Monday, 2 April 2012

Painting 10: I could have sworn I felt my spirit soar

Oil on canvas, 190x150cm, 2008

Here is a piece that I wrote about the background to this painting to accompany an exhibition:

In 1895, William Adolphe Bouguereau painted Le Ravissement De Psyche (this translates as The Abduction or the Raptures of Psyche).  Bouguereau, as a popular salon painter, was emphatically opposed to the emerging Impressionist movement because he interpreted their style as a rejection of the tradition of painting in terms of both technique and content.  This controversial stance put Bouguereau out of favour with his contemporaries and his oeuvre gradually became scorned as the 20th Century reinvented the entire discourse of fine art. 

While broadly researching the idea of rejected art and what that is, I found a copy of this painting in a charity shop.  When I took it out of the frame it turned out to be a birthday card addressed to Lesley, printed by Athena in 1996.  So the image is now the kitsch material of greetings cards, but was so loved by Lesley that she framed it, then in turn rejected it and gave it to charity.  I was interested in the cyclical story of this painting coming in and out of what is allowed to be called art and what is relegated as being sentimental and displaced.

I wanted to paint this subject in 2008 and investigate the experience of looking at this painting, now out of its time, in the contemporary context where the beautiful is embarrassing and art has to have higher responsibilities.  Would a painting that had been rejected so many times over the last century be rejected again or would there be a way of giving it a contemporary value and engaging with both sides of the debate?

The myth surrounding Psyche and Eros, the two characters in this painting, also involves rejection and the difficult relationship with beauty.  Psyche (meaning soul) was considered to be the most beautiful mortal, so much so that she made the Gods feel threatened and inferior.  Aphrodite instructed her son, Eros to make Psyche fall in love with the most ugly mortal on Earth.  But when Eros saw her he fell in love with her himself.  So Aphrodite made Psyche undertake a series of challenges to become worthy of her beauty and her fate. 

I wanted to paint Psyche and Eros sensitively to try to convey the conviction of their feelings for each other but I wanted to make a clear distinction that this is a painting from 2008 and all the implications of what it means to make this sort of painting in the contemporary artistic climate.  By painting out the background in flat grey, I wanted them to look lost in our time.  I wanted to take the viewer on an uncomfortable journey between responding sensually to the story they tell and feeling repelled by the kitsch value of the rainbow and adornments that I added.

I hope this painting challenges our ideas of whether we still have use for beauty in art.  The aesthetic experience can be drawn upon to contribute to the cultural and critical discourse as well as being the source of ‘pleasure’, a word that today leaves an uncomfortable taste in the mouth.

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