Parallel lines – in conversation with Britain’s foremost female artist, Eileen Cooper
The first major survey exhibition of British artist Eileen Cooper RA has opened at Leicester Museum & Art Gallery this Autumn. Called Parallel Lines, the exhibition brings together over 40 works created across Cooper’s incredible 50-year career, marking the first time that her early works from the 1980s are being shown alongside some of her more recent pieces.
Cooper rose to prominence during the ‘80s, when her strong, passionate and unapologetically female perspective to her subject matter attracted much attention. Sometimes described as a magic realist, her calling card is to depict her subjects in a startling, bold, yet curiously tender way, encompassing everything from sexuality and motherhood to life and death. Today, her works are highly collectable and can be found in museums, galleries and private collections all over the world. She is known predominantly as a painter and printmaker, but her work also extends into paper, collage, ceramics and sculpture.
“The female body is a big subject for me and I am constantly returning to it,” Cooper says of her catalogue of work, speaking to us from her kitchen table for an exclusive interview. “I think there is a sense of one’s own identity and a sense of understanding one’s self.” That said, the male form is never entirely neglected, either. “Male figures are always there in my work, but they are often there as another figure,” Cooper explains, “whereas the female figure is represented twice sometimes in the same picture, as a duality, or a twin. The same figure can appear in different guises.”
With an illustrious career marking her out as one of the UK’s foremost and most collectible female artists, it’s no surprise that Cooper’s style has evolved somewhat over the years, evidenced in Parallel Lines. “The women [I painted] used to be naked but strangely covered in colour so they were much more primal – early passions of a younger woman – and now they are clothed and more modest but just as strong,” Cooper reveals, showing us prints of some of her earlier works. “Creativity, sexuality and passion were quite linked in my early work but now some of that is behind me. Now my figures and colour of the skin are more life-like, whereas before they were red, crimson and brown. The best work always has its counterpart, strong and vulnerable, joyful but possibly disturbing. I would like to think that my work has those two sides.”
Fortunately for fans of the artist, Cooper sees this developing change of representation as a positive, hinting that her best work is still yet to come. “I think the key is to never feel really satisfied,” she says. “You have to hope to improve and to find new things to say. The key is to keep [your work] alive.”
Parallel Lines runs at Leicester Museum & Art Gallery until 27th November 2022. For more information about the exhibition, go to www.leicestermuseums.org, and for more information about Eileen Cooper, go to www.eileencooper.co.uk.