Painting’s Whole Being

The Art of Chantal Joffe

In the interview that follows Chantal Joffe didn’t speak about Caravaggio as one of the painters at whom she looks; she might have, but she wasn’t asked. Reading the interview and hearing her voice in it, I thought of John Berger’s writing on Caravaggio and how remarkable it was, how he drew the essential nature of that artist’s intentions so clearly, transforming painting to language. Joffe is an engaged reader and makes frequent references to writers she admires. The American poet Emily Dickinson is one, and in the following interview Joffe was asked if she makes tight tonal shifts in her paintings equivalent to the small but significant alterations Dickinson made through the substitution of a single word. Joffe’s response was that there are painters who paint in a manner closer to the way Dickinson writes, and she does see in her own work moments that make that connection but added, “it’s very hard to describe in the act of painting the way that hard things sit against soft things.” Here is one of the places where Berger on Caravaggio came to mind because I think Joffe does get the feeling or sensation on canvas the way Berger gets seeing in words on paper. In And our faces, my heart, brief as photos (Pantheon Books, 1984), he wrote, “almost every act of touching which Caravaggio painted has a sexual charge. Even when two different substances (fur on skin, rags and hair, metal and blood) come into contact with one another, their contact becomes an act of touching.” Here is Joffe’s hard things sitting against soft so that you do know what she wants you to get and feel. “In his painting of a young boy as Cupid, the feather of one of the boy’s wing tips touches his own upper thigh with a lover’s precision,” wrote Berger, and looking, you feel that quill on your skin.

Night Self-Portrait in a Red Dress, 2014, oil on board, 213 x 153 x 6 cm. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

The photographer Harry Callahan, Joffe noted, was able, in his work, to fix the tensions she finds desirable and necessary in art making. In his case it was between the formal quality and the intimacy of his subject, an intimacy she seeks in painting someone as close, for example, as her daughter. In speaking about Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, two photographers whose work refresh or help her return to painting, she uses language which parallels Berger’s writing on Caravaggio. A particular photograph by Garry Winogrand of a woman on a bench provokes in her a “shudder of excitement;” Lee Friedlander’s work “gets you back to a night of the slipping glimpse.” Berger wrote, about the feather touching the thigh, “that the boy can control his reaction, that he does not allow himself to quiver in response…” and he goes on. Joffe selects certain qualities in artists who use means other than painting—language, photography—to amplify, parallel or even explain in another medium what art making is for her. It is two opposites, or contrast, or tension leading finally to a tentative, maybe even a provisional resolution that is an artwork, a painting. She told Border Crossings, “In Dickinson you see it in the cheery, jaunty tone of something set against the darkness of the content. In Callahan it’s the formal against the intimate. To me, great art lies in that contrast. In the moment of sharp against soft…it can be as simple as the fat woman painted in thin paint.”

Little attention is paid by Joffe to the settings around her self-portraits or her paintings of other people. It’s the face or figure, naked or clothed, un-occluded by trappings, that holds her interest. For Caravaggio it was the same. Berger wrote, “In Caravaggio’s art, as one might expect, there is no property. A few tools and recipients, chairs and a table. And so around his figures there is little of interest….The impersonal surroundings—like the world outside the window—can be forgotten. The desired body disclosed in the darkness, the darkness which is not a question of the time of day or night but of life as it is on this planet….”

Naked Self-Portrait with Esme with Her Arm Raised, 2015, oil on board, 244.2 x 183.2 6 cm. Courtesy Cheim & Reid.

Joffe’s consideration of flesh seems not to carry Caravaggio’s painted desire so much as it speaks to their shared sense of its vulnerability. Nothing, for Joffe, is as poignant or vulnerable as the mottled blue/red flesh of the Britons dipping with questionable pleasure into the chilly water at the seaside. She sees beauty too, in the way flesh hangs and she delights in its ready accommodation to paint—the drips, the way it flows. It could be extended also to the rich creaminess of the material, and here I think of a painting by Charline von Heyl titled Frenhoferin, a checkerboard grid where she sampled a different painted representation of skin in each square. About Caravaggio’s painted bodies, Berger wrote this: “Not being innocent, their bodies contain experience. And this means that their sentience can become palpable; on the other side of their skin is a universe. The flesh of the desired body is not a dreamt-of destination, but an immediate point of departure. Their very appearance beckons towards the implicit—in the most unfamiliar, carnal sense of that word. Caravaggio, painting them, dreams of their depths.”

Joffe’s connection to the humanness of her subjects is evident. She describes as addictively beautiful faces which would fall far short of star status. She looks at them with interest and compassion. She paints, she says, the way she experiences the world and she sees the world as a vulnerable place. And who, here, does she identify as the exemplar of vulnerability? The photographer Diane Arbus because Arbus, she feels, was able to show the world how she saw. Arbus’s subjects were the vulnerable and the unlovely and in Arbus’s not turning away from presenting them as she saw them, Joffe reads a fearlessness she would wish for herself. That would be the courage to press on with the truth, unmindful of the hurt it might cause. Arbus identified vulnerability; Joffe does too but recognizes it needs to be responded to with tenderness as well as acuity.

“You have not converted a man because you have silenced him,” wrote Viscount John Morley, a 19th century British biographer. The American artist Ben Shahn produced a lithograph using that phrase, which apparently adorned the walls in every leftist household in the US during the fraught McCarthy period. Chantal Joffe’s mother painted a version of this salutary caution on the footboard of her daughter’s childhood bed, perhaps explaining, Joffe thought, her feeling the need to atone in her life, for what deeds it would be difficult to imagine.

Naked Self-Portrait with Esme in a Pink Nightshirt, 2014, oil on camera, 244.2 x 183.5 x 3.5 cm. Courtesy Cheim & Read.

The evanescent, missing artist Bas Jan Ader produced a three-and-one-half minute-long film, I’m Too Sad to Tell You, in 1971, a silent and ceaselessly weeping self-portrait that sears the memory and remains there like a stain. Chantal Joffe’s Self-Portrait (Weeping Woman), 2015, does the same. She describes the act of painting it as self-redemptive. Like Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937, on which it is based, Joffe’s inhabitation is powerfully iconic, massive and unavoidable; you cannot look away. The silvery tear will slide from Joffe’s cheek for all time and worry will crease her brow.

This interview was conducted by phone to the artist’s studio in London, UK on June 22, 2015. Chantal Joffe’s recent exhibitions include a collaboration called “Friendship Portraits: Chantal Joffe and Ishbel Myerscough” at the National Portrait Gallery in London, UK from June 11 to September 28, 2015 and “Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Chantal Joffe” at the Jewish Museum in New York from May 1 to October 25, 2015.

Border Crossings: You went to school in England, originally at Camberwell and then to Glasgow in 1989. Why Glasgow? Chantal Joffe: I read a magazine article that said they were very interested in life painting and that it was a really good place to paint the figure, which was what I wanted to do. And the atmosphere was right. The Charles Rennie Mackintosh building was purpose-built for an art school and it perfectly caught the light from the north. It is an incredibly beautiful building. I had the kind of feeling when you go into a place and you think, this is just for me, and so that was that. When I’d finished there, I wanted to come back to London and the Royal College was again a situation where I said to myself, God I want to be here. It was a good time to be at the Royal College, Peter Doig was teaching and there were other incredible teachers.

You came back from Glasgow in 1992 when there was a good deal of talk about the death of painting. Was the atmosphere at the Royal College congenial for a figurative painter when painting was regarded as an irrelevant discipline? I was this pretty naïve person when I arrived, who would try to get models to sit in my space. But the way I was being challenged was quite exciting, so I’d have a tutor saying, are you happy to fit into a group, like Auerbach or Lucian Freud? Those people were still huge heroes to me, but my teachers were saying, was that enough? So I was being pushed constantly to believe in what I believed. I had to go around a lot of different paths to come back to where I’d begun.

What was Doig like as a teacher? He was amazing, friendly and open and sweet as a person. My friend and I called him “Doig Doig Doig” because he was so full of enthusiasm and bounce. It was like he had a spring.

“Friendship Portraits,” the project you’ve done with Ishbel Myerscough that is now on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, is an intriguing one. Is it a conversation through self-portraiture, portraits of one another, and your children? Yes. I guess it’s about the shared and the unshared. Through the years she gave my daughter pictures of herself for every birthday and I gave her kids pictures of them, and we painted each other pregnant. It’s so important to have colleagues you can talk to and we speak every day. She lives down the road from my studio and we’ve never not been friends.

Self-Portrait with Hand on Hip, 2014, oil on canvas, 183 x 122.5 x 3.5 cm. Courtesy Cheim & Read.

That show indicates the way you use portraiture and self-portraiture as an act of intimacy. I think the self-portraits are a kind of auto-biographying, if that makes sense. And yes, there is intimacy. I love to read biography and autobiography so in a way, they are my equivalent.

Do you think of them as being courageous? The last show at Cheim & Read was a bit of a breakthrough because I felt those self-portraits were getting closer to the kind of honesty I want. But I don’t ever think in terms of courage. There is a particular painting that I suppose other people think is quite ugly, but I get quite excited by it. It’s very brown and I’ve got my hand on my hip. It felt like a huge step forward because what’s hard about self-portraiture is that you’re always fighting vanity. When I was about 16 there was all that pouting-into-a hand-held-mirror kind of thing, and however honestly you think you’re making yourself, a sort of vanity and prettiness always creeps in. I said that to somebody about an earlier self-portrait and they just about died laughing because they didn’t feel I’d made myself look pretty. But I think it does creep in; you make yourself look younger; you make yourself fatter or thinner. So I’m trying to fight my way through all that. In a weird way, I’m after detachment more than intimacy. When you’re a painter you always think you’ll be better in 10 years but with these works I felt I was painting right in the now.

There were two self-portraits in that show where you have your hand on your hip. When I saw the one with the brown palette, I couldn’t help but think of Max Beckmann. His self-portraits have a certain stridency and forwardness and your self-portrait has the same quality. That’s a big compliment because I like Beckmann a lot. Funny enough, it was actually Paula Modersohn-Becker and her way of seeing that I was thinking about a lot before I made the painting.

The range of the paintings in “Night Self-Portraits” is quite remarkable. There are two other self-portraits in which you’re wearing blue knickers: one is smaller and relatively innocent, and a larger one where you’re topless. Even though they were both painted in 2014, they seem like totally different kinds of paintings. In making them I got quite intoxicated thinking about colour, particularly those ones with blue pants. Inevitably, you start out at one point with the painting and you end up somewhere else. People kept saying they looked like different people, which felt odd because they all felt like aspects of myself. I never intended a narrative, really. The other one that’s important to me is the large version of the red dress painting with the very big head. It’s called Night Self-Portrait in a Red Dress, but another title I had for that was Night Anxiety because at night you can’t sleep and I was trying to redeem certain aspects of being an anxious person.

…to continue reading the interview with Chantal Joffe, purchase a copy of Issue 135 here.

Volume 34, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #135, published August 2015.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.