Artists painting fellow artists is not uncommon in art history. Famous examples by South African artists include Marlene Dumas’ portrait of Moshekwa Langa (2006) and Robert Hodgins’s series of etchings: Four Pauls and a Vince, (1989) paying tribute to his role models, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. Lucien Freud famously painted Martin Gayford (not an artist, but certainly an art critic and curator), who then wrote Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (Thames & Hudson, 2013), a book that has gained cult status. David Hockney pulled a series of etchings, called The Blue Guitar, paying homage to Picasso and his famous Blue Period.
Further back in art’s history, in the late-nineteenth century, Edouard Manet painted portraits of his fellow artists, Eva Gonzales and Berthe Morisot, as well as of the famous French writers, Emile Zola and Stephane Mallarme. These, and many other portraits, were exhibited under the title, Manet: Painting Life, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2013.
Lizza Littlewort’s portrait of the artist Yinka Shonibare oscillates between convention and innovation, and even when she seems to be working in an apparently orthodox portrait painting manner, she explores ways in which traditional portraiture can be undermined. She does not, for example, use the commonly accepted notion of the presentation of the artist in his/her studio, nor does she depict her sitter as an exemplar of any artistic ‘type’. Rather, Littlewort views the sitter as a private individual, with an enigmatic, even immutable presence.
One might have expected Shonibare to be dressed in the signature brightly coloured Vlisco fabric with which he usually clothes his figural sculptures, but that would have been rather trite. Instead, he wears a fairly conventional jacket with open-neck shirt, and an amused smile on his face. One cannot equate the man and his art, Littlewort seems to be suggesting. And by implication, she questions the relationship, often taken for granted, between art and biography, as if the life of the artist can ever fully explain the artwork.
AVA Gallery, Cape Town, How did Lizza Meet Jake Chapman?, 9 to 28 May, 2005.