Curated by Creatives
A Portrait Without a Face
By Janine Bartels
15 June 2014
ARTIST ANNIE KEVANS PLANS TO CONTINUE HER SERIES 'WOMEN AND THE HISTORY OF ART' AND SPEAKS UP ABOUT GENDER INEQUALITY WITHIN THE PAST AND PRESENT ART WORLD
INTERVIEW: ANNIE KEVANS
Annie Kevans' recent works include a commissioned series of portraits of Jean Paul Gaultier’s muses for the exhibit ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’ at the Barbican until August 25. The portraits include the famous faces of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Amy Whinehouse, Dita Von Teese, and more. While people were admiring the instantly recognizable muses of Jean Paul Gaultier, Kevan’s other exhibition featured some not-so-recognizable women (it ran from May 13 – June 6 at The Fine Art Society). A series of 30 portraits, all women, were on display – and chances are that most people would not know one face.
‘Women and the History of Art’ showcases influential women throughout history that did not receive the credit they deserved for their art. Some portraits, Kevans did not even have an image to work off of, so relied on research and her imagination. In the exhibit, she brings these women of the past to life, putting a face to the name, and sharing their accomplishments. ‘Women and the History of Art’ is a better representation of Kevans’ usual work, as she is known for her controversial work surrounding political topics. Her past series include ‘Boys,’ a collection of dictators as children, playing on children’s innocence, as well as painting the illegitimate slave children of US presidents for ‘All the Presidents’ Girls.’
Kevans is a “natural feminist” and certainly has a word or two to say regarding her recently concluded exhibition. The artist responds via email about her work, informing us about the imbalance between male and female artist in the art world past and present. One could call this series a passion project, “I am continuing with Women and the History of Art and will be showing some new works in San Francisco in October,” says Kevans. “I will continue with the project for some time as I feel very strongly about it.”
As for Jean Paul Gaultier’s muses, they will go on tour to Australia with the exhibition, and then find their home with Gaultier himself. If someone did not previously know Kevans’ work, now they do. She has entered into the world of fashion, but will she stay? “No,” answers Kevans, “It’s not something I would want to do for another designer and I don’t think it would be fair to Mr. Gaultier either!”
Why did you decide to become a portraitist?
I wouldn’t call myself a portraitist, as that type of painting is quite different to what I do. I have never advertised my services as an artist who paints sitters in order to capture their likenesses for their own satisfaction. I am a conceptual painter and I paint series of people who are linked through an idea. The concept behind the series is more important than the physicality of the resulting work and sometimes the painting bears no actual resemblance to the person depicted. For example, when I paint historical figures for series like the US Presidents’ mistresses (‘All the Presidents’ Girls’), or when I paint dictators as children (‘Boys’), I have no available source image so I create my own idea of what they may have looked like. I distance myself from traditional portrait painting by working on alternative surfaces, such as paper, and my work is produced quickly and not laboured over.
I don’t remember an actual moment of decision with regard to my practice. It evolved over a period of years as I was looking for a way to convey my ideas. The first series was ‘Boys’ which I considered portraying in film and photography before realizing that it would be much simpler and more effective if I could learn to paint.
What attracts you to the human face? Is there any part of the face you don’t like to paint or potentially struggled with in the past?
I once heard a teacher at art school declare that painting, and especially figurative painting, was dead and I remember thinking that such a declaration made no sense. We are human and the idea that we should censor ourselves to not portray each other, because of what fashion dictates, is idiotic. I paint the human face because I paint the part of the body which defines us. I have had to teach myself how to paint faces as there was no teaching of this at my art school so it has all been a struggle.
In an interview with the Guardian you said, "The idea of 'feminine art' is stupid. Like the idea that pastels are feminine – what about Damien Hirst's butterflies or his pastel dots? There are loads of male artists doing far more 'feminine' things than I'm doing." You grew up with strong women and say you’re a “natural feminist.” Could you expand on your upbringing?
I think that people look for ways to differentiate women’s art from mainstream art as though it somehow doesn’t belong there because it’s fundamentally different and calling someone’s art “feminine” is one such way. I am a natural feminist because I was fortunate to have strong women in my family who were great role models. My father was a hopeless parent who disappeared when I was seven and my mother raised me and my sister by herself while running a business. She did this in a foreign country (France) with no family to help her. Three times a year, we stayed with my Great Aunt Eleanor who had been Managing Director of PlusGas, a large producer of industrial lubricants. She would tell us fascinating stories of her work during WWII, sending misinformation to the enemy via the radio. After D-Day, she was given the rank of Major and was sent off to rebuild the telecommunications systems in Germany with a team that included the great Hollywood film director, Billy Wilder. Her lifelong best friend, my Great Aunt Tru, who had no family of her own, worked for MI6 and was awarded an OBE and the Bronze Star by the US government for “outstanding bravery in Casablanca 1942”. Both my great aunts would sit me down when I was a teenager and discuss my options with me, often suggesting that I work for the Foreign Office! It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.
Before you started working on Women and the History of Art, there were many women you had never heard of. These women proved to have influential pasts, yet, they were forgotten or their work mistaken, and they never received the recognition they deserved. Out of all the women you painted, whose story was the most surprising for you to learn? Why?
I was most surprised by two things. Firstly, I was amazed that women were making a living as artists as early as the 16th century, and secondly, I was stunned by how successful some of the women were. I was under the impression that it was impossible for women to be professional artists until around the Victorian era and I certainly had no idea some women were international celebrities. I still have trouble convincing people of this as most of us have received the same misinformation for years.
Women such as Angelica Kauffmann, Levina Teerlinc, Elizabeth Vigée-Le Brun and Cecilia Beaux had hugely successful and inspiring careers. I was fascinated to read about Angelica Kauffmann and her funeral procession which was on a par with Raphael’s. I also loved reading about women like Adélaïde Labille-Guiard who campaigned for an apartment in the Louvre where many male artists lived and worked but was repeatedly refused on the grounds that her presence there would be dangerous to the men! I was also amazed to discover that some of the models in some very famous paintings were actually artists. For example, the naked woman in Manet’s ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe’ is an artist called Victorine Meurent.
Which woman in the series do you believe has been the least credited for the role she played in the art world?
As I’m not an art historian, I really couldn’t say. They all seem to suffer from the same lack of attention.
I understand you based your worked off many self-portraits. You must have spent a lot of time digging through archives to come across these images, how difficult was it to find photos of the women?
Ten years ago, I found it really hard to research my subjects and did have to rummage through archives in dusty libraries, however, now I can find a lot of information on the internet. I also use more reliable sources such as books and catalogues produced by museums but I do a lot of image searches via Google.
Did you not feature any women because you could not find a photo of them to base your painting off of?
I am painting some women whose portraits don’t exist. These works take longer to do but they add an interesting dimension to a series.
I was telling my flatmate about your work, she is in illustration and teaches art to children 5-8 years old. She will touch on art history, and recently a child actually asked her: “Why aren’t their any female artists?” You mentioned yourself, that even studying art in university you still were unaware of many female artists that were influential. What would it take for schools to implement a change in curriculum's and content studied?
At university, teachers frequently mentioned contemporary female artists but they failed to mention the women from the past. I don’t think it was an intentional thing – I think it was down to ignorance. I think many of us presume that, in the past, women were too oppressed to be professional artists and also that the ones that gave it a go weren’t very interesting otherwise we’d all have heard of them. These women seem to be repeatedly relegated to a separate area of study reserved for feminists and female art historians.
I think there is an excessive amount of criticism leveled at these women which their male counterparts manage to escape. Time and time again, I read essays and articles about the women which state that these women were not ‘great’ artists and, as such, don’t deserve to be remembered. There is too much focus on their ‘level of greatness’ that I find irritating. I’m of the firm belief that such statements are purely subjective. Evidence of this is the fact that many of these women’s works have been repeatedly misattributed to artists considered to be some of the ‘greatest’ artists who ever lived! So, on the one hand, their works are so good they are mistaken for artists like Franz Hals but on the other hand they are not ‘great’ enough to be remembered.
Far too many interesting women are excluded from important shows and this needs to be addressed. Recently, I learned that only one woman was featured in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Surreal Art. The exhibition was some time ago but it’s an example of the role institutions play in sidelining women. It is my opinion that many excellent female artists are left out of exhibitions (and books, television and magazines for that matter) to make way for far less interesting male artists. I recently did a radio interview where a DJ asked me why there was only one woman featured in his book of 100 Great Paintings (there’s that word again!). I replied that it was probably because those types of books tend to feature the most famous and most popular paintings and that if people were aware of the women’s works they would most probably love them but they never get to see them. Many women only seem to feature in books about female artists, thus reinforcing the notion that women’s art is to be seen separately.
Another problem is that many museum collections don’t have a lot of women’s works so there is a continued imbalance in what they show. They blame the previous trustees who made decisions about what work to buy and we can only hope that they are not focusing unduly on men’s work. Once these imbalances are redressed, people will stop questioning the validity of women’s art and it will become the norm to teach children about the women who rightly deserve our attention.
In an interview with BBC you mention, “Only 5% of London galleries show and equal number of men and women.” Without knowing this statistic, would you have ever felt the imbalance?
I didn’t know this statistic and it was actually the Guardian journalist who wrote it an article - I was very dismayed to read it. If you look at the leading London galleries run by women, you see that only about a quarter of their artists are women. This is strange, isn’t it? Apparently, most art students today are female so why is it that if you’re male you’re far more likely to get gallery representation?
Although I wasn’t aware of the level of imbalance, I do feel I have had to work harder than many of my male counterparts. For example, there are no doubts about their commitment to their work when they have a child. I lost count of the number of times people asked me if I was going to ‘go back to painting’ when I was pregnant. My New York art dealer never spoke to me or emailed me again after discovering I was pregnant. The art world is very unregulated and women are not protected from discrimination such as this. There are very few contracts and you are working in partnership with other people (not employed by them) so you feel very vulnerable.
Are the portraits on display in both the Jean Paul Gaultier and Women and the History of Art exhibit your first attempt? Do you ever have to re-do the painting or go through drafts?
I frequently redo works although less so now than when I first started out. In the early days, I would redo a painting 10 times before being happy with it.
I know that you like to research your subject and get to know them before painting the portrait. How much time do you spend researching and how long does it take you to paint a portrait?
I would say I spend as much time doing research as I spend painting.
What type of paper do you work on? It is quite distinctive to your work, but I understand that it is no longer being produced. What are you going to do when you run out of your supply?
The paper I was working on was an oil-primed paper produced by Daler Rowney. I am now working on oil-primed wood panels.
Most of the portrait series you have previously painted make a stand against underlying political issues, like playing on children’s innocence with dictators or illegitimate slave children with US presidents. However, painting Jean Paul Gaultier’s muses is not such a serious topic. Were you at all hesitant to produce portraits that don’t have the same depth of thought as your other exhibits? Would you say it was an easy exhibit for you?
There is a long tradition of artists collaborating with designers and doing commissions alongside their main work (think of Andy Warhol for example) and I think such collaborations can be interesting and worth doing as long as the people involved have a strong connection. Jean Paul Gaultier has always been a very avant-garde designer and I love his sense of subversive playfulness which challenges the status quo. I like to think of myself as equally ‘provocatrice’ and I think his fans appreciate my work. I was very flattered that someone as creative and exciting as Jean Paul Gaultier would choose me for the commission and I understood it was a great opportunity for me to exhibit in some of the world’s leading museums and reach a new and large audience.
I realize that the Gaultier commission is a departure from my usual work and one which may lead people to think of me as a portraitist but I also know that many people have discovered my work as a result of the collaboration and I’m very happy about this.
Did you feel a certain pressure painting portraits of these idolized celebrities?
I felt pressure to produce images which really looked like the people being depicted. As I previously explained, this is not usually a priority for me and I found it quite a challenge.