The Ladies of Shalott
by Jonathan Griffin
“I am half sick of shadows”, said
The Lady of Shalott.
But only half sick. For those who do not remember the story of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott was confined by a curse to a tower on an island, and permitted to observe life solely through a mirror. Should she turn away from the mirror to drink in the vivid details and textures of the world that Tennyson so tantalisingly describes, the curse dictated that a terrible fate would befall her.
So she wove, devoting her energies to a ‘magic web’ that is, in John William Waterhouse’s 1915 painting (which takes the two lines quoted above as its title), an art work of some considerable beauty and complexity. Of course, when her ladyship spies bold Sir Lancelot riding by on his horse, she cannot prevent herself from dropping yarn, shuttle and bobbin, and descending from the tower in hot pursuit. Before she reaches him, she dies, and he finds her floating in a boat on the shores of Camelot.
This tragic conclusion is, for our present purposes at least, perhaps the less interesting part of the tale. What is fascinating to Eleanor Moreton, and is the reason that she has recently embarked on a series of works based on the Arthurian legend, is The Lady of Shalott’s internal struggle as she watches the world shadowed in a mirror. Tennyson’s poem has been interpreted by many as a meditation on the problem faced by artists (in the broadest sense) since time immemorial: whether it is a heroic sacrifice to withdraw from the world for the sake of one’s art, or bolder to step out into the light and bear the ruinous consequences.
For Moreton, the alternatives are not as Romantically fraught as they were to the 24-year-old Tennyson, but she is nevertheless aware of their divergent attractions as she works on paintings and collages alone in her studio. Such pressures manifest themselves in her work as urgent conversations between the dead and the living, between the past and the future, and formally between space and object, depth and surface, thickness and thinness. Through her practice she reveals that shadows are not always cold, dark or lifeless. ‘In some ways’, she has said, ‘having a studio practice is the healthiest thing you can do.’
Moreton nearly always makes paintings from other images: either from photographs or, as with the Shalott series, from other paintings. She often describes her work in terms of a struggle between her own will and that of the image, between the authority of the source and her autonomy as an artist, and as a human being. In her exhibition at Ceri Hand Gallery, ‘Im Wartezimmer’, she pares down an ongoing body of work that emanates from a personal interest in the twilight decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the exhibition, the selection of paintings reveals a particular concern with Austrian figures of masculinity; the Emperor Franz Joseph, through Sigmund Freud and Adolf Loos to the monstrous patriarch Josef Fritzl. Moreton’s rendition of these figures, from painted portraits and, latterly, from photographs, describes a process of ‘coming to terms’ with them, a negotiation played out on the surface of the painting that results in variously grotesque, funny, tragic and poignant works.
The painting Austrian Man (Blue Tie) (2008), for instance, shows a man in a feathered Alpine hat and a jacket with an oak leaf embroidered on the chest. While his posture – holding his head tilted very slightly back – suggests an assured confidence in what he and his regional dress represent, Moreton suggests otherwise in her rendering of him. For one thing, the painting has disintegrated into a patchwork of colour swatches that border on one another but very rarely blend (like the constituent states of a crumbling empire, perhaps). Areas of the background have become more solid than parts of the man’s body, and much of his face is lost to a delicate blue shadow that makes no distinction between hat rim and cheek. It is not so much that the figure is humiliated, more that the artist has reined in the focus from the subject to the surface of the painting – her painting – itself. (She says that there is a part of her that would love to be a formalist, to make paintings solely about painting, but that her subject matter is too persistent.)
A similar force is at work when Moreton depicts domestic interiors – another recurring subject for the artist. In a work such as Thornton Heath Interior 1938, she paints a couple in a suburban sitting room, one figure seated and another standing behind. As with the Austrian man’s chest, the figures themselves have been little elaborated save for their outlines and some tentative tones that depart only very slightly from the painting’s ground. They are, in a sense, absent in their own portraits. Instead, Moreton draws our attention to peripheral or recessive elements of the scene: the space through the window – a gorgeous, solid aquamarine – or a wall that looms over the seated figure, painted in a vibrant cerulean blue. The spatial volumes of the image have been turned inside out, so that the architecture packs tightly around its inhabitants who are themselves dissolved, gaps waiting to be filled.
In other works, such as Swiss Village Interior (Vermillion), pattern replaces lush colouration in its demand on the viewer’s attention. In this painting, a couple are seated in what might once have been a comfortable sitting room but which now is a visual argument between clashing and unevenly repeating marks. While the patterned wallpaper and fabric in the picture was presumably designed to inflect surfaces with cosily predictable and recessive aesthetic incident, in Moreton’s painting the heavy, uneven daubs result in chaotic instability which swirls around what seem now to be two petrified victims.
To describe the sensation evoked by paintings such as these as claustrophobic would be slightly to understate its complexity. The grace and sensitivity with which Moreton deploys colour means that it is no terrible hardship for us to be trapped inside her paintings. Nor, I suspect, is it meant to be. She is not an artist who is interested simply in reproduction – in answering what she perceives as an oppressive subject, for example, with an oppressive painting. Moreton is concerned instead with creating a space for herself in the world of images, by redressing existing imbalances and in redistributing tension and focus. This is a private process, and while we are permitted to witness the results, we are not expected to inhabit these pictures in the same way that she does. We do not know, for instance, why Austria persists in dominating the artist’s imaginative landscape, or quite what is the significance of family photographs used as sources of haunted (though ostensibly neutral) paintings such as Beethoven’s House 1951.
What we do know, however, is that it would be impossible for Moreton to make images of such intensity if they were simply academic exercises in historical revisionism. She has spoken of ‘getting under the skin of things’, a process that involves not a remote enquiry but a state of personal investment from which the artist can never extricate herself. Even if she fully wished to.
Jonathan Griffin is a freelance writer living in London and Los Angeles