Blackadder, joy and purpose
Walking into the Elizabeth Blackadder exhibition at the Edinburgh National Gallery I had the feeling that I had walked into the ultimate level 1 drawing submission. For those of you who know the courses, there was a view from one space to another, view through a window, landscape, still life with natural and man-made objects, townscapes, even the wee project about the chest of drawers and the fish on a plate. In this regard the exhibition could be seen as directly useful to level 1 fine art students and gave me an insight into the aims of the course.
Blackadder graduated from Art College in 1954 with some energy, winning a couple of travel bursaries. She was married to another young artist, John Houston , and their life must have been exciting and great fun as they worked alongside each other in a vibrant and supportive Edinburgh art scene. Blackadder lectured for twenty years at Edinburgh College of Art.
Having just visited the Gerhard Richter I was in a position to reflect on two artists who celebrated their 80th birthday in the same year. They have certainly travelled very different paths. Gerhard Richter’s work is important and challenging and has consistently looked out at the world and at art practice. Blackadder on the other hand, started out engaging with the art discourse of day as a young woman and has continued in a similar vein, developing a comfortable and enjoyable relationship with her work which gives her great pleasure, albeit on a much less ambitious scale. Although the artists are the same age, her work seems to be made by a much older person, perhaps because she was taught by people from an earlier generation and absorbed their influence rather than rebelling against it, and then continued to work from those ideas all her life.
I’m not sure the work stood up to a full scale retrospective; the most recent work which is slight studies of crabs and shells seemed to me to be too intimate and more for private consumption rather than public exhibition. These ideas about who art is for and how an artist’s ambitions for their work affect how the work is viewed and the subject matter are important to reflect on.
For students, I think Blackadder’s method of composing her paintings could be of great interest. She often divides her canvas into two or three large rectangles. This might be achieved by pinning up some big sheets of fabric, a kimono or a big shawl or sari. She then positions her still life in the space, maybe even pinning some objects up high, or using shelves or dangling things from hooks. This way the objects are arranged on the rectangles in interesting ways, not just on the table. I had a go at this for a group of students and used unusual gift bags pinned to a sari to create a formal arrangement of squares on a rectangle. The resulting drawings considered the whole space much more than usual and students were freed up to enjoy colour by the sheer extravagance of the set up.
Although the structure of this blog was meant to be a rotation of exhibition visit, studio diary and student work, I would just like to squeeze in a student painting into this blog. As I receive the date of birth on all student profiles, I know that my student Mary Ward is a mere girl in her seventies compared to Blackadder and Richter so I hope she won’t mind my mentioning her here. She has produced two of my personal favourite paintings ever from a level 1 painting student and I include one here.
There is so much to love about this painting, but the reason I include it here in a blog about motivation and one’s relationship with one’s work, is that it has been painted with such joy and purpose. Mary painted this out in the woods, and even making the effort to lug everything out there and sit in the woods in winter shows a certain level of desire to make the work. The painting is painted right up to and over the edges, it is constructed with paint, not coloured in, and the whole thing resonates with a kind of gusto and unselfconscious visual sensitivity and creativity. This painting looks as if it was absorbing and enjoyable to make and although it is sophisticated and beautifully composed and painted, facility with materials is not key here – the skill comes in the looking and the sustained engagement with the process.