A review of Laing exhibition: "Yevonde: Life and Colour"

Yevonde Middleton, an English photographer renowned for pioneering the use of colour in portraiture is showcased in Newcastle's Laing Gallery

Angelica Harrison
27th February 2024
Yevonde Middleton's Lady Bridget Poulett as Arethusa. Image Source: Flickr
The first thing you see in “Yevonde: Life and Colour” is her camera, followed by a portrait of Yevonde herself. The self-portrait is blown up ten-feet-tall, the camera is balanced on a book provocatively titled “Art Now”. Already, the exhibition begins to take shape – you see the vibrancy of her red dress, you see her direct eye contact, and you see her understanding of her own place in art history.

The collection is the largest showcase of the artist’s work, including 25 never-before-seen photographs. The exhibition works chronologically, beginning with Yevonde’s black and white society portraits. The gallery walls are grey. The frames are black or dark brown. Conventional. It’s when moving forward that the exhibition comes alive.

You walk into a room painted bright yellow and are immediately confronted with lush red and vibrant pink portraits – the “riot of colour” Yevonde was famous for. The photos are displayed in bright, glittery frames, the layout is eclectic, and you are greeted with a visual feast of colour. There are sections dedicated to her still-life and in-situ work, but the bulk of the exhibition is her saturated portrait photography, mostly of young “society” women.

A particular standout is the “Goddess” section. Photographs are displayed in an arc, similar to a crown or halo, framed by painted silver stars. Models pose as mythological women, bathed in blue, covered in the shadows of ferns, cradling overflowing cornucopias – and all shot in luscious colour. Especially notable is the “Niobe” portrait featuring an extreme close-up of a crying model, framed with shockingly modern technique. Similarly arresting is the “Medusa” portrait, the model’s piercing gaze intensified by Yevonde’s harsh cool tones – the mythical snakes barely present, an afterthought.

As well as the pictures themselves, on display is photography equipment, a video showing the printing process of colour pictures, and a family-friendly interactive section, encouraging the viewer to “dress up like a goddess”.

Yevonde’s forward-thinking mindset is present throughout the exhibition. She was the first artist in the UK to display colour photographs – a fleeting artistic moment made possible by the Vivex colour printing technique, a moment that was quickly halted by World War Two and forgotten with the dawn of Kodachrome.

However, viewers might be disappointed to see that, despite Yevonde’s outspoken political activism as a suffragette, most of the artwork descriptions focus on the models’ marriages rather than the photographic techniques used or context of the work.

The exhibit ends parallel to how it begun. Another blown-up display, this time of Yevonde waving goodbye to the viewer, framed in her own photography equipment.

“Yevonde: Life and Colour” is on display at the Laing Gallery on loan from the National Portrait Gallery until the 20th of April. Tickets are free for under-21s, and £7 for students.

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