On ViewTate Britain
Fly in League With the Night
December 2, 2020 – May 9, 2021
It would be quite difficult to find another artistic tradition so scorned, so often considered regressive and old-fashioned, as the tradition of European portraiture and oil painting commonly is by most contemporary art discourse. As individual onlookers, we might still be moved by single artworks, but even this form of private appreciation often comes with a tinge of guilt—as if by marveling at an individual masterpiece we were indulging a childish habit we have long outgrown. This is because oil portraits, as the dominant art form during centuries of bourgeois ascendance and capitalist expansion, come with a sort of stigma—embedded in values which the avant-garde and critics such as Clement Greenberg have conditioned us to detest and be suspicious of.
As “advertisement[s] of the patron’s good fortune, prestige, and wealth”, as John Berger puts it in his groundbreaking series on European oil painting “Ways of Seeing”—portraits are first and foremost commodities which, celebrate their owner’s right to own and accrue property—be it in the form of precious objects and curios, voluptuous women, or exotically attired servants. To deny this would be denying the obvious. At the same time, it is undeniable that there was a time when portraiture—to borrow from Audre Lorde’s famous essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”—was valued also all as a “revelation or distillation of experience”; and it is in this primal, perhaps “naïve,” sense that it’s celebrated in Fly In League With the Night, on view at Tate Britain until early May.
Bringing together 70 paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977) and spanning a career covering two decades, the retrospective is the most comprehensive to date to grace the British artist of Ghanaian descent. As a painter, Yiadom-Boakye works “in spontaneous and instinctive bursts”—applying short and expressive brushstrokes to the canvas and completing most of her paintings in a single day. Much like a poet or a novelist, to paint her “character studies” of imaginary Black subjects, she returns to the same set of obsessions and motifs. Single figures rapt in thought or staring at the viewer, undecipherable; groups caught in friendly, intimate scenes—even when painted at long intervals, most paintings are variations on a handful of recurring themes.
Upon entering the second room, the spectator is met by a series of portraits capturing fleeting moments of repose and introspection. There is the diptych Pale For The Rapture (2016), which portrays two elegantly-dressed, pensive young men on two patterned sofas, their faces partially hidden by their hands. There is No Such Luxury (2012), which shows a Black woman sitting at a white table with a cup of tea in front of her, her impression made all the more intense by her hand propping up her chin and partly covering her mouth. Juxtaposed to “quotidian” works—in a pattern repeating throughout—are more colourful and carnivalesque pieces like Daydreaming of Devils (2016), which shows a prancing male dancer reminiscent of Picasso’s harlequins.
On occasion, Yiadom-Boakye draws from the canon to subvert it subtly, almost imperceptibly. For example, she reverses the usual game of who gets to look and who is looked at. Many of the works on view showcase young, attractive men bare-chested or in intimate homosocial bonding, like alluring nymphs of old. On the contrary, women are often caught in the act of looking and, on at least two occasions, are shown with a pair of binoculars gazing out of the canvas. This inversion of male gaze aside, the artist seems, however, to be purposefully oblivious to many questions at the heart of most art theory and practice. She doesn’t “interrogate,” much less “deconstruct” the contentious legacy of European oil painting. Rather, she treats it as a reservoir.
To highlight this, at the entrance, the curators welcome the viewer with First (2003) and Any Number of Preoccupations (2010)—two paintings which, by portraying a male figure in a flashy red robe, are both a direct homage to John Singer Sergent’s portrait Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881). References of this kind abound in the following rooms, too. Bound Over To Keep the Faith (2012), for example, features a man posing as the naked prostitute of Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1862–63). Manet and Degas again return in Geranium Love Sonnet (2010)—a portrait of a woman in a white tank top whose posture and red hair against a red background allude to both Un bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882) and La Coiffure (c. 1896).
Rather than isolated winks and nods, these references are part of a larger and coherent poetics. In traditional oil painting, patrons liked to be pictured surrounded by their belongings. Sometimes, these items—be they objects or garments—do not merely flaunt the subject’s wealth and status but tell us something about their character—their personality. Yiadom-Boakye similarly crowds her spare compositions with elements that invite the viewer to fill in the blanks and make up a story. Quite a few paintings, for example, include exotic and highly symbolic animals such as foxes, owls, parrots, and other birds. Several others feature people wearing bizarre feathered ruffs—quaint items of clothing one would normally associate with a stuffy Baroque gallery.
Together with the conversation pieces portraying scenes of quiet conviviality, such arresting portraits as A Passion Like No Other (2012), or the exquisitely opaque Bird of Paradise (2009) and Velázquez-like Nous étions (2007), contribute to conjure up a world of ease and privacy. Such appropriations of European oil painting and its conventions, far from signalling an escape into academism and nostalgia, on the contrary, accomplish something sort of radical. In a world in which Blackness continues to be fetishized and objectified even when it is celebrated—Yiadom-Boakye’s oil paintings carve out a space where Black personhood, “unconstrained by the nightmare fantasies of others,” is finally afforded the luxury to be, to breathe.