Thursday, 19 February 2009

Chantal Joffe
Jeremy, 2008
Oil on board 40 x 32cm

Victoria Miro, London
3rd July 2008

In addition to the large pieces exhibited at this show of her work there were a number of smaller pieces on a variety of supports. This piece is painted onto a thin sheet (6mm) of 7 ply birch plywood. The painting wall unframed and mounted off the wall probably with a block glued to the back.

As most of her paintings are expressive studies of women, this intimate, smaller than life size, portrait of a male friend, caught my eye. It is an excellent example of how her composition and fluid paint handling contribute to imposing/revealing an emotional expression to her portraits based on photographs (although she has been experimenting working from life).

The gaze is off to the right and isn’t particularly introspective or dejected, but there is something about the distorted facial features, particularly the deep shadows under the eyes that gives the piece a melancholic air. Perhaps the long face and full, sensitive lips evoke the personality of a dandy.

The surface of the panel has not been prepared in anyway as both wood grain and loose wood fibre can be seen through the finished piece. The panel has been primed with a single layer of pink paint, which can be seen clearly, as no attempt has been made to protect the edge of the plywood. It looks as if there is an underpainting of sorts in thin burnt sienna that has been washed out in parts with turpentine. The paint is of a creamy consistency and has been applied with a variety of brush sizes and types.

This detail of the right eye shows bare areas of the pink primer, and it shining through the cool grey background colour. The traces of sienna can also be seen and the overlap of the grey indicates that the background is painted last. The brushwork follows the form and suggests mixing of paint both on the palette and on the painting itself. No corrections are evident giving a sense of confidence and immediacy.

The white of the eye is of a slightly stiffer consistency that the rest of surface and adds to the illusion of the eyes bulging slightly within the sockets.

Whilst I am sure it isn’t intended as parody, there is a dialogue between this piece and academic portraiture techniques. Unlike John Currin she hasn’t set out to mimic the technique, but the steps are all there. Working on panels, coloured ground, underpainting are all associated with portraiture, but the loose paint handling and the photographic crop of the subject, disconnect the piece from the traditional approach and create a tension that I find interesting.

©blackdog 2009


  1. I'm impressed with your detailed, very knowing (because being self a painter) description of the style/technique of the painting- in this way your blog is really educative for me! Chantal Joffe's portrait shows a fine, some aristocratic, serious and pensive face you cannot forget so quickly, although the eyes of the young man (in the twenties?) are avoiding us (whilst looking a parte)- he reminds me of some Oskar Wilde faces indeed, "a dandy" as you say, some effeminate, but I'm not sure if he knows that he looks rather attractive, there is still slightly a childlike expression in his face. Unusual for his age are the "deep shadows" (we say: "tiefe Ringe") under the eyes which could signalize: less sleeping, passed nights waking or some inner and outer conflicts, some depression, deep reflections about..., whereas his sensual mouth could announce some erotic wishes. All that gives a touch of melancholy to the personality- I would like to ask him "What's about you?", but I 'm sure he wouldn't answer me, he could be a reserved and taciturn young man as I have got known some of them- often the most valuable and sensitive ("wertvoll") ones!

  2. Now I have find the word: There is a kind of elegiac expression in his face!

  3. I too thought it looked a little like Oscar Wilde - perhaps the face is distorted (stretched) either by painting quickly, or by design. I like her work, she has done a full length seated portrait of a woman that shares a lot with Whistlers portrait of his mother. One for the future.