Natalya Hughes has been emulating the work of male artists for quite a while, first Aubrey Beardsley, later Willem de Kooning and now Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Hughes inhabits these artists’ work not like a ghost—invisibly delving into their worlds to haunt them—but rather more like a virus that thrives within a host while inevitably distorting its otherwise smooth functioning.
All these male artists became famous depicting women. In the case of de Kooning and Kirchner, they share a common interest in the classical subject of the nude. They attacked the genre with relish, depicting figures in a stylistically robust manner. It is as if these avant-garde artists were stripping the genre of its façade of lofty academic values and instead rendering the nude—especially, the female nude—more nakedly prosaic or carnal, even if highly contorted and ever more abstracted.
What’s the appeal for Hughes in all this? Hers is an artistic practice that probes the knotty questions of female representation through famous examples of male artists. And while this has been a staple of feminist practice for decades, Hughes takes an equivocal or apprehensive path. There is inevitably a play of attraction and repulsion. While Hughes was reticent about de Kooning, she admired Kirchner as she did Beardsley. Yet, the more Hughes engaged with de Kooning, the more she became entranced with and admiring of his work. In the case of Kirchner, Hughes was enticed, but the confrontation with his use of underage models left her cold.
This is such a difficult issue to contend with. So why return to this problematic material? Does Hughes want to answer the question, was Kirchner a pervert? The common approach to such problematic behaviour is to admonish and reject. Hughes instead wades into the trouble. In fact, her series, These Girls of the Studio, concentrates on Kirchner’s paintings featuring the young models, Franzi and Marzella. Whereas Kirchner emphasizes stark lines and bold colour contrasts in his paintings, Hughes favours pattern and interplay. It is as if Hughes has set all the elements in her compositions free, intermingling foreground and background, letting the things in the studio roam around and overlay the nude figures. Bright, intense, and busy works result, both paintings and tapestries. Each work is engulfed in a competing array of decorative motifs, figures, and partial images, leaving all the components to vie for attention.
These Girls of the Studio refers to the fact that Kirchner liked to surround his models with tapestries, ornaments, and other cultural items that evoked an alternative worldview. Hughes shares a similar interest in such decorative delights. Previous work of hers consisted of a rich mix of ornament, decorative motifs, and textile details. Somehow Hughes imbued these features with an evocative appeal; they were abstract, yet often managed to hint at embodiment and desire. Subsequent works featured dense and intricate fragments of shapes gathered in ever more complex configurations.
The alternative worldview that Kirchner sought to convey was one of a countercultural vision opposed to the strict status quo of his days. The Expressionists in general flouted bourgeois conventions in art and in life, which they viewed as rigidly hierarchical, stiflingly conformist, aggressively anti-individualistic, militarist as well as imperialist. Rather than perpetuating academic sophistication, the Expressionists turned to older media such as woodcuts, which they admired for their ‘bold, flat patterns and rough-hewn effects’. Expressionists felt modern life provided a volatile and uncertain cocktail of opportunities and threats. Thus, their works always constituted a vigorous mix of redemptive forces (love, desire, religion, nature, madness, intoxication) clashing with destructive forces (war, violence, the dangers of urban life, the loss of self, the downfall of civilization).
Expressionism presents another example of a counter-cultural movement prodding the limits of what is permissible—and the Expressionists felt justified in their approach because they equated artistic freedom with political emancipation.[i] Many of the strict limits they challenged were eventually revealed to be arbitrary and unnecessarily confining. In other cases, such restrictions were not arbitrary at all, but fully justified. Being at the forefront of challenges to restrictions, it is not always so clear which is which, but experimenting with people’s lives can often lead to disastrous consequences. Unlike Hughes’ de Kooning series, this time it is not really a matter of somehow affirming and transforming less conventional representations of women. In the wake of Kirchner, and other counter-cultural movements, we must face the fact that unfettered experimentation and exploration can sometimes lead us to idiotic propositions and potential harm.
We are not guaranteed success or the pure path simply by championing a progressive spirit in experimentation. Nor can we fathom what a future generation may condemn that we take for granted today. In Kirchner’s case, however, the laws governing children remain remarkably similar, now and in his time; at the same time, the demise of the other restrictions the Expressionist counterculture fought against, we happily celebrate. We cannot presume that our explorations will guarantee exemplary outcomes. Still, this does not mean we should advance blindly. Perhaps the lesson is that one should never get too close to those you admire for they always let you down; it is better to view them from afar. They sustain their ardour only when kept remote and unassailable.
Hughes’ art continues to affirm an exploratory spirit, even if this takes the perplexing form of a uniquely effusive, but oddly embodied art. She layers the images of Kirchner’s minor-age models with a surfeit of competing designs and forms. The figures almost dissolve into these clashing layers of colour and detail. The components do not seem to add up to anything conclusive, yet the paintings coalesce in a bright array of colour and fragments of shapes, figures and ornament. Hughes’ composites of patterns and figures seem to disperse Kirchner’s bravado—both his stylistic boldness and his stark-naked visions.
Her discombobulating figures suggest an exploration that is willing to explore the mess we leave behind and nevertheless seeks to affirm a way forward. This gives the work its vitality. It grapples with the knotty challenges. In the process, we encounter flamboyant work comprised of details, the things of the studio, details which seem to overwhelm the figures at times, rendering them even more abstract than Kirchner’s originals. The result is a vivid, playful, yet earnest remake of the avant-garde canon. It seeks to reshape female representation away from an inert projection aiming to delight and inspire masculine creativity and toward a more provocative, unstable, and tantalizing set of images.
[i] For the points above concerning Expressionism, see the succinct summary provided by Sascha Bru, The European Avant-Gardes, 1905-1935: A Portable Guide, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, pp. 31-33.