By Leopold Florescu
Whilst fulfilling our needed dose of eccentricity, Glenn Gould reminds us of one of the long-acknowledged benefits of isolation. Gould says that ‘the only value that most artists have... is their particular isolation’. So, although our own isolation has been largely out of obligation, we perhaps should not forget how artists, if not ourselves, might have capitalised on the opportunity.
A Studio in Montparnasse exhibited 1926, Christopher Nevinson
Christopher Nevinson demonstrates this creative isolation is his 1926 Studio in Montparnasse. Although one might initially presume that the studio is inhabited by a single female figure, Nevinson provides a slightly more self-conscious scene. The female is undoubtably a model, and we can see a canvas depicting her in the bottom left. So, despite her solitary silhouette, it becomes clear that Nevinson himself is in the scene, albeit in the place of the viewer. And Nevinson has isolated himself, albeit with a model, in his studio, perhaps as the most productive way to work.
Nude1939, William Johnson
Although Nevinson’s figure reticently turns away from the viewer, almost embarrassed by her nudity, and surprised by the presence of another, the same cannot be said of William Johnson’s 1939 Nude. Johnson’s voluptuous model is unashamed of her nudity, and Johnson capitalises on any Freudian connections we might make. There’s no ambiguity in the bottle’s phallic neck. Although, we might not be so brazen ourselves, Johnson's painting reminds us of how we might feel less inhibited when at home alone.
UntitledUndated, Peter Laszlo Peri
Unlike the embarrassed nudity of Nevinson’s model, or the brazen sexuality of Johnson’s nude, Peter Laszlo Peri's recumbent figure seems unaware of both the viewer, and the world beyond the wafting curtain. As we are isolated at home, it seems comparably easy to forget the outside world.
UntitledUndated, Peter Laszlo Peri
In the previous work, Laszlo Peri presents the outside as something not worth the attention of the preoccupied nude. However, the same cannot be said for the emaciated figure in this work, also by Laszlo Peri. Knowing that Laszlo Peri spent much of his life in favour of Communism, here, he illustrates some of the injustices of wealth disparity, which Communism sought to repair. As the emaciated and street-side figure is overshadowed by a wealthy and passing man, a bowl of soup is hidden from her view. Much like the window in the previous work, Laszlo Peri manages to remind us of that which we might have taken for granted. As we are asked to isolate ourselves at home, it becomes easy to forget that not all have homes in which to isolate, and many are left desperately on the street.
East Street Estate and Heygate Estate
1994 and 1995, Keith Coventry
Just as Laszlo Peri reminds us of that not all have homes in which to isolate, Keith Coventry reminds us of the impersonal housing estates in which many are isolating. Just as Laszlo Peri’s Communist ideals intended to help the less fortunate, Coventry demonstrates how they have failed to deliver on their utopian promises. During this period, as so many wealthy people have banded about the phrase ‘we’re all in this together’, it seems important to at least recognise the irony for those who are isolating in impersonal and crowded housing estates.
Man in an Interior1949, James Boswell
Of course, no matter where one is isolating, there comes a point at which one is confronted with either the thought or the image of oneself. Although not a self-portrait, James Boswell’s 1949 Man in an Interior surely contains the same sentiment. The man depicted, Boswell’s friend Fritz Reiss, seems as bored and blank as many at home, having resorted to alcohol and tobacco for a glimpse of excitement, whilst surrounded by a jungle of house plants.
Still Life with Chip Frier 1954, John Bratby
Having spent so much time isolated at home, it seems easy to put off jobs like cleaning up, which is what seems to have happened to John Bratby in his 1954 Still Life with Chip Frier. Here, Bratby illustrates his studio’s kitchen. As Bratby reminds us of the chaos of mixing our work and home lives, we are reminded of and encouraged by Nevinson, earlier on, whose studio isolation seems slightly more elegant.
Old Steps, Stockport
1969-1970, L. S. Lowry
As a result of a nation cooped up inside, the streets are comparably empty, and much of London seems uninhabited and invisible as the thronging crowds have long-gone. That quiet and undeniably melancholy feeling of an empty street is clear in L. S. Lowry’s 1969-1970 Old Steps, Stockport. The monochrome palette and inconsequential lamp both accentuate the haunting emptiness of Lowry’s street.
1923-1924, Christopher Nevinson
In a similarly bleak scene, Nevinson, in his 1923-1924 Fitzroy Square, reminds us of those few trips which we have been able to make outside. That sole figure, perhaps ourself, seems so isolated, so unaware. Perhaps he’s out to the shops, or simply getting his allotted exercise.
Street Life, Harlem
1939, William Johnson
Lastly, Johnson presents us with a somewhat paradoxical image, in his 1939 Street Life, Harlem. Although we might expect Harlem to buzz with activity, and Johnson’s colours and zoot suits would suggest no less, the couple seem oddly isolated and disconnected from their surroundings. Perhaps this is us, as we don our finery for that singular trip to the supermarket, so bewildered that the outside world has not retreated as we have inside our homes. Whether Johnson’s blizzard of colour, or Nevinson’s dull of inactivity, the streets remain, waiting to be used, as we all emerge from our isolation.