Dialogues in Focus: Ghislaine Howard

The exhibition ‘Young Masters Dialogues’ features a selection of contemporary works, made or placed in response to the Sphinx Fine Art Old Master Collection. 

Ghislaine Howard is one of the UK’s foremost female figurative artists, working in paint to describe the human figure and the universal experiences of the human condition.  Her work has featured in various publications and television documentaries including Mischa Scorer’s Degas: An Old Man Mad About Art, with Richard Kendall, Omnibus, 1996 and was part of the team that produced Degas and The Dance, in 2004 which has been awarded the prestigious Peabody Award. Her work is in many public and private collections including The Royal Collection.

Howard explains why she chose to respond to Giovanni Andrea Carlone’s painting ‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’:

Like anything else, you learn by imitating, interpreting – I’ve always drawn and painted after other artists’ work as Michelangelo, Delacroix, Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso and so many others have done.

One of the greatest moments in my career was when one of my drawings (from the Whitworth Art Gallery collection) Pregnant Self-Portrait drawn in 1985 – was chosen as the centre piece of the British Museum exhibition Ice Age Art: the Arrival of the Modern Mind – where it was displayed next to small intense sculptures of pregnant women made over 30,000 years ago – presumed to be the earliest surviving art works made by humans. Unconsciously I realised that had continued the same theme as our ancestors did all those years ago –  we return to the same concerns – what it is to be human and so the whole of art history is there for us to learn from and I’m always on look out for exemplars to study or be inspired by – and in the Sphinx Gallery there it was – a painting brimming with life, beautifully orchestrated line, form and colour – indeed it was the visual operatic splendour of the painting that struck me first – a real feast for the eye. However, just  as so often happens in opera, the nagging thought struck me – what on earth is going on? In Greek mythology, Iphigenia  was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Her father was commanded by the Gods to sacrifice his daughter and thereby allow his ships to sail to Troy and then it all gets very complicated.

It was the visual power of the composition that struck me and the trapped energy of the figures, then I found myself moving in on individual figures: on the right, a  woman calm and graceful her arm protectively encircling two children, although paradoxically, she seems oblivious to all that’s happening around her. Echoing her on the left hand side a male figure in full movement hurtles into the canvas.

There is a real excitement of creating a dialogue with past art – a sense of consecutiveness – for all art is contemporary as it is experienced in the present moment. From such an encounter one can go spiralling into all kinds of other avenues of knowledge. For me, recognising a kinship of pose and gesture the delight in the decorative and emotional effects of  colour and not least, the energy, the ’presentness’ of these figures and something of their interior lives. Strangely enough, as I was working on these transcriptions, I felt close to Jackson Pollock who also loved the dynamic energy of Baroque canvases such as this.

We become habituated to the known and so must search for ways to re-fresh our relationship with things past and present: to make correspondences to bring them across from the past into the present, and remain true to the spirit of the original. Like interpreting a piece of music, instead of paying the piano to make the notes come alive, you can ‘play’ the painting!

Howard’s work is exhibited alongside the original Carlone painting at Sphinx Fine Art in the exhibition ‘Young Masters: Dialogues’  until 24 October 2015, curated by Daisy McMullan.

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