The current exhibition at the British Museum brings together “sculptures, sacred objects and artworks” across time and place exploring a question, framed by classicist Mary Beard as “How do you represent feminine power or desire in material form?”
I cannot post these sketches from the exhibition without saying this. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States of America overturned a decades old ruling on privacy that had defended women’s right to choose with respect to abortion. This horrifying misogynistic attack will coerce, control, incarcerate and kill women across the USA. This assault on women is of a piece with world-wide assaults on bodily autonomy, for example the increasing exclusion of trans people from affirming health care and civil society, and a rise in violent homophobia. As we increasingly celebrate diversity and fluidity in ourselves and others with regard to gender and sexuality, the reaction is to police our behaviour and expression within narrowly defined limits. These are spear points to fracture and exhaust us, and distract us, so we stumble down a road leading to fascism.
The female form has been exploited across time and six continents as a vehicle to express ideas about our very nature as evolved, natural, thinking, creative, social, hierarchical and transgressive beings.
The exhibition takes six themes: Creation and Nature, Passion and Desire, Magic and Malice, Justice and Defence, Compassion and Salvation.
Passion and desire are driving forces, in manifestations extending from lust, ecstasy, rage, wisdom and conquest. It is a transgressive disrupting force and can be a glue holding together relationships and society. The 1994 sculpture “Lilith: the first woman” by Kiki Smith shows Adam’s first wife, expelled from Paradise for desiring sexual dominance, crouching on a vertical surface above our heads. My little drawings, attempted twice, did not capture the majesty of this bronze figure. May Lilith haunt the dreams of the justices.
Monstrous women, demon goddesses, witches sit both at the fringes of society and at its heart, independent, aggressive, protective, vengeful, wise. The Roman god Hekate symbolises transition, gazing at three pathways. She is light in darkness. May we choose well our future direction.
This started with a 15 minute sketch on Reading Station and a certain mood.
This was the sequence of painting, starting with the varying opacity seen through the canvas made by the initial acrylic white layer priming the canvas.
Then building in shapes taken from the platform, rails and evening sky in water-miscible oils.
Was this the point I should have stopped? It seemed too muted.
My right hand is out of plaster and though it remains stiff, swollen and sore I was surprised how quickly I defaulted to drawing again with my dominant hand. I missed the warm up fast sketches having left my pad on the platform when I changed trains and having to go back up the line one stop to retrieve it. I had gone with a plan in mind, to focus on a particular shape, likely negative space, and build the drawing round this, filling the page. These were the results, in conte crayon.
So here’s a mix of drawings from our 90 minute session, and it will be obvious which were 2, 5, 10 and 20 minute sketches. We had a great model with excellent muscle definition. I switched media throughout, just for fun. Working only with my non-dominant hand is freeing. I think my lines are bolder, and this makes up for poorer fine coordination. I am generally working from inside out, blocking in content before finding the lines. One of the artists there is a professional sculptor recently moved from China, still looking at how to work here. Her drawings look like sculptures, extending off the page with wonderful definition of three dimensional shape. She was generous in her discussion of my drawings. The fourth down, the last I drew, was built on the contrast between the man and the red blanket he sat on. I felt I had struggled to control my materials. She, however, drew my attention to the abstraction and non-natural colours of Fauvism. I like this and I think I will try more for this sense next time.
I have broken my wrist on my dominant side and it’s immobilised in a cast. Using my left hand, I write like a five year old, carefully printing each character. Each movement requires conscious control. Here are two left handed sketches. I am using as references images taken from my various twitter feeds.
This is Mo Mowlam, who as a government minister entered the notorious H block to negotiate with sectarian terrorists the peace that is the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
This was my first attempt. Anita Berber, incredible queer Berlin cabaret star of the early 20th century, who did not survive to her 30th birthday. This is from the twitter feed Whores of Yore from historian Dr Kate Lister. I can strongly recommend her book A Curious History of Sex.