Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler c. 1908

Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a well-known name amongst classical musicians, but far less are aware that his wife, Alma Mahler, was also a talented composer. During her career, Alma wrote approximately 50 works for voice and piano, but only 17 survive today. Unfortunately, Alma’s reputation in society had little to do with her talent, but rather her romantic liaisons with many men, three of whom she married. As singer and satirist Tom Lehrer (b.1928) said before singing a song about the lady, “Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe.”

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well,
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You’d never be free of her spell.
Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between…

Alma – The loveliest girl in Vienna – Tom Lehrer (1965)
Alma, Anna and Grete

Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler was born in Vienna on 31st August 1879 to landscape artist Emil Jakob Schindler (1842-92) and Anna Sofie Bergen (1857-1938). Alma and her sister, Margaretha Julie (Grete, 1880-1942), received home tuition rather than enrol in a school but regularly attended the Catholic Church, which played a significant role in their early upbringing.

In 1886, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (1858-89) commissioned Alma’s father to paint landscapes of the Adriatic coast. The whole family accompanied Schindler on this trip, and his artworks featured in the Kronprinzenwerk (Crown Prince’s Work). This encyclopedia, officially named The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, is a 24-volume written and visual description of the countries, regions and people of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Lands. Schindler was one of 587 contributors, and his paintings joined the 4,529 images that illustrated the work.

Despite spending a year travelling with their father, Alma and Grete saw little of his work after Schindler rented Castle Plankenberg, near Neulengbach, as his studio, where he also established an artist colony. Yet, Schindler adored his two daughters and arranged for them to have piano lessons with Adele Radnitzky-Mandlick. Their mother had a musical background but retired from public performances shortly after marriage. Some believe Schindler felt jealous of the attention his wife gained from her career, so forced her to quit the stage. Nonetheless, he encouraged his daughters to perform, and they made their public debut at the ages of ten and nine. Although the girls received homeschooling in their early years, their father insisted they obtain the best education, so he enrolled them in a private women’s academy, which was not common practice at the time.

Schindler monument by Edmund Hellmer

During a family holiday to the German isle of Sylt in 1892, Schindler passed away. Following his death, Alma concentrated on her musical education, studying composition with a blind organist called Josef Labor. Despite his disability, Labor also provided Alma with education about a “great deal of literature”. Although Alma attended school, she quit at the age of 15 in favour of Labor’s teaching. Yet, learning to play and compose music had its difficulties due to Alma’s decreasing hearing following childhood measles.

Max Burckhard (1854-1912), the director of the Burgtheater in Vienna and friend of Alma’s late father, became Alma’s music mentor. He also catered for her passion for literature and presented Alma with two large baskets of books on her 17th birthday. Shortly before this, Alma’s mother married Carl Moll (1861-1945), a former student of Schindler. In 1899, Alma gained another little sister, Maria (1899-1945).

Alma’s step-father Carl Moll was one of the founding members of the Vienna Succession, an Austrian art movement closely related to Art Nouveau. They were “a group organized for the purpose of breaking with Vienna’s tradition-bound Imperial Academy of the visual arts.” Through Moll, Alma met several painters associated with the Succession, including the symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who professed his undying love for her. Alma enjoyed the attention but did not desire him as a lover or husband. Nonetheless, they remained firm friends for the rest of Klimt’s life.

In 1900, 21-year-old Alma began composition lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), who also fell in love with her. Alma reciprocated his feelings but wished to keep their relationship secret. Zemlinsky had a Jewish background, of which Alma’s Catholic family disapproved. The few friends who knew about their romance urged Alma to end things, which she eventually did after the relationship grew strained.

Gustav Mahler 1909

Through her musical connections, Alma met the Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) at a party in November 1901. By early December, Alma and Mahler were engaged, although they kept this secret for a while. Alma and Zemlinsky’s relationship had not long ended, and it went against societal etiquette to fall in love so soon. They eventually announced their engagement two days before Christmas.

Friends of both Alma and Mahler expressed surprise about their engagement, especially because Mahler was Jewish. Also, Mahler’s family thought Alma a flirtatious, unreliable young lady. Nonetheless, they married on 9th March 1902, and the birth of their first daughter, Maria Anna (1902-07), followed in November. Their second daughter, Anna Justine (1904-88), became a successful sculptor, despite her parent’s musical backgrounds.

Alma Mahler with her daughters Maria (left) and Anna (right), 1906

“The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner.” This was Mahler’s view of marriage, and he refused to allow Alma to compose music. Alma expressed in her diary, “How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of … things closest to one’s heart”, but obeyed her husband’s wishes. As time passed, Alma grew resentful of Mahler, who insisted his music career came before his family’s needs.

In Vienna, anti-semitic activities made it difficult for Mahler to work in operatic theatres, so he took his family to Maiernigg in 1907 to have a break from the hostilities. Unfortunately, not long after arriving, both daughters contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria. Whilst Anna recovered, Maria grew steadily worse until she passed away on 12th July. Soon after this tragedy, Mahler learned he had a defective heart and needed treatment from specialist doctors in Vienna.

The death of Maria left Alma depressed and placed a strain on her marriage. She sought attention elsewhere, beginning an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1910. On learning of this, Mahler sought the advice of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), although the precise reason is unknown. Some suggest Mahler asked for help with his troubled feelings, whereas others believe he wanted marriage advice. The film Mahler on the Couch (2010) takes a different view, suggesting Mahler wished to curb Alma’s musical passion. Whatever the reason for the visit, family life changed a little in the Mahler household.

In an attempt to save his marriage, Mahler paid more attention to his wife, particularly her musical abilities. He claimed to regret his earlier attitudes towards Alma’s compositions and insisted on studying and editing them for publication. Mahler also encouraged her to write five more songs, which, under his guidance, were published at the end of 1910. Sadly, this newfound affection in their marriage lasted only a year, after which Mahler fell ill with an infection in February 1911. By May, he was dead.

Following Mahler’s death, Alma entered a stormy affair with the Austrian expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Lasting from 1912 to 1914, the relationship grew from one of passion to one of possessiveness. In 1913, Kokoschka painted The Bride of the Wind (Die Windsbraut), an allegorical artwork featuring the figures of Kokoschka and Alma in a loving embrace. Realising that Kokoschka was obsessed with her, Alma brought the relationship to an end.

Alma Mahler Fan

Kokoschka’s infatuation with Alma continued long after their breakup. In the early months of their relationship, Kokoschka produced portraits of Alma, such as one in the pose of Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, and later, romantic paintings featuring them as a couple. He illustrated stories about their time together, which he printed on fans and gifted to Alma as presents. He described them as “love letters in pictorial form” and continued to produce them after Alma had left him.

Dramatic sketches of Alma and Kokoschka suggest they conceived and lost a child in 1912. Some interpret from the images that Alma had an abortion, which caused Kokoshka emotional pain. Nonetheless, this event did not diminish Kokoschka’s love for Alma, and he continued to produce portraits of her. After their breakup, Kokoschka expressed his heartbreak and depression through his artwork, often using rapid brushstrokes.

Alma Doll

Unable to get over his obsession, Kokoschka commissioned Hermine Moos (1888-1928), a German doll maker, to produce a life-size doll of Alma. He wished to use the doll as a replacement for Alma, both in his portraits and, presumably, in his bed. “Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly.” He sent Moos strict instructions and several paintings of Alma, hoping for a replica of his former lover. Unfortunately, Kokoschka’s expressionistic painting style was hardly realistic, and neither was the doll. After expressing his disappointment, Kokoschka tried to make the best of it, including the doll in his paintings.

At the end of 1918, Kokoschka declared the doll had “managed to cure me completely of my Passion”. He held a champagne party, during which he displayed the doll dressed in beautiful clothing. The party lasted well into the early hours of the following day and, as dawn broke, a drunken Kokoschka took the doll into the garden and beheaded it.

Gropius and Alma with their daughter Manon, 1918

Meanwhile, Alma resurrected her relationship with Walter Gropius, who she married on 18th August 1915 in Berlin. In 1916, Alma gave birth to their daughter, Alma Manon (1916-35). Manon, or “Mutzi” as she was often called, spent the majority of her infancy with her nurse, Ida Gebauer, with whom she followed her mother between her many houses. Alma owned three homes in Vienna alone, and the family often visited Weimar in Germany, where Gropius founded the first Bauhaus school of art.

In 1918, Alma gave birth to a premature son, Martin Carl Johannes (1918-19). After a few months, rumours reached Gropius that the child did not belong to him. For some time, Alma had conducted an affair with the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel (1890-1945), and Alma eventually admitted that Werfel was the father of her child. Naturally, the relationship between Alma and Gropius broke down, and they agreed to divorce. Sadly, before these divorce proceedings could be set in progress, Alma’s son developed hydrocephalus and died before his first birthday.

To protect Alma’s reputation, Gropius staged a meeting with a prostitute so that he could be caught in the act of infidelity, thus giving Alma the means to file for divorce. He did not do this out of kindness, but in the agreement that he would have custody of their daughter. After the divorce became final in 1920, Gropius took Manon to Dessau, where he married her step-mother, Ise Frank (1897-1983). Alma fought back over this decision and brought her daughter home to Vienna, where she allowed Manon to do as she pleased, including running around naked as much as possible.

Werfel, Alma and Manon

After divorcing Gropius, Alma openly lived with Franz Werfel, although she refrained from marrying him until 6th July 1929. During this time, she supported Werfel’s career, helping him become an accomplished novelist, playwright and poet. Alma encouraged her daughter Manon to play the piano like her older daughter Anna, but Manon prefered performance arts over music. Unfortunately, Manon’s soon-to-be stepfather did not think Manon had the talent for acting and discouraged her dreams.

Alma’s early years as Mrs Mahler-Werfel were made difficult by the increasing activity of the Nazi party in Europe. Werfel, who lectured across Germany on the topic of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government, was branded a propagandist. Nazi members burned many of his books, and he lost his job at the Prussian Academy of Arts. To escape the antagonism, Alma took Manon to Venice for a short holiday in 1934. Little did Alma know, life was about to become much worse.

While in Venice, Manon contracted Polio, which left her paralysed. After returning to Vienna, Manon regained some movement in her limbs but remained severely disabled. Alma tried to boost her 18-year-old daughter’s morale by arranging frequent visitors to the house. She also instigated a romance between Manon and the young autocrat Erich Cyhlar (d.1969), hoping for a future wedding. Despite Werfel’s dissuasion, Manon never let go of her desire to act, so Alma arranged for well-known acting teachers to make house calls. Almost a year after contracting Polio, Manon acted out a private performance for her mother and step-father. Sadly, she passed away a few days later from organ failure on Easter Monday, 22nd April 1935.

Manon’s grave in Grinzing Cemetery

Manon’s death greatly affected Alma, who outlived three of her four children. Werfel, who had been like a father to the young woman, dedicated his future novel The Song of Bernadette (1942) to Manon. Anna Mahler sculpted a young woman holding an hourglass to mark Manon’s grave, but Nazi activity prevented it from being installed. The triangular slab that now marks Manon’s resting place was designed by her father, Walter Gropius, and put in place during the 1950s.

Life continued to grow difficult for Werfel, who had Jewish roots, and after the Anschluss in 1938, Alma and Werfel decided to flee Austria. With the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry (1907-67), they secretly fled to the French Riviera, where they stayed until 1940. Finding themselves in danger again, Fry organised a secret crossing over the Pyrenees on foot, from where they made their way to Spain then Portugal. On 4th October 1940, Alma and Werfel boarded the S.S. Nea Hellas and arrived in New York nine days later.

Alma and Werfel finally settled in Los Angeles, where Werfel found work as a playwright. One of his successful plays, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, later became the 1958 film Me and the Colonel, and his book The Song of Bernadette became a film in 1943. Alma, meanwhile, opened their home to visitors, many of whom were also escaping persecution from the Nazis. Guests included German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Austrian film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). As Werfel’s reputation grew, so did their social circle, but before he could publish his final science fiction novel, Star of the Unborn, Werfel suffered a fatal heart attack in 1945.

Alma with a score of Gustav Mahler’s

Although a widow twice over, Alma did not shy away from society. Thomas Mann nicknamed her the “Great Widow”, and people easily recognised her from her gigantic hats with ostrich feathers. In 1946, she became a US Citizen and eventually moved to New York, where she befriended composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-90). Bernstein greatly admired the music of Alma’s first husband, and Alma often attended the rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic to watch him conduct. Alma also met the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76), who dedicated to her his Nocturne for Tenor and Small Orchestra.

In 1947, Alma briefly returned to Vienna to settle some financial matters. Her mother had passed away in 1938, her sister Grete had died in a mental institution in 1942, and her half-sister Maria, a member of the Nazi Party, committed suicide in 1945. Back in New York, Alma celebrated her 70th birthday and received a birthday book full of greetings from past and present friends and acquaintances. Amongst the signatures were messages from her ex-husband Gropius and former lover Kokoschka, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, and Igor Stravinsky. German composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) composed a birthday song containing the lyrics “Centre of gravitation of your own solar system, orbited by radiant satellites, this is how your life appears to the admirer.”

And the Bridge is Love

During the 1950s, Alma worked on her autobiography And the Bridge is Love. She based it on the diaries she kept throughout her life, although employed ghost-writers to help her put them into book format. The first ghost-writer, Austrian writer Paul Frischauer (1898-1977), fell out with Alma over her anti-semitic ideas, which had become ingrained in her character from her parents’ strong opinions. Her second ghost-writer, E. B. Ashton (1909-83), also pointed out the discriminatory terminology and suggested censoring some of her thoughts, especially sections about those people still alive. 

Reactions to Alma’s biography were varied. Walter Gropius felt hurt about Alma’s portrayal of their relationship, and others felt awkward about her racist political views. Before the German version entered print, Alma told the editor to “Please remove all traces of the whole Jewish question.” The German biography was published under the title Mein Leben (My Life) but did not garner any praise. Critics called it salacious and egocentric, pointing out that Alma contradicted herself many times. She lost many long-term friends as a result.

Alma Mahler, New York 1962

Alma Mahler-Werfel passed away on 11th December 1964 at the age of 85. Her funeral took place two days later, but it was not until 8th February 1965 when her body was buried in Grinzing Cemetery, Vienna, in the same grave as her daughter, Manon. Many obituaries appeared in newspapers following her death, although they were based upon her autobiography and focused on her love affairs. Tom Lehrer wrote the song Alma in response to one of the obituaries, singing about Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel “as each in turn came under her spell”. 

Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg (1908-79) offered an alternative view in his obituary about the late Alma Mahler-Werfel. He claimed that, although there is no denying she had many lovers, Alma was not the flirtatious, promiscuous woman the world observed. Creative men were attracted to her because she inspired them; she was their muse. She enthused over their work and made personal sacrifices to ensure they achieved their goals. Once her husbands and lovers became successful, Alma no longer felt needed and moved on. Only those who acknowledged Alma’s contribution to their careers retained her friendship, for instance, her third husband, Werfel.

Alma on her deathbed

It is difficult to ascertain Alma’s true character because her memoirs are considered an exaggerated truth. For years, Alma’s account of Gustav Mahler was the basis of the composer’s biography but recently discovered letters and documents suggest an alternative history. Was Alma Mahler-Werfel the woman her obituaries claimed or was her outward persona a mask to cover the tragedies she experienced? Alma lost three children, four if you include the miscarriage, she lost her home, she lost two husbands, and she had to flee from danger more than once. Life was certainly not kind to Alma.

A young Alma once aspired to be a composer. She learned to play the piano as a child and began composing in 1888. Up until her marriage to Gustav Mahler in 1902, Alma produced several songs, twenty piano pieces and a scene for an opera. Her husband put an end to her aspirations, and Alma did not compose again until Mahler attempted to save their relationship in 1910. After 1915, Alma stopped composing altogether. The work of her husbands always took precedence, and only seventeen of Alma’s songs survive today. Attempts to reestablish Alma as a composer in her own right have been underway since the early 21st century.

Whatever personal opinions people hold about Alma Mahler, it remains certain that she did not receive the opportunity to realise her talent as a composer and musician. Arguably, the main reason for this is that she was a woman, and by marrying, she gave up her right to have a career. In today’s world, Alma could have had more success than her husbands, but the world will never learn of what she was capable. Some of Alma Mahler’s surviving compositions are available to listen to on Youtube, for instance, Die stille Stadt, Kennst du meine Nächte? and Hymne.


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Pop Art Superstar

Andy Warhol is a name that is synonymous with Pop Art, a visual art movement that flourished in the 1960s. Hundreds of exhibitions of Warhol’s works have taken place all over the world; this year it was Tate Modern’s turn to display his paintings. To make their exhibition different from others, Tate Modern has focused on Andy Warhol’s life as much as his work, exploring who he was as a person, not just an artist. Due to popular demand (and Covid-19 restrictions), Tate has extended the Andy Warhol exhibition to 15th November 2020.

Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 6th August 1928 to Ondrej (1889-1942) and Julia (1892-1972). His parents were emigrants from Mikó, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia) and his father worked as a coal miner. Ondrej and Julia’s eldest son died before they moved to America, where they had three more children: Pavol (Paul), Ján (John, 1925-2010) and Andrew.

Warhol did not have the easiest of childhoods. At eight years old, Warhol suffered from Sydenham’s chorea and spent a great deal of time in bed drawing. When Warhol was 13, Ondrej Warhola passed away in an accident and left all his savings to his youngest son, and assigned his older sons the responsibility to ensure Andy attended college. True to their word, Warhol attended the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design.

At the age of 21, Warhol moved to New York, permanently removing the “a” from the end of his surname. His mother joined him a couple of years later, remaining with him for the rest of her life. As a commercial artist, Warhol worked for magazines, such as Glamour, where he became known for his simple line drawings. 

People commented on Warhol’s ability to convey emotion in his line drawings, but Warhol was keen to develop his techniques further. He developed a “blotting” technique, which involved applying ink to paper and blotting the ink while still wet. Blotting was a rudimentary process of the silkscreen printmaking method for which he is most known.

Warhol wanted to be famous and taken seriously as an artist, but working for magazines was not going to help him achieve his goal. During the 1950s, he exhibited some of his artworks in exhibitions taking inspiration from new forms of art by other artists, for example, Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) who used a combination of paint and recognisable objects in their works.

Using stencils to aid his accuracy, Warhol started including well-known brands in his paintings, most notably Campbell’s soup. Warhol exhibited his Campbell’s Soup Can for the first time in 1962. He produced many versions of the can, including a canvas featuring 100 identical cans of beef noodle soup. Although painted by hand, Warhol used stencils to speed up the process and help him maintain accuracy. Whilst the painting may seem random in the 21st century, Warhol was trying to express a message about the importance of art and consumerism in the post-war era. It was also a reference to his childhood when a can of Campbell’s Soup was something precious. Warhol and his brothers grew up eating watered-down ketchup with salt for soup.

Warhol was pleased with the effectiveness of using stencils but wanted to speed up the process even more. He started to adopt the technique of screenprinting, which allowed him to reproduce an image onto a canvas multiple times. He discovered he could also print pre-existing photographs from magazines and newspapers in a similar way, playing around with the colours and amount of ink to create different effects.

Green Coca-Cola Bottles is an example of Warhol’s use of screenprinting. He also used acrylic paint and graphite to add some details by hand. Coca-Cola did not have the same connotations as Campbell’s Soup did to his childhood, but Warhol was trying to convey a message:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Andy Warhol, The philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and back again (1975)

Using well-known images and icons helped Andy Warhol stand out and attract attention. When Marilyn Monroe (1926-62) passed away from a drug overdose, Warhol produced his Marilyn Diptych. On one canvas, Warhol printed several coloured prints of a publicity photo for Monroe’s 1953 film Niagara, and on the opposite canvas, did the same in black and white. Critics have added meaning to this artwork, suggesting it is a contrast between Monroe’s public and private life, or life and death.

Throughout history, artists have employed others to do some of the work for them; Andy Warhol was no different. Warhol sent his chosen images to a professional silk screen maker with instructions on size to produce the stencils for his work. These stencils printed the image, usually in black and white, onto a canvas pre-painted by Warhol. As time went on, he began to experiment with prints in a range of colours.

White Brillo Boxes is an example of Warhol’s coloured prints. Rather than canvas, Warhol used plywood boxes made by a cabinet maker, onto which he printed the logo and packaging details of the original boxes of Brillo scouring packs. This process turned the commercial design by James Harvey (1929–65) into an artform.

Warhol believed the purpose of art was for entertainment, and he aimed to paint to please people. Unfortunately, he also upset several people with his subject matter. Occasionally, Warhol used photographs from news reports detailing suicide, violence and car crashes, resulting in a mix of reactions. Using other people’s images also got Warhol in trouble. For his Flower series, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus flowers from a 1964 copy of Modern Photography magazine and was subsequently sued by Patricia Caulfield, the photographer, for copyright infringement.

Warhol believed creating pop art was “being like a machine” because the process was mechanical and removed the artist’s personal touch from the outcome. He claimed “I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody,” meaning treat everyone equally. Warhol’s personal life, on the other hand, was far from machine-like.

Throughout his life, Warhol was uncomfortable with his physical appearance and had plastic surgery on his nose in 1957. Unhappy with the result, he experimented with fashion to transform his appearance. Self-conscious of his receding hairline, Warhol wore blond toupees, which he replaced with silver and grey ones as he got older.

During the 1950s, Warhol came out to the LGBTQ+ communities in New York, revealing his homosexuality. It was a difficult time for gay men because same-sex relationships were illegal in America. Nevertheless, Warhol got together with the poet John Giorno (1936-2019), who he met at an exhibition in 1962. Giorno became a prominent subject for Warhol’s work, particularly in his experimental film Sleep, a five-hour recording of Giorno sleeping. Not many people appreciated the film, but it was not the outcome of the project but the process that mattered most to Warhol, revealing his tender feelings towards his lover.

Warhol continued to make films with his associates until 1972. During this time, they produced over 500 unscripted films, ignoring all traditional methods of film-making. In 1963, Warhol set up an experimental studio called The Factory, which his lover at the time, Billy Name (1940-2016), decorated in silver paint and foil. Over the next few years, Warhol recorded the people who visited his studio, which he turned into a film called Screen Tests.

The people who visited The Factory, “superstars” as Warhol called them, were instructed to be themselves for the duration of the reel as though they did not know there was a camera. Although some of the “superstars” were already well-known, the film aimed to encapsulate Warhol’s maxim that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

Edie Sedgwick (1943-71) was the most prominent actress in Warhol’s film, gaining success for her unique style and personality. She went on to star in more films by Warhol and other producers until her death from an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Other “superstars” included Susan Sontag (1933-2004), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Bob Dylan (b.1944) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-97).

Warhol’s first commercial success in the film industry was The Chelsea Girls, released in 1966. Directed by Warhol and Paul Morrissey (b.1938), the film follows the lives of several young women who live at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Many of the actresses were Warhol’s “superstars” from the Screen Tests.

Warhol announced his retirement from painting in favour of film making with a farewell show in 1965. Nonetheless, he continued to produce printed matter, such as magazines, posters and books, as promotional materials. He also designed record covers for bands, such as The Velvet Underground and Nico. Christa Päffgen (1938-88), known by the stage name Nico, took inspiration from Warhol’s film The Chelsea Girls, using the title for her debut album.

In 1967, Warhol was approached by an aspiring film writer Valerie Solanas (1936-88) who asked him to read through her script. He promised he would and did, but found it so disturbing that he pretended to have lost it when she contacted him later. Convinced Warhol had stolen her work, Solonas, later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, turned up at The Factory on 3rd June 1968 and shot him three times at close range. Warhol was rushed to hospital and declared clinically dead.

Miraculously, the doctors managed to revive Warhol, but he suffered severe damage to his lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and oesophagus. Although they operated on him, the surgeons did not expect Warhol to live. Andy Warhol surprised them all by opening his eyes and starting the long road to recovery. One of the doctors remarked, “This man made his mind up he was going to live.”

Due to the severity of Solanas’ mental health, the judge only sentenced her to three years in prison. On her release, she stalked Warhol until caught and institutionalised. Warhol lived in fear that Solanas would attack him again and closed The Factory. He decided to pass most of his film directing to Morrissey and return to his “old art”. For a while, Warhol was a shell of his former self, or a “Cardboard Andy” as Billy Name dubbed him. Yet, when interviewed, Warhol was able to inject humour into his situation, comparing the stitches on his chest to a Yves Saint Laurent dress.

Compared to the 1960s, the 70s were a quiet decade for Warhol. He focused on several commissions for well-off patrons, including the Shah of Iran, Mick Jagger (b.1943), Liza Minnelli (b.1946), John Lennon (1940-80) and Diana Ross (b.1944). He also published a book,  The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, in which he expressed the idea “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Still suffering from the attempt on his life, Warhol received another blow when his mother passed away in 1972. Being a private, reticent man, Warhol did not tell anyone about her death, not even his long-term partner Jed Johnson (1948-96) who found out years later from one of Warhol’s brothers.

When not working on commissions, Warhol often asked other people for painting ideas. His art dealer suggested he paint a portrait of the most important person of the 20th century, Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Warhol liked the suggestion but insisted the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was the most important man. At the time, Mao had just received a visit from President Richard Nixon (1913-94) and sold, or forced people to buy, over a million copies of his Little Red Book

“Everybody’s asking me if I’m a Communist because I’ve done Mao. So now I’m doing hammers and sickles for communism, and skulls for fascism.” Naturally, people wondered if Warhol was a Communist but, in reality, he took inspiration from communist graffiti on walls in Italy, for example, the hammer and sickle symbols of the Soviet Union. To prove he did not affiliate with the party, Warhol painted images of skulls to represent fascism, a form of far-right dictatorial power at the opposite side of the political spectrum.

In 1975, the Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino commissioned Warhol to paint a series featuring portraits of Black and Latin American drag queens and trans women. Rarely seen in fine art and not a community Warhol identified with, some people questioned the ethicality of the project. Nonetheless, Warhol took on the commission, hiring 14 models. Anselmino wanted Warhol to depict the dramatisation of gender, suggesting drag queens with 5 o’clock shadow, but Warhol deviated from the proposal to explore the glamour and personality of the models.

Most of Warhol’s models remain anonymous, but some have been named, such as American activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92). Born Malcolm Michaels Jr, Johnson self-identified as a drag queen and became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and was popular with New York’s gay and art scene. Daily attacks of racism and homophobia caused Johnson’s mental health to suffer and, after a pride parade in 1992, the police found Johnson’s body floating in the River Hudson. Initially ruled as suicide, a head wound suggested murder.

Andy Warhol’s artwork and near brush with death made him an international celebrity. During the 1970s, he spent most evenings socialising with other well-known people, which he jokingly called his “social disease”. In 1986, Warhol hosted a chat show called Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, which played on his celebrity status and network. Many of the guests were up and coming musicians, such as Debbie Harry (b.1945) and Grace Jones (b.1948), and the English actor (Sir) Ian McKellen (b.1939).

Debbie Harry and Grace Jones both became subjects for Warhol’s paintings in the 1980s. Now known as the lead singer of Blondie, Harry used to daydream Marilyn Monroe was her mother and was “stunned” and “humbled” when Warhol painted her portrait in the style of the one he produced of her idol. As well as Harry and Jones, Warhol painted many celebrities, including Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton (b.1946) and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). The latter was for a German gallery and reflected the concerns of the Cold War developing between the USA and USSR.

One of Warhol’s favourite “celebrities” to paint was the Statue of Liberty. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York as a gift from France, Warhol produced a close-up portrait of the statue’s face. Rather than using a photograph of the statue, Warhol used an image of a centenary biscuit tin and included the logo “Fabis” in the painting. In the background, Warhol covered the canvas with a military camouflage print to suggest that, although the statue represents freedom, wars still waged in the world.

The Statue of Liberty had a deeper meaning for Warhol. When his parents emigrated to the United States, they landed at Ellis Island, near the location of the statue. His parents’ names are listed on the “Wall of Honour” in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Other people on the wall include Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Bob Hope (1903-2003) and Cary Grant (1904-86).

In the 1980s, Warhol experimented with his hairstyle – or wig style – creating what he called his “fright wig”. In self-portraits and photographs, the wig stands out, taking on the status of art in itself. His appearance was an icon and his hair as recognisable as his work, but his close friends knew this was only a facade for the public. In reality, Warhol was in severe pain and lived as an introverted individual. His self-portrait of 1986 reveals his gaunt face and poor health.

One of Warhol’s final works was Sixty Last Suppers (1986), which was part of a series commissioned by collector and gallerist Alexander Iolas (1907-87). Based on Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper, Warhol exceeded expectations by producing over 100 variations on the theme, making it the most extensive series of religious-themed works by an American artist.

Speaking about the work, Warhol stated, “It’s a good picture… It’s something you see all the time. You don’t think about it.” Yet, it may have held more meaning for Warhol than he let on. The image depicts a group of men, something Warhol had never painted before. Although it is a Biblical scene, Warhol produced his versions at a time when the private lives of gay men were under scrutiny. Not long before working on the Last Supper series, Warhol’s previous partner Jon Gould passed away from an AIDS-related illness; the fact that, in this scene, Jesus was only hours from his crucifixion, may not have been lost on Warhol. With rapidly declining health, Warhol knew that he too was not long for the world.

Warhol’s Last Supper paintings were exhibited in Milan after which he reluctantly returned to New York for a gallbladder operation. Although a routine surgery, Warhol’s previous gunshot wound and declining health made the operation riskier – a factor that surgeons did not take into account at the time. Doctors fully expected Warhol to survive the surgery, but on 22nd February 1987 at the age of 58, Warhol passed away in his sleep from a sudden post-operative irregular heartbeat.

Andy Warhol was a leading figure in the pop art movement, but whilst this is an umbrella term for his work, it is not easy to categorise individual pieces. As one journalist for The Economist put it, Warhol is the “bellwether of the art market”. By focusing on his life as much as his work, Tate helped visitors to the gallery begin to understand the thought processes behind Warhol’s paintings and how he developed such a unique style. Andy Warhol’s work may not be to everybody’s taste, but he was certainly an intriguing individual. 

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Quantities of Quant

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Until 16th February 2020, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the career of Dame Mary Quant whose work as a fashion designer led her to become a powerful role model for women. Spanning twenty years from 1955 onwards, the Mary Quant exhibition displays clothing from her experimental brand Bazaar, Parisian couture and her success across the pond. Popularising the mini-skirt, hot pants and other fun fashion trends, Mary Quant revolutionised fashion throughout the world.

Barbara Mary Quant was born on 11th February 1930 in Blackheath, London to Welsh teachers Jack and Mildred. Her early life was marred by food and clothing rationings due to WWII, however, she was determined to become a fashion designer. Her parents, who studied at Cardiff University in order to earn first-class degrees and become teachers, were disappointed with their daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her to think about more conventional career choices for women. As a compromise, Quant attended Goldsmiths College to study illustration with the intention to train as an art teacher. College life introduced Quant to new and exciting people and prospects, resulting in an apprenticeship at Erik, a high-end Mayfair milliner.

Mary Quant’s ambitions to become a fashion designer were realised shortly after meeting her future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene (d.1990) in 1953. The couple married in 1957 and later had a son named Orlando (b.1970). Two years before they became husband and wife, Quant and Plunket Greene teamed up with a friend, Archie McNair, to open a boutique called Bazaar. The shop was situated on the corner of Markham Square and King’s Road in Chelsea in a building above the basement restaurant Alexander’s, owned by Plunket Greene.

Quant began sourcing materials, quirky garments and jewellery from wholesale warehouses and art schools to fill her new shop, as well as producing unique works of fashion. Bazaar was described as “a bouillabaisse of clothes … and peculiar odds and ends,” and stock sold out during the opening night. Encouraged by this, Quant continued to make masses of dresses in her own home to sell in the shop. Every day, she bought fabric from the department store Harrods in Knightsbridge, opposite which, three years later, she opened her second boutique.

Whilst Bazaar was successful, allowing Quant to purchase expensive fabrics, the constant repetition of selling during the day and making new stock overnight was exhausting. Nonetheless, Quant persevered and was rewarded with a flourishing business. Due to making each garment by hand, there was usually only one of each design. The examples shown at the V&A are labelled with the name of the person who wore the piece. It was not until the 1960s that Quant began to work with machinists, who were able to produce her garments more rapidly. By 1966, she was working with 18 different manufacturers, which allowed her to mass-produce her popular designs.

Quant’s designs were influenced by London’s youth culture, which included dancers, Beatniks and the Mods (Modernists). Her clothes were modern and totally different from the acceptable style of dress for women during the war years. Simple and easy to wear, Quant aimed to produce clothes that were “relaxed … suited to the actions of normal life.” More women were going to work and needed appropriate clothing but Quant believed that did not mean they could not be stylish too.

As can be seen throughout the exhibition, Quant experimented with scale, proportion, and style. She incorporated features from the clothing of previous decades and centuries with modern ideas. Collared shirts and bodices were combined with short skirts, bright fabrics, and tights. Quant also recreated some of the clothes she wore as a child, altering parts to make them suitable for an adult. She also styled dresses on men’s clothing, for example, long male cardigans or jumpers.

By “borrowing from the boys”, Quant introduced tailoring cloth, which was intended for suits or military uniforms, to women’s clothing. In doing this, Quant broke fashion hierarchies and gender rules; no longer were certain materials reserved for particular people or classes. Items that were once only considered wearable by the upper classes were suddenly available to everyone. With clothing slightly bordering on satire, Quant allowed women to dress as bankers or barristers as well as the more feminine secretary.

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In 1963, Quant launched her Ginger Group collection, which was mass-produced and available in 75 outlets across the UK. The name comes from a political term for a pressure group, using the term ginger as a verb meaning to “pep things up”. Whereas Quant’s clothing was already popular, she wanted to produce modern and edgy clothing for a wider clientele.

Quant’s inspiration for the first Ginger Group collection was American sportswear. Rather than all-in-one dresses, she designed items that could be paired together with different things, thus the wearer could mix their wardrobe up without exceeding their bank balance by buying several outfits. The name of the collection led itself to an unusual “ginger” colour palette, which involved a range of red and orange tones.

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Ginger Group Crêpe Dress, modelled by Patti Boyd with the Rolling Stones

Having conquered London and the rest of Britain, Quant set her sights on the United States of America. In 1960, Quant and her husband flew out to New York, just two years after the first commercial transatlantic flight. American journalists had previously written about Quant’s “kooky” look and she was welcomed to the States as a celebrity.

During her first trip to America, Quant pitched her ideas to US department stores and met fashion editors interested in her “ready-to-wear” system. Rapidly, her clothing was purchased and displayed in store windows throughout New York.

In 1962, Quant signed a contract with the American department-store chain JC Penney. When her Ginger Collection launched the following year, her clothing was suddenly at the forefront of the mass market. By 1965, Quant was regularly flying between London and New York.

Quant shared the success of her Ginger Collection with the manufacturer Steinberg & Sons, who assisted with production, supplies, and exports. By 1965, Quant was producing 50 designs a year for the Ginger Collection as well as her other dresses. Working six months ahead, Quant produced sketches for future lines, which were costed and approved at the Steinburg head office before being sent to their seamstresses. The V&A includes a couple of Quant’s sketches in the exhibition.

In 1963, not only was Quant working on her Ginger Collection, she was establishing her Wet Collection too. A new material called PVC (polyvinyl chloride) was gradually making its way into the fashion industry. It had previously only been used for protective garments but Quant was fascinated by “this super shiny man-made stuff and its shrieking colours … its gleaming liquorice black, white and ginger.” The Wet Collection was launched at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and only contained garments produced in this plastic-coated cotton material.

Despite being unlike anything they had seen before, fashion editors and buyers were inspired by the “space-age” look and orders flooded in. This collection earned Quant her first magazine cover for British Vogue, which featured her bright red PVC rain mac. Unfortunately, there was a delay in launching the collection on the high street due to a problem with the seams of the garments. Standard sewing machines could not tightly seal the seams and often caused the material to rip or melt. Specialist machinery was needed, which was eventually found through collaboration with Alligator Rainwear in 1965.

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In 1963, The Sunday Times had awarded Mary Quant with an International Award for “jolting England out a conventional attitude towards clothes” but in 1966 she received a more prestigious award. Wearing a cream wool jersey dress with a low waist, short gathered skirt, high collar and bell-shaped sleeves with blue top-stitching and brass zippers, Mary Quant arrived at Buckingham Palace with her husband and their business partner. Hours later, Quant left with an OBE (Officer for the British Empire) as an award for her contribution to the UK fashion export trade and supporting the British economy.

Already known across the world, this event promoted her clothing further in international newspapers. Using the opportunity of all the media attention, Quant began to produce other items under her brand name. Recognised by her big Daisy logo, Quant began to sell makeup (male and female), hats, bags, stockings, underwear, colouring books, knitting patterns and so much more.

In 1966, Quant trademarked her daisy emblem, which became easily recognisable, attracting more customers to her brand. This was one of the first designer logos and it helped to establish the authenticity of her clothing and mark them apart from rival brands. The daisy logo lent its name to Quant’s next big idea, the Daisy doll. Quant moved to the toy market in 1973 with “the best-dressed doll in the world”. Daisy enabled the next generation to connect with her brand. The doll wore miniature versions of Mary Quant designs and the launch at the Harrogate Toy Fair involved models dancing down a catwalk wearing life-size versions of Daisy’s wardrobe.

“The shock of the knee”

Of all Mary Quant’s designs, she is undoubtedly known best for the miniskirt. Since the war years, the length of women’s skirts had gradually shortened to knee-length, however, Quant took it even further. Based on children’s pinafores, Quant rose her hemlines well above the knee causing scandal amongst the older generation. The teenage dance scene of the 60s, however, embraced the new fashion and by 1966 many young women were wearing the newly titled miniskirt. The style also became an international symbol of London’s youth and women’s liberation.

With the miniskirt becoming accepted in society, Mary Quant used a new type of wool jersey to produce a new style of her signature minidresses: the Jersey Dress. In keeping with her previous sporty theme, the machine-knitted dresses allowed for fluidity of movement at the same time as being fashionable. They were practical, affordable, and most importantly, crease-free.

Quant experimented with different shapes and colours. Some jersey dresses had a skater skirt, whereas others were more like long jumpers or shirts. The material allowed for embellishments, such as buttons, collars, and zips, which also became a recognisable element of her brand.

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The miniskirt was not the only new fashion Quant introduced to the modern generations. Already mentioned are her PVC rainwear but one of her greatest ideas were tights and long socks. Previously, women had to suffer fiddly suspender-belts and nude coloured stockings but Quant wanted to change this. Marks and Spencer had already introduced tights to the market, however, at 12 shillings a pair (three times the price of stockings) they had not yet caught on. Quant proposed brighter coloured stockings and tights – bright mustard yellow, ginger, and prune – that would match her miniskirts and jersey dresses.

Partnering with the Nylon Hosiery Company, Quant designed stockings and tights that enabled women to dance, run and move. The company developed a technique of making self-supporting long stockings that joined together at the top; therefore, women no longer needed to use suspender-belts.

Another of Quant’s contributions to fashion is trousers for women. Historically, trousers were a male item of clothing and, whilst Quant did not invent the female version, she pushed to make them more acceptable. Women, particularly students, were comfortable wearing trousers, however, most only wore them to informal occasions or at home. Quant wanted to make trousers acceptable for women in the workplace, at parties and other formal events. Not many Mary Quant trousers exist today, however, the result of her determination to make them a regular part of female fashion can be seen in every clothes shop today.

The last of Quant’s major contributions to fashion were hotpants and loungewear. Combining the miniskirt and trousers, Quant produced extremely short shorts that bemused department stores; which section should they sell them in?

“As I love breaking down barriers all this was great fun. Quite soon this collection was promoted as ‘underwear as outerwear’ and vice versa.”
– Mary Quant, Quant by Quant, 1966

Never before had people worn such revealing clothing but the trend caught on quickly amongst the younger members of society. Today, shorts and hotpants are acceptable forms of clothing for women but in the 60s and 70s, this was a risky, although successful, move for Quant.

Loungewear combined trousers, jersey dresses, and hotpants to create stretch towelling one-piece suits. Some had full-length legs that included feet (a precursor of the “onesie”) and others were short zip-up versions. Their purpose was to be worn when lounging at home, which was a foreign concept in Britain at the time. Women only had dressing gowns, which were worn last thing at night and first thing in the morning. The thought of laying around during the day was alien enough, let alone having special clothes in which to do it.

Quant’s inspiration for loungewear came from Babygro (invented in the US in the 1950s). This was the adult version of a baby’s outfit. When reflecting on her designs, Quant once said, “I didn’t want to grow up, perhaps that’s something to do with it.” This explains many of her designs, not just loungewear.

Most of Mary Quant’s greatest fashion achievements occurred within the twenty years shown in the exhibition. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she decided to concentrate more on homeware and make-up than only clothing. This included the duvet, which she dubiously claims she invented.

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In 1988, Quant designed the interior of the Mini (1000) Designer. Dubbed the Mini Quant, it featured black-and-white striped seats with red trimming and red seatbelts. The steering wheel featured her signature daisy.

In 2000, Mary Quant resigned from Mary Quant Ltd, selling the company to a Japanese business; there are currently over 200 Mary Quant shops in Japan. Nonetheless, her fame lives on in Britain and she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to British fashion. Quant is also a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers and the winner of the society’s highest award, the Minerva Medal.

The Mary Quant exhibition is a must-see for those who grew up wearing or being influenced by Quant’s designs. It is also interesting for the younger generations who were not around to experience the fashion first hand, but who benefit daily from her contributions. Mary Quant is a phenomenal woman who single-handedly became known and loved for her designs long before they were mass-produced. She knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from a young age and she made her dream come true.

The V&A are exhibiting Mary Quant until 16th February 2020. Standard tickets are £12, although concessions apply. The exhibition takes place on two levels but it has been made wheelchair friendly.


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Bowling on Through the Years

“The possibilities of paint are never-ending.”
– Frank Bowling, 2017

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For the first time in his career, the 85-year-old Frank Bowling has been honoured with a major retrospective of his life and artwork by Tate Britain in London. The exhibition offers the chance to view the best of Bowling’s works and discover an artist that many know little or anything about. His large canvases dominate the rooms and show off his unique techniques, including his “Map Paintings” and “Poured Painting”. Being the first black man to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, it is surprising Frank Bowling is not better known.

Richard Sheridan Patrick Michael Aloysius Franklin Bowling, shortened to Frank, was born on 26th February 1934 in Bartica, British Guiana (now Guyana). His father, Richard Sheridan Bowling, was a police paymaster and his mother, Agatha Elizabeth Franklin Bowling was a seamstress. When Frank was six-years-old, the family moved to New Amsterdam on the Berbice River in the north-east of the country where his mother established the Bowling’s Variety Store. Frank grew up helping his mother, which included washing the feet of beggars who came to the store for a meal. His father, on the other hand, showed him very little love.

In 1953, Bowling flew to England to live with an uncle and finish his education. He dreamed of becoming a writer or poet but soon after he had finished school, he was drafted into the Royal Air Force for two years. After this, the young South American decided to train as a painter, first enrolling at the Regent Street Polytechnic, then the Chelsea School of Art. In 1959, Bowling was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art’s (RAC) Painting School where he became acquainted with other talented students, including David Hockney (b.1937) and Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1931-2007).

In 1960, Bowling was expelled from the college after marrying Paddy Kitchen, a writer and art critic, who was a member of staff at the time. Despite this, Bowling was determined to persevere with his art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London for one term. Here, he began to develop a taste for the artist Francis Bacon (1909-92), which is evident in his earlier work. Fortunately, the RAC was persuaded to readmit Bowling, which is where he finished his art training. His letter of readmission is on display in the exhibition.

Birthday, 1962

Birthday, 1962

Bowling’s penchant for abstract art was clear during his time at art college. When the students were asked to produce a painting on the theme of birthdays, Bowling did not go down the obvious route. Instead, he produced an impressionistic oil painting of a woman giving birth. When he was younger, Bowling witnessed a neighbour giving birth and the intense pain he observed stayed in his mind for many years.

Titled simply Birthday (1962), Bowling appropriated Francis Bacon’s style of composition, including line work and brushwork. Whilst the open window is fairly lucid and geometric, the figure of the woman in labour is blurred and distorted.

As well as Francis Bacon, Bowling was influenced by a number of artists he met. In 1961, he visited New York where he viewed work by people such as Jackson Pollock (1912-56). Pollock’s technique of pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface was something Bowling would incorporate into his own work later in life.

Unfortunately, many of Frank Bowling’s early works have been destroyed or are missing. He worked in many different London studios during the early 1960s and many paintings were left behind or mislaid whenever he moved. Amongst the missing is a painting Bowling produced in response to a political event. In 1961, the Democratic Republic of the Congo earned their independence from Belgium and installed their first president, Patrice Lumumba (1925-61). Martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba was produce after the president was murdered later that same year.

The year 1962 was quite significant for Frank Bowling. Firstly, his eldest son Dan was born to Paddy Kitchen, shortly followed by his second son Benjamin to another woman, Claire Spencer. Evidently, his marriage to Paddy did not last long. In the same year, Bowling graduated from RCA after writing a thesis about Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). The Dutch painter’s style was another influence for Bowling’s work.

On graduating, Bowling was awarded the silver medal for painting, with David Hockney winning gold. He was offered a travelling scholarship to Rome but requested he visit Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana instead. This was his first trip home in over a decade.

Toward the end of 1962, Bowling held his first major exhibition at Grabowski Gallery in London. His painting Birthday was purchased by the Arts Council and he was able to meet lots of new people who would become friends and mentors.

In his early career, Bowling frequently produced artworks in response to events or things he had witnessed. He produced a series of paintings titled Swan, which was based upon a dying swan drenched in oil he had come across on the River Thames. He used thin, rhombus-shaped canvases for these paintings, an idea he took from an American painter, and filled them with coloured stripes, which was a concept inspired by someone else. His dying swans are painted on top of the geometrically decorated canvases in a less precise manner, almost as if they are moving in an attempt to escape.

Bowling’s swan theme continued in his large scale painting Big Bird (1964). The pattern of the background, reminiscent of Mondrian, is a stark contrast to the expressively abstract birds. In 1965, this painting was submitted to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal where it won the grand prize for painting. Bowling was not overly keen about participating in the exhibition because he did not want to be categorised as a Black painter. He wanted to be regarded as an artist without his ethnicity taking centre stage. Later in life, he remarked that he felt suffocated by his background and frustrated that the art world focused more on his skin colour than his paintings. He observed that Guyana often felt like the heavy rock the Greek king Sisyphus was doomed to repeatedly roll up a hill.

Despite his aversion to being remembered for his geographic and ethnic backgrounds, Bowling’s life in Guyana featured heavily in his paintings, particularly his childhood home. Bowling continuously experimented with different pictorial approaches and techniques, which included photography and silkscreen. Using photographs of his childhood home, Bowling created a stencil that he could repeatedly use to print the image onto his canvases. In his painting Cover Girl (1966), for example, the image of his old house floats in the background. The “cover girl” in question is based on a photograph of the Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto (1926-2003) that Bowling found in a copy of the Observer. The dress is inspired by the designs of the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin (b.1922) and the hairstyle by British-American hairstylist Vidal Sassoon (1928-2012).

Painted at a similar time was the carefully worked out composition Mirror (1964-6). Whilst it contains many similar features, for example, the geometric backgrounds and Bacon-esque figures, there is no screen print of Bowling’s childhood home. Instead, Bowling includes two portraits of himself, one standing at the bottom of the stairs and one swinging from the top. The figure in between is Paddy Kitchen to whom he was still married. This particular painting fuses together several different styles, suggesting a rebellion against convention.

By 1964, Bowling had a third son, Sacha, with yet another woman, Irena, who he later married, although they would eventually divorce. The same year, he returned to New York and became acquainted with abstract expressionist Jasper Johns (b.1930). As well as painting, Johns was a sculptor and included found objects on his canvases. This is another idea Bowling would take up later in his career.

Frank Bowling relocated to New York in 1966, the same time that his marriage to Paddy came to an end. The following year, he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, which helped him establish himself in America. He moved into a studio in SoHo, New York, where he lived and worked until 1975.

From 1967 until 1971, Bowling worked on what would become known as his “map paintings”. Tate Britain described these as “Fields of colour … overlaid with stencilled maps of the world and silkscreened images.” Bowling applied paint to the canvas by pouring or spraying, whilst using cut out stencils of various continents, particularly of the southern hemisphere, to block out certain areas, leaving a print of the shape in its place. He also used photographs of his sons or people he met in Guyana on a trip in 1968 with the photographer Tina Tranter.

South America Squared (1967) was the first “map painting” Bowling produced. The square shapes on the red canvas show that he had not quite left behind the influence of Piet Mondrian. To create the shape of South America, Bowling created a stencil with an epidiascope. This technique was introduced to Bowling by his American mentor Larry Rivers (1923–2002).

Polish Rebecca (1971) was named after Bowling’s friend Rita Reinhardt, the widow of the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-67). She had suffered tragedy during the Second World War when both her parents and sister were murdered during the Holocaust. Although the only “maps” represented are of South America and Africa, Bowling is hinting at the connection between the extermination of Jews in Europe with the dispersion of Jews in the southern regions.

Despite not wanting to be dictated by his past, all of Bowling’s “map paintings” are connected to his roots. Barticaborn I (1967), which was used on promotional material for the exhibition, refers to Bowling’s place of birth. Bartica is situated at the junction of three rivers: Cuyuni, Mazaruni and Essequibo. When visiting New Amsterdam with Tranter, they also went to Bartica to gather inspiration for Bowling’s work.

Around 1973, Bowling began using a new technique, which, although no mention was made in the exhibition, is likely inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock. This sudden change in his method may also be associated with the end of his marriage to Irena.

Bowling began experimenting by pouring different coloured paint onto a canvas and watching them merge together. In his New York Studio and later in his London Studio, which he took up in 1984 and still uses today, he set up a tilting platform, which allows him to pour paint from a height of two metres. The colours spill down the canvas, producing an unpredictable pattern.

All of Bowling’s “poured paintings” are a result of chance. He never began with an idea in mind; he let the flow of the paint take charge. He always titled the outcomes once he was finished, using the events of his daily life and the people he knew for inspiration. The ambiguously titled Ziff (1974) is a typical example of this style of work. Bowling filled the background with colour in a similar manner to his “map paintings” before applying liquid paint whilst the canvas was on the tilted platform.

Kaieteurtoo (1975) was named after having a conversation about the Guyanese tourist attraction Kaieteur Falls. This is the world’s largest single drop waterfall by volume of water flowing, which stands at a height of 226 metres and has a width of 113 metres. This name felt appropriate because the dripping paint almost resembles a cascade of water.

Toward the end of the 1970s, Bowling was applying a growing number of contrasting techniques. As well as using his tilting platform, he used combined washes of paint, spattering and splotching. Although these were similar methods to the aforementioned Pollock, there is no doubt that the results are unique to Frank Bowling. An example of this is At Swim Two Manatee (1977-8), which has a greater density than some of his previous works. By using these unpredictable techniques, Bowling said he was making “painting happen almost as if I didn’t do anything about it.”

Due to the randomness of the applied paint, some of Frank Bowling’s works were the result of happy accidents. Vitacress (1981), for example, looks like a cosmic sky featuring a moon or planet. This round imprint, however, was the result of leaving a bucket on a drying canvas. Despite being unintentional, Bowling loved the result and used the “technique” in future paintings.

A selection of paintings at the Tate Britain is labelled “cosmic space”, however, this was never Bowling’s intention. As previously stated, Bowling never began an artwork with an idea in mind but let the flow of the paint dictate the outcome. By adding ammonia and pearlescence to the acrylics, the blending of colours produced a marbling effect, which in turn made them resemble cosmic space. Despite this, Bowling did not give them space-related titles, for instance, Ah Whoosh Susanna (1981).

As well as out-of-this-world results, some of Bowling’s artworks also resembled underwater scenes, for instance, Moby Dick (1981). The ammonia and turpentine also produced chemical reactions, which along with the water, altered the consistency and colour of the acrylic paint, allowing a smoother finish than other “poured paintings”.

Bowling was still experimenting with techniques and media well into the 1980s. In 1983, he purchased a flat in Pimlico, not far from the Tate Britain, where he still lives today. He spent his time being with his sons, visiting Tate and working on his art. At Tate, he became familiar with J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), whose use of colours sparked future ideas.

Perhaps inspired by Jasper Johns, Bowling began sticking found objects onto his canvases. These included plastic toys, packing material and oyster shells. As well as acrylic paint, he also used acrylic gel, acrylic foam, chalk, beeswax and glitter, all of which added to the texture of the final outcomes. Bowling tended to stick the items onto the canvas before applying paint using his pouring method. The weight and fluidity of the mixture occasionally dragged the items downwards into unplanned positions. Towards Crab Island (1983) is an example of this.

As always, Bowling named his paintings after they had been created and they were usually an unplanned experiment. During a summer residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, however, Bowling was inspired by the rural landscape and forests, which he attempted to explore in his work. Without changing his method of working, Bowling produced Wintergreens (1986) using earthy colours to represent the scenery. He added several strips of acrylic foam, almost reverting to his geometric patterns from the 1960s. Although the paint obscures most of the found objects, there is apparently a cap of a film canister and a plastic toy owl hidden on the surface.

In 1987, Tate acquired its first painting by an artist of Afro-Caribbean descent: Frank Bowling’s Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984-6). The title pays homage to Bowling’s fellow student at the RCA, R.B. Kitaj. Once again, Bowling created a design with acrylic foam, which was then dislodged when the paint was added. He describes these strips of foam as “the ribs of the geometry from which I worked.” Amongst the strips are bits of plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells.

Bowling’s engagement with colour came to a height at the end of the 1980s. With landscape artists such as Turner, Constable and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) in mind, Bowling began work on a series titled Great Thames. Two examples are on display in the exhibition. His choice of colour and luminous paint capture the play of light on the water at different times of the day.

“It’s exciting and challenging to work in London, Turner’s town, and the pressures of the weight of British tradition is exhilarating.”
– Frank Bowling
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Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989

In 1989, Bowling was persuaded to participate in The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post War Britain at the Hayward Gallery. Despite his scepticism about being labelled by his ethnicity, curator Rasheed Araeen (b.1935) convinced him it was worth taking part. At this time, Bowling was thinking a lot about Guyana and his childhood, particularly following the death of his mother in 1988. Accompanied by his son Sacha, he returned to Guyana where he produced paintings based on the landscape. In 1990, Bowling purchased a loft studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn and split his time between London and New York.

In 1993, Bowling made his first trip to Africa to attend A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African Painting in Senegal where he won the Pollock-Krasner award. He won the award again in 1998.

In the 1990s, Bowling experimented with composition, occasionally sewing more than one completed canvas together, for example, Girls in the City (1991). He also began to work on smaller canvases than in the past and began to reduce the number of found objects he incorporated into his work. He stopped using acrylic foam completely and smoothed the acrylic gel with a spatula, rather than leaving it to dry in textured lumps. Bowling stated the reason he stapled seven canvases together in Girls in the City was to represent “the way people structure themselves … we live in buildings and express life in opposition to minimalism, enclosure and death.”

In the exhibition, there is at least one painting named after each of his sons, for instance, Benjamin’s Mess (Hot Hands) (2006). Unfortunately, Bowling’s eldest son Dan died in 2001, which prompted him to start using a lot of white in his works as a form of memorial. Despite the grief, Bowling continued to take part in exhibitions, for example, at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and at Tate Britain in 2004. The following year, 2005, Bowling became the first Black artist to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

As well as naming paintings after his sons, Bowling titled them after other people he knew or admired. Orange Balloon (1996) was produced for Paul Adams (b.1977), who was both the youngest player in the South African cricket team and the first Black player. The painting itself has little to do with cricket or the cricketer.

Despite needing to sit down due to his age and diminishing mobility, Bowling continues to create art today, employing all the techniques he developed over six decades. Looking at Remember Thine Eyes (2014), it is evident that Bowling still uses his tilted platform, however, because he needs to stand in order to do this, he has only used the one colour (yellow) and possibly only one lot of pouring. The “eyes” have been created by resting two buckets on the wet surface – a technique he accidentally invented in 1981. The title comes from a line in Shakespeare‘s King Lear.

For parts of his artworks, Bowling is assisted by his wife, Rachel Scott who he married in 2013, although had been with since 1977, and his long-term friend Spencer A. Richards. Due to the spontaneity of Bowling’s work, it does not matter if either of them makes mistakes when carrying out Bowling’s instructions.

One of Bowling’s most recent works is Wafting (2018) in which he reverts to using tangible material. The polka dot material, purchased by his grandson Samson in Zambia, has been torn into strips and positioned on top of the canvas. It is not certain whether Richards or Rachel assisted with the fabric, however, Bowling does most of the painting himself, laying canvases on the floor so that he can pour on different colours from a seated position.

Although Frank Bowling’s artworks may not be palatable to everyone, it is a shame his name is not well known. Surely being the first Black man elected to the Royal Academy would have cause for celebration and be an event people would remember? On the other hand, Bowling does not want to be known as a Black painter, he wants his paintings to speak for themselves. After viewing a lifetimes work, it is easy to pick Frank Bowling’s paintings out of a crowd. Beforehand, however, you could be forgiven for expecting him to be a white man; after all, how many Black artists can you name?

By putting emphasis on Bowling’s wish not to be labelled as a Black man, Tate Britain inadvertently draws attention to his geographic and ethnic background. As Bowling said himself, it is something he cannot escape from. Even his artworks continually refer back to his homeland, whether in title or theme.

In the Tate Etc magazine, art critic Matthew Collings mentions that Bowling was disappointed not to see any literature about himself in the lobby of a past exhibition. There were plenty of publications about the other (white) artists who took part, which made it hurt even more. Although racism is less of a problem today, the majority of Bowling’s career as been plagued with adversity.

Some people will love his paintings and others will not understand them, however, regardless of this, Frank Bowling has received what he deserves: a retrospective of his life and career. With the exhibition virtually on his doorstep, Bowling can see his work being appreciated and enjoyed by different generations and know that it is not his skin colour they are interested in but the paintings on display. Finally, he has achieved what he has always wanted.

The exhibition Frank Bowling closes soon on 26th August. Tickets are £13, however, members of the gallery can view for free.


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