Books: The Meaning of Recognition — In Memoriam Sarah Raphael |
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In Memoriam Sarah Raphael

One day it will be part of British art history that Sarah Raphael died young. Today, on the day of her funeral, everyone who knew her must cope with the first loss — the loss of her physical presence. Perhaps the cruel law of chance that took her so soon was trying to make up for its early prodigality in giving her everything. She was brilliant, she was beautiful, and she had the generous, unstudied charm that does not always go with those gifts: being down-to-earth when you are so favoured can’t be easy, but she could always manage it. Once, when I first knew her, I was looking through a stack of dauntingly authoritative paintings leaning against the wall of her studio and I ventured to suggest that ‘Sarah Raphael’ wouldn’t quite do as a name: ‘Sarah Michelangelo’ might be more appropriate, or even ‘Sarah L. da Vinci’. The gag got a laugh — she looked more than usually lovely when she was laughing, which she usually was, even while she worked — but there was a thoughtful addendum. ‘You really think I’m quite good, don’t you?’ I really did, and nobody who had seen any of her work thought anything else.

Which brings us to the second loss, the one that will affect many people who never met her, and eventually whole generations to come, because rarely since Rex Whistler was killed in Normandy in 1944 has there been a deprivation so calculated by fate to impoverish the future. Right from her first phase, she looked destined to put into reverse the dire expectations for the next round of young British art: she could draw, her canvasses had more in them the longer you looked, and there wasn’t a dead shark in sight. At Camberwell School of Art (where she went after Bedales) she was a star student, but there was no surprise in that. She had been born into a cultivated household — her father is the writer Frederic Raphael, two of whose books she illustrated — which is always a help towards an apparent precocity, although later on things tend to even out. The real surprise was in her thematic range. Precocious wasn’t the word for it. An historical synthesis is usually something that artists attempt only later on, as the final prelude to their achieved individuality. In the initial stages they work through one influence at a time. Young Sarah seemed to have been influenced by the whole European tradition all at once, and to have absorbed the lot.

The first thing of hers I ever saw was a postcard reproduction of one of her big oil paintings. The postcard was a magic window on the past. On the other side of the window were Cossa’s frescoes in the Schifanoia palace in Ferrara, and Paolo Uccello’s Green Cloister in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. All the colours and characters of the Quattrocento were there. But when I went to her first big solo exhibition I found that she was already out of that phase and into something less crowded, rather in the way that the young Picasso, having proved that he could paint a whole nightclub full of people, switched his attention to individuals. The first picture of hers I bought was a huge oil with almost nothing in it except a centrally placed oval mirror framing her self-portrait in the act of painting: the one and only time, as far as I know, that she used her own good looks as a subject. It was the opposite of conceit, because the other thing in the picture, down in the foreground, was a grotesque homunculus that she had borrowed from Velasquez, just as she had borrowed the idea of the painter painting himself from Rembrandt. The picture was a set of quotations, but the arrangement and the execution were all hers, and typically luscious even in their austerity. It was a picture about chance, about beauty being a fluke. But there was no fluke in the technique, and the picture was also about that: about an abundant young talent discovering how spareness, too, could be a means of expression. It was a bravura piece: look what I can do. It was also a renunciation: look what I can leave out, see how I can discipline myself to serve the purpose. Barely managing to fit my wrapped trophy into a taxi, I already knew that it would be the last of her big pictures that I would ever be able to afford. The millionaires were already moving in. New York’s Metropolitan Museum had made a purchase. Every possible prize, except of course the Turner, was getting set to drop into her lap. If you do the rounds, you run into a lot of young artists who are going to be something. But she was already something.

Like all her admirers I wanted her first flush of enchantment to go on for ever, but she was too serious to stay with a winning streak. On the face of it, her next phase looked like a total abnegation. Suddenly her pictures were drained of colour. Nothing remained except greys, dark greens and chilly blues, and the paint itself was acrylic, almost military in its determination to be non-seductive. But you didn’t have to look long to see why. The subject matter was terror. There was no overt violence: many of the pictures just showed people walking in the park. But something was going to happen to them, or they were going to do something to someone else. Like those interrogations in Harold Pinter’s early plays that lead you to nothing except a realization of what it feels like to be helpless, these pictures summed up the anxieties of modern history without having to mention it. They were so mature that there seemed no way forward, and no need to seek it. She had discovered something uniquely hers. Regrettable for its bleakness, admirable for its truth, it was a personal manner so powerful that it would have served most artists for a lifetime.

Then she transformed herself yet again. A working visit to the Australian desert brought all the colours back with a rush. But this time the colour was without form, except for the way that a new and ravishing pointilliste technique (it was as if a re-born Seurat had met Clifford Possum Tjapaltjari over cocktails) arranged individual grains of red dust and molecules of stone into a resplendent Mandelbrot set, a polychromatic map for chaos. Some of the paintings were enormous and all of them were tremendous. The buyers went at them like a lynch mob. At Agnew’s I walked slowly so that someone with a lot more loose change would beat me to the one I wanted most. It was fabulous, with a price-tag to match. While painting my portrait she had given me a frightening lecture on how little of the money a painter gets to keep after the gallery takes its cut, but by now she was such a hit that freedom beckoned. She could have — she always could have — just painted away in a style the well-heeled public had learned to like, while exploiting her glamour in the glossies to boost the market. But she wasn’t like that.

There was another metamorphosis, into a kind of neo-pop summa that looked as if the sixties were getting a re-run on a bigger screen, in a better theatre. Miniature motifs were repeated and counterpointed endlessly: Philip Glass had taken up embroidery. (In 1998 she moved to Marlborough Fine Art for ‘Strip’, an exhibition that put her pop phase riotously into one room. Her last exhibition, ‘Small Objects in Transit’ — etchings and monotypes — closed there last month.) She was having fun, but it was easy to predict that she was getting ready for whatever would happen next.

Until now, there was always something that was going to happen next. My own bet is that it would have been the real synthesis — the majestic one, not that merely sensational one she started off with. We will have to guess what it would have looked like, and at the moment guessing hurts too much. One thing we can be sure of: it would have included human figures painted to a standard seldom seen in British art since the eighteenth century. Throughout her short but lavishly fruitful career, whatever phase she was currently caught up in she never ceased to paint portraits, and her lasting reputation would be assured by them alone. They are monumental even when small, and universal even in their solitude. The National Portrait Gallery already has two of them. In the future, when Tate Modern comes to its senses and begins to concern itself with artists instead of trends, there will be a room full of Sarah Raphael portraits so that the new young artists may flock, marvel, and resolve to do likewise. They will learn, from an artist born for greatness, that it takes more than a concept to reflect life. No matter how far she strayed into the abstract, humanity was always her subject, and all the grief that went with it. Human grief gave the coherence to her exuberance, the chest-voice to her joy. For all her conspicuous blessings, it was part of her genius that tragedy was not strange to her: but to lose her so abruptly is a hard way to have it proved.

Independent, 17 January 2001

[ There's more of Sarah Raphael's work in our Gallery section ]