community arts niche.  A major institution like Tate will flirt with the radical fringe, but they won’t put the work on the walls.

I don’t think that this is what Lucy Jones is about.   Like  Toulouse-Lautrec or Paul Klee or British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, she is an artist who happens to be disabled.   She does not use art as a political strategy.  She does not even want to be categorized as a disabled artist, because it feels to her like a limitation.  Cerebral palsy and dyslexia and depression are part of her biography, but they’re not on the label for the artwork, any more than being a woman or living in Ludlow should define her or explain what she does.   If I say they are political”, she tells me, “they will be grabbed by somebody, leaving me feeling boxed in”.  She wants her portraits to offer a universal comment on humanity.  And so they do, in the same way that Rembrandt’s did.

While respecting Lucy’s perspective, I want to claim her as a role model for what disabled people can do, just as I want to claim all the artists in this series, and many more besides who have made great creative contributions, either despite or even because of their illness or impairment.  I want to say that humanity is diverse, our experiences and physiques and mentalities are diverse, and that this is reflected in our lives, and to a certain extent in our achievements. 

Someone like Lucy Jones has struggled against the current to become a successful artist, in ways that a privileged non-disabled person who follows a traditional route to fame has never dreamt of.  We need to remove the barriers so that more people have a chance of going to art school, of being nurtured, of flourishing and expressing themselves in the mainstream.  We don’t want a niche, a separate enclave of “disability art”, but we do want to be there, represented alongside the Young British Artists or the Royal Academicians or the Tate blockbuster exhibitions.    We can do that by being non-discriminatory, by being accessible, by recognizing that talent knows no boundaries.  And we can also do that by celebrating the great artists with disabilities of the past and of the present.

Lucy Jones is a tremendously powerful painter. She is also a very honest person, who is not afraid to be vulnerable, as I found out when I talked with her over tea and cake in that Whitley Bay cafe.    It felt like we made a real connection, which has been sustained since those meetings.  Despite this vulnerability, her paintings have an enormous power and self-confidence.  It feels to me like painting enables her to rise above the struggles of having a disability in a world that is so often unwelcoming.  She operates within a hidden tradition of artists with impairments.   As they did in their own time with words, and scissors and chalks, and fabrications, so she too now masters life through paint.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Judith Scott (1943-2005)

She couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak and had Down syndrome.  She spent years in an institution, until her twin sister rescued her.  Yet today, her textile pieces are held in museums throughout the world and sell for tens of thousands of dollars.  This profoundly disabled person was at the same time a great artist, whose work has bought pleasure to many. 

Judith and Joyce Scott were twins, born into a middle class family in Cincinnati, Ohio.  As small children, the two girls were dressed alike, played together, and were encouraged to participate equally.   Joyce later wrote:

"At first we lived unaware and unafraid. In the sandbox where we played, pouring sand in each other's hair, wiggling toes in wetness, making our leaf and stick dishes and dinners, we still felt only the innocence of our soft skin and earthy explorations. But the forces pulling at us and threatening us grew as we grew. No longer wrapped in the protective web of our family's ties alone, we soon joined the neighborhood. There Judy was seen as different - and to a few ignorant and fearful souls, different meant dangerous. Our next-door neighbors refused to let her in their yard. Currents growing, doors slamming shut."

But Judith was born with Down syndrome, and after an attack of Scarlet Fever, she also lost her hearing.  When she was tested for entry to special school, her deafness meant that she did not respond to verbal questions, and so she was thought uneducable.  At age 7, her parents, acting on the medical advice of the time, sent her away to a residential institution for people with profound intellectual disability, where she would stay for the next 35 years.   Very distressed at being parted from her sister, Judith was seen as a disruptive presence on the wards.  Joyce wrote:

"The State Institution was a terrible place - worse than terrible - full of the awful sounds and smells of human suffering and abandonment. It still lives in my nightmares. That Judy is not haunted, that she has not been destroyed is a testament to the human spirit and most especially to hers. There is no doubt that institutional life has left its mark. Her habit of stealing small bits and pieces, of hoarding things, of being initially suspicious of strangers and of tending to isolate herself, these all reflect those terrible times. Her incredible ability to persevere and to sustain her focus, to hear her own inner voice, may also come from those years of crowded aloneness."

However, in 1986, her sister Joyce fought to get Judith out of the institution, and Judith lived together with Joyce and her family in California.  Later she moved into a community home, which meant that she enrolled at Creative Growth Arts Center, in Oakland.   She started in the painting class, where she showed no particular talent.    Several years later, she saw people working with textiles with a visiting fiber artist, Sylvia Seventy.  Judith Scott immediately gravitated to that medium, and created her own way of working.  

Her pieces consist of found objects, which she carefully wrapped in coloured fibre.  She would appropriate any object lying around the studios that she felt like, to act as the core of her sculptures, including once an electric fan, and at least one set of car keys. Each piece might take weeks of careful wrapping and weaving and knotting until she was satisfied.  Sometimes reminiscent of the figures of Alberto Giacometti, the results might look like strange animals or totem poles, or cocoons.  Often, they come in pairs.  As soon as she had finished one artwork, she would begin on the next one.

Judith worked as an artist for five days a week for eighteen years, and produced over 200 sculptures.  Her work is collected in public museums, such  as MOMA, New York or the American Museum of Folk Art, and private collections all over the world: she has become one of the most famous of all Outsider Artists.   As well as a critical study by John MacGregor, she was the subject of four different documentary films, in which she appears as almost regal, wearing a large hat, and firmly determined to make her work in the way she wanted, often carrying the large pile of glossy magazines, which she liked to look at.  Critic Eve Sedgewirk talks of her as "the holder of an obscure treasure".  Rachel Adams writes: "Looking at a piece by Judith Scott, our eyes are invited to function as organs of touch, sensing the texture and heft of the artifact, becoming aware of the relationship between our own bodies and the work of art."

Until the end, Judith remained very close to her sister and to her sister’s family, and it was in Joyce’s arms that she died of heart failure, aged 61.


Judith Scott’s work can currently be seen in an exhibition called Bound and unbound at Brooklyn Museum until March 29 2015. 

There’s also a review of the show in the New York Times