Since the Renaissance, philosophers and artists have tried to question the relationship between emotion, aesthetics, the universal and beauty. Kaye Donachie’s ethereal, nuanced and essentially beautiful portraits of women play on those ideas.
words Francesca Gavin
At some point in recent decades, the idea of beauty with a big B became an unfashionable topic for art. Like still lifes or nudes, it was something from another era. Yet Donachie’s painting goes back to the idea and gives it new life. “Beauty is for me something that has a particular energy. That feeling, that intimacy, is not necessarily something that is aesthetic,” she explains over tea in a dimly lit Soho restaurant. In person, the 46 year-old Donachie is small, brunette, engaging and earnest. Born in Glasgow, she trained in Birmingham before completing her studies in Berlin and the Royal College of Art. Early in her career she won the John Moores Award, one of the most respected prizes for painters. Now living and working in London, she is an immensely talented painter who has shown with galleries such as Maureen Paley in London, Marianne Boesky and Sean Kelly in New York and was featured in the 2009 Tate St Ives exhibition The Dark Monarch.
For Donachie, beauty is a way of connecting to an image. It is something that is inspired by emotion. Trying to grasp that emotion is one of her central drives to create art. “You’re trying to understand how a painting makes you feel,” she says. “How you respond to images in the past and present. I think beauty is a shared experience of our knowledge of different events, times and images.”
The portraits Donachie paints are all of women. Their identities are inspired by characters throughout European creative history but they are not specific individuals. Instead these are amalgams of beauty, inspiration. They are ghostly figures that hint to the early years of modernism, dada and surrealism – periods when female creative contribution to the bohème was emerging but marginalised. When the idea of being a muse was a way of contributing to the conversation of art and poetry.
Beauty is a shared experience of our knowledge of different events, times and images.
The most immediate way Donachie conveys inner experience is through colour. Her work is made from washes of blues, layers of peach, highlights of turquoise or aquamarine. Her palette is often muted, pepped with grey tones. “Colour for me is like having a narrative,” she says. “They have different intensities. Colours can evoke a particular period. They are evocative of the time of day, light and dark. All these things have a presence about them. Shades of one colour can create a sense of history.” Interestingly, Donachie’s source material comes from black and white photography, yet through her eyes the monochrome is always seen through the lens of colour.
Although inspired by photographs, her work isn’t photorealist or an imitation of life. She begins by finding a photographic image and researching the individual within it and where it was shot. This can lead to another person, a book, a poem. The works often have flowery titles taken from poems that often form the individuals who inspire her research: “Against the mass of night” or “Clouds are pushing in grey reluctance”. She draws from fiction and documentary, morphing and referencing different places and eras. “It’s not just looking back or illustrating the past. It is more about how something is represented to me. These images conjure a sense of understanding of what it is in the past and the present.”
Often her sources emerge from literature. She is particularly drawn to women who became muses to other artists, such as Lee Miller who worked with Man Ray, the poet Paul Eluard’s wife Nusch, and Picasso’s muse Dora Maar. “I always come across them through men’s work,” she notes. Yet what intrigues her is how they are all often artists in their own right. Referring to them as spectres, Donachie’s women are conscious of their own image. “It’s a morphing of understanding them through their art, their poetry. They have a really clear sense, when you look into them, of fashion, of beauty. Their life is like art. They dress in a particular way. They were very avant-garde.” Here, fashion and self-representation are forms of revolution and liberation. “You can see they have a real sense that they understand themselves as performers,” she says. “They are active.”
Donachie’s work reflects a very modern redefinition of the history of art. The idea of looking back at the canon of art and reinserting women from a post-feminist standpoint. Her work highlights the female characters standing alongside the big names of surrealism or modernism. “Hugo Ball’s wife, Emmy Hemmings, helped to set up Cabaret Voltaire. I came across some images of her in the Centre Pompidou. She was a really important figure but she’s not written into its history. I find that space interesting. You can look at that gap of knowledge. You can create those conversations with them,” she enthuses.
The focus in Donachie ’s paintings is often on faces rather than the body. Her paintings are on a small scale and draw you closer to the canvas. The portraits are head sized. “They are very sensual women. That close-up and that focus on the eyes – I am interested in painting these intensities, that eroticism of looking. You are faced with the close-up of another face. Voyeurism is quite erotic.”
Colour for me is like having a narrative, they have different intensities. Colours can evoke a particular period. They are evocative of the time of day, light and dark. Shades of one colour can create a sense of history.
The women she depicts are not specific but instead an amalgam of different sources. They are flamboyant, romantic, bohemian. In her earlier work, the artist focused representing on counterculture movements from the 1960s. Her more recent female protagonists also share this sense of being on the periphery. These are characters outside the social mainstream, presenting an alternative way of living. “This thing is happening on the edge of our consciousness, in this sort of dream space. They have relationships with liberating yourself from society and wanting to be creative. It’s a clear understanding of how you are perceived and how you want to be perceived.”
There is a sense of repetition in her canvases. The face is drawn again and again; the artist searches for some sense of the ideal of beauty. For Donachie it is also a way of remaking work she desires. “It’s getting closer to reality. For me the ideal is what is not quite in the consciousness,” she explains. “In painting, for me, nothing is really real. It is all idealised in a sense. You ask yourself: what is that reality? Painting creates that really special space, which is different to film and photography. The latter are rooted in a different kind of realism, a conscious space. What I’m striving for is idealism within the space of painting.”
Although there is a fluidity that resembles watercolour in her approach, Donachie works in oil. Her sense of lightness is an attempt to create a dream-like space “where things are almost moving again, not tangible”. Like all fantasies, her work appears fragile. Images or ghosts that appear as image and can as easily disappear.
She is currently working on an exhibition at Le Plateau in Paris which opens in May. Alongside her own work, she is curating a selection of images of her sources of inspiration. Her work will be contextualised by photographs of the artists, women and poets that feed into her paintings. The show will hopefully include loans of works by Dora Maar, Man Ray and the surrealists.
Although represented by one of London’s most important gallerists, Maureen Paley, Donachie sits apart from much of the art world hype. She as an artist and her practise feel at a refreshing remove. “I think the world is in a strange place at the moment. I was thinking to myself, what are historians going to think when they look back on us at this time? I’ve read so many articles about artists just retreating back to their studios. It’s almost so horrific what’s happening – countries retreating and looking inwards. What is it you are making in response to that? Styles are moving quickly, but there is never a pause. How do we reflect on that?” Painting as a medium is almost innately opposed to this sense of contemporary speed, to the rush of fashion or taste. “At opening, people always ask you what you are doing next. You’re at once in the present but also in the future.”
There is a timelessness to Donachie’s paintings, which perhaps is why her work plays with the idea of beauty so well. Plato did not see a conflict between the pleasure of beauty and the goals of philosophy. In the 18th century, Francis Hutcheson insisted beauty was centred on the experience of pleasure. He championed a hedonistic beauty, a sensorial beauty. Donachie creates paintings that attempt to express a sensation, an emotion. Here are the melancholic joys of ephemeral experience.