Portrait of an Artist - a peek behind the painting

Josh Smith reflects on the Laing Art Gallery's new exhibition.

Josh Smith
18th October 2021
Credit to: Wikimedia Commons

Until 26 February 2022, Laing Art Gallery are presenting Portrait of an Artist, a collection of 85 pieces centred around the idea of “the inner world of the artist”. It ranges from self-portraits and portraits of mysterious lovers to workspaces and living spaces, all connected by a common thread of forbidden intimacy.

The desire to dissect the brain of the ‘distinguished figure’, the Usain Bolts, Leo Tolstoys and Vincent Van Goghs of the world, permeates through society. The biography section of every bookshop is held up by a common, never-answered “how did they do it?”. Portrait of an Artist approaches this question from a new and, I believe, more satisfying angle than the written biography.

For example, take Nellie Joshua. A biography would list that she was born in 1877, grew up in an affluent home in London and studied in Heatherley’s School of Fine Art, then went on, almost ex nihilo, to paint imaginative works such as Dragonfly. From knowledge of the role of women in fin de siècle England, you could then create hypotheses. Could her affluent upbringing, or her position as a woman, have resulted in her unique style?

Liss Llewellyn’s collection poses the right questions at the right times, giving the viewer, if nothing else, the perfect environment to ponder the nature of familiarity, of ‘good’ art and of what makes a ‘good’ artist.

Alternatively, in Portrait of an Artist, you can see her oil painting Heatherley's Art School. It portrays two women, likely Nellie and her sister, Joan, in their school’s studio. Although quintessentially realist, the scene has an indescribable layer of intimacy and familiarity that would never exist if viewed by a stranger to the school. The “how did they do it?” remains unanswered but a prerequisite to this, a much more interesting question, has light shed upon it: “what did they do?”. In this painting (and, I believe, all the collection’s pieces), what is subjectively familiar is translated into the objectively familiar. In short, she has captured the ‘familiar’.

This kernel of truth is behind such clichés as “write what you know”. The paintings span multiple centuries, multiple disciplines and multiple rooms, yet they all share the subject of ‘the known’, giving them an indescribable unity. Naturally, I found some more successful in this endeavour than others. Raymond Ray Jones’ eponymous self-portrait seemed closest to achieving the aphorism “know thyself”. His eyes, his mouth, his outfit — everything combines into something too familiar to be unreal. If, after visiting the gallery, I were to see a photograph of Jones, I would question whether the photo was truer to what the man really is, or whether the photographer, lens and light fall short of representing him.

Portrait of an Artist lacks the big names typical of larger museums and, at times, falls short of the aesthetic bar set by them. However, at its best, Liss Llewellyn’s collection poses the right questions at the right times, giving the viewer, if nothing else, the perfect environment to ponder the nature of familiarity, of ‘good’ art and of what makes a ‘good’ artist. I believe only then is the question “how did they do it” approachable.

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