Artists in Quarantine No. 2

The Freud Museum was the perfect location. An artist who plumbs the depths of the human psyche and one of the most distinguished psychotherapists of our time were to have a public conversation. The theme? Oil paint on canvas as “a metaphor for the disintegration of personality and self”.

Virus dimensions unknown 60x60cm

Frances Aviva Blane and Susie Orbach have in their own ways persistently explored the complex inter-relationships between the outer and the inner, the physical and the mental; body and mind; facial image, thought, emotion.  For Blane it is through a fearless exploration of physical qualities of oil paint, colour, texture and form, in her search for expressive power. For Orbach it is her critique of how our bodies, particularly women’s, have come under assault by “soft sell yet insistent marketing practices”.

But the encounter was not to happen. Like countless other events their conversation, scheduled to take place in May, in the house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, was derailed by the pandemic.

Note 90x90cm

When Covid-19 struck Blane felt terrified:  “The dreadful and constant news of death/suffering haunted me,” she says. “I was unable to focus and consequently unable to make decisions about anything. The early Covid-19 pieces were uninspired.  Only later was I able to utilise my fear.” Having the long-awaited Freud Museum event postponed brought disappointment on top of fear.

BJ 189x189cm

But the situation was rescued with the help of the noted film maker/opera director Penny Woolcock.  Two Metres Apart, a 12-minute documentary set in Blane’s studio, was completed on 12 April.  It is beautifully put together: not “talking heads” but two women at the top of their game in mental and physical dialogue.  The project  is still growing with a longer film in progress.

Beginning with a barred window, looking out onto a bleak world, you feel the locked-in locked-down atmosphere during cruellest of months, with many hundreds of people dying each day. As weeks stretched into months, Blane spoke frankly about how difficult – even impossible – it was to work from home:  “It’s too domestic. I need an uncomfortable atmosphere, the discipline of going to work. I need to come, to focus and explore, do my work and go.”

Orbach appreciates the intense physicality of Blane’s canvases. Her abstractions are not “pictures of something” – they are about the paint itself, how it moves and how it feels. That’s why having it directly in front of you, being able to move around it, going up close and then distancing again is so crucial.  Leo Regan’s camerawork and Sarah Ainslie’s stills in Two Metres Apart make this brilliantly possible.

A friendly clash between artist and psychotherapist makes you think hard. When Orbach finds a painting “aesthetically pleasing”, Blane retorts: “that means it’s not good!”  When Orbach begs to differ, Blane stands her ground: “If it’s beautiful you don’t keep looking.  The edginess makes me want to explore further.”

Portrait 189x189cm

Blane’s work, especially her Heads, are not for the fainthearted. They are tough and full of anguish.  But we also need the comfort and inspiration of the beautiful.  In the end, it transpires, both can be discovered in one and the same place, a place which exists in Blane’s purely abstract paintings. That could explain the violence but also the pleasure we may derive from just a piece of canvas.

The lockdown has provided the impetus for new forms of art, new feelings and new ways of sharing experiences, more often than not technologically mediated. Simultaneously it heightens the unquenchable craving for the physical presence of other human beings, the things they have created and most of all, their emotions and thoughts. Two metres is too far.

Two Metres Apart, directed by Penny Woolcock and edited by Alex Fry

Bodies by Susie Orbach is published by Profile Books 2019

Frances Aviva Blane website

Postponed – Smashed up Paint at the Freud Museum


Artists in Quarantine series

  1. Michele del Campo: A silver lining for a scary time
  2. Frances Aviva Blane: Virus – dimensions unknown
  3. Peter Clossick: Mind games under lockdown
  4. David Downes: The Covids are coming
  5. Richard Walker: The chess piece logic of Cuckooland
  6. Caroline Pick: A sense of liberation
  7. Julie Held: Aching
  8. Joe McPhee: Exciting times. Dangerous times.

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