Will, tell us a little more about this unique COVID-19 hobby that you’ve been developing?
I was listening to Front Row, (Radio 4 arts programme). They were talking to Molly O’Cathain, a theatre designer who’s in Ireland with her parents for the lockdown – she thought she’d use her parents as models to recreate famous portraits of couples.
I’ve always enjoyed recreations of famous paintings, particularly when they are authentic to the spirit of the original, but there’s a little twist where we notice the inventiveness of it as well as the contemporary resonances; I like the sense you get of echoes through history.
As I’m on my own in lockdown, I started googling famous self-portraits, and the one that seemed most appropriate was Le Désespéré i.e. The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet, 1845. I thought this was quite apt for summing up being in isolation; tearing your hair out thinking ‘I can’t go out!’.
Initially I just did it for myself and to share with the C&PD team at AUB on our WhatsApp group, as I thought it would make them smile. My colleague Adele Keeley suggested I should put them up on Instagram as the students might enjoy them too.
What I find interesting is that they reflect different moods that you’re going through in isolation; self-portraiture is inherently introspective. It’s the artist themselves looking into their soul, as well as how they’re feeling at that moment. I like the ones that echo this, like my first one Le Désespéré, and others like the Munch one, set in a café, managed to evoke a sense of loneliness.
Would you say that your mood each day effects your selection process then for the next portrait?
Yes, that affects it! For example, on the fifth day I was feeling quite upbeat and it was quite a sunny day, and I found Anthony van Dyck’s Self-Portrait with a Sunflower. There’s no sunflowers in my garden, so I just stuck some orange and yellow socks on the washing line!
I’ve instinctively created rules for myself: it has to be completely staged, so no photoshopping or anything, and I can’t order or buy anything especially for it. It’s literally all things I find around the house. I live on my own and have only been renting this house for a while, so options are quite limited, it makes you think from a different direction.
It’s definitely a good project for resourcefulness, as well as making you examine the way that the artist has painted it, where the light’s coming from, why they’ve used certain props. Another rule of mine is that I can edit things like the contrast and brightness with my phone, but don’t use any filters, so all lighting effects have to be created by me.
Do you rely on different times of day then in order to shoot certain ones?
Yeah, for example the other day it was quite cloudy, so I recreated a Rene Magritte (The Son of Man, 1964) on that day, as it features a cloudy/stormy sky, which I was experiencing at the time.
You’ll really work with your surroundings then? Have you faced any challenges yet?
Yes, The Bosch piece (The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510) was a challenge one of my design students actually suggested, which had quite a complicated set up. In a way, when you see paintings like that which are so busy, you don’t really study it in massive detail, but with this you have to really look at it and think ‘what’s this person doing?’, ‘why have they put this thing in there?’ etc, so it’s deepened my understanding of these art works.
This week, I’m aiming to address the fact that, apart from Frida Kahlo, all of my images have been male so far. There’s such a massive under-representation of women artists through history, who’ve even written out of the history books in some cases, so I’m trying to address the balance this week with female artists.
You don’t want to rush and put out something of lesser quality; but you’d want to be happy with what you’re putting out there, wouldn’t you?
Yes, but every single piece I still look at and think “oh, I got that angle a little bit wrong” or “I could’ve improved that”, but they are very much of that moment, and of that particular day.
What it has done in terms of creativity, is I now really want to return to painting. I don’t paint or draw much currently and haven’t in years, but I’m actually going to stop doing these for a bit and do some painting.
That’s interesting that it’s spurred on creativity in a different form; is the danger of this that it becomes a chore rather than something you enjoy to do?
Yes exactly, as soon as it becomes a chore you just have to stop doing, it don’t you? It becomes no fun anymore, and that’s the whole point, it’s got to be fun. Theatre’s supposed to be fun, as well as life changing or asserting.
How long do they take you to make then; are you making one daily?
I’ve been creating these daily, so far. Some obviously take longer than others; what my main problem is not having a model actually. The Bosch construction took three evenings to set up, and keep adjusting, and then you take a picture, compare it with the original, move it a little bit, take another picture. It was a really complicated build that took up all of the kitchen, so then only having the 10-second timer on my phone to get into the set up and posed in the right way without knocking anything over was stressful!
It’s the taking of the photos that takes longer, because I’m having to adjust myself constantly whereas with a model it could be done much more easily.
Would you say this a product of stifled creativity or of inspiration?
Well, when Adele told me to post on Instagram, I thought, “surely the rest of the country is doing this, so why would I?”
I was very much just doing it for myself because I was enjoying it, but when you start doing it every day it gets to the point where I think, “Oh no, what if I don’t do one today? Will people be disappointed?”, but this is something I’ll get over soon.
What’s the next one you have lined up?
I’ve got one to do now before the sun goes down, which is a Tamara de Lempicka Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti, 1929), so I’m about to go and build a Bugatti out of garden items!
What’s been your favourite so far?
When someone asks me that about theatre design, it’s always the piece I’m working on at that particular time, so in a way, this Tamara one will be my favourite.
However, I think overall it’d have to be the Munch one, because I think it’s quite melancholy. I think it captures a mood, whereas some of the others can just be a bit silly!