Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Obscure Histories

(All images in this post (c) Adriana Hartley and Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2009-2011. All rights reserved.)

Around two and a half years ago, I started working with a brilliant sculptor and medieval scholar, Adriana Hartley, in Geneva. We agreed that she would make abstract modern smoked ceramic sculptures playing with relationships between rectilinear forms and curves, rough surfaces and smooth planes -- and then I would paint fourteenth-century-style miniatures on them.

I got very excited by the relationship between form and surface, two dimensional representative art and three-dimensional space. I tried to paint so that the third dimension was always a necessary element in the miniature, and so that the story in the miniature related closely to the form and 'feel' of the piece and drew the viewer's eye to the individual beauties and characteristics of each shape.

Our work process was great. Adriana sculpted independently of any considerations about what the painting might be, other than to include some smooth areas as part of the form of the sculpture. When each sculpture was a complete piece and fired safely, we met and discussed what its qualities were and which way (roughly) the theme of the painting might go. The final stage was for me to go ahead and develop a miniature painting on the sculpture, and Adri left me to create that as a new independent stage of the work.

(In fact either of us had veto power on something we truly felt we couldn't live with that the other was doing -- but it was used only once during the creation of nineteen large pieces and around thirty tiny ones -- and used to good effect.)

We exhibited our pieces in Galerie Marianne Brand in Geneva as part of the Carouge Art7 festival. The response was amazingly positive and we sold a lot too, which was a very welcome affirmation of the work.

I was struck by the way visitors responded to the combination of sculpture and miniature as a pictorial object in a three-dimensional space. They got up close and stuck their noses in the hollows, used magnifying glasses to see the details, walked round and round the pieces to get the flow of the story. The picture and sculpture together were interesting to the eye and mind in a way that either, independently, might not have been. We had achieved our goal -- a synergy of surface and volume, decoration and structure, fiction and presence, figurative and abstract.

To our great delight, the prestigious Musée Ariana purchased our most ambitious (and largest) piece. I hope to return to Geneva in 2012 and go with Adri to see it on display.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The miniature as an art-form

Of course a miniature is a small painting. But who says "miniature" means "small"?

Here's the fabulous Online Etymology Dictionary with its entry for miniature:

1580s (n.) "a reduced image," from It. miniatura "manuscript illumination or small picture," from pp. of miniare "to illuminate a manuscript," from L. miniare "to paint red," from minium "red lead," used in ancient times to make red ink. Extended sense of "small" (adj.) is first attested 1714, because pictures in medieval manuscripts were small, influenced by L. min-, root expressing smallness (minor, minimus, minutus, etc.).

(My bold.)

In other words, "miniature" didn't originally mean "small". It meant "painted in an illuminated-book style" and, before that, "decorated in red", as in red-letter days, rubrication, all that.

As for why "red-lead pigment" was called minium: it's apparently named after the place it was naturally found in Roman times, in north-west Spain somewhere near the Minius (Minho, Miño) River. That's from Wikipedia.

So, the modern word "miniature" only means "small" because miniated paintings (ie paintings created in an illuminated-manuscript style) were themselves small. Such book miniatures were small because they were painted in fine detail using tiny brushstroked lines of gouache or tempera, which took a long time, and because illuminated books were not usually the size of large canvases, the price of calfskin being what it was. (Even more expensive now.)

However, one could in theory paint using an illuminated-manuscript style in fine detail using tiny brushstroked lines of gouache or tempera ... on an enormous ground. It would be a gorgeous paradox -- an enormous miniature.

Really, there is no good reason other than tradition and time why a miniature has to be a certain size. Admittedly, those are good enough reasons for most people most of the time, but they are arbitrary reasons too, and could be ignored.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Lady with Quails

'Lady with Quails'
watercolour & gouache on vellum (calfskin)
(c) Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2009


Lady with a Poodle

'Lady with a Poodle'
watercolour & gouache on hotpressed paper
(c) Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2008


Caveat Imperator

'Caveat Imperator' (sold)
watercolour & gouache on vellum (calfskin)
(c) Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2009

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Div with Phone and Goats

'Div with Phone and Goats'
watercolour, gouache, gold on vellum (calfskin)
(c) Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2010

Peanuts from Heaven

'Peanuts from Heaven'
watercolour, gold, gouache on vellum (calfskin)
(c) Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2010