Rook & Raven will present acclaimed British painter Vanessa Garwood’s 2nd solo exhibition, And is it True? It is not True. Playing on the ideas of fables and morality and its relevance within the digital society in which we live. Drawing on tales from Africa, to Europe Garwood takes on the mantle of storyteller through the medium of paint. Through her own interpretation of these moralistic fairy tales portraying these recognisable figures from our childhood, Garwood invites us to question these lessons on life, love, sex and death.
Garwood has chosen to depict 10 fables, these paintings reflect on the moral ambiguity and conflict found in childrens literature; and how their narratives express timeless truths of human nature. The narratives are borrowed from a variety of literary sources, many of which don’t have a specific ‘original version’ but cross over between languages and cultures being retold again and again in new ways, encouraging both virtue and self – preservation. There is a contradiction between the harsh and bleak view of human suffering seen in some of the paintings and the hope and humour found in others. This unsentimental observation conveys an emotional truth of human experience and relationships.
Ananse the Trickster Spider, originating from the Ashanti people of Ghana the Ananse stories are part of the African oral culture of story telling. The image has a narrative based on a mix of different Ananse tales. In re-telling and mixing stories together the painting responds to the more inventive oral tradition of African story telling which would be less exact than reading a written version. Ananse the spider represents a spirit of rebellion and is often seen as a symbol of slave resistance and survival. He shares many similarities to Br’er Rabbit, found in the African American Uncle Remus folktales, both examples of how to behave and overturn the social order if you are in a position of weakness. As the Ashanti are one of Africa’s matrilineal societies, where line of descent and inheritance is often traced through the female, the painting’s composition revolves around the female character and suggests more of an active role than she has in the stories. Pregnant and seated amongst ripe fruit and animals her positioning emphasises fertility and strength, also questions her role in the story as she is hiding the rabbit who is the spiders rival.
Griselda Written by the French author Charles Perrault, ‘Griselda’ was part of a series of moralistic fairy tales first published in 1697. The story tells of a misogynistic prince who punishes his wife to test her virtue. He does everything to upset and antagonise her including taking away her child, faking its death, and lying that he wants to remarry. She is a paragon of obedience and refuses to complain until eventually her husband trusts her again.
He retells the story of Griselda (previously told by Petrarch, La Fontaine, Chaucer and Bocaccio) as an example of ‘Heroic patience: not, I ought to say, for you to imitate in every way’. With this subtle qualifier to his moral, Perrault’s version rejects the dutiful feminine ideal frequently shown in other texts before him. The painting further explores this by suggesting that Griselda may have qualities even stronger and more complex than patience, however ‘heroic’. The questioning sadness in the portrait hints at an inner life behind her resigned compliance. She is set in a contemporary household and surrounded by shopping bags and uncooked food reminding the viewer of her housework; also the knives and other weapons she has for possible revenge. The uneasy way she sits on the edge of her chair, holding her daughter’s toy, suggests movement and a question over what her next action will be and whether vengeance could be justified.
Hillaire Belloc’s cautionary verses, published in 1867, features Rebecca who is squashed to death by a marble bust; it falls on her head because she won’t stop slamming doors.
These humorous and often nonsensical rhymes make fun of the cautionary Victorian books which preach and warn of the nasty ends children will come to if they disregard their parents’ wishes. The hypocrisy and pettiness of the adult world is highlighted by the ridiculousness of her fate. Belloc uses this humour as a mechanism to mock the vices and follies of the world.
As Rebecca is depicted holding onto one of the busts that eventually falls on her the painting is a ‘memento mori’: reflecting on mortality, the vanity of earthly life, and the transient nature of worldly goods and pursuits. She is described as a wealthy, ‘wild’ girl who ‘was not really bad at heart’ so we see her surrounded by classical sculptures that are evidence of this affluent background: the weight of which literally and metaphorically crushes her.
There is a juxtaposition between the harsh and bleak view of human nature, seen in some of the paintings, and the hope and humour found in others. Written to teach practical wisdom to both children and adults the morals praise and reward both virtue and deception as tools for survival. Garwood’s paintings show universal and sometimes uncomfortable truths about the human condition and how people treat each other.
VANESSA GARWOOD: And is True? It is not True – Rook & Raven – 11 September to 10 Oct 2015