Gallery: Headaches : a note to viewers |
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Headaches : a note to viewers

by Cécile Menon and Frederic Raphael

In preparation of this section dedicated to Sarah Raphael, I asked her father, Frederic Raphael, for permission to include a couple of articles dealing with the violent headaches which the artist experienced from an early age and which, from 1996 onwards, became a crippling condition affecting her life and the course of her work. Sarah Raphael had expressed herself publicly about this condition several times, but on suggesting to Clive James that we include these articles I encountered some strikingly fierce opposition. Talking about the artist’s illness was not our purpose, he said. Our subject was her art.

I guess that the reluctance to credit or acknowledge an acutely painful part of Sarah Raphael’s life and a condition so intimately linked to the life of the mind and its visual creativity made me wonder about what it was exactly one could or could not say about her great, complex body of abstract work. The artist had no control over her condition. She was the helpless prey to its repeated and prolonged, vicious attacks. Would these articles be suggesting that she had no control over the nature and style of her work? To me, the brilliance of Sarah Raphael’s paintings withstands the scrutiny of medical experts, academics and psychiatrists. Furthermore, their point of view provides an additional dimension, though not one so easy to contend with. The life of the mind and its relation to the body remain objects of enquiry on which scientific research is still stumbling and probably always will be, teetering on the brink of pitch dark. An attempt to identify links between Sarah Raphael’s Strip! series and the symptoms and manifestations of ‘visual migraine aura’ she experienced does not belittle her work. Her brightly coloured creations may, however, help the experts to understand a condition whose causes are still shrouded in mystery and whose treatment is, at best, palliative.

Frederic Raphael’s answer to my question came like a shot. It was the roar of a humanist whose wit saves him (and us) from completely despairing at the madness of the world. It was also the proud outcry of a loving father. Here it is, as it was received:

"Chère Cécile,
I am somewhat between your position and Clive's. I entirely reject a causal relation between art and any kind of pain, even though, of course, pain AFFECTS what people do. What I fear, and suspect that Clive does too, is some kind of reductionism which leads to the conclusion that Sarah's work just is what migraine did to her. If that were so, the world would be full of such causally induced masterworks; and there might be those who felt deprived not to be able to get migraine on the national health, or a grant perhaps to procure it. The thing about anything that is rare is that people want to find a way of making it banal or the result of an affliction or "luck" (known usually as "gifts"). That migraine was Sarah's agony, and made her work as it also, at times, stopped her from working (or obliged her to do so in the small doses which came out in the last series of Strip and meta-Strip), I cannot deny, but that the paintings were OF her pain, or its involuntary fruit, that lets people off into the generalities which all non-artists want to be able to swap like easy stamps. If the documentation is there and if you (granted Clive's nihil obstat) feel that it deserves to be cited, well, what is published is public and I cannot canute it (poor Canute, who was, we are now told, proving that he COULDN'T stop the tide is commonly accused of thinking that he could, so making him cousin to Caligula, who flogged the channel when it was rough, like Basil Fawlty with his delinquent car). I digress; c'est mon metier. I should, to be plain, REGRET but not resent recourse to "explanation" when it comes to Sarah's work; it is what it is and not another thing (consider her rage when her bulls being led by a child were given a Christian interpretation by some High-minded Sister critic). If Susan Sontag wrote one good phrase (and that's about the number I first thought of, and the last) it was Against Interpretation. I am against medicalising Sarah's genius, but you must do what what you think best. This is meant to be evidence of a broad mind; ignore the narrowed eyes.
Amitiés, Freddie.

I hope this presentation of Sarah Raphael’s paintings will draw viewers who are new to her work into the same fascination that it now exerts on me, having spent the best part of two months sorting through hundreds of images. The articles by Podoll and Ayles constitute a valuable insight into the making of the enigmatic Strip! series, but art, like somebody's life, will never be explained by a single voice.

July 2008

Inspired by Migraine: Sarah Raphael's Strip! Paintings
Sarah Raphael, Migraine and Me

Etching by Sarah Raphael: No Comment, 1999, Plate 3 of Small Objects in Transit, a series of 6 etchings: paper 22 x 22 cm, plate 15 x 15 cm