Disinheritance as Critique: the Paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Artistic influence can either be overbearing or liberating for the impressionable artist who is determined to arrive at an individualized artistic identity. One key strategy deployed by the artist is disinheritance as a means by which identity and meaning are created. In her paintings and etchings, British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has demonstrated several modalities of disinheritance by which she has arrived at a distinct approach to portraiture. Broadly, they come under two categories of major and minor disinheritance, each of which is conditioned by a variety of factors that range from aesthetic to philosophical, personal to political. They signify points of divergence away from the dominant influences in Yiadom-Boakye’s formation as an artist to her maturity as a leading painter in contemporary British art and African diaspora art. The conditions of disinheritance proceed in two forms: as wholesale changes (major swerves) and/or selective alterations (minor swerves). The major mode of disinheritance which the artist has adopted is grand style portraiture of dignified, Black figures rarely seen in western art history from pre-Renaissance right until the twenty first century. In addition, these disinheritances are in service of Yiadom-Boakye’s own obsession with the “intelligibility” of liquid paint as an intellectual as well as aesthetic tool. Her commitment to the possibilities of paint is repeated in her minor disinheritance where the chromatic possibilities of Black as a color are as infinite as they are as interpretations of individuality.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s A Toast To The Health Of (2011)
Specific works by Yiadom-Boakye are little veiled interpretations of paintings by Kerry James Marshall. One prime example is Yiadom-Baokye’s A Toast To The Health Of (2011) which repurposes the combination of twin figures and landscape portraiture of Marshall’s The Vignette (2008). Marshall’s painting is a reimagination of Rococo, an ornate, decorative style of painting which originated in 18th century France. The Vignette depicts a male and female couple sauntering on a hilly grassland, while A Toast To The Health Of recasts the lovestruck couple as a pair of girls in a field of low grassland. Yiadom-Boakye does not generalize the uniqueness of the work as much as she delinks it from its double inheritance from Rococo and allegorical significations in The Vignette.
The pair of figures in The Vignette are male and female, possibly lovers from the tender manner they hold hands and appear to enjoy walking through the green fields, under blue skies. Such heterosexual gender pairings are never to be found in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings. So normalized are the images of a male and female together, in paintings and in everyday life, one would be forgiven for not immediately noticing the absence of such a pairing in the artist’s works. This is also true in the rare case of a diptych like Lie To Me (2019) whose male and female figures are painted on separate panels, as if the mere thought of any such depictions is anathema to the artist’s practice. The concept of romantic love between a black couple is a core aspiration of Marshall’s The Vignette series which are styled after Rococo. It is the corrective swerve he sought to make to the paintings of Jean-Honorè Fragonard which even when derided by some philosophers of the 18th century as “frivolous” became emblematic of an idyllic love in an idyllic setting. The open skies are impossibly hopeful and tranquil, undisturbed by people or any natural force such as the wind, on account of how smooth and flat (or well tended) the vegetation is. This is an idealized depiction of romance between a couple which is rarely seen in paintings dating back to the Renaissance.
The implications of an idealised heteronormative Black couple — and by extension the black family unit and the black community — is fundamental and far ranging. Any number of societal ills afflicting Black communities in the Global North could well be traced to the systematic destruction of the Black family unit, dating back through racial segregation and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Marshall’s rococo style paintings from his Vignette series is a major swerve from a European tradition, while Yiadom-Boakye’s emulation of the African-American master’s work might be considered a minor swerve along the same lines of painterly inquiry. In her painting A Toast To The Health Of, the British-Ghanaian painter has replaced the amorous couple in Marshall’s painting with a younger couple, both women and possibly girls on account of their body proportions and playful abandon. As in The Vignette this couple are in an open field and both have their backs to the viewer. Beyond them in the background is the expanse of a field.
The wide open space is symbolic of even more freedom and further separation from the constricting limits of public displays of affections around other people, given that no other figure or persons are within sight. While Marshall paid as much lavish attention to the preoccupations of his heteronormative couple, as he did to the landscape which frames the picture and the couple’s desires, Yiadom-Boakye’s appears to be more interested in the pair of young women, and their attempt to help each other across a swamp to the ever-green grass ahead of them. True to Yiadom-Boakye’s fidelity to the horizontal figure in her portraits, her pair of figures dominate the picture with the bulk of their bodies so that the space between the outline of their profiles and the extent of the painting’s borders are near-equidistant. Marshall placed his pair of figures in the central plane of the picture, further emphasized by the enveloping framework of grassy hill in the foreground, the two tall trees on either side of the couple, as well as the vast blue skies in the background. For her part, Yiadom-Boakye has relegated any vastness of the skies to the uppermost section of A Toast To The Health Of and even this depiction is diminished by the suggestions of tall forest trees in between the green field and the open vista.
Physical settings are uncommon in Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings. Less so is the green vegetation of a landscape. Similar to her re-imagining of Degas’ Dancers Practicing at the Barre (1877) in which the ballet figures aside, she replicates the walls, floor and horizontal support bars in her version titled A Concentration (2018). Such wholesale compositional adoption from her forebears is also undeniable on account of their rarity in Yiadom-Boakye’s oeuvre. The operative disinheritance in A Toast To The Health Of is that of disinterest in landscape portraiture and its adulation of nature’s wonders. It does not signify any special rejection of the accidental beauty in the colors and forms presented and performed by nature, for in this might lie an avenue for further investigation into the artist’s intellectual or emotional constitution in relation to the genre. The disinterest by the artist might simply be because it is an intellectual dead end, a fallow field of sorts which bears up none of the excitement or absurdities about paint and painting with which Yiadom-Baokye’s is preoccupied.
Kerry James Marshall, The Vignette 13, 2008
DANCING WITH DEGAS
In a 2018 interview in which the British-Ghanain painter was asked about her interest in ballet which has resulted in several paintings, she confessed her admiration for the “strength and romance of a dancer; of the physicality, the musculature. It’s a different touch, it’s a harder one. It’s a stronger one. It requires a balance and a poise and a physicality that is very different”. In A Concentration 2018, four young men are depicted in full profile and dressed in leotards and leggings. The three men huddled to the left of the picture have relaxed postures: the furthest from the left looks away from the viewer and at the two men next to him perhaps in conversation, chat idly as they enjoy a break from practice or wait to begin a dance routine; the second from the left looks directly out of the picture plane with his right hand on his waist and left leg crossed, his heel raised and his toes planted on the floor which, as well as steadying his posture, suggests the direction of weight of his body. The third figure from the right has his right fist planted on his side-waist and his bended elbows jutting out, in his case, indicating the direction of weight used to support his balance. His left hand is placed on the middle of his chest further emphasizing his restful posture. The figure on the far right takes up one third of the picture plane on account of his outstretched right leg held behind his back with his right hand. This figure in white leggings looks away from his cohorts while holding on to one of two rails for support, in very much the same manner as the pair of young women dancers in Degas’s Dancers Practicing at the Barre 1877, as well as those in its later iteration in Dancers at the Barre 1900. In both works by Degas, each dancer has propped a leg on the (single) rail while their hands are used to improve the stretching exercise. In all three examples, the direction of light is made obvious by the shadows — broodier and heavier in A Concentration 2018 — which are cast on the floor and walls of the dance studio. While Yiadom-Boakye deploys a shift in color and intensity to demarcate the white vertical walls from the silver-gray horizontal floor, Degas’ enforces more dramatic shifts in color and emphatic geometric lines to indicate the lay out of this section of the rehearsal room, especially in Dancers Practicing at the Barre 1877.
Yiadom-Boakye has not replicated the genders or poses of the dancers from Degas’ Three Ballet Dancers 1878-80. The demands of both paintings are very similar and it matters less if Degas painted or sketched from real life observations, and Yiadom-Boakye composed hers from Degas’ original, but also from other secondary sources like photographs and films. If Yiadom-Baokye does not show enthusiasm for the athleticism and grace commonly associated with ballet and the theatrical performance significant in Degas’ works, and the subject of his interest, the answer may lay in the fact that she is a consummate figurative painter. She resists portraiture as her home genre and makes a distinction based on the fact that she does not paint from real life models. A flesh and blood figure hampers her creativity rather than enhances it, a creative decision made in response to a natural inclination which, in turn, distinguishes her paintings from the real-life likeness of portraiture. Formally, Yiadom-Boakye’s dance compositions are not daring, or perhaps not as daring as Degas’ ballet paintings. This is more likely the result of her limited interest in dance, theatricality and spectatorship. Her several dance paintings share similar full length, horizontal form whether the subjects are mostly still (A Concentration 2018), or when displaying athleticism (Harp Strum 2016 and To Douse the Devil for a Ducat 2015). An easy conclusion is that Yiadom-Boakye lacks the compositional virtuosity that is present in Degas’s dance paintings. The French impressionist had a committed interest in ballet, fostered by his friendship and mentorship under mentor Daumier.
Another area where Yiadom-Boakye’s sensibilities diverge from those of Degas may lie in her early career decision not to depict women in subjugated positions. The image of the female nude has been much revisited throughout art history, and to repeat this in her work would continue the symbolic subjugation of women. This is potentially worse and the subjugation is doubled if carried out by a painter who is also a woman. Yet another premise of Degas’ dance paintings, which is at odds with Yiadom-Boakye’s sensibilities, is the power imbalance in his relationship with his subjects. The considerable attention of an older man towards young girls could be considered lavish and predatory. A veneer of respectability with regards to the opera, theater spectatorship and ideas of refined cultural tastes sanitizes such relationships even in the 21st century. It would be an easier disinheritance by Yiadom-Boakye if an abiding influence like Degas had only stuck to ballet where the costumes are modest, as is the dancing which is graceful, but is without sleaze. This is not the case in Degas’s bathers paintings for which he closely observed women in bathrooms. However sensual and intimate these paintings are of naked women in tubs, toweling their bodies or combing their hair, they nevertheless remain profoundly intrusive of private moments. This point of view stands unaided by 21st century gender politics and civil liberties which will undoubtedly render the bathers paintings — and depictions of the female nude by a male artist — as no more than patriarchal fantasies masquerading as high art.
Edgar Degas's Dancers Practicing at the Barre (1877)
THE UNFINISHED WORK OF REPRESENTATION
Prior to appearance in paintings by British painters after 1600, Black Africans largely featured in fashion and entertainment as performers and musicians. Representation of Black Africans in Britain throughout the Renaissance is understood against a background of what Peter Erickson called the “cult of whiteness”. This is exemplified by the “cosmetically enhanced” official portrait of Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533 - 1603). "In the last years of her reign” according to Erickson “white—the color of purity and chastity—was widely adopted at court in deference to the Queen. The 'Ditchley' portrait is the most significant statement on the cult of white.” Commissioned by Sir Henry Lee (1533–1611), the Ditchley portrait is an oil painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/2 – 1636) which depicts the Queen standing on a map of England and beset by stormy skies giving way to sunshine and clear skies. The whiteness of her costume is matched by the whiteness of her face and hands, a cosmetic exaggeration that was meant to enhance and standardize the spectacle of whiteness. The European territorial expansion which coincided with the Renaissance of the 16th century, also coincided with the trans-atlantic slave trade much of which was led by the British crown. The enslavement of Black Africans in the United States and the Caribbean was succeeded by colonialism much of which came to an official end in the mid-20th century. These two features of European expansionism — slavery and colonialism — are what Marshall concludes have robbed Black Africans of the “competitive capacity to engage the world with the same dynamic force that the imperial powers did”. Deprived of the wealth to form institutions and specialist knowledge in the arts, Black African artists insert themselves into art historical narratives already disadvantaged.
Describing a typical visit to the Art Institute of Chicago (US), African-American painter Kerry James Marshall observed that while the African art wing is situated next to the primitive and ancient art wings, one can walk through the “14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century galeries and never encounter a work by a black person until you get to the 20th century which means in the minds of most people when you go to a museum, Black people didn't make any art in 700 years. And they certainly didn’t make art that was worth putting in there for 700 years that was worth putting in a museum”. This great volume of absences weighs heavily on the black visual artists who want their work to be included and valued in any exalted museum. In Marshall’s own case, one strategy for shoring up this gap, in addition to his history paintings and their imposing scale, is the intensity of black color that is unique and inescapable in his paintings. The shade of black in Marshall’s paintings are consistently jet-black and high concept. If the wealth of “hallowed” paintings in major western museums are of white subjects, the black people in his paintings are intensely black and this intensity, conceptually, makes up for the absence in volume. By choosing to exclusively paint Black figures in paintings that do not contain explicit criticism of racist practices or Black plight of any sort, Yiadom-Boakye offers a clear alternative for how Black Africans assume visibility. Her approach is not a simple inversion of Black subjugation into Black might. No one of her paintings depict themes of civil or women’s rights movements, glorified Black civilisations or contemporary feats in any field of life. Neither is she interested in the personalities of historical or living figures: “I’m far more interested in how we can make people intelligible through paint.” This belief is echoed in Marshall’s commitment to “enforce an intellectual engagement with the picture” in his reappraisal of his 1970 painting titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, a self-portrait in deep black color and the foundational work that signified his switch from abstraction to a comprehensive commitment to the Black figure.
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait') circa 1592
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