Rose Davey, Slade Alumnus, contributes to the general lecture and seminar programme in Graduate Painting with an annual lecture/seminar that explores the relation between contemporary painting and art history. Rose’s lectures are based on paintings in London’s galleries and museums.
The focus of Rose’s lecture/seminar series supports and feeds the aims of the Discourse Project.
Rose Davey graduated from the MFA Painting course at Slade School of Fine Art in 2010, after completing joint honours in Fine Art and Art History at The University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art in 2007.
Recent exhibitions include The Painting Parade, LKL in collaboration with Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow, 2019, Sculpture Open, RWA, Bristol, 2019, Collaborators 5, Roaming ROOM, London, 2018, FAITH, Austin Forum London, 2017. Alongside her studio practice Davey curates with artist collective LeandaKateLouise, of which she is a co-founder.
1. Manet and the Menace of Modernism – Rose Davey, 2011
Delivered to MFA Painting students in February 2011
The marks of Manet’s brush rekindled a revolution in paint first started by Velasquez two hundred years earlier. Manet’s concise articulation of paint, impulsive and alive with the energy of his subject, seen in works such as Woman with a Cat, 1880 -2 , was in stark contrast to the smooth, finished quality of favoured academic and neoclassical painting of the time such as Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, 1863 .
Manet’s marks rush to convey the effect of the eye as it scans the crowd. Some subjects are in sharp focus, whereas others blur into peripheral vision, exquisitely captured in Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862. In an age of photography, Manet began to explore and celebrate what can only be achieved in paint.
The controversial nature of Manet’s work was not only caused by his application of paint, but also by what he chose to describe. His subjects did not belong to the distant worlds of mythology, literature or the Bible. In a work such as Olympia, 1863, Manet depicts a modern figure which he refuses to idealise. His subjects move within his contemporary world and that of his audience. The viewer was no longer a passive observer who remained at a safe distance from the subject depicted. His figures unashamedly confront the viewer’s gaze. The seated female figure in Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, acknowledges the audience as observer or perhaps more controversially as participator. Manet often portrayed the more debauched and sordid Parisian social scenes; if a viewer was to recognise a painted subject as prostitute, it perhaps reflected more about themselves than they wished to reveal.
Manet’s late masterpiece, The Bar at the Folies Bergere, 1882, is analysed in detail in order to understand the meaning behind the subject and the conceptual use of space: The properties of the picture plane mimic that of the mirror behind, as both possess the potential to reflect illusion from a two dimensional surface.
Further works such as The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888, by James Ensor and Evening in Karl – Johann Street, 1892, by Edvard Munch are discussed in an attempt to better understand the neurosis that appeared within paint, bought on from the acceleration of urban life in the late 19th century, which inevitably directed painting on the road to abstraction.
Delivered to MFA Painting students in May 2012
During the course of this lecture painters from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries are discussed in terms of their revolutionary use of light.
Starting in the North of Europe, artists such as Van Eyck began to tempt the viewer to believe the depicted image they saw was real; achieved through the accurate recording of how light hits a multitude of surfaces seen in The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. For it is light that allows us to see, and so once artists began to understand how to capture its effects on a two dimensional surface, paintings became a window into another world.
The influence of Northern European painters is explored in reference to Antonello de Messina and Leonardo Da Vinci, who embrace shadow without fear. Da Vinci allows areas of his paintings such as The Virgin of the Rocks, to disappear into darkness, rather than retain the saturation of light and colour than so many other Renaissance artists continued to retain.
Painting then waited one hundred years for a new revolution of light, which arrived in the form of Caravaggio. Swathes of darkness envelop much of Caravaggio’s subjects, who often portray religious figures yet retain the models personal experiences of life which Caravaggio refused to edit out of them. The frayed elbow of the disciple on the left in Supper at Emmaus, 1601, and the ruddy nose of the disciple on the right powerfully connect with the audience. Caravaggio depicts religious figures that display the same human attributes as his audience, making Caravaggio a controversial figure who sometimes endowed biblical figures with too many of the flaws that make us human.
Rembrandt was even more painfully honest with his brush. Through light he was able to describe large scale dramatic scenes, and in later life he candidly captured the effects of age upon his face, seen in his stunning Self Portrait, 1657, on permanent display in the National Gallery of Scotland. Rembrandt was also able to depict the psychological attributes of what he saw rather than just the physical. The show stopping light and elaborate costume is stripped back in order to reveal the reality of the figure; quiet and without the accessories that conceal our insecurities, instead exposing our vulnerability.
Vermeer is the last artist to be considered in relation to his structured use of light and colour, which are employed to move the eye about the carefully constructed, often geometric composition. Emotion dissolves into Vermeer’s arrangement, allowing the viewer to marvel at the details revealed by light. The clarity of composition and distribution of colour is so considered, The Milkmaid, 1658, wears from light to dark, white, yellow, green, blue, red.
Delivered to MFA Painting students in May 2013
Goya is one of the most courageous and original artists of the last 500 years. His early works radiate a warm, idyllic light, seen in works such as El Quitasol (The Parasol), 1777, but this soon fades to a mocking rhetoric that begins to darken, finally producing the terrifying imagery of the savage ‘Black Paintings’( Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823)
This lecture follows the sinister progress of Goya’s imagery. Los Caprichos, (Until Death, plate no.55), 1799, his first set of prints that owe their boldness to the English caricaturists. These etchings begin to explore a critical lexicon that becomes more and more explicit within Goya’s work.
The official Royal Portrait, The Family of Carlos IV, is taken by Goya as an opportunity to expose the monarch as weak and foolish. This is a painting that captures the act of posing. The Spanish Royal Family make a futile attempt to project a regal aura in front of an artist who is determined to portray their flaws. However Goya covers his tracks by dazzling the eye that looks for flattery. His energetic, golden brush strokes divert the eye away from the criticism they aim to conceal.
The Disasters of War was another series of prints that were Goya’s personal record of the Peninsula War, which raged from 1807 to 1814. Without ever flinching from the truth, Goya records in graphic detail this incredibly unpleasant war in images such as A Heroic Feat with Dead Men, (The Disasters of War no.39), 1810 -1820, which saw both sides employ horror tactics to psychologically break down the enemy. These images make your gut flinch. Goya creates his own camera can’t lie pictorial journalism long before the invention of photography.
The experiences of the war are also poured into the heroic and devastating 2nd and 3rd May. Those alive with revolt in the The 2nd May, 1814, are systematically mown down by the machine like wall of French executioners in The 3rd May, 1814
The Black Paintings seem an inevitable product of such disturbing circumstances. (Duelo a garrotazos), Fight with Cudgels, 1819-1823. Perhaps they are Goya’s attempt to rid his mind of the horrors witnessed by producing these unsettlingly strange images.
Delivered to MFA Painting students in May 2014
Cezanne is an artist who produces paintings that do not easily accept the viewer. Early works such as The Stove in the Studio, 1865, seem to actively deter us as we encounter a depiction of the back of a canvas. There is little room for an audience to imaginatively continue a perceived narrative or respond emotionally to what is depicted. Instead we encounter a personal interpretation of what the eye sees, which promotes Cezanne’s unique logic.
Spaces become clogged with colour; objects follow the surface of the picture plane, often denying a passage into the painted space. (The House of the Suicide, 1873) All forms are solid; no fleeting changes in light, atmosphere or weather are present. The subject is solidified and sculpted in paint.
It is perhaps Cezanne’s technique that most explicitly indicates this is an interpretation not a representation of the subject. (The Lac d’Annency, 1896) His brushstrokes are ordered into units which in essence are anti-illusionistic.
The subject is pushed away from the painter, and is not burdened with a sentiment or emotion that might detract or move us on from the described object. Cezanne does not select his subject for its beauty or wisdom. It is enough that is it seen and then interpreted and recorded in the most direct and honest way, appropriate to the materials used, eye, mind, brush, paint, canvas.
In later life Cezanne continuously returns to the subject of Mont Saint Victoire, (Le Monte Sainte Victoire, 1887, The Courtauld Gallery) each depiction provides knowledge, but never enough in order to exhaust the Mountains pictorial potential. The canvas is Cezanne’s laboratory, a surface for thinking, as he attempts to rationalise his perception.
Cezanne’s interpretation of vision opened the door into abstraction, which he peered through and held open for many others.
Delivered to MFA Painting students in May 2015
Carlo Crivelli is perhaps one of the most over looked of the Italian Renaissance Painters. His style is perceived to owe much to earlier Gothic painting, and is not considered as advanced as those, such as Giovanni Bellini, who were depicting highly illusionistic spaces such as San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, which often appeared to dissolve the material properties of the canvas or wall.
Illusion was achieved through an understanding of one point perspective, first executed in paint by Massacio in The Holy Trinity, around 1425. Renaissance painters began to combine this new method of convincingly describing space with greater rendering of emotion; figures appeared as present under beautiful Classical architecture. The illusion often tempting the viewer to believe the depicted space was one they could enter.
However, rather than cultivate illusion, Crivelli chose to expose its limits by conceptualising the nature of painting. In his small paining of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c1491-4, he includes a fly that belongs to a system of scale which operates independently of the one used to portray the subject. The fly belongs to our own scale, and that of Crivelli as creator of the work. The inclusion of the fly, parallel to the picture frame, exposes the material nature of the two dimensional surface. The illusion of painting is exposed by an illusion itself.
Crivelli continues to test the barriers between painting and illusion. His Annunciation with Saint Emidus, 1486, a clearly artificial and invented scene, is offset by an apple and a gourd that penetrate the surface of the picture plane. The gourd protrudes from a ledge and travels towards our space. In The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele, hanging garlands of fruit cast a shadow onto the sky, again an illusion prevents any illusion, instead authority is granted to the material properties of paint on surface.
Rather than preserve the integrity of the picture plane by supporting one illusion, Crivelli achieves multiple realities within one painting that make it hard for the viewer to understand what they are looking at. Crivelli may be seen as an anomaly within Renaissance painting, because his approach has more in common with the conceptual artists of the 20th century.
Delivered to MFA Painting students in May 2016
Gustave Courbet is a complex and contradictory figure; in opposition of the establishment yet craves their support; he rejects the traditions of the past but continues to use their frameworks, and appoints himself as an instructor but declares that art cannot be taught.
Courbet’s unedited representation of the contemporary world altered the course of western painting, firmly fixing the artist’s gaze upon their own experience as subject matter, rather than the well-rehearsed allegorical frameworks of the past, as seen in Thomas Couture’s colossal painting The Romans during the Decadence, 1847.
Burial at Ornans, 1849-50, is among Courbet’s most famous works and is perhaps the most eloquent definition of Realism, the movement his work came to epitomise.
Painted from life and endowed with the physical attributes of their class, those present at this ordinary and historically insignificant event are presented on a canvas that measures 315 x 660cm. Never before had the art world witnessed the representation of such a lowly subject matter in the medium of scale formerly reserved for the figures of mythology, religion, history and monarchy. The art establishment were shocked and appalled. Contemporary critics exclaimed that “one does not know whether to be offended or laugh, so monstrous is this scene.”
The depiction of the masses became common place. Works such as Jean-François Millet The Gleaners, 1857, showed the peasant class performing tedious and back breaking tasks, and provoked outrage through the shock of recognition.
Realism refused to reconfigure the life of the lower classes into a format that was deemed appropriately idealised, sexualised or watered down to suit the appetite of the art establishment.
Courbet also deems himself fit for subject matter and includes himself in many of his paintings. Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, seems to celebrate the artist and his avante garde allure, further accentuated by the more formal appearance of Courbet’s patron, Bruyas; keen to be associated with the creative force he does not possess but is keen to support. There is something highly contemporary in the way Courbet portrays himself. The artist is made to look cool, even trendy one might say, a bit of a hipster; someone capable of reflecting the contemporary world with an honesty and directness to which others are immune.
The Artist’s Studio also places Courbet at its centre. Those who appear on the right of the canvas of are considered his supporters, whilst those on the left his detractors. The work has a riddling quality, and Courbet was excited to witness his audience’s attempts to identify meaning. Courbet is at his easel painting a landscape, which he surely cannot see from the confines of his studio. This therefore contradicts his Realist philosophy and yet it is the most convincing part of the painting.
Courbet is an artist who is hugely relevant. He cultivated the persona of the artist as a revolutionary figure of influence, knowledge and insight, who was also fit for public display. His Realist manifesto promotes the sharing of ideas within the context of the studio, rather than a formal educational structure that leads by example, which is surely an ambition of contemporary art schools.
His ambition to remain faithful to his own individuality and to paint what he sees opens up conceptual questions surrounding our visual analysis of the world we inhabit. Artists continue to ask what is our reality, and how do we faithfully represent it?
Delivered to MFA Painting students December 2017
A former Slade student once commented that Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ was the most extraordinarily balanced work they had ever seen; nothing out of place, a perfect harmony of space and form.
So often painting is primarily accessed through emotion. However, Piero lets us look through our senses without the influence of sentiment.
Piero’s rediscovery in the first half of the 20th century was no accident, he was suddenly accessible within the context of Modernism. His figures and architectural forms alternate with negative spaces that have as much plasticity and presence as positive forms, recalling Paul Cezanne’s instruction, colour = form.
Early Renaissance Painting is caught between the traditional visual language of the Middle Ages and the technology of the Renaissance. Objects painted within works such as, The Legend of the True Cross share a clear heritage to Byzantine painting. They stand in for things, and are a sign for what they depict. Objects do not possess a quality of sensation replicated from the close observation of life, but they do begin to exist within tangible spaces. This causes a brilliant friction, or perhaps it’s a harmony, between the space and the objects it accommodates, because both are described and constructed using the same calculating language.
The Resurrection is a confrontation of form. It takes you a few moments to recover from the hollow gaze of Christ. The intensity of the stare amplified by the closed eyes of the soldiers.
Piero’s use of colour is like no other. It is unworldly, constructed in a pastel light that seems to have a thickness that hangs in the paintings. It preserves and encases his figures like an insect in amber.
The Madonna de Parto is another work that is immediately impressive. To attempt to say why seems to risk ruining the work, a concern raised at the beginning of this lecture. It is enough to say its simplicity is sublime. Over interpretation will hinder our access to the work by packaging Piero’s paintings into easily digested anecdotes or technical achievements. Over interpretation can miss what delights the eye and qualifies the work as a masterpiece, instead only focussing on relatable information easily told to a friend.
Painting is a reality, or rather it creates its own reality. If we merely compare it to our perception of the world and refuse to take it on its own terms, we will gain little from our experience of art. Great painters like Piero do not depict what we think we know. They surprise and confuse us in their reinvention of the world, and enable us to analyse our own vision.
 Aronberg Lanvin, Marilyn, Piero della Francesca, 2002, Phaidon, London, page 5
Delivered to MFA Painting students December 2018
In Northern Europe in the early fifteenth century, painting was a medium among many others. However, by the 1430’s it had developed the ability to accurately portray all other modes of artistic expression. It could imitate marble, tapestry, silverware and glass by precisely recording how light hits a multitude of surfaces.
Forms are no longer portrayed within line, they are described through tone and dissolve into shadow under low light, creating an image of greater naturalism aided by the use of oil paint.
The frame also began to be used to great effect as a tool to solve the impossible task of replicating our vison by focusing it in one direction. It is the frame that shows us space; visible through its limiting quality. Without its boundary, space infinitely expands beyond comprehension. It is a device that exists within our world to enable us to see another.
Jan van Eyck was a forerunner of this revolution in representation and was one of the first painters to sign his work; consciously recording himself as the author of the pictorial reality he manufactured; insistent he be recognised and remembered.
The Ghent Altarpiece, completed by Jan and his older brother Hubert, is a prime example of this new dawn of representation, it offers us a visual gateway from the Medieval to the Modern. The Byzantine pose of Christ, the Virgin and Saint John in the central interior panels reflects a tradition of composition that had lasted hundreds of years. Yet suddenly religious figures reside within the time they were painted. The central exterior panels show Gabriel bringing Mary the message she is to bear the son of God in a contemporary room that looks out onto a fifteenth century Flemish street; this, a design of what is to come. Jan begins to depict contemporary life within the religious realm using an unprecedented level of observed details. However, the extent of his artistic ambitions and conceptual clout are best observed in The Arnolfini Portrait.
There are countless interpretations regarding the identity of the couple and purpose of the painting, but what is undeniably on show is the couple’s image-conscious behaviour we are all too familiar with as 21st century citizens. The Arnolfinis are surely attempting to present us with an airbrushed, idealised version of their life, which flaunts only the most positive attributes. They adopt an almost religious pose. Giovanni’s raised right hand is a few finger movements short of a blessing. They are poised with dignity and class, and are surrounded by objects that cultivate the appearance of fortune, taste and virtue.
All objects, many probably added at the patrons request, have been incorporated into a systematic design of pairs and lines. The joint hands of the Arnolfini’s hold the energy of the entire composition. If their hands were to drop to their sides the whole scheme would suffer greatly. They form a vital horizontal, opposite in orientation to the vibrations of verticals that travel across the painting.
Colour too plays its part. The whole spectrum is here, but it is subtle and muted unlike later Renaissance paintings of saturated colour undiluted by shadow. (Michelangelo, Doni Tondo, 1506-08.) The colour reflects the literal dullness of Flemish life; small dark rooms as opposed to the open plazas of Italy where the outside is inside.
The many visual resolutions van Eyck uses to make this work were probably unconscious, born out of his experience and talent. But his signature above the mirror that reflects the space we are in, is a deliberate display of his intellect. The signature throws up questions of reality. In what capacity was he here? As author? As figure reflected in the mirror? As a visitor to this space whilst painting the portrait? If van Eyck wanted us to have an answer he would have chosen his words more carefully.
This painting, like all great paintings, is not iconic solely because of the mysteries it fails to resolve, but because it presents them in a way that is in perfect harmony with the medium it employs. Painting has never been so good, and the frame has never been used so well.
 Schapiro, Meyer, On some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image Signs, 1969, Mouton
 Campbell, Lorne, The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools, 1998, National Gallery Publications, London, p.200