Born in Sheffield in 1953, Lindsay Simons attended Mid Cheshire College of Art in 1993, then studied Fine Art at Birmingham Institute of Art, graduating in 1998. She describes her art as ‘a process of gathering and re-using. I plunder images from old master paintings of women by Leonardo, Titian, Raphael and Bronzino. I also collect cuttings from magazines and illustrations of plants and still life paintings from the Renaissance. In using these appropriated images I question the notion of beauty and how it is represented and constructed by society. I also want to investigate the power and seduction of these images and consider how they have been mediated through mass production’. She now lives and works in north London.
She says her 2011 self-portrait ‘began with my interest in the image of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Necklace (1663-4); I was inspired by its beauty and intimacy and the nature of the interior domestic space. The background, which also had the meditative quality of a Rothko painting in the handling of colour and luminous space, developed over about two years – becoming increasingly layered and abstract – and then it seemed to require myself to be imposed within it. A friend photographed me in the same position as the figure in the Vermeer holding my pearl necklace and wearing my favourite brocade coat. The painting was made in the manner of, and in conscious homage to, Vermeer – using layers of paint and soft-focus edges.
‘The painting situates and seeks to define me as both object and subject, and in so doing attempts to challenge hidebound notions of female passivity and masculine agency which have dominated the western art tradition. The picture investigates ideas of looking and female display and adornment, and I would like the sense of contained intimacy here to arouse a voyeuristic sensation in the viewer.
‘Self-portraiture has always been a thread throughout my work. I find it challenging conceptually and technically, and considering my appropriation of old master paintings, I felt it would be interesting to place myself within the image. There was also a tendency to distance myself in the painting, and by inserting my own self-image here, it became more intimately personal.’
Simons’s self-portrait echoes Vermeer’s composition though the vertical format has been horizontally broadened. Also, though the curtain in the Simons picture remains yellow (as in the original – even if this new version is more golden in tone), the luxurious, fur-lined, yellow silk garment worn by the 17th century woman is replaced by a luxuriant coat of rich, dark brocade of autumnal hues. Vermeer’s opalescent backdrop complements the iridescence of his subject’s pearl earring and the necklace (mystically speaking, Pearls of Great Price) she stretches out before her. In Simons’s picture, the backdrop is partially framed by incandescent golden tones; the wall here darkens somewhat to the right (as in the Vermeer original) but contains white, yellow and some red tones all subtly coalescing.
In Vermeer’s interiors, every detail is charged with heightened tactility and urgent, enigmatic presence. In Simons’s painting, art historical domestic objects and furnishings are rendered more diffusely; indeed towards the left, tall, random vertical streaks of paint intervene, adding to a sense of lyrical remoteness or alienation. In her paintings generally, ‘I play with loss of control and random mark-making and the manipulation of colour. The figurative image is cropped and painted with carefully built-up layers to mimic the original. Through these processes I can experiment with ways of rendering and different languages of painting. I can also control what is seen or concealed and manipulate the gaze of the viewer and the viewed. In the process of painting I try and create beautiful or seductive images but I also attempt to disrupt the reading by creating a sense of unease and questioning.’
Simons portrays herself here with a more vivid, immediate realism than characterises the rest of the picture. Her thick, coppery brown hair and focussed demeanour are identifiably in the style of an independent twenty-first century woman, tranquil but also, seemingly, more assertively self-contained than Vermeer’s original. The painting celebrates timeless silent contemplation – but also adds a disquietingly interrogative note both through skilful technical intervention and the curious, even quite eery element of historical transposition.
In a 2009 painting, Simons isolates a reproduced image of the figure’s head and torso from Titian’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este (or Isabella in Black) (1536). The original stark, sombre backdrop is now an opulently playful one, conjured up through gold and green pigment applied oscillatingly over lace doilies (emblematic of purportedly feminine, daily domestic realities – in past times disregarded but now to be celebrated for their creative élan) stuck to the canvas.
In Leonardo, Stripes (2010), the face of the woman in Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (c.1489-90) is curiously contained and ‘curtained’ to left and right by informal, mesmerising cascades of pale yellow and lilac drips. Simon’s portraiture at once challengingly subverts and transfigures the viewer’s simultaneous sense of both classical art history and edgy cultural modernity.