PEER FORUM: In the V&A Collection

Camden Arts Centre
Feb 15, 2018 · 9 min read

PEER FORUM is a peer-mentoring group funded by Artquest and hosted by Camden Arts Centre, taking place over the course of a year. This year’s selected group is led by artist Alicia Tsigarides and includes Leah Carless, Katharine Fry, Rebecca Jagoe, Olivia Brazier, Annie Attridge, Lindsey Mendick, Alicia Reyes McNamara, Holly Hendry, Mindy Lee and Tenant of Culture. Each month following their session, the group will document their findings in a series of posts.

For their second session, the group explored the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection, selecting items from the Prints and Drawings Room which considered different representations of the female body throughout history, and identified the use of autobiography in artistic practice. Often erotic, comical or grotesque, their selection explores women as saints and sinners, mothers and murderers, models and muses.

Alicia Tsigarides on Esquire, Norman Mailer Meets Madonna poster, 1994

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I was drawn to this poster featuring Madonna, promoting the September 1994 issue of Esquire, a fashion and lifestyle magazine for men. I collect album covers featuring images of Donna Summer, Shirley Bassey, Madonna and other powerful women that exhibit confidence in their sensual performances. Adorned across my studio wall, it has become like a shrine, a place to worship my uninhibited idols. In my work, I like to manipulate these images to emphasise the spiritual, emotive and suggestive. Elaborate autobiographical narratives often trigger production of new work, however my emotions are controlled through the making process, often transferred, staged or edited, they become hidden or secreted within pieces. There is a desire to lose control, but a fear of doing so. Madonna is often considered the most influential and iconic female recording artist of all time. In the 1990’s she played the role of the dominatrix — uncensored, unapologetic and sexual. She spoke so openly about herself in interviews and re-enacted provocative scenes of sadomasochism in her books and videos. Her controversial behaviour was liberating and questioned the boundaries of gender and female sexuality. However, in this image, there seems to be staged attempts to disempower her. The evening gown worn at the beginning of the photoshoot has slipped down and gathered around her knees to reveal an awkwardly restrained figure clad in fetish attire. Collared and pasted centrally onto a backdrop resembling a target board, domination becomes humiliation in an act of post-production.

Holly Hendry on Paula Rego, Three Blind Mice, 1989

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The best stories are told when they are made your own, exaggerated and inflated. Three Blind Mice (1989) by Paula Rego illustrates the nightmares and terrors remembered from childhood. I enjoy the immediate prickle of physical, visceral experience, present in many of her works. There is a hairy, sticky, beastliness within Rego’s images that flows through the veins of animals and humans. Within my own sculptures, I have been thinking about our human relationship with animals, particularly how we use them as symbols of our future. Within Rego’s print there is emotion imbued in the draughtsmanship, connecting deeply to her own feelings and anxieties and past experiences. The print is an etching made from aquatint on paper. This use of aquatint requires a back to front working method, where one slowly works from light to dark. I am drawn to the immediacy within this image, from a process which is literally backwards and time consuming. It feels like a translation of an imprint from the back of her mind, a distant memory of a story, reinterpreted through time. The comparison of this slowness compared to the chop of the mouse’s tail is animated through the wriggle of these remains grasped in the woman’s hand.

Alicia Reyes McNamara on Graciela Iturbide, Our Lady of the Iguanas, 1979

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1979 during some time spent in Juchitán (Oaxaca), Graciela Inturbide took this photograph Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas). The image is from a series focusing on the matriarchal nature of the Zapotec Indian community. It features a woman named Zobeida, a merchant on her way to the market to sell her many iguanas. Due to the figure’s incredibly striking, almost ethereal self-possession, the photograph was renamed by locals as the ‘La Medusa Juchiteca’ .I chose this photograph because Inturbide speaks openly about the premonitions she has dreamt, predicting moments that she has later photographed or things that have occurred in her life. It is important to her that her photographs are not posed or staged, as she documents her communities and her friends. She appreciates working with the very minimum. There is no set up or lights, flash or tripods — just her, her camera and her intuition.

Rebecca Jagoe on Netty Ferro, Imprudence, 1939

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I couldn’t form a cohesive or cogent narrative as to what drew me to this sketch, though my ideas were loosely around romance and lightness; the legacy of the consumptive aesthetic; diaphanous fabrics and death. I was also thinking about how the feminine is codified, and the excesses of Barbie cakes and toilet roll covers. This combined fetishizing of weightlessness and aesthetic of notional prettiness seems to disavow the messy contingency of a body. I then read the description of its history. The illustrator, Netty Ferro, was one of the lead designers at the House of Worth. The drawing was made in 1939, though there is nothing to indicate that it was produced at a time of complete turmoil in Europe: it is pure escapist fantasy. The V&A archives state that in 1942, Ferro was apprehended by Nazis and died in Auschwitz. The drawing contains an inscription in memorial to her, but it was impossible to find any additional information on her besides the record of her interment in the camp. I am wary of speaking in generalisations, but so much of what interests me in terms of the fantasies of this aesthetic of romance and lightness — the disavowal of the body, of contingency, of the messy subjectivity of humans — is strangely perpetuated in the existence of this beautiful watercolour, of which so little of the tragic and horrific history of its maker is known.

Mindy Lee on Julia Margaret Cameron, My Grand Child Archie Son of Eugene Cameron R.A. aged 2 years & 3 months, 1865

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I felt a strong connection with this subject matter as I am currently making paintings about my relationship with my own son. Cameron’s photographic portraits are personal and intimate, often using her friends, family and servants to pose as characters referencing biblical or historical stories. Rejecting the rigid formality of Victorian mother and child portraiture, she used an experimental technique known as ‘combination printing’: Cameron printed the bottom half of a negative of her sleeping grandson in combination with the top half of a negative of Mary Hillier. The mother figure is a ghostly guardian, an invisible carer, and a support around the child that melts into the domestic space itself. Cameron’s process is painterly, embracing the accidental gesture which becomes an important part of the work itself. Her layered imagery creates hybrid narratives that can be unpicked, returning back into its component elements. The exposure of the process enhances a tension between separate parts. Here Cameron cuts through the unity of mother and child, by layering up a double negative, which draws a horizontal line between the two. This double image reveals a difference between above and below, consciousness and unconscious, flesh and spirit, life and death.

Tenant of Culture on Jean-Charles Worth, Béatrice, 1924

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This fashion design illustration is by Jean Charles Worth, head designer for House of Worth and the great grandson of the legendary fashion designer Charles Frederick Wort, the inventor of Haute Couture a century earlier. This drawing of a little black dress bears all the characteristics typical to the silhouette of the 1920’s: emphasis on the hips rather than the waist, and the loose, draped shapes inspired by Japanese kimonos. This era of fashion follows the rejection of the corset, a restricting and limiting piece of clothing, at odds with the post-war era. Fashion in the 1920’s seemed to be all about movement and freedom; draping floating dresses, extremely long necklaces, frills and beads, and a short bob haircut. I find the silhouette of the dresses very intriguing, the emphasis on the hips creates a pop-out belly effect that is so radically different from the slim waist that was previously en vogue. I think it’s the first time where fashion moved away from emphasizing the ‘fertile’ aspects of women and became more abstract. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that women didn’t have any muscles in their abdomen due to the corsets that most of them wore from the age of thirteen. Maybe this type of dress was designed to disguise the floppy post-corset bellies? Regardless, it is empowering. Looking at this drawing, I see a free lady who likes to dance, smoke, drink and have a good time, rather than being restrained, silent and submissive.

Olivia Brazier on H. Schmidt, Milford Haven Collection Postcards 1. Untitled 2. Nun with aubergine, both c. 1903

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Milford Haven collection of French erotic postcards (c.1900–1916) contains photographic and illustrated imagery of nudes and crude sexual activity. These examples are weighted with sexual symbolism, depicting phallus-like aubergines and sausages. I was drawn to the works, as I use fruit and vegetables in my paintings and colleges to describe intimate body parts and shapes. These postcards were gifted to the Victoria & Albert Museum by Dr E.J. Dingwall, also known as Dirty Ding due to his interest in erotic art and literature. The story of their acquisition is equally as exciting as the cards themselves. It is possible that this collection of fantasy postcards were given to Dirty Ding in the sixties by the George 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven — aka David Mountbatten — who feared they would be embarrassingly exposed by the police investigation into the Profumo Affair. Erotic postcards became increasingly popular in the early 20th century, yet still secret with many sold under the counter. Luckily for us, this collection was meticulously archived by Dirty Ding and is available for the public to flick through carefully and enjoy.

Katharine Fry on Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, Jai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan, 1894

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

My practice is influenced by archetypes and myths so I went into the archive looking for an emblem of a woman, drawn and described, as so typically happens, by a man. I found Aubrey Beardsley’s print I have kissed your mouth John / I have kissed your mouth (1893), an illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. In a single image I saw Salome cast as a tempting young girl, a grotesque woman and a man killer. I chose to interpret Salome’s story, imagining it from her own voice:

“I’m a girl. My first kiss stolen. I’m a crone. Body bent and broken bound. I’m my mother’s vessel. My words echo hers. I’m his to command. Named to my husband. I’m a prize. A budding bride. I claim my prize. This scene ‘The Climax’. I dance for him. For my prize. What do I want? His head, my mother said. He could not refuse. My mouth. My body. Oath spoken.

I like his face. What a dish! Served raw on gold. I’m hungry. I kiss your mouth. A feast! Snake hair fed writhes wild. Your blood feeds my flowers bloom. Your tears swell my fertile grapes. Delicious darling.”

Annie Attridge on Auguste Rodin, Study of a nude female figure (date unknown)

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I am currently using watercolours in my own work and I admire how Rodin makes this process look effortless. This pencil and watercolour, Study of a Nude female figure,by Auguste Rodin, depicts a woman lying on her back, with her hands clasping her feet. Faint pencil marks in the background suggest a bedroom scene. Even though this position is extremely intimate and exposing, she appears uninhibited and free. His faint watercolour washes create a flickering look that creates movement and a fleshy transparent form.

PEER FORUM will be meeting regularly throughout 2017–18 with the aim of expanding these ideas while giving feedback on each other’s work.Read more about PEER FORUM.

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