Peering Behind the Painted Curtain
The power of Degas’ studies of ballet dancers lies in the fact that they are off-duty, as it were. Seeing the figures, slumped over, moody and stone-faced, the very premise of ballet, and indeed, all art is exposed. The figures we watch moving across the stage, perfectly symmetrical, perfectly in time with one another in their perfectly bleached white outfits are a temporary sight. As the audience, we surely know this. We could not possibly expect that the dancers would continue to hold those physically demanding positions once the curtain has fallen, but we choose to forget this and susbend our disbelief in favour of enjoying a clean and beautiful performance.
Beauty is not to be found but to be created by the artist. When they stop making beauty, things return to normal. Though it may seem sad, there’s something comforting in this thought. After all, if we look back at the long trail of art to find it was all conjured out of nothing, there’s isn’t anything to stop us throwing the whole story away and starting again if we don’t feel like it’s saying what we need to hear.
This is exactly what Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings, currently on show at Tate Britain, invite us to do. Her figures epitomise the idea of the artist as the creator of beauty. Working from her imagination, Yiadom-Boakye does not have any substance, any pre-existing forms in which she needs to find beauty. She does not make things beautiful, but rather constructs images of beauty from scratch.
Working from imagination also has a second impact: Yiadom-Boakye is not tied to the moment. To work from a subject, even in the simplest setting, is to look at an object in its context. The choice of any particular subject, framed in any particular composition, in any time and place will shape how the artist captures it, and how we, as viewers interpret it. It becomes a document of the moment it was painted in.
In Yiadom-Boakye’s work, the contemporary and the (art) historical can merge freely. Unburdened by a model anchoring her to the present, she is free to synthesise references from across the centuries into a work that is almost magical in its ability to be at home in a nineteenth-century salon or a present-day graduate show.
Six Birds in the Bush (2015) creates a remarkable depth of tone out of what is for the most part an austerely dark palette. In this, Yiadom-Boakye rivals Goya in displaying a mastery of shadow. The painting could indeed feasibly hang rather comfortably next to one of the Spanish master’s works without seeming out of place. Yet the same figure who is conjured out of such dramatic tonality is also simultaneously completely mundane. You can imagine him walking past you on any of London’s streets, just one of many eccentrics you see in the city.
The figures in works such as Six Birds do not jump between moments in time. It is not that they are figures from the present day who have been given the nineteenth-century Goya treatment. Nor are they long-dead people who have been captured in a manner that serendipitously makes them look like people we could see today. Instead, they are at once in the present and the past, creations who can walk back and forth along the canon and stretch themselves out across it. If we see them as being from a certain moment in history, it is not because they are stuck there, but because they have placed themselves there.
There is something theatrical, if not outright performative about this. What sets Yiadom-Boakye’s characters apart from Goya’s is the historical decoration. She has created the same humanity, but has not tied it down to any one moment with any indicators of the dress. Her imagined figures are performers, ready to be positioned in whichever moment their painter-director wishes. Only she doesn’t give them any direction. They are left waiting in the wings, restless, not yet on stage, not yet in character — and she pulls back the curtain to let us peek at them in this state.
Her characters rarely seem to be posing. Because, of course, they were not painted from models who were posing. Often, they have a distant, faraway look, completely unaware of the fact that we can see them. In other works, one or more of the figures look right at us, they know we can see them before they’ve assumed the role they’re meant to be playing, and they cheekily share the moment with us.
Yiadom-Boakye could easily use her painting to play the historian, specifically the revisionist historian. She can match many of the canon’s biggest names in style and she could, had she wanted to, have used this to go back and insert her characters into art history. The Black figures she paints are incredibly sparse in art history and it would be easy for her to highlight the racialised nature of the canon by historicising her figures, revealing that the predominance of whiteness in taught Western art history is a choice, not an inevitability.
But she doesn’t. Unlike a Lubaina Himid or Yinka Shonibare, whose critique of the canon is made through references and subversion, Yiadom-Boakye’s argument forms a much more powerful attack on the concept of a canon itself. Shonibare and Himid are exposing a shortcoming of art history, its lack of representation of people of colour. Yiadom-Boakye is tearing up the canon in its entirety.
Degas exposed how there is nothing permanent in beauty, that it is a just a temporary performance that is sustained for as long as the artist wills it and the audience accepts it. Yiadom-Boakye is saying the same thing about art history itself. We choose to believe in a singular story of art — that one artist influenced another who influenced another, each occupying a fixed point in a chain of events. Manet’s Déjeuner must have come before Duchamp’s Fountain as it needed to pave the way for depictions of ordinary vulgarity in art.
For this to work, we, like the Parisian ballet audience, need to suspend our disbelief and accept the performance that is telling us these narratives are the truth. When Yiadom-Boakye peels back the curtain, we see all these figures, ready to come on and play their role in the story of art, sat out of character, grinning at us or taking a drag on their cigarette. Once you’ve seen how it’s all just an act, it becomes rather difficult to take the rest of the performance seriously.