Shadows of Their Former Selves
by Nico Kos Earle
23 July 2013
Glass meets artist Annie Kevans and discusses the motivation behind her provocative and haunting portrait series
If you are coming into to London for one critical meeting, as I was with the artist Annie Kevans, then everything depends on where you choose to have it. Discretely tucked away in a cul-de-sac off St James is the St James Hotel and Club, a hidden gem of sophistication, for those who are more interested in who they are meeting than being seen. Originally a club that has enjoyed several incarnations during the course of its 150 years, it has always been associated with distinguished travellers including Evelyn Waugh. With little time to spare this place gives you the opportunity for total cultural immersion, not in the least for its proximity to some of London’s best galleries from the Royal Academy to the White Cube. But its trump card its own art collection, most significantly a range of portraits from the 1920s to the 1940s – a host of characters that make for very enigmatic and well-behaved lunch companions.
Before my guest arrived, I took a quick tour of the art downstairs and found myself before two virtually identical portraits of a mystery man – painted five years apart. It felt like a visual affirmation: the perfect symmetry of my chosen location for the interview of an artist recognised for her provocative and haunting portraits. If Kevans’ paintings could talk they would whisper. Created in series of up to seventy individual portraits they are like a retrospective – both real and imagined – that pose fundamental questions about how society enables or condones the actions of or attitudes towards certain individuals. Collectively their voice is like a wind, nudging our perspective in a different direction.
Presently on show at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition we have an opportunity this summer to also see her first series Boys at the Saatchi Gallery group show Paper. The ghost-like quality of her pieces is achieved through the thoughtful use of oils on paper with the lightest of brush strokes in translucent tones. Giving us an impression rather than something complete – we are getting a glimpse into the unknown. Pol Pot as a boy, Mao Zedong, Stalin, Hitler … the list goes on and crosses every continent – these are the forgotten faces of children who became monsters. Their names jar with the faces, and provoke deep questions: are they a product of society or victims or mental illness, or is that just a projection of idealised childhood? Maybe they were just born that way.
Although I had written about her before, this was our first meeting and it had not occurred to me that my name would provoke the image of a Greek man in her mind. It was a fine way to start and threw us right into the central discussion of how we see ourselves versus how we are perceived – how our public image is beyond our control. Settling into each other’s presence I was stuck by her wide Hockney swimming pool eyes set off by a romantic mane of strawberry blonde hair. Her attention seemed expansive, like she was seeing details beyond my field of vision. They say that artists see everything twice …
“I am quite excited to see them all together again. I really held out for that – when I first exhibited I had offers to buy four or seven, but I felt very strongly that I did not want to break them up. The point was how many there were. After the show finished the Saatchi Gallery asked to see them and sent a car around to pick them up and that was the last I saw of them …,” she says.
Of the five series Kevans has completed since, this is the only group that has remained together, “now they go off in bits. Hopefully they will be reunited in the future.” She pauses not wanting to display an overt emotional attachment to them. “They were painted to be together, the colours all match, like the Mouseketeers which is part of the Girls series – red, white, and blue.”
In this sense these portraits function like the different lines of a poem. Pausing we are asked by the resident mixologist if we would like to try today’s champagne cocktail – and when the soft pink frothy drink arrives with a little cumquat perched on its side I make a silent nod in gratitude to the women who came before us that made this modern moment possible: two girls from out of town having a lunch meeting in this former gentleman’s club. It felt perfectly decadent. Scanning the menu we finally settle on a sharing starter followed by steak for Annie and fish of the day for myself.
Annie is as gracious and soft spoken as her subtly beautiful art work, but there is also a rebellious streak to her, just as each series she produces presents a challenge. If I had to sketch her in one word, I would use “brave”.
“I came up with the idea of painting on paper right at the last minute, which was a huge risk. I started my degree painting at Central St Martins I then veered off into photography and only returned to my original intentions towards then end – but the idea was there from the start,” she says. “This was just my third attempt at it. Everyone thought I was mad, but fortunately my tutor, Pam Skelton, understood what I was trying to do and really supported me.”
It touches our sensibilities on so many levels – we all hold childhood so dear. “ ”I was always very rebellious, even from an early age, but then again so was my dad who used to encourage it. He fought in World War II after working in a munitions factory, which blew up. Actually I didn’t see my dad for 17 years, he walked out. He was mentally ill but he was a proper existentialist.” What is interesting about Kevans is that she has great empathy for her father, and sees that whilst he was a source of emotional pain he is also a source of inspiration. “Hitler was such an odd character but he really did love his mother, and carried a little locket with a picture of her in it – I have actually bought a locket because I wanted to recreate that locket with a drawing. It was not as if he was an abused child with no love.”
Originally Kevans painted four canvases of Al Capone, Fred West, Bloody Mary and Hitler as boys and for her final exhibition returned to this idea before changing quite dramatically to a large series of 70 portraits painted on paper. “The terrible thing is that I had to do them quite quickly and I made lots of mistakes which meant I wasted a lot of paper – and you cannot buy it any more! This was the only paper that was oil primed. It was a whole new way of thinking for me; each piece is part of the whole. I think at college no one was really expecting the reaction I got.”
The downside about having a series is that she has since not sold them as a group. “ ”Barely dry they were whisked out of studio and sold before I had a chance to photograph them so I have no idea where they are. It is sad for the collectors as they are being let down as they will not be contacted and their works will not feature in books.“ ” It is clear that the last gallery Kevans was with let her down, and did not really appreciate the nature of her work and how the individual portraits worked together.
She is now embarking on her sixth series A History of Art, painting the forgotten faces of female artists obscured by time and omitted from the art history books. “It’s about female artists from the last 500 years who were very successful in their day but have been written out of history – the gallery I am thinking of having it at actually had an Eva Gonzales and Berthe Morisot who I had painted. It’s quite poetic because they sell old masters and the owner is one of my collectors that I never knew I had.”
She is really holding out for this series to be bought as a whole. Hopefully for us they will be bought by a museum or we will never have the opportunity to see the work as it was intended. Perhaps the National Museum of Women in the arts in Washington will buy this series, but it would be better for art as a whole if a non-gender specific institution did. “These portraits are smaller in size perhaps 40 x 30 cm, as I am now working on stock that was bought by mistake,” pausing she then adds, this is the last series ”
In the silence that follows this revelation she reaches for some green beans and I notice that I have hoovered my main course whilst Annie is only halfway through hers. She lifts up the caper juice between us and confesses she hates capers, and then tries it anyway.
Kevans is now a mother, and her next series comes after a forced year and a half hiatus, as the turps were too toxic to use while pregnant or breast-feeding. Attitudes in the art world to her new status really shocked her. She in no way feels that this has taken her out of the “race”, that it is an either or situation, and if anything it has given her a much deeper insight into character.
“It was very frustrating as people were acting like I had died or something – just because I had gone off to have a baby. There was one comment by one artist that really upset me: ‘There is no such thing as a good mother and a good artist.’ I do know where that particular artist is coming from because of her personal experiences, but ‘terrible mother’, ‘bad artist’ how old fashioned is that? I kept coming back to the whole idea as I had been looking at mothers like Hitler’s mother.
“Then I started looking at female artists and found all these fantastic artists hundreds of years ago with great careers and I felt quite deceived that I had had all this art education and I had presumed that women did not have the opportunity hundreds of years ago – and my friends had presumed the same. As far back as the 16th century they had been equally successful as the men – but it was the art historians who dropped the women.’ ”
Did these artists domestic duties prevent them having a social life that would have promoted them more with critics? “I’m not sure. Fathers did teach their daughters, but there were strong expectations that women would just go off and have children – one third would die in childbirth. A lot of their work was then attributed to their fathers, husbands. There is a famous Goya painting whose title has now been corrected to ‘attributed to Goya’ as it was probably painted by his daughter. What annoyed me in Germaine Greer’s book, The Obstacle Race, is that she says ‘oh they were just the daughters of great artists, but if you look at Picasso his dad was an art teacher – but no one ever called him just the son of … did she have children?”
Such a good coffee arrived – caffeine kick. Becoming a parent has changed her perspective on childhood completely – especially the anger people carry for their parents that they cannot let go of. It has also changed her attitude towards London. Annie is leaving the capital for a little town in Southern Spain called Estepona.
In some ways she is motivated by a need to preserve her own daughter’s innocence – taking her out of the big smoke and away from early exposure to the stress of city life. But also she is completing the circle – as she began life as an ex-pat in the South of France.
Asking her what she will miss most, she replied before I had even finished the sentence, as if the thought is constantly pressing on her mind. “My friends, being connected to the artistic community in London, and the random eccentrics of city life as much as access to all the fantastic galleries from the Tate Modern to the Royal Academy and of course the Saatchi gallery.”
Before leaving we take a tour of the hotel and club, with its gallery of faces almost daring her to paint one for them. Maybe this will be Annie’s home away from home on occasion when she returns; clearly she is a distinguished traveller. My high-flying businesswoman alter-ego would join immediately. This is a bar for the meeting of your life (not to mention the rum cocktails), and a bistro for one of the most discreet lunches available in the centre of London.