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Cut, Torn, and Pasted: a Female Perspective

Charlotte Hodes


My sleeping female figure in this painting (fig. 1) is depicted in a simplified manner, as a linear motif or form, invaded by pattern and intertwined with fragmented elements. She suggests a strong presence in the sense that she is locked into the physicality of the paint as well as a sense of fragility and fracture in that the image, constructed from parts, may ‘unravel’ at any moment; she may fragment. My figure engages with the world from the inside out. The issue for me is not how she is seen by the viewer but how she experiences the world beyond her own physicality.


In this presentation I would like to show how the manner in which I work and the process of collage that I use are integral to the meaning of the figurative representations.

It is through an ongoing project as Associate Artist at the Wallace Collection that I am exploring a central theme in my work, which is how to depict the female figure from my own female perspective within the context of historical representations. The Wallace Collection in London is famous for its important fine art and decorative art collections, my particular interest being the eighteenth-century paintings of Antoine Watteau and François Boucher and the Wallace’s unique collection of eighteenth-century French rococo Sèvres porcelain vases. It is in response to these works that I am currently making a series of large collages and ceramic works. The issue for me is how to present a re-reading of these works from my viewpoint as an artist in the twenty-first century.

My interest in this unusual painting by Watteau, A Lady at her Toilette (fig. 2), resides in its intimacy. As the viewer, you momentarily have access to this private scene within an enclosed space, where there is no reference as to what is going on in the world beyond the painting. While the figure is aware of you as the viewer, she is not surprised or fearful, she does not seek to use her sexuality or nakedness to titillate or charm. Art historians discuss whether she is in a state of dressing or undressing, but the ambiguity may be the point, because what I love about the work is precisely the fact that you are not quite sure if she is revealing or concealing herself.

For me, this Sèvres vase (fig. 3) represents all that is feminine; its elegant rounded proportions are contained within leaf-shaped ornamentation which suggests the frills of a petticoat, while the colours of gold, soft blue, and white emit a gentle but ever present aura. The intense area of pattern is intercepted, as so frequently in Sèvres porcelain, by the pictorial image of the still life.


This collage on paper (fig. 4) is 100 cm high and the image is made up of a Sèvres vase shape and patterns, along with a female figure form poised on the top of the vase, removing her vest. She is isolated and self-contained, suspended in a slightly precarious position on the top of a vase. The process to begin this work, which is one of a large series of related collages, is by working directly with drawing and digital photography, both at the Wallace Collection and using myself as model, to acquire a large ‘bank’ of visual information (fig. 5). This bank of information is stored both in drawing books and on the computer. I reference it and use it both through the computer and in the studio in order to form compositions and to construct the images. Initially, I ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ the fragments digitally; through the computer the style of the elements, for example the vase or the figure, is simplified and changed, pattern variations are introduced, the colour, scale, and relationship of the elements are resolved (fig. 6). The digital image is then printed onto paper using a large format inkjet printer. It is then further developed in the studio by manual cut and paste using scissors and glue; many of the physically cut pieces are re-stuck onto the print or on the underside of the paper. This process creates an actual laying onto the surface and a tactile, embroidery, or lace-like surface evolves (fig. 7).


My approach to the female figure has been formed by my experience as a painting student at the Slade School. It was only twenty years before I was there, in 1962, that the sculptor Reg Butler spoke at the Slade. He said:

I am quite sure that the vitality of many female students derives from frustrated maternity, and most of these, on finding the opportunity to settle down and produce children, will no longer experience the passionate discontent sufficient to drive them constantly towards the labours of creation in other ways. Can a woman become a vital creative artist without ceasing to be a woman except for the purposes of a census.

In my view, a nineteenth-century notion also prevailed at the Slade – the male artist was associated with anti-domesticity, anti-social behaviour, a Bohemian heroism and intellectuality, whereas the women were, and I quote from Griselda Pollack and Rozsika Parker, ‘beautifiers, civilizers, orderers in the face of social mobility and economic instability of a chaotic and threatening world’. To generalize, women painted flowers and still life, men painted history scenes and monumental works. Many feminist women artists who were with me at the Slade made their voices heard working in less traditionally based media such as video and installation. I felt strongly at the time, and still do, and perhaps now in the twenty-first century it is a more commonly held view, that it is possible to make serious and profound work in traditionally based media, such as painting, which address issues around domesticity, a sense of order, and a private female space. All that is considered feminine – the decorative, delicate, sensitive – can be a vital and powerful force.

I am fascinated by the view that ‘women are orderers’. We can order and therefore disorder. The process of collage is the construction of parts or fragmented elements to make a whole. It is a simple but empowering process. The destruction of elements and visual images which already contain meanings is inevitable and a crucial part in the way that I form my own imagery. I seek to present my own sense of order which, by being held by the parts, inevitably has the potential to break up.

In 1998 I was invited by the managing director of the renowned Staffordshire ceramic factory, Spode, to work on the factory floor as an artist, making individual designs onto the existing Spode ceramic ware (fig. 8). This was my first experience of working onto ceramic and it was the beginning of a fruitful informal relationship which continued over a period of six years. I was in the privileged position of having access both to the skills within the factory as well as to their coveted archive of more than twenty thousand copper engraved plates dating back two hundred years. These engravings are printed onto a tissue paper with ceramic ink and are then transferred, while wet, onto the ceramic ware at the biscuit stage, processed, and fired. The engravings range from sheet patterns or chintz to the famous pastoral scenes such as ‘Italian Blue’, of which figure 9 is an example.


I used the archive of transfers as my ready-made bank of imagery. As you can see from figure 9 it was not only the imagery which I could respond to but also the varying sizes and shapes which had been engraved according to the shape and size of the ware for which they were to be applied. I freely used and cut up these printed pieces of tissue, introducing a female figure within my own designs. I cannot overestimate, in spite of the honour it was to have access to these famous and beautiful Spode designs, the pleasure of tearing and cutting and destroying in order to re-create an image, which hopefully would contain a dynamic relationship between the past and the contemporary. The question for me was how to both acknowledge and celebrate the past through which my own sense of self has been formed whilst subverting it and re-presenting it within a new context.


Figure 10 shows a one-off dinner service that I decorated at Spode in 2001. Laid out on a table, it is to be read across the whole surface, as a painting. Each of the four place settings is different (fig. 11). As you remove the soup bowl after use, another part of the image is revealed from underneath and, again, the saucer reveals a new image on the dinner plate. Female figures are revealed and concealed, frequently fractured at the edges (fig. 12).


My previous experience with print taught me that economy of mark, colour, and procedure is a demand made by the process and which is almost always essential in order to make a vital image. In this way, the process of ceramics and transfer invited a simplification – I used three transfer patterns only and two of only five existing printing colours in the factory. My female figure shape was made from drawings of myself which were then simplified to a paper stencil (fig. 13). I made numerous stencils of varying sizes according to whether the shape was placed on a coffee cup or dinner plate (fig. 14). The figure stencil was filled with fragments of pattern or sometimes the pattern surrounded the figure.


Figure 15 shows part of a more recent series of ceramic works was made in a similar manner, with limited colour and using a few transfers only, from the factory archive, torn and cut into fragments. For me there was a dramatic change in the meaning of the naked female figure once she found herself part of the formality of a dinner service, displayed for all to see and to be eaten off. She appears more exposed, perhaps because although she is occupying the public space of the table, she occupies her own private, self-contained world. Her informal manner and the directness in the way she is constructed contrasts with and counteracts the formality of the context, of a dinner or tea party (fig. 16).


The key for me is in the relaxed poise of the naked figure who, perhaps only by chance, finds herself on the surface of a dish (fig. 17). She is contained within her traditionally domestic environment but she is not washing the dishes or cleaning the house; she is sitting around doing nothing very much. She has a presence but is fragile – she is only made up of fragments of pattern. She is passing by, choosing to be there momentarily in her transient state, but she is held down and becomes part of the temporal world fixed to the physical surface of the ceramic object.

A number of works by the French artist Francis Picabia, his ‘transparencies’ such as Subtlety (1928, gouache and watercolour), describe figures in a linear manner which are interwoven together and where the imagery within the transparent figures is fragmented, moving spatially from one to the other. These works influenced the way in which I approached my installation of decorated vases made for the V&A in 2002. The figure motifs are transparent and linear, they intertwine together and emerge out of each other. In hierarchical terms no one element is more important than another.


In this installation, Cacophony, a Cabinet of Vases (fig. 18), the banal repeated shapes of the mould-made ceramic vases contrast with the mêlée of linear figures, pattern, and domestic elements, such as Dyson vacuum cleaners and lamps, which cover the surfaces (fig. 19). I worked on these vases in the way that I have previously described, using a bank of imagery which I gathered by making my own drawings and photographs directly from the V&A collection of textiles and sculptural figurines along with contemporary elements such as computer icons and domestic objects from home magazines. From these elements, which I manipulated and simplified on the computer, I made a series of ceramic transfers (fig. 20). These digitally manipulated transfer sheets were made in four basic colours – red, green, blue, and brown. They contained the fragments of all the imagery that I wanted to use on the vases. I applied washes of under glaze colour to each vase and then collaged individual fragments individually onto the vases (fig. 21). Each vase is unique. The linear figures are interspersed with pattern, colour, and computer icons across the surface. There is a limited use of colour but the sense of colour variation is increased by the layering of the washes and transfers. I want to suggest that the fragments, the figures and patterns, have just floated down to be held together onto the ceramic surface.


The Wallace Collection contains many examples of the work of the eighteenth-century artist François Boucher. Many of his painted figures float in the sky where they cast off the weight of the foreground and background. A painted space which articulates a sense of floating, where a figure may, to a lesser or greater extent, ignore the power of gravity, introduces a transient and ephemeral dimension. Here, Venus (fig. 22) finds herself, in good humour, floating on water, enveloped by drapery which dissolves into the waves surrounding her. She seems to have momentarily appeared and is now isolated within the self-contained space of the painting. What holds her in place is her own physicality and our glimpse at her voluptuous, fleshy body. She ignores the activity behind her. Is there a hint of humour in her own awareness of her absurd predicament? My figure in this bone china bowl (fig. 23) is grounded by the physicality of the medium, in this case the ceramic bowl. She is present in the temporal world but is also simply a patterned motif, momentarily passing by.


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Cut, Torn, and Pasted • Issue 8