Painting of the month for December 2015

Vita by the Sea

2014. Oil on canvas Victoria Miro Gallery

This month’s Painting of the Month has been chosen and written by Matt Illman.


Every painting has a story, but so too does our appreciation of that painting. Perhaps in my youth I would go out in search of the history, take a biographical route into some deeper understanding of the work, but these days, free from whatever academic weight I once bore, I am somewhat more content to let the mere existence of a piece beguile me. Its reality and my chance encounter into that presence is more than enough to inspire me. There is something we are moved by, some chain of events that has led us to perceiving whatever beauty we have encountered.

Loathe as I am to admit, there is something about scale, about the monumental that we can’t help but be impressed by. How many times have you (and by you I of course mean I) whilst wandering an exhibition, been so impressed by a painting of stature that you’ve almost missed the far more delicate, subtle, and more importantly, smaller painting framed awkwardly beside it? We are inclined to give importance to the work of scale, to praise it above lesser, smaller works – for this, the large painting is a significant piece, that more compact work beside, perhaps no more than a study, or a sketch.

Chantal Joffe works at a tremendous scale, but with a looseness that can’t be replicated on a smaller canvas. Her recent exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings was illustrative of this point. Alongside these grand, monumental works were placed smaller canvasses, and while I found much to appreciate, they paled in comparison to the larger work. What might appear crude when confined, becomes a magnificent dance upon a larger canvas. The sight of such loose and broad strokes contrasted with the muted, realism of Joffe’s colours almost can’t work when condensed.

One of the more interesting aspects of Joffe’s work is the role of accident – there are tears of paint that run through so many of her pieces and the vivid undercoats, bright greens and blues beneath the naturalistic palette. Figures practically carved from the paint, bleeding into hastily sketched clothes and a nondescript almost abstract background.

I’d somehow found myself in Hastings and seen a flier crudely illustrated with a minuscule reproduction of Vita by the Sea, intrigued, bored, restless, I found my way to the gallery and began to explore the exhibition – but I kept returning to the piece that had drawn me here. Wherever I was, whoever I was at that time had connected intimately with the painting. Vita stares at us, I can’t tell what she’s thinking, masked, obscured by the deliberate crudity of rendering but she seems remote, staring through us. This is a painting, an event past, misremembered. I am gazing into the past of two women here, a moment shared, even if by accident, but a relationship, and whatever countless relationships that have led to this point – the same point I had been, standing on the beach, lost in thought, distracted.


Copyright Chantal Joffe, couresty the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery