At Home With Artist Eileen Cooper OBE By Fiona Sanderson
On the eve of her first solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society, The Luxury Channel talked to Eileen Cooper, one of the UK’s foremost and most collectable female artists, about her life and works and her forthcoming exhibition, “Till The Morning Comes.” This exhibition will feature new paintings and a series of drawings inspired by English National Ballet’s recent production of “Giselle,” choreographed by Akram Khan.
With an illustrious career, not only as an artist, Cooper was the first woman to be elected as Keeper of the Royal Academy, the first woman to hold the post since the Academy’s foundation in 1768. As Keeper, she is responsible for guiding the next generation of artists admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. Cooper was also the Curator of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Cooper rose to prominence during the 1980s, when her strong and passionate figuration, and unapologetically female perspective to her subject matter, attracted much attention. Sometimes described as a magic realist, she depicts her male and female subjects in a bold yet 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.
Cooper’s forthcoming exhibition “Till The Morning Comes,” draws on her existing interest in the female body in motion, but demonstrates a new visual vocabulary inspired by Akram Khan’s choreography from “Giselle.” Cooper captures the power and energy of Khan’s style – a unique fusion of classical ballet and Indian Kathak dance – as well as the drama of the storyline and impressive stage production in a combination of contorted, yet strangely beautiful figures. Cooper’s fascination with dance and performance started at college and has often resurfaced in her art. When the opportunity came about for Cooper to collaborate with the English National Ballet on Khan’s “Giselle” – a tragic story about love, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness featuring a strong female protagonist – it seemed a natural fit with her own artistic vision.
Tell me about your new work inspired by the English National Ballet?
Contemporary dance and ballet is something I really like, where the body is used quite expressively rather than in a controlled romantic vision of the ballet. I have looked at lots of dance photos over the years so what I hadn’t anticipated when I went to draw the English National Ballet was just how fast everyone was moving. I made a lot of drawings and I started painting based on what I had witnessed. Then I had the idea to slow it down with just one dancer. They arranged for one dancer, Madison Keesler, to come to my RA studio. She recognised the phrases and gestures that I had drawn, and I really liked that. It was based on a particular type of Asian dance (called tacsomorcopine) with those lovely hand movements. Madison held these positions so I could draw from them. Over a year, I had all these drawings and prints and big ambitious oil paintings. It was a really big challenge and I think it’s brought a darkness to my work; certainly, in the palette with lots of dark blues and reds. At first, their bodies looked very fragile and yet every bit of their body was energised. It was a very different female body to the ones I was used to painting. The female body is a big subject for me and I am constantly returning to it.
Why do you like painting women as opposed to men?
I think there is a sense of one’s own identity and a sense of understanding one’s self – it’s always my means of expression and when I had my own children, it was just an extension of that. Male figures are always there in my work, but they are often there as another figure, 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. The women 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. 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 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.
Of all the works that you have done, which one do you identify with most?
There is one from 1989-90 which I bought back in an auction (Woman Examing Her Shadow, pictured below). It’s of a woman bathed in colour and it’s a shadow growing. It’s very significant for me. These red paintings are classic for me. I have such an intense connection with it. The woman who bought it sadly died and they put it into an auction, and it had been badly stored, quite an oily painting, and it didn’t sell but I managed to buy it back.
In this one, I love the drawing (Boy With A Bird, pictured below left) because this one is probably Sam, my son. This one (pictured below right) I love because it’s about my mother, with the donkey becoming a biblical connection. I didn’t mean to use a tortoise but my mother’s brother had two tortoises since we were kids for 40 years.
If there was a fire, which painting would you rescue?
I would rescue that red painting [points]. I will at some time probably sell it because I want it to be in a good collection. It’s very meaningful work. Somebody told me early on that you can’t be a collector of your own work because the work that you think is best usually sells first and the collector usually thinks the same. So, you can’t hold onto them just for that reason. Let the best pieces go. I have got lots of pieces that I have kept for the boys.
Tell me about your role as the first woman Keeper of the Royal Academy?
I feel very privileged to have had this position and have enjoyed it immensely – you are always learning. It’s kept me on my toes!
How do you keep up with new technologies in digital art and design?
You are always confronted with something that you can assess on one level but you don’t understand the technology, but you have to learn as much as possible so you can see how it arrived. For instance, in print-making which I am really keen on, I have worked in many forms but now there is a new hybridity in print-making that the younger generation are using. Artists have always used old technology with new technology. You see people using polaroid cameras, cine cameras etc. They love the texture of what these bring and now their sketch book is their computer. I do get worried in the way people don’t make marks in the way that I did. It’s always a digital drawing rather than physical machines. I wouldn’t criticise it. One of the discussions is that you have to draw in a traditional way from observation but there are many forms of drawings and for some, it’s quite irrelevant whether you draw from observation or not.
As Curator of this year’s Summer Exhibition, how difficult was it to select the works?
When you are curating, you try and look after everyone which is hard and if you don’t, you are going to get such flack from other Academicians and exhibiting artists but the people who get most upset are the ones that don’t get in, which is the majority of people. Now we look at the first round digitally and that is even harder until the second stage when you invite 2,500 in. It takes a week and it’s a very intense week. I like to think that this year I was able to bring a very particular theme of inclusion, both cross-generational and cross-cultural, also focusing on breadth of practice and media.
Was there one piece that stood out?
Yes, Isaac Julien’s amazing film installation which about small boats coming from Africa to Southern Italy. It was very beautifully filmed and presented on multi screens. But there were also lovely prints and paintings, many from international artists as well as Royal Academicians – just the breadth. Once a work is accepted, the artist is one of 1200 exhibitors which I think, given that we start with over twelve thousand works, is quite an achievement.
Is there a time in life when you think your art is at its best and have you ever felt you had reached your best?
I think the key is to never feel really satisfied. You have to hope to improve and to find new things to say. Along the way, I am very aware that you lose things because there’s a big connection between the way I make my pictures and the things that are going on in my life. So, things that are in your life; the passions that you had as a young woman are no longer there and you can see that in the work and I think “Oh my God!” and then the new work is something different. The key is to keep it alive, often by using a variety of materials, imagery and processes.
Eileen Cooper’s exhibition, “Till The Morning Comes,” will be held at London’s Fine Art Society from 30th October – 21st November 2017 at The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1S 2JT. For further information, visit www.eileencooper.co.uk.