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Reading Carrington as Art and Artist

November 11, 2009

Ok, my professor had a bit of issue with it in terms of the critical perspective in which it takes, as well as what he sees as too much emphasis on Carrington rather than her art and drawing more on the relationality between both. He is right. It fails somewhat as an academic piece but works for me as a manifesto of a female artist in trying times. 🙂
Being a woman with its inescapable social obligation while attempting to dedicate oneself to the demands of one’s art usually means a difficult existence since these two aspects are usually incompatible. Born towards the latter end of the Victorian era and came of age during the Edwardian period, Carrington worked very hard to be accepted as a professional artist at a time when the very term woman artist is considered an oxymoron and not given the same due consideration as their male counterparts, even if they might be equal in training, talent, and their quality of work produced, if not better. Attending Slade at a time when art schools were beginning to open their doors to female students, Carrington went through the same rigors of practicum and lectures, and was a winner of many prizes, proving that she was highly gifted and very serious about her chosen vocation. In fact, she was a highly committed student, clocking in more hours at the studio than a majority of the students. However, going to art school for a woman was equated to attending a finishing school. There was little expectation that the female student would continue as a professional artist upon graduation since she was expected to marry and turn her mind to domestic matters, dabbling in art only as a hobby. Hence, male students received more encouragement for their work, whether in the prominent location given to their pieces when student works were exhibited, or in the form of patronage they were able to obtain from moneyed connoisseurs. Moreover, male artists found it easier to move around to work as they were not subjected to the constraints that their female counterparts faced, restricting the movements of the latter.
While she saw herself as first and foremost a painter, Carrington had produced a large variety of high quality work in the plastic arts, ranging from print-making, wood-block cuts, painting of furniture, painting on glass, to the execution of life-size murals. In later life (she led a very short life as she committed suicide at the age of thirty-eight), she became adept at using scraps and everyday materials to make utilitarian art such as letter holders, ornamental jewelry boxes, quilts and even in painting on canvasses. She worked in the same manner as the modern fashion photographer today, dressing up and styling her human subjects before they sat for her. Fortunately for us, her artistic production could still be seen in the many decorative art ventures she produced for her friends (as well as for her last home at Ham Spray). Since her Slade school days, she had been very interested in the theatrical arts, and was adept at creating props and costumes for staged performances.

Unfortunately though, many more of her works were lost rather than preserved for posterity due to careless mishandling and her seeming lack of interest in preserving her legacy (especially works that she did not sell or give away). Moreover, her continuous diffidence and preference for anonymity meant that many of her work were not signed or exhibited, especially after she left art school. She had a mother’s protective instinct towards her pieces and did not like to display them like ‘wares’ to the scrutinizing eyes of a less-than-discerning and ‘uncultured’ public who most probably bought art because it was fashionable to do so, rather than because of true appreciation. One can problematize the role and position of the public as consumers of art. There are buyers who would prefer to have their acquisition dictated by the advice (and tastes) of influential art critics, and this may mean leaving some potentially interesting and influential artwork out cold just because such works did not have the right currency in that particular era.

In discussing Carrington, the question of taste arises constantly. She was certainly reputed among her peers as a woman of impeccable but quixotic tastes, from the manner in which she styled her hair to the kind of clothes she chose to wear (neither of which were conventional, the former particularly invited hostile responses). As an artist Carrington is not easily pigeon-holed into any particular school or movement, even if she had been trained in the academic style of painting during her Slade years. Despite being linked to the Bloomsbury group due to her personal attachments to Lytton Strachey, who was then a leading member of that group, she was more English in her tastes and sensibilities compared to the Francophilic tendencies of the Bloomsbury. I will not attempt here to examine the personal relationship between Carrington and Strachey but merely to note in passing that theirs was a relationship formed of unconditional love. Strachey was a homosexual while Carrington’s sexuality was more ambiguous.

Carrington is art personified incarnate in the way she led her life, from the way she made her houses examples of ‘living art,’ to the manner in which she corresponded with her friends. However, Carrington considered only canvas painting to be ‘serious’ art. It was unfortunate that her attitude was such as to lead her to considerable depression, especially after the death of Strachey. She felt she had not succeeded in becoming the artist she wanted to be, notwithstanding her prolificness and the recognized quality and originality of her work.

What I hope to accomplish in this paper is to show that even if the woman artist is equal to the male artist in every way, including in the style of their work, the way she approaches her work would be different due to social circumstances and her personal attitude to her work and creativity. However, what I would like to do is to concentrate on Carrington’s period of artistic production rather than make vast claims. One has to remember that most women artists in Carrington’s days worked independently without the support of patrons. They might take up commissioned works. If they did not have their own private income or a supportive husband, they would have to work hard to make ends meet by doing the kind of commercial and utilitarian art work that is seldom recognized as being art under the definitions and prerogatives of the philosopher I have drawn on to look at Carrington. What I intend to do in this paper is twofold; firstly, to examine the art of Carrington in light of the definitions of art and theories of aesthetics as found in the philosophies of art in Hegel, Kant, Schelling, Schiller, and Baudelaire, not in any particular order. Secondly, I intend to look at the social circumstances of Carrington’s artistic production and also the manner in which she creates and relates to her artistic production. I chose Carrington and her art as my objects of study due to their respective iconoclasm. Her love for all things English, particularly English folk-art, tempered by an analytical temperament, had led her to create art forms and art work that are simultaneously symbolic, naturalistic and psychological. For Carrington, the medium in which she chose to work in, whether commissioned pieces or self-initiated projects, is as important as the subject matter that she selected as the focus of her pieces, whether paintings or tactile art. Carrington saw art less as a manifestation of her ego than as an act of creation that flowed through her due to an external stimulus or inspiration, not unlike Monsieur G in Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life.” In fact, there are certain characteristics of the artist delineated by Baudelaire that were personified by Carrington. One of it was her insistent on anonymity, her engagement with the subjects of her artistic work and the inseparability between her passion and her profession. Moreover, Carrington personified the form of modernity defined by Baudelaire as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable” (Baudelaire 12). This other half of the art is Carrington’s fixation in achieving the ultimate perfection in her art, in becoming a true artist. Despite Carrington’s refusal to conform to the expectations that the men in her life had of her (an emotionally-wrenching process) and her refusal to compromise her artistic and personal independence; despite having been married to one and been in love with different men, including Strachey, she was still trapped in the rigid mould set by the artistic establishment that look to the old masters as the epitome of artistic perfection. These are the form of art that would have been approved by the philosophers of art whose critique I am drawing upon here. Hence, Carrington did not view herself as a serious artist when she performed commercial or ephemeral work, whether to fulfill a commission or as favors to her friends. By the time she was in her late thirties, she felt that she had failed as an artist and her life ended tragically just before she could completely mature and hold her own as one of the great artists of her generation.

As aforementioned, Carrington was trained in Slade where they had such lessons as “Drawing from Antique and Life; Sculpture; Painting from Antique and Life; Composition; Perspective and Lectures” (Hill 12). While Slade tried to move away from the complacency of the Royal Academy, the structure of its pedagogy was still very much old-schooled in that the students were obliged to successfully imitate works from the old masters (such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci) before they could progress to drawing from real-life models. One may presume that the purpose of such an exercise was to develop in these budding artists a critical sense of judgment for what was beautiful and sublime in the realist art form. There seems to be an a priori presumption of a universal aesthetic judgment. In the act of copying the masters, it was hope that young trainee-artists such as Carrington would develop an artistic faculty for apprehending the form of universally recognized sublime art by which they could aspire to (Kant 160). Of course, this falls back on what is judged to be good and satisfactory, and these masters approximate that which is absolutely good in the world of plastic arts. At this stage of her career, Carrington had not came into her own and samples of her drawings done in this period of her life were academic exercises that could be seen as attempts at experimenting with standard techniques. There was a kind of awkwardness in them since they did not necessary commensurate with the nature and affinities of the artist attempting them. At the same time, Carrington was developing her own critical tastes through her use of particular techniques to bring out the emotional gravity of her subjects, such as her use of light and darkness in stark contrast. The critical aesthetic judgment formulated by Kant, especially in terms of what is subjective and objective, enables us to think through the differences and similarities in the way the artist, art historian and art critic would judge a work of art. As a student of art, Carrington is exposed to Bloomsbury’s Roger Fry’s lectures on Greco-Roman art, as well as to Italian Renaissance art. She also bought art magazines and visited exhibitions to train her eyes on theory in practice as well as to gain inspiration for her own work. Kant is also useful in helping us understand the two forms of beauty that inform Carrington’s work: free beauty whereby the object was not pre-chosen out of appeal to a universal expectation of beauty but only because Carrington had an emotional attachment to it. Nevertheless, the work usually resulted would be potent, even if the subject may be something as simple as a potted plant. This potency stems from the freeing of an inhibition that Baudelaire describes as “childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it had involuntarily accumulated.” This ‘raw material’ of everyday life was what Carrington excelled in transforming into transcendental luminous beauty that was seemingly unconnected to the other objects surrounding them. There were two forms of beauties that inform Carrington’s work. The other beauty was the adherent beauty that was a conditioned beauty whereby the object was chosen because it fulfilled the aesthetic requirements needed for a particular project, which was particularly important when Carrington took on commissioned work that had a fixed conception on what could be considered as satisfactory.

One of the best ways to try to understand the motivation behind Carrington’s art is to understand the importance of personal gratification to her work. For her, gratification is achieved through the process of artistic creation, not in the end result. Hence, she was not averse to reusing the same canvas for making new pictures by painting over old ones. Carrington was certainly an idealist. She was the kind of artist that Schiller describes as uniting the necessary with the possible in order to create the best effects, whether in her life or in her art, though she was more successful in the latter. In her letters and correspondences to her friends, particularly to Strachey, she would vividly convey the visual representations of her feelings and descriptions of what she saw through drawings as well as in the manner in which she punctuated and spelled (neither of which is conventional). Her style of letter-writing serves the purpose of conveying that which is immediately good, even if the product is an ephemeral. Nonetheless, I argue that Kant’s critique of aesthetic judgment is too limiting a frame for situating our discussion on how Carrington viewed her work. Though she did have the tendency of critically reviewing her work, and in going through the different stages of planning before making a particular art piece, one cannot separate her disinterested critical judgment with the intuition and emotions that came into play in determining her judgment of her own art, and even of the art of others. For Carrington, the sublime cannot be divorced from the beautiful as it is the subliminal effect of a particular beauty that drew her. Moreover, while society may be interested in empirically quantifying beauty such as that ventured by Kant, Carrington found such a practice to jar with her nature, which was why she resisted exhibiting most of her work, and if she did, preferred anonymity. Carrington was less interested in categorizing art forms but her critical acumen usually came into play when producing works of art, skillfully using colors and tones to bring out the individual, hidden characters of the various individuals whose portraits she had painted. It is ironic that the training that Carrington underwent, such as in her Life drawing classes, were attempts at what Lessing would consider as the imitation of beautiful bodies, “…the perfection of the subject itself must give delight; he was too great to demand of those who beheld it that they should content themselves with the bare, cold pleasure arising from a well-caught likeness or from the daring of a clever effort” (Lessing 32). While Lessing’s conjecture seems to divorce the ego of the artist from that of his (her) work, where the ultimate goal is to create the best work of art, nothing is further from the truth as will be demonstrated below.

The kind of artistic apprenticeship which Carrington had received from Slade made her impervious to any distinction between her work and that of the male students, though she certainly desired the approval of friends whose opinions she highly valued. In most cases, these friends were men, whether artists themselves or intellectually creative men such as Strachey. With the exception of Strachey, these male artist friends did not always understand her and often leveraged her art work in an attempt to win her favor and commitment to themselves. Moreover, their interests over her work tend to heighten at around the time in which they were facing creative difficulties. They became jealous over her artistic preoccupations, rendering their criticism suspect (Holbrook-Gerzina 35-48). Artistic goals were often mixed up with social prestige and hunger for recognition. While Carrington may care less for the acknowledgement of the public at large, it was not the case with some of her artist-lovers such as Nevinson and Gertler, whose artistic and social competitiveness were often mistaken for love. If Love was to, as Lessing proposed, prompt the creation of plastic arts (32), this love may have more likely prompted the objectification of the woman, particularly a woman who fulfills the definition of ‘beauty,’ and she becomes part of the prize to be aspired towards. This becomes problematic for a woman who, despite enjoying the flattery of the attention she was receiving, was also striving to be taken seriously as a person and as an artist, and not merely for her sexual attractiveness. But when one reads Lessing and Baudelaire, the sexual attractiveness of the female form is emphasized in art and poetry. Carrington herself would later draw erotic figures of women. It would have been interesting to see how a woman artist drawing a woman could turn problematic the straitjacket definition of beauty, satisfaction, agreeableness and the subject/object promulgated by the Idealists and Romanticists. Would the generality and universality of the issues that grow out of attempts to organize empirical data by way of introspective reasoning break down when art as object performed by the artist who is normatively male become substituted by the female? I do not at this moment wish to venture that one may wish to take developmental systems in biology to talk about the organization of cultural values and intellectual work but this would be an area worth exploring in a different paper.

As mentioned earlier, Carrington had a strong love for all things English, including the English countryside and it was to the latter that she owes much of her creative allegiance as she began to mature as an artist. Unlike Schelling however, she saw much divinity and beauty in nature. For her, nature represented the ideal. Yet, she did not merely practice the kind of naïve realism criticized by Schelling but used it as a creative force whereby she created paintings that are at the same time expressionist, symbolist and impressionist, but also none of the above. Nature as depicted in Carrington’s paintings is Nature perfected by an emotional attachment. Nature was transformed, under her hands, into a mysterious beauty that affirmed its splendor. In selecting out a particular frame of time or natural event to be depicted in her paintings, Carrington sets it “forth in its pure being, in the eternity of its life” (Schelling 449). In other words, through the use of form, in terms of the media she chose to work with, Carrington was able to breathe sensuality into the softness of youth and the gracefulness of the aged in the portraits or the landscape oils she painted. Form was as important as content for Carrington. For it was by way of form that she brings the spectator/onlooker into her perspective of nature by foregrounding its lofty beauty and intelligence even as she conveyed a strong sense of infinitude that is not penetrable. In her paintings of natural landscapes or still life, matter seemed united to life (Schelling 449).

However, despite the seeming consensuality between the intellectual analytics propounded by the likes of Kant, Schiller, Lessing and Schelling in their attempts to connote and denote the creative process, Carrington herself was not an intellectual artist. She was brilliant and profound in her ability to understand abstract concepts, and her love for good literature was insatiable. However, the cerebrality of her art is less logically deducible, and seems to be channeled through creative energies and released in forms both simple and complex. One may allude to her lack of formal education as the reason, but a reading of her biography would lead one to conclude that Carrington is a highly visual person and her exposure to all the knowledge the world has to offer would merely fuel her imagination, and foreground her artistic brilliance at a higher plane. However, she will still retain very much of the earthy yet ethereal tones of her artistry.

This earthiness is most pronounced in Carrington’s celebration of the female form through her drawings. A repressed Sapphic, she found comforts in channeling her desire for female beauty through her work. Carrington was a very good figure artist, having won prizes in her Slade days for almost-perfect execution of figure-drawings. It would have been really enlightening to be able to analyze her more erotic works in comparison to the other artists of her era to understand the intertwining of art to sexuality in Victorian and Edwardian England, in comparison to the Continent. I part ways with Lessing when he argues that poetry is a much better medium in describing the beauty of the body, and in the example he used, the beauty of the female body, because poetry is more able to ‘paint’ the beauty of the woman through teasing allusions than the ‘revealing’ limits of paintings. He argues that poetry, through the indirect hints of narrative and sequences of events, is more likely to hit at the sensitive point of the spectator/reader’s imagination compared to art because

The painter could give the chin the most exquisite curve, the prettiest dimple, Amoris digitula impressum (for the εδω appears to me to signify a dimple); he could give the neck the most beautiful carnation; but he can do no more (Lessing 111).

I argue instead that the most sublime form of erotic art (which do not necessarily mean nudes) supercharges the imaginary as much as good erotic poetry. The poetry of plastic art such as drawings are the way in which the lines and shades are emphasized or tapered, and the playful shadings of these lines can be just as titillating as erotic metaphors. An example would be to look at Carrington’s letters. While her letters may describe the fulsomeness of her life and activities, her caricatures and drawings that accompany her letters have an even more intriguing effect and the reader is invited to draw his or her own conclusions. She often drew pictures to accompany her letters. However, she may sometimes not even bother to write, merely inserting a drawing in response. Take the example below for instance:
When I’m winding up the toy
Of a pretty little boy
– Thank you, I can manage pretty well;
But how to set about
To make a pussy pout
– That is more than I can tell

The poem was written by Lytton and to it Carrington had appended a drawing of a cat sleeping on a pillow. It is the combination of risqué writing and allusive drawing that gave rise to many speculations that Carrington might have probably lost her virginity to Strachey at the one and only time they might have attempted sexual relations with each other (Holbrook-Gerzina 90).

Carrington did not subscribe to the popular movements of her time (though she was very much influenced by Cezanne for most of her creative life) and used her own artistic instincts, informed by her personal readings and experiences, to bring out the genuineness of the present in her art pieces. For Carrington, Art is not a thing of the past as Hegel would have it. Nor is it a luxury, for Carrington has demonstrated that even the use of the most mundane materials such as boxes, rags and glass could produce the most sublime pieces (one would have to personally see the products oneself to believe). While Holbrook-Gerzina ventures that Carrington’s palimpsest art is due to the latter’s guilt for ‘stealing’ the soul of her subjects when she painted them (259), I would argue that it was more to do Carrington’s unconscious rejection of the idea that the process of art is subordinated to serious ends. In this matter, she differed very much from her contemporaries (Hegel 6). However, she would certainly agree with Hegel’s argument that “the beauty of art is the beauty that is born – born again, that is – of the mind” since for her, there was no end to the recreation of beauty through art, though she might not necessarily agree that “the mind and its products are higher than nature and its appearances (4).” For her, it was the beauty of nature that gave her emotional sustenance and inspired some of her best paintings.

Attempting to write about Carrington and her art using the aesthetic theories I have enumerated here only works when one discusses the logical and trained artistic sensibilities that were instilled into her. While her creative impulses had been tempered and conditioned to a certain degree by the kind of training she had received, she was highly adaptable and adventurous in her experimentations, as was evident by the wide range of medium she had worked in. She produced some of her best work in ephemeral and decorative arts. However, these non-conventional art forms were not considered as serious works of art by the philosophies of art I have examined here and were thus not sufficiently articulated in their theories. Moreover, the theories did not take into account how the specificities of one’s life that is conditioned by the culturally gendered body one inhabits will have an effect in the manner in which one’s artistic impulse is articulated, regardless of the similarity of training and exposure that one has received. In this regard, I agree with Kant when he said that there is a social conditioning present that influences how one sees beauty and how one develops one’s tastes. Carrington’s tastes were as much influenced by her peers, including the important men in her life, as by her own personal choices. There is a kind of androgyneity in her art, especially in her portrait painting, not in the superficial, physical sense but in the illuminating manner in which she is able to articulate the duality, or multiplicity of the personalities she painted, the visibility of which may not be evident even when one associates with the subject-matter in real life. Oftentimes, she would use her art as a form of emotional release. Many an artists have had a close connection with their subjects of paintings, but it is not in too many instances that they successfully represent the spiritual aspect of their object in addition to its sensuality. If Carrington was confused and contradictory about her own life, needs and wants, this confusion and contradiction seem to disappear in the clarity and purposiveness of her artistic manifesto.

It is unfortunate that this short paper could not attempt a more detailed analysis of the intricate character that is Carrington that would have lent further insight into her developing process as an artist, but could merely gesture to the various instances in which her art and life were intertwined. However, I hope I have been able to show, in some way, the inadequacies of the theories in addressing some of the creative processes that stemmed not only from an organized science but also from our ignorance of the causality surrounding the phenomenology of art that seems to manifest for us, the seemingly unruly, instinctive, and intuitive disorganization in the artistic process. While Baudelaire’s three portraits of Monsieur G, Delecroix and Allan Edgar Poe may help us understand our own lack of knowledge of the artists’ creative processes, his tendency to idealize and paint over the chaos of their creative lives unintentionally heightens the sense of mystery in artistic genius.

Word Cited
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. Jonathan Meyer. Second ed. London & New York: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1995.

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. Carrington: A Life. New York & London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Trans. Bernard Bosanquet. Ed. Michael Inwood. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

Hill, Jane. The Art of Dora Carrington. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Trans. Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Ed. Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. “Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry.” Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics. 1766. Ed. J.M. Bernstein. vols. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhem von. “On the Relation of Plastic Arts to Nature.” Critical Theory since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. First ed. vols. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1992.

Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Trans. Reginald Snell. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 2004.

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