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Painting the Stage Conference

Examining the interrelationship of painting and the performing arts

by Rosella Simonari

Postgraduate Conference, School of Art History, University of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, 6-7 September 2007

What do artists like Walter Sickert, Claude Hoin, Charles-Antoine Coypel, Jean-Etienne Liotard, Augustus Leopold Egg, Rex Whistler, Emil Nolde, Alberto Spadolini, Salvador Dali and Jonathan Meese have in common? They lived in different centuries and they come and came from countries as different as England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Spain. However, they all shared an interest in the performing arts, an interest which is not taken much into consideration by scholars. The Postgraduate Conference, “Painting the Stage”, held in the beautiful setting of the School of Art History at the University of St. Andrew’s on September 6th and 7th, tried to address precisely this aspect, focusing on the above-mentioned artists as well as other subjects concerning the Théâtre l’Œuvre in Paris, Greek artists and the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The Conference was organised by William Rough and Lynn Whittaker and it was supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. It was divided into seven parts, suitably called “acts”, each focusing on a particular aspect, such as “Painting and the 18th Century Theatre”, “Painters Interpreting Dance” and “Painters and the Ballet”.

Among the papers, two were dedicated to English artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942), one by Melanie Enderle and the other by William Rough. Enderle focused on Sickert’s representation of London Music Halls and she made a fascinating excursion into the use of mirrors in art. Sickert’s use of the mirror is quite complex and has to do with his ability to create a misleading use of space where other elements like the audience itself are included. Rough, for his part, analysed the neglected influence of theatre on Sickert’s so called Camden Town period, which spanned about 1905 to 1915. According to Rough, Sickert saw “the drama in the life of the characters” he portrayed.

Another paper by Nikki Frater centred on an English artist, quite different from Sickert, namely Rex Whistler (1905-1944). Whistler was a fine painter as well as theatre designer, illustrator and muralist, among other things. His most well-known work is the large mural “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats” situated in Tate Britain, completed when he was only 22. Frater also talked about Whistler’s other important works and mentioned his last commission for the theatre, “La Spectre de la Rose” for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1944, done beautifully, with the spectre appearing at the centre of a pink rose.

Other painters included in the conference were from the 18th century and they related to the world of theatre in their own manner. Esther S. Bell talked about French painter Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752), whose father Antoine was already an affirmed painter. From him Coypel received a special sensibility towards “the performative possibility of painting” and maybe because of that he also dedicated himself to playwriting. Julianna M. Bark presented a paper on Swiss painter Jean-Etienne Liotard’s “Self-Portrait Laughing”. She argued that through self representation in his career, Liotard moved from “an authoritative and hieratic kind of image” to an approach where his figure became a stage presence: Liotard’s “Self-Portrait Laughing” with the artist’s Turkish fez and pointing finger represents an ideal example.

Some papers dealt more directly with the world of dance. For example Lucienne Dorrance Denner talked about German painter Emil Nolde’s (1867-1956) dancing figures and their relation to Mary Wigman whom Nolde met in 1910. Christian Sauer delivered a paper on Spanish artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and his collaboration with Léonide Massine on the set and costumes of Wagner’s “Thannhäuser” [Bacchanal], which premiered in New York in 1939. On the one hand, Nolde’s work runs in parallel with that of Mary Wigman, especially in his exploration of primitivism; on the other hand, Dali almost suffocated Massine with his surreal costumes which were in many cases difficult to dance in.

This conference was full of interesting and fascinating papers which in many cases blurred the distinction between disciplines that still today dominates many studies in art history as well as theatre and dance studies. So through Ilia Lakidou’s paper, one could understand that the affirmation of modernism in Greece developed alongside that of national identity, and thanks to Katie L. Steiner’s talk, the character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” underwent a “paradigm shift” which is also traceable in the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ representations. Artists were influenced by theatre, dance and opera; in some cases they staged plays in their paintings like Calude Hoin did with his “Interior with a Portrait of a Young Lady before a Bust”.In other cases they directly performed a radical role while painting, like Jonathan Meese in his interpretation of “Parsifal”.

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