The ballet was the first thing Yvette Coppersmith was allowed to watch on television. If Yvette’s parents were hoping for influence of the form, their wishes would be fulfilled. As a child Yvette was a ballet dancer—and while ballet is the inspiration for the undeniable energy of her latest show Presage, Yvette’s paintings come from someone who has always been entranced not only by the body’s gestures and movements, but also the gaze that accompanies having a body in the world.
To talk about Yvette’s latest paintings is to talk about another Australian painter who became enthralled with avant-garde ballet: the spiritual modernist Roger Kemp. In 1936, when Kemp was 28 years old, he saw the Ballets Russes in Melbourne. As a regular attendee, he loved everything from the movements to the costumes and stage designs, the latter created by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Sonia Delaunay. He began to draw the dancers at rehearsals, formally innovating with colourful figures in wondrous leaps. In moving away from obviously life-like paintings, the result was abstractions overflowing with the feeling of life—something we can also see in Yvette’s latest paintings.
In 1939, Kemp saw Leonide Massine’s ballet, Les Présages. Every artist in Melbourne apparently witnessed the performance and it radicalised Kemp’s paintings, introducing circular forms that, although based on dancers, exist more like colour in movement. Compelled by the spiritual in art, Kemp would begin representing the spiritual heights of existence, alongside the physicality of the body.
Yvette witnessed these images in 2019, at the National Gallery of Victoria’s retrospective of Kemp’s work. It was a perfectly timed gift, particularly Kemp’s Figures in Rhythm (Composition in line world), 1936–39. Yvette, so well-known for her figurative work, had been experimenting in recent years with abstraction—and there was something deeply resounding within the highly energetic, nourishing marks of Kemp.
It wasn’t lost on Yvette that Kemp was painting in Australia just as World War II was breaking out—the same war that eventually bought Yvette’s grandparents, who were holocaust survivors, to Australia. There are also parallels in the spirit of Kemp’s time and ours. ‘I saw Kemp’s paintings when I was thinking about what needs to happen at this moment in time for us as a collective’, said Yvette when I visited her home studio. The meaning of presage is centred on foreboding, warning and prediction, and while Les Présages was a presage to World War II, Yvette’s presage isn’t one of negativity. She’s devoted to the concerns of climate change, but also the necessity of collective momentum beyond materialist culture. In questioning the role of the artist in a time of crisis, Yvette’s answer is to support the climate movement through art of restoration and joy. She’s recapturing the beautiful as a political space.
For someone who often paints either herself or sitters, the question became how to represent this collectivism, to inspire a space for reprieve, an energetic impulse to move forward, something against nihilism. The first whispers of a change in Yvette’s practice came at Melbourne Art Fair in early 2022. Here were abstract paintings bursting with colour and energy. Across multiple works were densely layered, circular radiances of light. It was like the canvas could no longer contain Yvette’s expression; the excess was joyful.
Yet for all the love of Kemp, there is something admittedly hard in his paintings, too. Yvette wanted a more feminine energy—and it’s this energy that has always compelled me to her paintings. Like many people, I first knew of Yvette’s self-portraits. That startling face with unmissable eyes, framed by black hair, so ambiguous in its affect: defiant yet coaxing, poised to perfection but with great will. Like a comedian who jokingly self-deprecates, beating others to insult and injury, Yvette gazes at herself, outpacing her viewers’ judgement and perception, while also gaining an expanded sense of self.
Yvette started her self-portraits in the 1990s as a response to the scrutiny placed on female bodies—if women are valued for their beauty, what’s the weight of this judgement when you live it? How do you mark your presence in a culture that has little interest in you as a person? A few years ago, Yvette joked to me, ‘Some people think, “Oh Yvette Coppersmith, she sits around all day looking at herself in the mirror”’. What’s funny is that this isn’t exactly untrue, especially at a collective level—we live in a world that has women staring at themselves all the time, to the extent it’s difficult to tell where the body ends and the mirror (or the selfie) begins. Yvette harnesses this gaze; she makes it purposeful, serious, interrogative. It’s a blueprint of how one can withstand objectification.
While Yvette first focused on the face, over time the rest of the body has made its way in. In 2015, Yvette asked ex-lovers to sculpt her as a reclining nude, and she took these amusing blob-like forms and painted them among still life objects. It was a gateway from realism to modernist language. In 2016, she painted a self-portrait, naked from the waist upwards, set against a colourful geometric background—this painting became a lead image for the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name exhibition, and it’s not surprising why. It’s feminine, ambivalent, assured—and it heralds Yvette’s formal leap in Presage, joining the figurative and abstract.
These new paintings are a culmination of years’ worth of thoughts on self-portraiture, ballet, movement, collectivity, abstraction, figuration, and finding the energy to move forward in the world. First came music—Yvette asked Roslyn Orlando to compose a score for the exhibition. One day early in the process, Roslyn played the flute while Yvette painted abstract oil sketches nearby. Yet Yvette also wanted movement, and a method of capturing this movement the way Kemp sketched dancers. She decided to paint her own body.
She created silk costumes in vivid colours; first blue, then red, and then more. At the same time, photographer Bronwyn Kidd had wanted to take Yvette’s portrait. The resulting images are striking. Yvette is poised in all manner of poses, a wind machine blowing her silk costumes into voluminous shapes, her dramatic make-up perfectly framed by an elongated bowl cut. Lit from below like a Degas dancer (although Degas isn’t an influence, there is a triptych in Presage that references Matisse’s Dance, 1910), Yvette improvised theatrical poses and movements for a nine-hour photoshoot.
With these photographs as a reference, Yvette began creating her own Presage. First came oil sketches and then larger works. Some paintings have retained her figure, others have completely abstracted her body, with Yvette’s form buried layers underneath. She has let go of her marks somewhat; they are still controlled but less formally precise, centred on capturing energy, hope and transformation—which are not precise things. The paintings are unreserved in their desire to produce reverie. It is telling that Yvette thinks of them partly as self-portraits.
As I’m preparing to leave Yvette’s studio, she shows me her first self-portrait, an oil painting created at age 17. It’s a strange marvel: the ‘normal’ Yvette is in the centre, hair blowing back, and she’s flanked by two other representations of herself. It has an unmistakable 90s, witchy aesthetic. It’s a young artist attempting to capture the psychological, to convey all aspects of one person. And it has abstraction and figuration, alongside a mysticism that isn’t caught in ‘new age’ language or consumerism. In many senses, it’s everything Yvette has been refining these last two decades.