Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Sarah Raphael |
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Sarah Raphael

(An introductory essay to the catalogue for her exhibition at Agnew’s Gallery in Bond Street, February 1992)

Something wonderful happened to her in an art gallery, and something terrible in the park. One’s first impression of Sarah Raphael’s painting can be no less complex than that. It would be nice simply to be bowled over. She doesn’t allow it. If you saw just the early oils; or just the drawings; or just the portraits — but no, the turbulence would already be stirring in the viewer’s psyche. The individual portraits are among the most desirable being done in Britain today. Anyone who can catch her eye, or afford the tab, or whatever it is that needs doing so that she will get interested in making you look interesting, would like to sit for Sarah Raphael. I sat, and I’m still wondering about the result. I am bound to say that I rather like the immediate message of macho power, reinforced by those Iron John forearms. If only I didn’t look so very isolated and inward-turned, as if self-sufficiency had been bought at the cost of losing contact with the world. That can’t be right, but what if it is? What if she knows better than I do?

My portrait isn’t in the present exhibition, and that suits me. It’s not quite that I feel about my portrait by Sarah Raphael the way Winston Churchill felt about his by Graham Sutherland, but if it was being displayed in public I’d like to be standing beside it to explain: to bob and smile and try to get a bit of charm going. Sarah Raphael is either very keen on taking the charm out, or else she just sees things as if it wasn’t there. Even the most seductive of the portraits would hint that the latter is true, and when you see her major paintings, especially the later ones in acrylic, there can be no doubt about it; a determined attempt is being mounted to deprettify the world — and not just the physical world but the psychological one as well.

In one so young the aim would be insupportable if it were not backed up by such accomplishment. We know she is an artist, because her bad dreams are contained — sometimes barely contained, but always contained — in beautiful painting. We know she is serious because she is so staunchly resistant to the mere notion of painting something lovely for its own sake — even though, especially though, she could. She has the basic belief and the inescapable curse of any serious artist in any field: for her, all technical problems are moral ones and vice versa. There are great artists who have come slowly to that realisation. Sarah Raphael apparently arrived at it during adolescence. Precocious technicians we can cope with: we call them prodigies. Artists who are precocious in their moral maturity are more of a problem. The Rimbaud who got shot by Verlaine is a less troublesome customer than the one who wrote Bateau ivre.

To invite discussion on the level of great names might not be a blessing for Sarah Raphael, especially in Britain, where any failure to disclaim big-league ambitions is counted as arrogance, as if to seek exemption from comparative assessment were somehow more modest. But Sarah Raphael is stuck by nature with the status of one who can’t absorb an influence without seeming to compete with it on equal terms. The parodist apes his model from a flea’s eye view. The artist takes over a whole soul. Poussin and Rembrandt took over galleries of souls: you can see complete traditions being mopped up. It was scarily apparent after only the first few big oils of Sarah Raphael’s early phase that she was doing the same sort of thing.

Those were the paintings of hers that are still easiest to like. She was using a wide range of colour and the canvas was full of individual characters even if they mostly stared past each other with minimum eye contact. But admirable as well as likeable, and remarkable as well as admirable, was the rate and the intensity with which she soaked up and summed up influence, as if the whole western tradition of painting was queueing up to get into her mind and she had her work cut out assigning places so that the different painters would have something to say to one another instead of crowding around in awkward groups or just sitting in each other’s laps. Under colonnades out of Crivelli stalked figures out of Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello’s Green Cloister frescoes in Santa Maria Novella, forming tableaux that would have had the unmanning elegance of Max Liebermann if they had not been as monumental as Max Beckmann. She had rediscovered, out of a radically revamped past, the quattrocento version of the Neue Sachlichkeit. It was weird, wild and excessively gifted and your first instinct was to take it away from her. A girl her age needed an artistic capability about the size and power of a Citroen 2CV, and she had turned up at the wheel of a Ferrari.

Since then we have got used to it. Time tatters the prodigy tag, and besides, our fears for her were soon revealed to be fears for ourselves. She could easily have gone wrong if she had been us. Not only high society, but show business or just any prosperous demographic group with a collective ego to embalm, would have been glad to deflect her from her course. Personally personable, she could have engaged full-time in manufacturing her own publicity, with no danger, in her case, of the supply ever outstripping the demand. (When I wrote a brief introductory piece about her for Interview, the magazine sent a madly fashionable photographer who required her to dress in a unicorn’s head and nothing else. The results were electrifying. Tamara de Lempicka never managed to set up a photo session like that in her whole life.) The unsettling truth was that there was never any chance that our delighted dread of yet another crashed young talent would come about. Her ambitions went beyond success and deep into the more serious business of getting something inside her that needed saying out into the open where it would require seeing: require and command.

Her command of her resources gave her command of our attention. The oils already had authority, saying ‘I am younger than you but I see all this.’ On one of my walls — my tallest wall — is a very large Sarah Raphael oil with a small mirror in the middle of it in which the painter is reflected. It is an honest portrait of her and therefore very striking, because so is she. In the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas, bulking grotesquely beside the table under the mirror, is a chunky dwarf out of Velazquez. The painting wants me to realise that beauty and ugliness are both accidents. Most of us are as slow to accept such facts as we can get away with. When Sarah Raphael switched to acrylic she increased her authoritative capacity to put our own fears in front of us in forms we would have to face because they were too compactly composed to ignore. She began to restrict her range of colour into a narrow, aching band of grey, deep green and a strange sky blue that isn’t precisely dark but somehow never gets light enough to relax by. Often the scene is a park, and anyone on his own is threatened by any group no matter how small or distant.

In the oils the potential for atrocity was at least lit up and relatively festive, like the matinee pogrom in Cossa’s Schifanoia fresco. In the acrylics the overcast has penetrated to the bone. There are brilliant colours, especially in the clothes of children, but they are not allowed to radiate. Once there was a British musical film, Elstree Calling, in which each of the three primary colours was added to a separate black-and-white image and then the three images were added together. The result was in colour but weighed like uranium. For her own purposes, Sarah Raphael wants us to feel that from the memory of universal anguish there is no recourse in the spectrum.

The question remains of what those purposes are. Primarily, surely, they must be to let her inner demons run. Born into a personal history for which the most immediately appropriate symbol would surely be the Holocaust, she derives her most upsetting imagery from the Crucifixion. But she has distanced the event only to deal more directly with the emotion. The emotion is fear: our fear, modern fear, twentieth-century fear. In previous times people were afraid of casual violence. But we are afraid of the casual violence that ought not to be there — the policemen who persecute, the doctor who tortures, the apparatus of the state that goes to war with the citizen. Above all we are afraid that our hard-won understanding of the human mind has failed to tame the primitive, and that the beast can drive a car and knows when our daughter gets out of school.

Most of my favourite paintings were painted by Australian impressionists on the lids of cigar boxes. The only challenge they offer is not to be charmed to death. As safely conservative in my basic taste as a Japanese industrialist chasing any Monet left on the market, I would prefer on the whole that artists did not explore, and were content to entertain. Hankering incorrigibly for Picasso’s Blue and Rose, I still can’t look at his damsels on the beach without crying subvocally ‘Don’t do it to us, Pablo!’ But I would be a lesser man spiritually if I got my preference. To look at the recent haunted landscapes of Sarah Raphael, lit by storm clouds and swept by a slow, chill wind of truth, is to pine for those relatively untroubled early oils in which the merchants of the ghetto found at least a fleeting home under the portico, and girls who knew Balthus were framed by Bramante. But that is part of her point. She wants to get beyond what comforts and into what liberates. We trust her to unmask our imagination because we know the magnitude of the talents with which she might flatter it if she wished.

Speaking for myself, I would like to see a new synthesis, in which the psychoanalytic investigations of her maturity might be lit up with the carnival colours of her apprenticeship. But if she catered to nostalgia she wouldn’t be what she is, and meanwhile the portraits are there to work the instant enchantment. They do more than that, but they always do that in the first moment, private and alone yet invading the eye with the unnerving confidence of a stranger who expects to be recognised. The portraits are her guarantee of discipline, a constant life class. They are also the playground for her technique, in the same way that Mozart returned always to the piano concerto as his test-bed for the new engine, his wind-tunnel for the new wing. It would take a structuralist critic of outstanding ruthlessness to separate her portraiture from personality, but if it could be done there would still be a technical story to be considered. I am not qualified to consider it, but would guess that it had something to do with making acrylic yield all the nuances of oil without the smarm. Acrylic to this painter is what rhyme is to a proper poet: the obstacle which furnishes the departure point for inspiration.

And a proper painter she is. The most effective subversives are well brought up. Raised in a house where the arts are talked about as if they were a part of life — it remains amazing how rare that is in England, especially among the educated — she was trained in her craft before she practised it as an art, and so is able to draw and paint ahead of her ideas. She is one of the young figurative painters whose success enables us to feel relieved that the meaningful was never entirely swept away by the meaningless, only mostly. The market for the temporarily immortalised gesture still has some buoyancy in it: according to a recent Christie’s catalogue, you can get a Lucian Freud portrait for only £40,000 but a Cy Twombly assemblage of several different-coloured squiggles will still set you back a healthy two and a half million dollars. The market, however, is a moron, and art — real art — has a mind of its own. Finally it is in the keeping of those with talent, and the truly talented, whatever the circumstances, will be damned before they do less than what is in them. Sarah Raphael has so much to say that she has not yet quite become used to the idea of getting it said in one epic at a time. To watch her find her way is a privilege.