“Painting is the absolute present tense of a moment,” stated Royal Academician Chantal Joffe in an interview about her relationship to her work. And perhaps it is this attitude – as well as her approach, explaining elsewhere: “I paint fast, in a kind of frenzy” – that partly accounts for the raw immediacy and intense frankness that characterises her countless striking portraits of women, girls and herself. This, and the fact that she now mostly only paints subjects she is close to.
Joffe first rose to prominence in the mid 1990s for her tiny but luminous paintings of women posing in pornographic magazines. Yet her focus has shifted since pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Esme (which the artist describes as having been “a real coming of age moment”), towards themes of motherhood, childhood and adolescence – straddling both the physical realm of the body and the psychological realm of human emotion. “I don’t want to make pretty paintings” she recently explained, “I’m after an honest, almost brutal quality” – something she doesn’t shy away from in her self-portraits as well as those of others. Today, she is recognised for having made a distinctive contribution to the landscape of contemporary figurative painting.
In the past, Joffe has consciously emulated artists like Giacometti and Matisse in her work. Yet, for her first major solo exhibition in the North of England, Personal Feeling is the Main Thing at The Lowry, featuring over 50 canvases, the artist has chosen to exhibit alongside a series of four paintings by one of her many important female artist inspirations: the German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). Modersohn-Becker died just 18 days after giving birth to her first child, at the age of 31, and is today recognised as being one of the first women to paint a nude self-portrait and, later, a series of self-portraits whilst pregnant (leading to the inclusion of her work in the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, and much of her output being posthumously destroyed in Nazi Germany.)
The title of Joffe’s exhibition – Personal Feeling is the Main Thing – is based on a quote by Modersohn-Becker and highlights the central connection between these two great artists; an ability to capture something of the inner experience of being and the ever-changing landscape of our internal selves. Chantal Joffe: Personal Feeling is the Main Thing forms part of RA250 UK – a nationwide programme of exhibitions, displays, talks and events being held throughout 2018 to celebrate the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary. Find out what else is going on nearby here.