Sunday, November 19, 2006

Marble, wax and paint - making a record

Alison Lapper is a successful artist and in A CHILD OF OUR TIME (a project on the TV which is following a group of children all born in the first year of the new millennium) Lord Robert Winston admired her nurturing skills. At around the age of two her son was wilful. To express his temper he would throw whatever small object that was close to him around the room. Alison would duck and remain patient and impassive, ignoring the outburst and carrying on with her conversation. A year later Alison and her son were shown again. The child now appeared to be transformed into a calm and trustworthy three year old. The film followed them crossing the road together and I remember Lord Winston's voice admiring their journey; commenting on how many parents would show a child as much trust as Alison showed her son - and how this trust was being repaid already.

A white marble statue of Alison Lapper when she was eight months pregnant with her son is now in place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It is the work of Marc Quinn whose most famous work is perhaps a sculpture of himself carved from his own frozen blood. ALISON LAPPER, PREGNANT will be there until April 2007 when it will be replaced by the work of another modern artist. It is a faithful representation of Alison Lapper's body. It is limbless but unlike Venus de Milo these limbs haven't fallen away by accident or by exposure to the elements; Alison Lapper's arms have never existed and her legs have always been greatly truncated. Yet like Venus de Milo she is clearly beautiful. Her face is passive and calm and to me this statue seems to regard the world with a sympathetic interest. She observes. She takes note and then she records what she sees - either painting by mouth or taking photographs - and in 1995 graduated from the university of Brighton with a first class degree in Art.

She has written an autobiography of her experiences called MY LIFE IN MY HANDS (yet another for the TBR pile). She was born in 1965 and last saw her mother when she was four months old. Until the age of nineteen lived in an institution. She abandoned prosthetic legs because she felt they were merely cosmetic rather than useful, learnt to drive and went to live in London. The statue was uncloaked last year on the 15th September by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston on a day very similar to Friday's - a grey day of showers and little light. Alison Lapper seemed a little daunted by the prospect: '"I'm going to be up in Trafalgar Square. Little me." she said. But on the fourth plinth she doesn't look little at all. Even though the statue is life-size and only four feet high Alison Lapper does not seemed dwarfed. The sight is arresting, strange and quite compelling. On that grey day in London I wasn't the only one taking photos and peering at the polished plaque to read more.

Nelson is aloof on his column, inaccessible and familiar enough to be ignored. Alison Lapper is amongst us. She demands to be noticed.

The statue is carved from a casting of Alison Lapper. For one day Marc Quinn covered her heavily pregnant body in plaster of Paris and it was an exhausting business, but I expect it ensured a true record of how she was. On the way home I read a book my agent gave me about other castings and other ways of recording the human form - this time in wax. WAXING MYTHICAL is an account of the life of Madame Tussaud by Kate Berridge (like Alison Lapper Kate Berridge is another of my agent's clients). Madame Tussaud's wax works began life in pre-revolutionary life in Paris with her 'uncle' Curtius. They worked to record a visual representation of their times - but these times were a period of great social unrest. As personalities lost popular appeal waxen models of unfavoured heads were removed from straw-stuffed bodies (to be replaced by another head more in mode) in a way that was ominously prescient.

During the Terror Madame Tussaud's skills in recording the decapitated heads were valued as she worked to produce a record and probably helped to ensure her survival. But wax doesn't last. Even it is not melted down in response to the political vagaries of the time it will discolour and will eventually have to be replaced. Madame Tussaud's memoir of her life seems to be equally unreliable and part of the interest in Kate Burridge's book is the discussion of how much is truth and how much is a softened retelling of her history designed to appeal to her new neighbours in English society (she emigrated after the revolution). But one thing is clear - she lived through turbulent times and it is very interesting to read how the wax models of heads contributed to the history in unexpected ways.

I learnt more social history as I went round the Velásquez exhibition (as recommended by fellow blogger Jeremy).

The skill was impressive and it is only by seeing the pictures up close and then stepping back to look again that I think I fully appreciated how apparently random daubs of white paint when seen close-to became the glistens and sparkles of a fabric embroidered with silver. The paintings are placed in chronological order and with the help of a small exhibition guide it is possible to see how Velásquez developed in artistry in the Spanish court. I particularly liked his portraits of the people who were not royal - the dwarf playmate of the prince, the pope (who was notoriously ugly and whose powerful and belligerent character came over quite clearly), a renegade nun or a man who might be José Nieto, the chamberlain of the queen, but no one knows for sure. It is a sad tale. Because the Spanish royal family tended to be inbred (a tendency which seems to be prevalent across the European royal families even today) the children tended to be weak and sickly.

Velázquez seemed to capture this quite perfectly - his deft brushstrokes quickly taking down their fragile pallid likenesses before their stricken genes asserted themselves and they sickened and died. In fact he may have been too successful for the king who for many years refused to have Velásquez paint his portrait, because he did not want to see himself grow old. In the end King Philip IV survived Velásquez by five years. Velásquez died aged just 61 on the 7th August 1660.

By the time I emerged from the National Gallery it was dark and the rain had become a downpour. For a time I sheltered in St Martin-in-the-Field where a small chamber were practising Vivaldi's Four Seasons which I soon found to be too poignant. So I returned again to Charing Cross Road, plunged into the rain and stepped over the little rivers that were overflowing from gutters onto pavements until I reached Euston Station and there I read for a couple of hours until it was time to catch my train home.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Home sick, so I have enjoyed a vicarious journey to London. Funny how the whole thing is about truncated people in some sense or other--one who is literally so, though whole on the inside; decapitated wax heads and guillotined heads; dwarf subjects and ethereal soon-to-vanish royals.

Sun Nov 19, 03:18:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow-- that's a brilliant comment, Marly. I had not noticed it until you pointed it out.

Velásquez' "Lady with a Fan" is one of the major paintings at Hertford House. I wonder if they loaned it for this exhibit?

Sun Nov 19, 04:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like you enjoyed your day, Clare. Thanks for sharing. Were you able to find a quiet place to read at Euston, or are you one of those people who can sit with a book and blank out everything else?

Sun Nov 19, 04:57:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marly, Susan B: yes, I hadn't realised that's true, though, isn't it? It must be the poet in you, Marly, that picks out these connections. The sense of being truncated is such a powerful one - and such an excellent metaphor too.

I don't remember seeing Lady with a Fan - but I could be wrong about that.

CFR: Yes, I'm pretty good at blanking stuff out - to an embarrassing extent, really.

Sun Nov 19, 05:23:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susan Balée,
And there I thought it was just my usual skewed thinking. Thanks.

Blotting out the world is a very good and handy characteristic for a novelist. (A wife, a mother: whole different story!)

Mon Nov 20, 03:02:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an absolute honour for Alison Lapper to be on the 4th plinth. Thanks for blogging about that.

Mon Nov 20, 03:39:00 pm  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I'm very relieved that you enjoyed the exhibition! I'm still hoping to get down there again before it finishes.
On a Velazquez theme, though, I saw some of Francis Bacon's Pope paintings at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (near Norwich) on Saturday. He started painting them as a result of seeing illustrations of the Velazquez Innocent X portrait (as I'm sure you know). Apparently he never went to see the original, even when he had the opportunity during a trip to Rome. I wonder if the idea frightened him.

Tue Nov 21, 09:28:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marly: blanking out also not very good in meetings either.

Sharon J: Yes, I think Alsion Lapper is an excellent choice for the Fourth Plinth.

Jeremy: Interesting about Bacon. No I'd no idea about the connection to Valezquez. I did see an interesting little dispaly about Bacon in the National Portrait Gallery though - which is another post in itself.

Tue Nov 21, 09:29:00 pm  

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