Oil on canvas
Oil on canvas
My initial response on walking into Hauser and Wirth to view Joan Mitchell’s ‘The Last Paintings’ was one of surprising delight. Large- scale, energetic and beautiful, Mitchell’’s painting exude a physically uplifting quality that leaves you with a certain reluctance to return outside to the noisy thoroughfare of Piccadilly.
Chicago-born Mitchell moved to New York in the 1950s and exhibited alongside more famous painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement, like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The fact that she’s not as generally well-known must be due, in large part, to her gender – female artists have always needed to work harder than their male counterpart. In 1959 she moved to France, first to Paris and then to the town of Vétheuil, near Giverny, where Monet lived and worked. There, she focused on the main inspiration for her work, which was nature and landscape.
Most of the works in the main gallery are large diptychs, but Mitchell’s work ranges in formats, including single canvases, and upstairs a series of tondos. All are filled with energetic brushstrokes bursting with colour. River, of 1989, is an abstracted portrait of the Seine as painted from the window of her Paris apartment. Here, spontaneous, confidently placed strokes of yellow march across the bottom part of a diptych to represent the river, and smaller fragments of yellow float upwards.
Mitchell’s diptychs first appear to be symmetrical, visually hinting at notions of the Rorschach test, but the realisation that they aren’t, indicates a higher maturity. They are beautifully coherent; the use of colour is so balanced, the line refreshingly free, their is a confident experimentation with composition and scale. The palate is not over-bright – there is a marked use of black, grey, dark blue and green – but Mitchell paints on a white ground, giving the brushstrokes room to breathe. Throughout the series, the colours, marks, conception and arrangements are easily comprehended as trees, rivers, sunflowers, grass and sky. They convey a genuine light and colour. The honest influence of Impressionism and Post-Impression is easily felt, as it is conveyed with such an updated sense of sincerity.
The last years of Mitchell’s life were marked by the deaths of friends and family. Her own health struggles began in the early 80s with the appearance of cancer. It is with this knowledge, and a look again at her work, that a sense of sadness can be felt, as Mitchell, amidst suffering, found strength and visceral joy in nature, and in life. As Mitchell said in 1974: “ My paintings… are about a feeling that comes to me from outside, from landscape… Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feelings”. It’s this emotional representation of The Last Paintings that is so pleasurable and satisfying.
Joan Mitchell- The Last Paintings,
Hauser and Wirth London, Piccadilly- 3 February – 28 April 2012