The Worst Dinner Party

Eleanor Moreton, whose three paintings of interiors relating to myths about the Austro-Hungarian Empire are part of the Collection, was interviewed by Nicky Hodge, Curator for Information and Research, (Modern and Contemporary) in 2014. Difficult people – from repressed Victorians to grotesque patriarchs – formed the backbone of a conversation about who just might be the dinner party guest from hell …

Young Patricia (Absent Friends), oil and pastel on board, 2013

Young Patricia (Absent Friends), oil and pastel on board, 2013

© image courtesy the artist and Ceri Hand Gallery

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I went to visit Eleanor Moreton in her East London studio, having seen her work – paintings based mainly on domestic or historical themes – over a number of years. To my surprise, the first thing I encountered was a wall of calm, non-smiling faces. This series of portraits is called Absent Friends – nearly all of the women depicted were writers or musicians who lived for most of their lives in the previous century, most having now passed away. Are these the perfect dinner party guests? Definitely not, Moreton says she couldn’t bear to have them in the same room, adding ‘Many of them were such difficult people. It would be awful’

Moreton’s portrayals of these strong-willed women are frank and disarming; they are not glamorised, none are smiling and several are middle aged. Identified only by their first names – Patricia (image 1), Nina, Rebecca (image 2), Karen etc – we as viewers have to piece the clues together to determine who these women are and even then it may not be obvious. They are individuals who you feel you know and who you want to get to know better: the implication is that they were not well recognised in their lifetime and that their legacy has had to compensate for a life relatively unacknowledged.

Unlike previous works by Moreton the stories are less about what you encounter on the surface of the picture plane and more about the back story: the hidden narratives. Moreton recognises that in her desire to get to the psychological heart of her subjects, she is following a well-trodden path. In working from photographs, she describes how she became attracted to the image ‘like it was a person’ and how she felt that these connections with her subject went ‘beyond the cognitive’.

With the evidence of her rapid brushstrokes still on the surface, these portraits look as if the paint has been freshly applied. Moreton often paints on wood, we discussed the unusual appearance of these panels and she describes how she deliberately left the wood grain exposed, applying varnish first and allowing the oil paint to sit on this surface. This lends the portraits an unexpected quality akin to a Japanese woodcut. Moreton however seems less interested in focusing on the construction of her finely crafted works:

‘The only reason I paint is because of engagement with the subject matter,’ she says, continuing to explain that by this she felt that a great many painters do not start from ideas but rather engage first and foremost with the physical process of painting. ‘Ideas clearly can come into a painting later on but with me there is a definite starting point with an idea. I recognize that this runs the risk of illustration and this is where the negotiation between the idea and the process of painting becomes harder and more difficult’.

We then turned our attention to three paintings that occupy more familiar Moreton ground – new works Mary-Anne Waiting, The Gift of Shit and April Luv – all based on Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The first two invent a new narrative for paintings by John Everett Millais, the latter models itself on April Love by Arthur Hughes. ‘There’s a ludicrous quality to the Pre-Raphaelites; these are paintings that make me laugh,’ explains Moreton, ‘I wanted to make composite paintings that took elements from different sources rather than using a single photographic image. I felt this kind of intervention might give me more scope with the narrative possibilities as I’m interested in how in one single image we might deal with the passage of time and space’.

April Luv (image 3) has a cartoon, almost punk, quality as a lurid green figure struggles to control her gut feelings made manifest in a series of bright pink slashes. It is a chaotic, fractured image that comments on the repressed sexuality of the artificial, sickly world of the mannered Pre-Raphaelites. As Moreton explains, her attempt to depict this aspect of repression in Victorian morality is seen from a multiplicity of viewpoints that lends the image an ambivalence and keeps possibility alive.

The final painting that we looked at together takes the story of Bluebeard as its starting point: the grotesque patriarch who killed off his wives, locking their bodies away in a bloody chamber, a secret only to be discovered by his last wife who eventually manages to outsmart him. In The Castle (image 4), Moreton depicts Bluebeard as a menacing Budda-like figure in a blue cave, there’s a long mane of reddish hair and the skull of a woman hovering overhead. Violence and violation abound as my eyes roam restlessly over the dislocated and ambiguous forms.

When I asked her about the sense of touch that I felt was so crucial to her work – Moreton laughed and said that her initial training and background in the 1970s was about a denial of the subjective, continuing that she had for a long time seen it as distasteful to focus on the ‘evidence of myself’. Nevertheless it is this very powerful sense of touch that leaves a highly personalized trace and to use Isabelle Graw’s phrase, makes us experience these paintings as ‘being intriguing in a way that only an intriguing person could be’. 1

1. Isabelle Graw, ‘The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons’, Graw, Birnbaum & Hirsch eds. in Thinking through Painting – Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas, Frankfurt am Main: Sternberg Press, 2013