Alex Michon looks hard at Mr and Mrs Andrews,
a show where art-responders picture-speak with a famous celebrity couple.
'The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language and for what purpose.'
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972
In writing about Gainsborough's painting Mr and Mrs Andrews, in the Society issue of Garageland magazine, the artist Dolly Thompsett states 'I can speak picture more fluently and naturally than I can speak words. But reading picture can be more complex.' Thompsett is one of the curators and participants in the exhibition Mr and Mrs Andrews at Transition, where ten contemporary painters were invited to respond to this famous painting.
The results of this popular art parlour game of responding to existing art historical works throws up a quixotic compilation. As Thompsett says, 'Encountering a painting is like meeting someone new in the sense that in an instant we can perceive all their levels of being – the bits they want you to see and the stuff they believe to be hidden away.'
Thompsett's painting, The Secret Life of Mrs Andrews, perfectly exemplifies her theory. Using ink and mixed media on patterned upholstery fabric, the overall effect is undeniably feminine, all lushly baroque and deceptively decorative, where lacy curtaining, flowers, fruit clusters and little bees abound. Thompsett reminds us that this formal stiff portrait is of a young married couple and she is drawn directly to the young Mrs Andrews, imagining her erotic imaginings maybe before or even during her wedding night. Erotic sexual couplings and bacchanalian discoveries are to be found amongst the foliage and the lace. A totemic gun cuts through the picture plane, not exactly erect but shown more perpendicular than the drooping hunting rifle of the original painting which is pointing limply downwards in the arm of Mr Andrews. In fact the rifle is the only direct lift in Thompsett’s response to the original, preferring instead to take the more interesting route of unearthing the psychological reveries of the young Mrs Andrews. In its own quiet way Thomsett's The Secret Life of Mrs Andrews contains a powerful polemic, by concentrating on the entirely implicit realm of the world of feminine (erotic) reverie, the artist makes us look again at this famous portrait from the perspective of the supposedly unpowerful female, putting the Missus and her musings centre stage.
Carolina Ambida's Garden Portrait similarly does away with the male presence. Her subfusc brooding painting of an dark-skinned woman sitting in the foreground amidst swirling greenery, hints at a cultural contrast between a perceived exoticism and a staid art historicity of English landscape painting. But Garden Portrait is more complex than this initial impression. The young figure wears a short sleeveless brown dress with a white belt and one single white earring. The meaning is undefined, the painting style of figure and landscape don’t so much shout contrast as connectivity. The female figure fits seamlessly within the landscape almost an extension of it. Languidly posed as in a contemporary photo shoot, she meets the eye of the viewer unambiguously. The painting appears as a contemporary comment on the nature of portraiture. In the original much has been made of the Capitalist nature of the couple showing off how much land they own. An all dressed up landowner and his wife presented as rulers of all that we are made to survey. Ambida's Garden Portrait seems to imply a 'this land is our land' universal ownership with the 'garden' of the title seemingly relating to the universal Gaia theory of the femininity of Mother Nature.
In A Particular England (without Mr and Mrs Andrews) Archie Franks, removes the figures entirely, substituting an ornate garden bench in an approximation of the original painting. The effect is to bring the landscape element of the original to the fore. Without the show-off-of-ownership for which the original is now famously known, Frank's sketchy watercolour focuses on what he refers to as a 'particular' Englishness. However, refuting a parochial green and pleasantness Frank's bench speaks more of corporate council landscaping. A park life of the masses perhaps? But he also reminds us that although Gainsborough was a popular portrait painter his first love was always in painting nature. In The Story of Painting, Agnes Allen notes that 'Gainsborough loved painting landscapes, but although his landscapes were very fine and much admired, he could not sell them. There is a story that Reynolds once referred to Gainsborough as "the first landscape painter in Europe."' Frank's use of watercolour also relates to Ruskin’s description of Gainsborough’s style of painting which he described as 'light as the sweep of a cloud, as swift as the flash of a sunbeam.'
Cathy Lomax's Regalia takes the conceptually intriguing perspective of literally exploding the original into constituent particles. In a kind of art equivalent of particle physics or the Blakeian assertion 'to see the world in a grain of sand', Lomax paints a series of cut-out segments from the original, using the form of 18th century miniatures as a further metaphor for this - sum making up the body of its parts - painterly exercise. Subverting traditional portraiture, Lomax's miniatures show just a glimpse of Mr Andrew’s tricorn hat and with only one slightly louche eye. Elsewhere there is a buckled up 18th century pantomime prince shoe, the décolletage of Mrs Andrews, the frou frou top of a delicate white muslin sleeve, a loose ribbon falling nonchalantly and suggestively from Mrs Andrews' bonnet. Lomax concentrates on the seductive costuming, the 'lets dress up and pretend' of looking at old paintings. Regalia works on many levels, it is a philosophical exploration on the nature of seeing, a re-definition of art glancing, the way the viewer’s eye scans a painting. It is also a comment on the nature of responding to famous paintings in that the artist takes it down, cuts it up and messes with it but nevertheless re-presents it in a contemporary way whilst honouring/commenting on art historical tropes.
Luci Eyers After which shows Mrs Andrews breastfeeding is curiously pertinent at the present time with the recent media storm after a women was asked to cover up with a napkin as she breast fed her baby in Claridges. Even before this event Eyers' representation of a nursing Mrs Andrews has the instant impact of updating an old classic. The original painting is completely recognizable in Eyer's interpretation. In After Mr Andrews is shown walking away rifle in hand leaving his young wife to the business of child rearing – impotent and unable to take part or maybe simply uninterested? The style of painting in a delicate and flowing wash is reminiscent of early 1950's illustrations. Eyer's painting turns the original narrative on its head, speaks of the now whilst looking back all at the same time.
In In England's Green and Pleasant Land David Mabb paints Mr and Mrs Andrews directly onto a William Morris print fabric. He deliberately leaves the fabric print title, The Strawberry Thief, visiable on the selvage. He also adds the stencilled titles Mr and Mrs Andrews, Gainsborough and The National Gallery. The landowning element has been obliterated leaving the repeated speckled thrush patterning of the original fabric base to come through the obliteration. Mrs and Mrs Andrews faces have been blurred but their pose is unmistakably similar to the original consciously making us aware of the element of copying. Mabb has been making mash ups with Morris designs for over a decade. His work reveals the tensions between Morris’s original utopian ideals and the middle England tea-towelling commercialism with which Morris’s work has come to be known. Mabb's concerns seem undoubtedly political with the Strawberry Thief originally referring to the thrushes which Morris found stealing fruit from his kitchen garden in Kelmscott Manor standing in as a metaphor for the grand land-grabbing, idealism defeating nature of Captial itself.
Mit Senoj's Yarrow shows a young naked woman holding a pheasant. The painting has a Chinoserie feel with bright cerise and green colours and uncharacteristic mountains all painted onto a black background. The large yarrow in the foreground and other weeds relate directly to Gainsborough’s sketches of weeds and leaves. The brightly coloured pheasant which the young woman (Mrs Andrews?) holds stiffly is perhaps indicative of the kill her husband has yet to make on his hunting trip. In his overemphasised saturated colour and decorative aspects, which contrast with the simple (uncoloured) willow, Senoj is perhaps diffusing the implicit horror of hunting, as the pheasant appears to be very much alive. Senoj also paints the single red poppy which is often un-noticed in the original, the overall essence of Senoj's painting is of innocence and vulnerability contrasting with the self satisfied formal presentations of the original.
Alli Sharma's Trophy, in contrast, shows the bloodied body of a dead rabbit, which relates directly to what Mr Andrews intends to get up to with that impotent rifle of his. In The Life and Works of Gainsborough, Linda Doeser writes, 'The portrait is unfinished; among other things, Mrs Andrews was to have been shown with a dead pheasant in her lap to underline her husband’s prowess with a gun.' This assertion cannot of course be proven and so Sharma’s dead rabbit could just as easily have been the supposed kill. Sharma presents her painting of this dead animal as a direct contradiction to the chocolate boxy, twee over familiarity of a National Gallery favourite – another way to read this painting by speculating on some of its darker implied narratives.
Moving on from tragedy recent graduate Ed Hill's Mr and Mrs Andrews takes the very personal route of presenting his own parents on a family holiday. In between the two slacker, faintly hippy figures is a comedic dog surrounded by emphatic cartoon lines indicating perhaps that the dog is shaking off water from a recent dip in the sea. Of course this mutt is nothing like the original beagle that stares adoringly at his master in the original painting. Hill's playful take on this iconic painting is whimsical and quirkily disrespectful of any art historic concerns.
In Robert Rush's Mr and Mrs Andrews the figures are barely discernable, rendered in thick white paint on a blackboard with jutting blue wooden supports, the brush strokes are bold, and simple, Rush has no truck with the original, instead his bodies appear to be indulging in some kind of erotic interplay, the blackboard maybe indicating a return to anti-establishment ideas of painting. There is nothing here to really suggest any identification with the original – instead a definite standing fast to the artist's own painting style, perhaps responding by not directly responding?
So there you have it, this writers entirely personal response to the art-responders. Thompsett writes, 'When I look at a painting like Mr and Mrs Andrews am I reading the artist’s mind and soul or am I seeing a projection of my own hidden self?' Ultimately what this show encourages is the art of looking again, looking longer, looking harder, thinking and then maybe speaking (writing) some words about what you have just seen.
This essay was written about the show Mr and Mrs Andrews at Transition Gallery.
Details of work discussed in this essay
Luci Eyers, After, 2014, watercolour on paper, 75x106cm
Carolina Ambida, Garden Portrait, 2014, oil on canvas, 29x23cm
Dolly Thompsett, The Secret Life of Mrs Andrews, 2014, Ink and mixed media on patterned upholstery fabric, 90x67cm
Archie Franks, A particular England (without Mr and Mrs Andrews), watercolour on paper, 12X16cm
Mit Senoj, Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium), 2014, watercolour, Indian ink & shellac, 42x30cm
Robert Rush, Mr and Mrs Andrews, 2014, mixed media, 70x90cm approx.
David Mabb, In England's green & pleasant Land, 2014, oil on fabric mounted on linen, 107x152cm
Alli Sharma, Trophy, 2014, oil on board, 40x30cm
Ed Hill, Mr and Mrs Andrews, 2014, oil on canvas, 100x100cm
Cathy Lomax, Regalia, 2014, oil on wood, 6.5x4.5cm (x11)