Eileen Cooper is the first female ever to hold the post of Keeper of the Royal Academy in its 247-year history, a post she has held since 2010 having been elected a Royal Academician in 2000 and as such she has strong ties with the Royal Academ. She also teaches at the RA schools along with Central St Martins and the Royal College of Art. So it is fitting that The John Madjeski Fine Rooms houses a large exhibition of Cooper’s drawings at the same time as the Summer Exhibition. This includes a collection of 10 drawings, produced in 2001, which the artist has gifted to the Royal Academy and are here exhibited for the first time. Born in 1953 in Glossop, Derbyshire, Cooper studied at Goldsmiths College from 1971-1974 and was taught by fellow Royal Academicians Michael Craig Martin and Albert Irvin. She went on to study at the Royal College of Art and by the 1980s was exhibiting widely.
In a career that spans nearly 40 years, Cooper’s subject matter has always been the personal. Everyday experiences dominate: love, sex, motherhood and family life are played out in front of us in her favoured media of charcoal, conté crayon, pastel and ink on Japanese paper. Her style is playful and expressionistic, naïve and primitive giving more than a nod to Picasso’s interpretation of African Art. Yet at the same time, the charcoals with their thick black outlines are reminiscent of the German Expressionists particularly Paula Modershohn-Becker but the lines are softer. The figures fill the paper and often feel like they are hemmed in by the restraint of the paper’s edges. The rubber like limbs twist and contort. The heads and eyes are outsized but are filled with emotion. The term ‘magical realist’ has been used to describe these poetic works.
I have always preferred her works on paper to the primary coloured paintings. The stand out piece in the exhibition is the large charcoal and conté on paper work Treehouse II from 1989-90. Assembled from six pieces of paper, it depicts two nude children playing in a tree house tipped towards the viewer which is held up by twisting stylised trees, the branches acting as arms protecting the children as they play, while a man and a woman are entwined under it. Their elliptical eyes full of expressive emotion. Other strong works are Boy with Bird from 1992 in which a kneeling boy, drawn with thick charcoal with a dash of blue pastel lighting up the paper, is delicately holding a bird, concentrating hard on his effort and The Sad Tree from 1983 in which the tree takes on a human face. In the later works the figures are more in proportion with smaller heads and eyes and as a result lose some of the intense emotion in the earlier works.
In addition there is a stop-motion film by filmmaker Charlie Paul, known for his recent film about Ralph Steadman ‘For No Good Reason’, that provides a fascinating insight into the artist’s working methods and how she builds up a drawing.
The exhibition coincides with the publication of a monograph on the work of Eileen Cooper RA, written by Martin Gayford and Sara Lee. Eileen Cooper: Between the Lines, published by the Royal Academy of Arts. Price £30.
Words: Sara Faith Photo: © artlyst 2015