In the final postcard of her series, Rochelle Roberts reflects on the last few months since the first lockdown, and finds comfort and hope in the artwork of Somaya Critchlow and Dorothea Tanning’s Interior with Sudden Joy, 1951.
When I first started the Postcards in Isolation series back in March this year, I felt overwhelmed by the new reality I faced. It was the beginning of a period of time where I had increased anxiety, a time where I felt suffocated by all of the things that I felt I had lost control over. Everything was so uncertain and that scared me. These fears manifested themselves into countless nights of poor sleep. The landscape seemed bleak, there were too many unknowns. My mind catastrophised the world; it felt apocalyptic in how much the world had changed. I started this series as a way of working through these anxieties, as a way of coping with being shut up at home with only my bedroom walls to stare at.
Writing about art has given me a new way to enjoy my own company. It was therefore a wonderful experience to be able to share it with an audience, and then to curate a series of works by people who also found solace in visual art. Throughout the series, there has been a wide range of approaches to writing about art through the lens of lockdown. Some writers were transported back to a time before Coronavirus, when they were free to visit galleries and museums, those memories becoming precious things. Others wrote about the postcards they had stuck to their walls, artworks that they were forced to look at everyday while remaining at home. But with each of the Postcards, the sustaining message throughout was of the power of art, how it can bring you out of yourself and into new worlds of delight, even in times of increased stress and worry, even when things are at their worst.
The time we are in now has not lost its strangeness. For the past couple of months, we have been enjoying lighter restrictions on our lives. We have been able to visit friends and family, return to work, eat out in pubs and restaurants, and go to art galleries. But now there is a decline, what many are calling the ‘second wave’.
The first exhibition I went to see since the beginning of lockdown was Somaya Critchlow’s solo exhibition Underneath a Bebop Moon at Maximillian William gallery in London. It was a show that I was completely awed by. I felt that the works were depicting a reality that I was trying to find at the time. Many of Critchlow’s paintings show women in interior spaces. These women are often nude or in a state of undress. But there was something powerful about them, as though they were reclaiming the domestic space. They looked completely comfortable in their environments. I felt as though I were intruding on them but they did not care at all. Looking at these paintings was like building up a new version of what my home could be, because since lockdown it had become a place that I was trapped in, somewhere I was forced to confine myself to. But being out of the house for the first time in a long time, and seeing these beautifully painted women in domestic settings made me remember that homes could also be a place of comfort, somewhere to be completely yourself.
The exhibition also opened at the time of the Black Lives Matter protests. It was coincidentally good timing in the sense that Critchlow’s paintings were what I needed to see in that moment. They illuminated the power that black women possess. It reiterated for me how important it is to have the voices of black people and especially black women within the arts and to allow black people to take up space within the artistic canon. I was reminded of how many paintings I had not seen of black women, and it felt necessary to see Critchlow’s women depicted in full possession of themselves, women unashamed of their bodies and of their sexuality. I had read an interview with Somaya for Art of Choice where she talks about the influence for the tv show Love and Hip Hop on her artistic work. She says that the show has a lot of black women with a lot of strong personalities who go through a lot: with children and men and strip clubs and the entertainment industry, as well as just being women. She felt a lot of resonance with these women and they seeped into her work. Having not seen the show myself, Somaya’s descriptions of it, and the influence it had on her work makes a lot of sense. The women she paints are strong and unapologetic, and it seems that the women in Love and Hip Hop are as well.
Looking at Critchlow’s paintings of interior space, I started thinking about Dorothea Tanning’s painting Interior with Sudden Joy (see feature image above), 1951. Critchlow mentioned in her interview for Art of Choice her interest in the female surrealist painters, how she was collecting books about their work. When I met her briefly, Critchlow had told me that she loved Dorothea Tanning, and thinking about Interior with Sudden Joy, I felt that Tanning’s painting also shared some similarities with Critchlow’s depictions of female sexuality and interior spaces.
Interior with Sudden Joy is a strange painting that seems to epitomise current feelings about life now and in the future. In the painting, two girls stand on the right-hand side of the picture. They are both dressed in white garments to match their white skin, the buttons unfastened to reveal a camisole top and red bra, reminiscent of the exposed chest in Tanning’s self-portrait Birthday. The girls pose with their arms draped around each other and have an air of nonchalance, their faces with red lipstick. They have a vibe of Hollywood about them with their high heels and curled hair. They are young women but seem to be aware of the power of their sexuality in a way that is similar to Critchlow’s paintings. Both in Tanning’s and Critchlow’s paintings, their provocativeness is not for the benefit of the viewer but themselves.
The girl furthest to the right pets the head of a large shaggy dog, a creature that appears frequently in Tanning’s work from 1946 onwards. The dog faces away from the viewer, sitting obediently and looking as though it is staring at the blackboard on the back wall like a pupil ready to learn. A cigarette burns on the floor at the feet of the girl closest to the centre, whose hand is held up as though the cigarette was held between her fingers. Next to them, to the left, is a naked boy embracing a strange amorphous mass which imitates a human figure and wraps itself around him. The whiteness of its fabric-like flesh contrasts with the boy’s dark skin, an abundance of dark curls haloing the boy’s head. The shape their entwined bodies create is suggestive of dance. The boy looks completely at peace. If sudden joy is coming from anywhere in this painting it is coming from him, a theory echoed by scholar Katharine Conley in her analysis of the painting (Victoria Carruthers, Dorothea Tanning: Transformations, Lund Humphries, 2020). It’s significant to me that the figure of the black boy is the one who is beautifully serene. Tanning described the girls in her memoir as being like Sodom and Gomorrah, but I think the boy is a source of good, almost of innocence or purity. Again, I think of Somaya’s paintings and her depictions of black women. These women too have a calmness to them. They are unthreatening.
On the floor in the left-hand corner of Tanning’s painting is an open book atop an ornate purple cushion. Its pages are blank, perhaps waiting to be written in. On the wall behind the girls is a blackboard with white chalked writing. In her memoir, Tanning says she took writings written in poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘secret notebooks’ and put them on the blackboard in this painting (Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, W.W. Norton & Company). Rimbaud was admired by the surrealists because of his belief that poetry passed through the body in the manner of a musical instrument, which reaffirmed the surrealist idea of automatism as a creative outlet using the body as a vehicle (Victoria Carruthers, Dorothea Tanning: Transformations, Lund Humphries, 2020). This idea seems to be physically represented in the depiction of the boy and the strange amorphous figure, their dance-like quality a visual poem.
The classroom setting of Interior with Sudden Joy is dark and atmospheric. The black wall holds cracks and gaping cuts that suggests some kind of damage to the infrastructure of the room. Shadows of the figures are inked on the floorboards. An event is taking place but there is uncertainty, undertones of something sinister. A figure stands in the doorway in the left-hand corner of the painting, the black door ajar waiting for them to come in. They hold a luminescent flesh-coloured object in their hands and seem to be dissolving into or walking through a cloud of smoke. Carruthers speculates whether they are the teacher figure, which may well be the case. But to me, they somehow represent a possible future. They are a beacon of light emerging from the dark as though they are bringing a sense of hope with them into the room. It is hope that can be thought of in terms of the current state of the world, the hope that one day we will be able to return to a ‘new normal’.
These sinister undertones remind me of a painting like Grandaddy Clock (2018) by Critchlow. When I saw this painting in the exhibition, I was struck by the dark background, the figure of a woman looking out of the canvas at the viewer, holding onto a large grandfather clock that takes up most of the left-hand side of the painting. The clock is overbearing, a menacing presence. It appears to be unhappy: two eyes and an upside-down smile like it were taken from a Disney animation. It makes me think of the hugely overbearing and unsmiling father in another of Tanning’s paintings Family Portrait (1953-4). But in Critchlow’s painting, the woman holds some kind of dominance over the ‘father figure’ of the clock. She holds on to it, but not in a way suggestive of submission or reliance. She stands slightly in front of the clock, not behind it; she is the more dominant figure in the painting, the viewer’s attention is drawn to her. She is the beacon of light standing out against the darkness.
The world seems to be in a constant state of flux; everything is changing all of the time, changing in a way that is affecting out daily lives. Although I am not as fearful as I was earlier this year, things will still not be easy. I do not know what life will be like in a couple of months time. It is unclear what the world will look like. I started this series as a way of working through a hard time. Although the Postcards are now at an end, I – along with many others – will continue to feel the benefits that the arts can bring. I hope that this series has shown that art is for everyone, that anyone can write about how it makes them feel; you do not need a degree in art history or any other form of training. While the world is seemingly falling apart, art is holding us together.
About Rochelle Roberts
Rochelle Roberts is a writer based in London. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming with Visual Verse, Severine, Eye Flash Poetry, Merak magazine, Streetcake magazine and blood orange. In 2019 her poem, ‘On Being an Angel’, inspired by Francesca Woodman’s photography, was shortlisted for Streetcake magazine’s Experimental Writing Prize. By day, Rochelle works as Assistant Editor for the art publisher Lund Humphries. You can read her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @rochellerart and Instagram @rocheller.
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. This piece was the final postcard in the series, but you can read all 28 postcards here.
Feature image is of Dorothea Tanning’s Interior with Sudden Joy, 1951.