Anna Moszynska writes:

On the crowded wall of Gallery Five at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition, a particular painting captures attention. Installed high on the third tier, or 'skied' as historic convention describes such hanging arrangements, a square canvas emerges startlingly from its surroundings. The brash black background forces a strong contrast with the paler hues of its neighbours, while internally two gashed of pink pigment clash forcibly with the blood red of the other foreground elements. The eye-catching canvas inspires closer attention and I walk through the room towards it, fascinated by its colouristic daring.

The painting is by Lisa Wright and the title, Magenta Girl, provides clues as to its skilful interplay of figuration and abstraction. It explains, for example, the choice of primary colour which outlines the figure but it is surprising to find that the crimson referred to is most thickly applied to the surface of an axed tree trunk on which the girl stands, the red seeping onto the ground around her, like a blooded, leaking shadow. The female child stands upright, under a branch, legs akimbo with upturned head while her hands are clasped in what could be read as a beseeching gesture. Strikingly, she is stark naked and the effect of light upon her, the bold rectangular slab of pink, suggests that she is also partially spot-lit from an external source. It is the formal elements of the painting that initially grasp my attention. Splatters of pigment activate the surface; stray bobs of pink create odd splashes against the black background which, substantially worked, shows visible marks of brush and palette knife. On the disrupted surface where further pink breaks through, there is a hint that the black overlies something underneath; is this a masking out of an earlier form or idea that might, if still present, shed light on the strange iconography of this nocturnal image, this twilight painting of unnerving force? For beyond the formal boldness of the composition there lurks a question as to its content. What is the child doing there alone in the open air at night, and what, moreover is our audience-role as witness to this event?

Clearly this is no Romantic idyll, although there may be a nostalgic element in the use of a child in such as nocturnal and remote setting. The surrounding blackness is vaguely threatening and provides no sense of calm or relaxation, not least because the subject itself is inevitably loaded. We may feel a degree of discomfort viewing this child nude; representations of the naked child can no longer be perceived as innocent or neutral in the Rousseau-ian sense. We live in an age that is not only post-Freudian but also post-Nabokovian, one informed by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and even by Larry Clark’s Kids; where songs of experience seem only too ready to replace those of innocence. A tension thus arises between the painting’s content and the broader contemporary context in which it finds itself. Wright’s current exhibition, Twilight allows us to examine this in more detail as Magenta Girl is one of a series of paintings that explore this theme of the child.

The subject is not new for the artist. Until a recent theatre commission beckoned her in a new direction, Lisa Wright has concentrated on the theme for over a decade, using the growth of her own two sons from birth through their development into pre-pubescent boys to create series of paintings of children at home, in the swimming pool, upon the beach and more recently, out of doors in night-time settings, including unclothed.1  Using the academic studio convention of drawing the nude, but unusually applying it to the child subject, Wright’s deft observation conveys the particular pose and quirkiness of the young body. Her drawn outline recreates in paint the precise shape of childish limbs, the particular tilt of a youthful head. Never direct portraits as such, her images still display the changes in the growing child – a territory extended with the arrival of new friends, girls a swell as boys.

In the Twilight series the children, now older (hard to age precisely, but clearly pre-pubescent) engage mostly in scenes of individual, ruminative self –absorption. Where paired or grouped, they tend to maintain separate identities, unselfconscious and untroubled by the presence of the other sex – even when in a condition of complete nudity. They meet together affectionately or appear to act out roles: in Brothers the younger child is carried piggy-back by his older brother, in a touching echo of Picasso’s 1906 versions of Two Brothers; in The Secret Place, the boy climbs a tree and the girl stands below, lost in reverie as if re-living the engendered role-playing of Peter Pan and Wendy. Yet whatever they do, the open-air pastimes of these children run counter to the prevailing social trends where it has been claimed that in theBritain of the present century only two out of tens children actually play out of doors. They also seem to ignore the concern that children’s bodies should be protected from prying eyes in an era dominated by fears of paedophilia and child abduction.

The quiet activities of the children are given a new focus in some of the current series by the introduction of a circular framing device which captures them as if through a spy hole. Yet rather than being voyeuristic, the effect is interestingly photographic – the black background and circular framing reminiscent of the hand painted glass side found in Magic Lantern shows, with the artistic convention of repoussoir particularly evident in the leafy surround of Shadow Garden. As it happens, Wright’s use of the child as subject is shared by other contemporary artists, many of whom are women working in the realm of film and photography Rineke Dijkstra, Sarah Jones, Loretta Lux, Sally Mann and Annelies Strba are just a few who have worked with photographic images of children at differing stages of growth, exploring either the direct or insidious affects of cultural influence upon their development. Moreover, like Dijkstra and Lux, Wright also explores the powerful affects of artificial lighting upon her subjects. Spotlighting the children’s natural environment with a torch during nocturnal forays, she observes how colours and tones later substantially in the dark. Memorising and sketching these affects in nature, Wright then reworks the night-time experience in the studio, applying what might otherwise appear to be unnaturalistic colouring to the entire composition. Whereas for the photographers, the emphasis is on lighting the figure ‘in situ’, here the illumination is part of the slow evolution of the painting process itself. While other contemporary female painters including Marlene Dumas and Nicky Hoberman have also used the child as subject, what is notable in Wright’s case is that she has devoted herself, until now, entirely to this subject matter. Moreover, her development as an artist totally coincides with her history as a mother – the start of her professional career coinciding with the birth of her first child.

In the way she treats this progression, Wright shares ground with the American artist, Sally Mann, who having published photographs of her own children during the 1990s, commented that: ‘We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up… But we tell it all without fear and without shame’. Mann goes on to state that there is a paradox in this situation as both the beauty and the dark side of things are viewed simultaneously. ‘The Japanese have a word for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means something like ‘beauty tinged with sadness’. How is it that we must hold what we love tight to us, against out very bones, knowing we must also, when the time comes, let it go?’2 Like Mann, Wright seems to celebrate the freedom of childhood but also the difficulties posed by the child’s separateness. There is an unnerving combination of innocence and knowingness suggested in the gaze and pose of the growing child. The photograph may be more direct in this respect but the painting allows more room for interpretation. Both artists search for an honest record of childhood and growing up, but both seem to acknowledge that childhood is complicated. We never know the whole truth. The rapt child is caught up in his or her own world, but where exactly is that? Silent Wanderer or Tree Girl suggests the level of this childish self-absorption which at times proves difficult for the parent to break into.

For the observer, interpretation of the child subject is also vexed. Within psycho analysis it has been suggested that the adult’s viewpoint is necessarily a compromised one: ‘In the effort to present the reality of the child and its perceptions, we cannot help but interpret the child in the light of adult motives; we cannot help but interpret ourselves through the child’.3 In viewing images of the child, our responses are inevitably affected by our own childhood memories, parental responsibilities, or both. According to the art historian, Anne Higonnet, ‘By the 1990s, the image of the child had become perhaps the most powerful contradictory image in western consumer culture. Promising the future but also turned nostalgically to the past, trading on innocence but implying sexuality, simultaneously denying the arousing desire, intimate on a mass scale, media spectacles  of children are bound to be ambiguous’.4

Wright’s painted child subjects hold insistently to their place in the outdoor world. The settings in which they find themselves are natural, not urban, and in this perhaps lies their salvation. Yet the surrounding blackness, accentuated further by the rondels of the new internal framing in Wright’s paintings, seems close to physically engulfing them; the diminishing circle of light, as well as throwing the figures into sharp relief, also threatens to render them physically untouchable, as if they are no more than evanescent projections.

In this, the mood of Wright’s recent paintings suggests a wavering between maternal assurance of the uninhibited child at play on the one hand, and the disturbance in every mother’s mind of what lies round the corner; of the wish for a truly idyllic, happy childhood and the realisation that this stage of human growth is nevertheless fraught and inevitably transitory. However, in this lies their power as paintings. These are indeed twilight images. They probe and invite us to reconsider our view of childhood, while attesting to the power of the painter to make us think as well as feel.


1 Lisa Wright’s first son, Max, was born in 1993 and the second son, Theo, followed in 1999.
2 Sally Mann, Immediate Family (London, 1992) u.p
3 Virginia L Blum, HIDE and SEEK. The Child between Psychoanalysis and Fiction (Urbania and Chicago, 1995) p.5
4 Anne Higonnet, Pictures of Innocence:The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London, 1998) p.153

Anna Moszynska is a writer, Art Critic and Art Historian. She pioneered the study of contemporary art at Sotheby's institute in the late 80's. She has written for Tate etc. Appllo, Arts Review and Art Monthly as well as writing and lecturing at International institutions.

© copyright Anna Moszynska and Beardsmore Gallery, 2007


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