Born in London in 1952, Eleanor Bowen studied painting at Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts from 1974-7, and was awarded an Abbey Major Scholarship at the British School in Rome in 1977. From 1997-8 she took an MA in Critical Studies, Visual Arts and Theatre at Wimbledon School of Art, and from 2000-5 a practice-based PhD at Wimbledon School of Art. She is currently an associate lecturer and short courses tutor in life drawing at the University of the Arts, London.
She talks about four main ‘threads relating to self-portraiture in my practice’: the first ‘reflecting on a sense of (self as) presence in absence‘ in large multi-media canvases; the second rooted in photography, including two eerily enigmatic ‘pinhole self-portraits, one of which was taken with a camera obscura that was, literally, a large blacked-out domestic room’; the third, ‘linear drawings made following the traumatic violence of a personal attack’ (which includes the 2011 self-portrait); and a fourth thread of small-scale, intimately expressionist paintings of herself in her studio often sketched with calligraphic swiftness in low light.
Bowen’s 2011 self-portrait – which is both intricately drawn and subtly embroidered with allusive symbols (with affinities to the pencil and watercolour works of David Jones) – has the title The Vanity of the Maker’s Girl, a phrase from Emily Dickinson’s poem Ribbons of the Year.
For Bowen, ‘the ‘maker’s girl’ alludes partly to the notion that this ‘made’ female figure could be Miranda [from Shakespeare’s Tempest] (with all the alchemical complexities that go with that, regarding her father’s magical island), and echoes also of the biblical/Greek figure Sophia (‘Wisdom’), as a child playing before the face of God.’
In her self-portrait, Bowen sits semi-crosslegged on the floor, ambivalently ‘naked/not naked – pieces of clothing appear but offset by (rather than ‘on’) the figure,’ she says. The posture is at once tensely alert (her right hand upraised in the act of drawing herself, her sensitively delineated, elongated left hand lying relaxed on her leg) and at sensuous ease. Her scrutinising face is cut off at the top of the picture so the viewer catches only a bare impression of her eyes – arising perhaps from the artist’s intention to preserve the hard-won dignity of her privacy or to convey something of the ultimate inviolability and unknowability of self.
‘When I made this drawing, I was seated on the floor looking into a tall mirror at an angle beside me with the paper pinned onto the wall in front of me, so that I was seeing myself and the room from floor level. The combined perspective – looking up at the head which is disappearing from the top of the drawing, and down at the feet – arises from that. My own gaze is drawn as if averted because of the angle of the mirror.’
The figure is surrounded ‘by various accoutrements that could be described as ‘props’: a lemon, a glass, a shoe, a crab’s claw and scissors – which were observed’, and faint, hallucinatorily comic, sexless ‘heads’ hovering under the arm – which are imaginary. ‘These shapes derive from the development of suggestive marks or lines, which may be accidental or the result of erasure, and often become figures or strange receptacles. The two-barred shape tinged with red (made of latex) is a device intended to balance and volumise the figure, offsetting the flatness of the circle. This I found in my bin of ‘bits’ for recycling – off-cuts taken from previous images of my own, photocopied illustrations etc. These fragments were often directly incorporated into the drawing (pasted in) but sometimes used in other ways, such as positives for tracing around, or as stencils.
‘The circle for the breast indicates a female identity with connotations other than the sexual (the bared single breast in art history has spiritual/cultural significance), so the male gaze here is possibly being deflected. However, the image I had in my mind at the time was (to contemporary eyes) an unusually sexualised Madonna (Madonna and Child, Jean Fouquet, c1450). The perfect circle, representing a conceptual and non-observational mode of drawing, also refers to some of the props and sets used by the Royal Shakespeare Company (that I also drew in my 1994 RSC artist’s residency at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle).
‘Then I had made many rapid sketchbook drawings during rehearsals, mostly in low lighting, and sometimes in complete darkness. I tried to catch elusive nuances of movement, gesture, lighting and sound. A favourite painting is Carpaccio’s Dream of Saint Ursula (1495), in which an angelic figure is seen entering the saint’s bedroom where she lies asleep. In this picture, rigorously observed detail (wrinkled bedclothes, shoes on the floor, pots of plants on the window sill, the woman’s night-cap) contrasts with its numinous subject. I think of this painting as electric with energy.
‘For me, self-portraiture as a genre is always compelling because, whether a ‘good image’ or not, as a ‘self trace’ the self-portrait can pick up psychically on what it is to be here now. One of the most powerful in this respect is, for me, Gwen John’s exquisite self-portrait in red, both controlled and sensual. In this vein also are Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach’s self-portrait studies in oil and charcoal, more expressive but equally rigorous in terms of observation and sense of focused presence.
‘I admire Giacometti, who as a student I was told to look at closely, and Braque for his extraordinary poetic atleliers, and then, as I began to draw myself, David Jones, for his drawings’ delicate, layered romanticism, and Dubuffet for the physicality and condensed spatiality in his works.’