TOAST contributing writer Chloë Ashby surveys 100 artworks she admires in her new book, Look At This If You Love Great Art. Here, she explains her process, the themes explored and the importance of setting her sights beyond the traditional male canon when selecting the works.
I remember distinctly my visit to the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2015. When I think back now, I can almost feel the fresh California air drifting off the luminous paintings. That and the heat rising from the tarmac roads that cut, like warm knives through butter, across sprinklered grass fields and empty lots gathering dust. The 20th-century American artist painted his grid-like cityscapes with planes of colour that are both washy and intense. In parts they’re as clear as glass, elsewhere they’re made muddy by multiple layers and corrections. He was a brilliant colourist whose canvases ferry us from place to place.
Diebenkorn was one of several artists whom I knew, right away, I would include in my new book: Look At This If You Love Great Art, a survey of 100 artworks I admire. When I started my selection process, a few old favourites slipped smoothly out of my head and onto the page. Take Édouard Manet’s blushing barmaid at the Folies-Bergère, whom I first met while studying art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art and who holds a special significance for the protagonist of my first novel, Wet Paint. My dissertation was on Gustave Caillebotte’s floor scrapers: something about the half-dressed workmen got me (it wasn’t just their gleaming bodies). Other works – such as Kiki Smith’s towering 21st-century tapestry of a nude woman floating among the birds and butterflies in a starry sky – I’ve stumbled across at exhibitions over the years.
Once I had a working list of artworks, I began to pick it apart – because really, the book is about more than what I happen to like best. I wanted to include a mix of styles and schools, from the Renaissance to the present day, and a balance of nationalities and genders. Alongside the big names, you’ll find overlooked and emerging artists. I set my sights beyond the mostly white, mostly male traditional canon. I thought of the pioneer of modern Indian art, Amrita Sher-Gil, who with her paintbrush gave a voice to ordinary Indian women in the 1930s, calling attention to their daily lives and hinting at their sense of loneliness and silent resolve. Also, Gluck, who refused early on to identify as either a woman or a man, and whose radical declaration of her love affair with the American socialite Nesta Obermer immortalised lesbian love in paint at a time when homosexuality was illegal and there was no language for being lesbian or transgender.
I began to think about the themes threaded through the history of art, which became the basis for my chapters. Mine isn’t a chronological survey – instead, it brings together works that seem worlds apart but in fact share certain characteristics or aims. Among the highlighted themes are religion and myth – home to Henri Matisse’s freefalling Icarus – and nakedness, whose myriad variations have enchanted and enraged audiences across the ages. It’s no surprise that dreams are a tantalising subject for artists, with their imaginative possibilities. But often the most powerful art is rooted in reality. Whether created in response to a historic event, or to convey the injustice of contemporary life, some works will call for social and political change. The French painter Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s striking portrait of Madeleine, a freed slave from Haiti hired as a servant by the artist’s in-laws, grows in significance in light of emancipation.
It’s worth saying that though the book contains what I consider to be 100 of the most original and inspiring artworks out there, I wouldn’t necessarily want them all on my walls – and not just because I don’t have anywhere near the space. Art can be beautiful, bewildering, brazen. It can also be hard to look at, and that’s ok. There’s no right or wrong way of looking at it, but it does reward those who make the effort to look twice, or more.
Take Mary Moser’s watercolour of a Grecian urn overflowing with blooms closely observed. At first glance you take in the fresh buttery-yellow daffodils, pinky-white clematis and vibrant red tulips. But this floral painting is about much more than decoration. Cut flowers bring joy, yes, but that joy is short-lived. A week on – more or less, depending on the flowers – and the natural world you’ve brought into your home is decaying. It’s this process that Moser captures in the wilting marigolds and parched anemones languishing at the vase’s base, their petals curling and turning crisp, like cuticles peeling back from skin. Teetering between beauty and rot … no wonder the artist placed the urn on a ledge.
So, look at this if you love great art, and then look again.
Look At This If You Love Great Art by Chloë Ashby is published by Ivy Press on 1st June.
Words by Chloë Ashby.
Portrait photograph by Sophie Davidson. All other images courtesy of Chloë Ashby.