The Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
1-31 January 2010
Space Gallery, University of Portsmouth
12 April–2 May 2010
New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge
23 April–22 May 2011
by JANET McKENZIE
Beth Fisher confronts death and dying with a rare poignancy with images of remarkable beauty. Such issues traditionally belong to the humanist tradition in art – to the work of Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) or Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), to Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) Guernica (1937) or T.S Eliot’s (1888–1965) The Waste Land (1922). In 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer observed: “No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feelings of inferiority and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence, but also in man himself, in his institutions, and often in those who are nearest to him.”1 Singer’s conclusion is pertinent to work such as that of Beth Fisher’s that addresses the most intimate and painful aspects of life: “The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence, but a mighty passion for the redemption of man… In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice.”2 Beth Fisher’s work cannot, however, be kept solely within a humanist camp, for while she makes highly skilled figurative works, references abound to conceptual art practice and the postmodern project. Working in a figurative mode through decades where abstract or conceptual art were in the ascendancy, has kept Beth Fisher on the periphery of critical attention. Grisaille Legacy reveals a body of work with internal logic, and cohesiveness, the product of 10 years work.
Beth Fisher’s figurative mode is informed by the diversity of art practice and theory. She presents domestic life on an amplified scale, makes references to feminist issues of the naked as opposed to the nude, to the reappraisal of the manner in which the female figure is both presented and received. Her work displays an awareness of a postmodern agenda addressed by a wide range of practitioners. The focus on her own family life inevitably presents the performative aspects of everyday life, rehearsed, drawn, enacted. Here the role of artist as witness overlaps with that of a theatre or film director, which invites the spectator and the author/director to assume equal or complimentary roles. Where the sheer virtuosity of large-scale drawings of this quality might remain on an inaccessible level to the viewer, Beth Fisher’s achievement in this, a mesmerising performance, comes from being a central player in the drama, intimately related to each member of the cast. Alexander Moffat RSA, an important champion of drawing in Scotland, rightly observes Beth Fisher is too compassionate to qualify as a postmodernist. “That she continues to draw and has not turned her back on the visible world will also make her suspect in the eyes of those who are blind to the relationship between past and present.”3
Beth Fisher (née Lovejoy) was born in Portland, Maine, USA in 1944. She first travelled to Britain in 1964–65, for a Junior Year Abroad, where she met Nick Fisher in 1964; they married in 1967. Beth recalls that American ideology and American foreign policy had always been major obstacles to a sense of belonging in the USA. In Britain she found a simpler life, less materialistic, “a morally cleaner life”.4 The Fishers both completed postgraduate study in the States and re-migrated to the UK in 1970, first to Glasgow in 1971 and then Aberdeen in 1976 where they have lived ever since. Both she and her husband were on even ground in Scotland, “both outsiders, both foreigners”.
“But I am conscious that all the major events of my adult life, work, and family have been located in Scotland, this ‘foreign place’. The sense of place, while always distinctive in its Scottishness, the northernness, the sea, the less crowded terrain, the light (and the dark!), the seasons, are all a part of our life. But the sense of place is less central to my work than the microcosm of the family and the obsessive process of making work about them. Of necessity, because I am foreign, the reassigning of what is primary, what is mine, has come out of personal life. I have been absorbed in my jobs, supporting and promoting the development of open-access print workshops, and teaching in three of the four art colleges in Scotland. Ultimately, I have been anchored by my family: my husband, and two children. I refuelled daily from watching one of them sleep in a way that I could not from the Scottish landscape or from larger world issues whatever their gravity. I could not see how I could make work about anything else.”5
Beth Fisher does, however, admit to having felt unprepared for the elemental impact of having children, the need to make personal work but wary of sentimentality. The work of Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Paula Modersohn Becker (1876–1907) and Mary Kelly’s (b1941) Post partum document (1973–76) work was all useful in establishing precedents for a subjective response. It was surprisingly, “Stanley Spencer’s immersion in the life one owns, lived as translation or parallel of the biblical template which aided me most. The big idea was conveyed through the intimate revelation”.6 Beth Fisher’s earlier works, made in Aberdeen reveal the daily life as a mother of infants – a documentation and celebration of the fulfilment and exhaustion of having little children – created using the religious iconography of northern Renaissance altarpieces. Humour is central. In The Canopy series (1974–87), a body of work about the changing dynamics and relationships as a family grows, Fisher used a clothes line (traditionally a “link of drapery” in art historical terms) and the serious challenge of drying clothes en plein air in northern Scotland, to allude to layers of activity, the practical juggling of life as an artist and mother, to intellectual aspirations and the endless minutiae of life. In 1987 her marriage was 20 years old and the children 13 and 10: “That represented a lot of meals made, eaten and cleared up, a lot of nails clipped, clothes processed, necessary rituals maintained. Woven through the routine, expectations and disappointments were qualified, falls were broken, selves were rebuilt, more meals were made and eaten.”7 Fisher trawled art history for references and templates for her work: Dürer’s portrait of his mother, Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus, and works by Gabriel Rossetti or Stanley Spencer. It was in 1993, when both daughters left for further education that life altered fundamentally: “The rooted self, the anchor of identity wasn’t really there”. The Legacy series, from the early 1990s, examined her own body from the point of view of feeling no longer complete as a woman, “my fertility gone, my physique compromised…”8 Fisher explored Cindy Sherman’s dressing up techniques in role-playing, Paula Rego’s costumed fairy tales, and Jo Spence’s photo essays on her own illness (and her eventual death). Fisher scrutinised herself and the feminist agenda:
“The debates through which women’s political identity has evolved over my lifetime encouraged me to believe that my daughters’ generation would be confidently free from the historical damage to women’s senses of themselves. The legacy of knowledge (from my mother, my grandmothers) and from myself as role model to my daughters would deflect them from the ritual self-humiliation of body dissatisfaction. It would prevent them accepting relationships, which drained their self-esteem, or trapped them in ritual self-denial. I could not believe that there would be such near repetitions of the desperate days of my adolescence, sexual wastage, misery.”9
Drawing provided the most direct form of expression. Although it had always formed an integral part of her working methods and final works, she was also deeply involved in teaching printmaking and as a collaborative printmaker. Drawing required no process-based methods, no special equipment; it was solitary and immediate.
“Drawing is a vocation for me. I say this in an almost religious sense of the word. Being without conventional belief or a particular axe to grind (except a healthy scepticism about the quality of the human condition), I use religious reference always within a cultural context. I appropriate any and all myth systems, structures, conventions, sources of heat. Drawing is by necessity my vehicle, and hence my vocation.”10
Experiential phenomena are the backdrop to Beth Fisher’s current exhibition, which is itself the product of 10 years of work.
“As with most women committed to both a domestic and a professional life, the pull between them has been a characteristic element, and a dominant one. I have made work from the combination and the conflict, first inadvertently, and then overtly in recognition, by choice. Not being located in any external tradition or culture was a kind of freedom, allowing me to embrace internal and personal content.”11
Life in the wake of two World Wars, then the Vietnam War with which Beth Fisher’s generation struggled to be reconciled, and more recently to the atrocities associated with terrorism, have made it difficult to present the human figure as the defining image of our existence. Beth Fisher grew up looking at the work of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann (1884–1950) and Oskar Kokoschka. Kollwitz’s work has been championed by artists who have continued to work within the figurative tradition and also by the feminist movement. While her husband worked as a doctor in a poor area of Berlin, she drew his patients as they waited to see him, creating searing images of women and children, the impoverished and vulnerable individuals of society. Beth Fisher’s work is less political in its tenor, addressing a more private world, but with a rare certainty and passion. Indeed she recalls,
“My interest was probably always figurative or semi-figurative, even in the height of the abstract expressionist dialogue with minimalism in the late 1960s. In looking for models, Diebenkorn and passion came out ahead of Philip Pearlman’s coolly posed figure compositions. Richard Hamilton’s My Marilyn, which I saw in 1965, became a point of reference: the synthesis of the screen-printed set of publicity photos laid out with her marks of rejection or of approval overworked autographically by Hamilton implied the artist’s act of witness in a narrative, which reflected both the public debate about the use and misuse of a cultural icon, and the private distress of a person. It implied the artist’s act of witness to the subject’s voice.”12
Beth Fisher’s work has drawn entirely on her experiences as mother, daughter, and wife to fulfil her emotionally and artistically.
“This exposure of the tradition of woman as myth, or woman as object, triggered a sense of layers of conflict, and concern to explore issues of female identity. I now realise that my postgraduate work, while it dealt fairly abstractly with content from literary sources and opera, all centred on women: women as implacable femme fatale in La belle dame sans merci, or Salomé, women as enigmatic victims or doomed lovers (Mélisande and Isolde), or women duped as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw. I also now realise that all these images were of characterisations of women constructed by men.”13
Beth Fisher’s work is significant in the light of the recently elevated status of drawing as a primary means of expression. She has been making large drawn images all her life, that are in physical terms, and in the issues she scrutinises – pertinent to a number of key issues in contemporary art practice. It is timely therefore that her work will tour to England (Portsmouth and Cambridge) following its Edinburgh debut, but this is an exhibition that deserves to be shown in a major gallery or museum.
The Grisaille Legacy comprises two bodies of work: the Letting Go Series, and Tilly in the Unicorn Tapestry Series, as well as other works. Beth Fisher describes the Letting Go series as being prompted by “the ageing marriage and physical evolution or disintegration of my husband and myself, in contrast to our daughters’ growing independence, buoyant sexuality (and its baggage), and separation from the family”.14 Her art practice was the only avenue through which to channel the intensely protective feelings that mothers experience towards their children, in spite of the necessity for them to grow beyond the family as the central focus of their lives. Fisher observes, however, that: “in making work symbolic of our separation, the ties that still connect us all are a potent sub-text.” Letting Go has coincided with the serious illnesses of Fisher’s own parents and their deaths. “The processing of those critical losses and reconfigurations is reflected in the ongoing chronology of this series. Letting Go now has a broader reference.”15
Tilly in the Unicorn Tapestry developed in response to the cycle of tapestry panels in the Metropolitan Cloisters Collection in New York. The monumental scale of these works gives them a grandeur and authority in spite of their most intimate and private subject matter. The drawings in this series deal with the artist’s relationship with her parents, their ageing crises, her fear of their deaths, her father’s illness. She invokes their solemnity through everyday rituals such as dog walks – Tilly is the name of the family’s dog – and family groupings. The naturalness of these contexts offers a grounded, safe place to experience the deepest loss of all, the death of our parents or spouse, or the fear of a premature or tragic death of a child. The monumental, epic qualities are consciously created using visual precedents; Fisher “plays the ideal and heroic versus the particular and the real”. She pays homage to historical or religious conventions and symbols. She also inverts them ‘turns them onto themselves”.16 The Unicorn Tapestries from which Fisher drew her inspiration are characterised by both Christian and pagan symbols. Fisher’s drawings paraphrase the stages of the unicorn hunt: “The mythic animal/ Christ/ the seasons – and ultimately my father – are caught in the cycle of inevitable decline; they rally; they suffer death. The series marks the stages of memory, and it ends with a conceptual rebirth, as the unicorn is corralled, made mythic, so the family is preserved, and framed in the mind’s eye. The work marks the stages of loss and memory, and an attempt to come to terms with them”.17
In Beth Fisher’s work, history painting, with its connotations of the male-oriented Salon or Academy enters the domestic space, and “juxtaposes, substitutes, or borrows the big conventions to commune with the delicate trespass into the personal”. Historically, the narrative has always played a central role in the visual arts from the cave paintings at Lascaux to the murals at Pompeii, battle scenes by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). The most enduring stories, from the Bible have adorned the walls of cathedrals, and churches for centuries. In the nineteenth century, history painters often took contemporary subjects but they depicted them with all the trappings of the classical world, to endow the characters and the narrative with poetic and philosophical significance. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863) described History Painting as, “pieces of canvas from 12 to 30 feet long, representing for the most part personages who never existed … performing actions that never occurred, and dressed in costumes they could never have worn”.18 By the late 19th century the modernist avant-garde dismissed pretensions to historical depiction, mocking the Academy for upholding such values. The subjective experience, championed by the feminist movement in the 1970s, plays a central role in contemporary art practice and empowers the work of Beth Fisher, where the most powerful issues are presented with the passion and commitment of maternal love. In one work, trainers are worn, most of the figures are naked; the subject is presented as an essential, archetypal human presence, devoid of artifice, although the identity of the figures is clearly stated, as the members of her family.
Viewing the works of Beth Fisher is an experience characterised by dichotomy: one feels the uplifting power of narrative, acted out as in the classical tradition, yet the space in the works is shallow, the picture plane in each and every work is confined to the point of feeling claustrophobic. The figures are so intensely and beautifully executed, that one feels a sense of being enveloped. The performance enacted in two-dimensional space envelops the viewer by virtue of the universal themes addressed and by the extension of experience to include that of mother, daughter and wife. Some viewers of Grisaille Legacy exhibition at the RSA were reduced to tears, a fact that troubles the artist who is acutely concerned by her intrusion into the lives of her two daughters, particularly the plight of her eldest whose battle with breast cancer, first diagnosed at the age of 29, is presented here literally as large as life.
If the feminist movement enabled the inclusion of personal, biological phenomena (the recognition and championing the work of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), by feminists in the 1970s, for example), that previously had no legitimate place in the visual arts hierarchy, then Beth Fisher has exploited history painting (scale and style) to amplify the taboos of family life that still remain fiercely guarded often through societal ignorance and personal fear and guilt. Film has addressed mental health issues, death and dying in recent productions: Iris (2002) the life of Iris Murdoch whose death following the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease was received rapturously by the critics; Mo, (2010) Channel 4's biopic of Mo Mowlam, the politician who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process, was the highest rated drama for the station since 2001. The film, starring Julie Walters, drew some 3.5 million viewers when it was screened in February 2010. In the fine art arena video and photography are employed in areas of physical and mental suffering, the documentary strength of the media is used to great advantage. The narrative in painting has long been associated with nineteenth century moralising or Hollywood happy endings, so that visual artists have been reluctant to address issues of terminal illness, that might explore the impact on personal identity, sexuality and career aspirations, not to mention the anger of premature death and fear of pain and loss that accompany a diagnosis of cancer. In a largely secular society, comfort in this position is thin on the ground.
The harrowing battle with breast cancer of the artist’s daughter becomes the subject of Beth Fisher’s Vigil II series. Vigil I (1999–2000), “a suite of unique colour prints using the same four plates, inking them differently and altering their sequence of printing and overprinting”, addressed the ramifications of cardiac disease in her husband Nick, whilst still in his fifties, the endless round of tests, treatments, medical procedures, the desperate uncertainty and fear experienced by the spouse and carer – “Reprinting the same image again and again confirms and prolongs the body’s existence”.19 Where the subject is the artist’s adult child, the issues are more complex and impassioned. The role of artist as witness could not be more poignant, yet the privacy required for a young woman to face a life threatening illness whilst still in her twenties, has also to be respected. Where medical ethics protects patient confidentiality, no such policy exists to protect the artist’s subject. The anguish of a mother who loses a child is given powerful expression in the graphic work of Käthe Kollwitz, just as Francisco Goya’s (1746–1828), The Disasters of War (1810–20) reveal numerous instances of mothers searching for their dead sons among the battlefields; their identities were abstracted by the artist, as emblematic casualties of war, not living patients confronting their darkest hour.
That Fisher’s daughters have allowed their mother (albeit reluctantly) to continue to exhibit the product of her artistic imperative, (they are actively involved in the practical requirements of the exhibition) involving an invasion of their privacy as young women - is a testament to their own commitment to the greater good where familial dynamics are explored at the point of crisis. It does not diminish the dilemma and suffering within a family as to whether the suffering of adult children is legitimate subject matter as grist for a parent’s artistic or literary expression. “Me Journalism”, as Jake Myerson described his mother’s authorship of The Lost Child: A True Story, exposed his drug habit as a teenager and did nothing to conceal his identity. It has been suggested that after two years of family turbulence, which ended with the “tough love’”of throwing him out of the home, “Her book became a way of continuing to be involved with her son. If losing him felt like bereavement, writing about him was keeping him under her roof. And perhaps, in the writing, Myerson experienced what life would not permit: the illusion of control. Writing the book was, in the most complicated sense, a maternal act”.20 What is certain is that for a wider public Beth Fisher’s confrontational work addresses areas of life that are increasingly commonplace, but surrounded by fear. Where the funding raised by charities to find cures for diseases such as cancer, indicates the commitment by public and private bodies, an adequate care package is still urgently required. The establishment and success of the Maggie Centres, in memory of Maggie Keswick, led by her widower Charles Jencks, highlight the paucity of palliative support and bereavement counselling in the public health sector.
Some of the most enduring images to confront mortality by a living artist, are those of John Bellany (b.1942), who made searing self portraits soon after coming round from his anaesthetic after a liver transplant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge (1988). The etchings made subsequently, were in fact printed by Beth Fisher, at the Peacock Print Studio in Aberdeen. The act of drawing and painting is fundamental to Bellany’s survival. In the context of John Bellany and Beth Fisher, the writing of John Berger is most apt: “When a painting or drawing is lifeless it is the result of the artist not having the nerve to get close enough to his/her subject. To go in close, means forgetting convention, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness.”21 In the same way Beth Fisher’s work can be categorised as a necessity, an essential part of the assertion of survival in the face of mortality, as she states, “it is an overpowering act of love, and all I can do”.22 In fact the images of Fisher’s daughter Meg, supported by her sister, Olwen, reveal young women of great integrity and courage. Their mother’s creative act can be seen to assuage suffering, to a degree.