Mary Fedden: the magical world of everyday

For only two weeks (4-19 of December, 2014) the Portland Gallery in London is exhibiting some of the work of British painter Mary Fedden (1915-2012). Her approach to colour and the genre of still life was groundbreaking: she made the quotidian magical, transforming simple scenes into colourful memories. It is interesting to note that Mary Fedden developed her very particular style throughout almost seven decades of work: from British modernism and its variation, the development of cubism and abstractionism, including areas such as surrealism and pop art. And yet, her work remains firmly rooted in her very personal imagination, her memories, her sketches. Indeed, from all of these influences, her work actually seems timeless and actually every day it grows fresher and so 21st century. It may not be as publicised and obvious as influences from pop art or any other male artist, but, if you look closer you will find that her work informs a growing group of painting and artists all across the country. Today, her work has influenced a whole generation of contemporary painters and a very particular aesthetic of flatten objects, colourful flowers and mischievous fruits. It is even possible to say that the style of many of the Cornish artists that today exhibit all around the country borrows many elements of Mary Fedden’s style. A couple of months ago I blogged about it in the exhibition on Cornwall Contemporary presenting Emma Dunbar and the abstract work of Maggie Mathews also conveys the blues of Cornwall. Indeed, some of my favourite contemporary artists like Este McLeod are actually inheritors of this beatuiful and ever so popular style.

My own work is highly influenced by Mary Fedden and this type of painting, and in our annual holidays in Cornwall I have produced a  number of paintings in this style (as customary in this blog, and in order to comply with copyright regulations I am only including my own paintings here):

scanStill Life in Cornwall. Private Collection. Beatriz Acevedo.

Mary Fedden was born in Bristol and she was educated in The Slade, there she learned about classical subjects and the use of an earthly hued palette. Her paintings, notwithstanding, did not ascribe to the classical realism of the school, neither it followed the artistic trends of the continent. Her earlier works leaned toward surrealism, keeping a textured and atmospheric palette. During the war she stopped painting working as a Land girl and driving trucks. But when she re-connected with former class mate Julian Trevalyin in 1949, she released her palette including more vibrant colours: the mauve skies, the colourful shades of grey, the daring combinations of orange and purple, and of course, her master application of black! used as a mean of accentuation of background, shapes and compositions. By then her work abandoned the abstract or surrealism and he turned to her surroundings, scenes of domestic magic, the garden and the land. She worked mainly in oils but in this exhibition particularly there are many examples of gouache: a very versatile material combining the richness of waterbased colour but with a streak of opacity, giving more depth and body to the painting. There are many examples of small paintings of Julian sleeping, or a mother by the sea, the evidence of a picnic in the beach. Flowers by the windowsill acquire an eternal nature, this is not realism, but magical realism, in the sense of being transported in time: it is that feeling of being on holidays, holding hands, watching the children play while the seamen bring their bounty. Personally, I thought it resonates with my own “visual diaries” of painting with my beloved, walking through the beautiful towns in England.

scan-1In Rye with my love. Liquid Acrylic on handmade paper.

Beatriz Acevedo. Artist Collection.

In the exhibition one enters into the magical scenes that are revealed in her signature use of gouache, a type of painting that is used mainly for sketches, rich shades of muted colours, offering skies, and clouds, and shiny moons for characters like pierrots, seamen, mothers, sailors and lovers. Going through the beautiful array of paintings one enters into a world of domestic bliss and imagination. Apart of the landscapes and figures, Mary Fedden is perhaps more known for her still lifes: the composition of bottles, flowers, and fruits, that stand in the canvas transformed into a kind of poetry of basic words: bird, star, fish, pear and moon.


Goldfinch. Liquid acrylic on Paper. Beatriz Acevedo (available)


The beauty of this exhibition is that it gives the possibility of entering into her magical work, outside the bustling commerce in Picadilly, the tourists and the Ritz, but inside the gallery at 8 Bennett Street: theres is poetry and colour. I was particularly enthralled by it all as I feel this is the type of art that I would like to do. I do not feel my art is going to be about controversy or pop or sexual confessions, my stories are about the the mystical, the everyday miracles, the colours and nature. Perhaps M. Fedden is not an artist for the uber-contemporary art galleries and why would she? She is not “cryptic” or “outrageous” enough for the lovers of this type of contemporary art: it does not shout about complex matters of post-modern conditions or the dialectics of violence and gender; it is neither a critique to consumerism or the materiality; nor is the over-sexualised and rather predictable aesthetics of pop art. But she is much more popular and near to people like you or me: moreover, her art and style have invaded our imagination and our visual preferences much more than the “desiccated cows” (nothing wrong with that, it is just that it is not something I will have on my walls). In contrast to this type of art, Mary Fedden’s paintings are about a direct dialogue with any type of audience, she just communicates with colours and shapes, with beloved animals and pets, with flowers and landscapes. The viewer does not need to “decipher” the painting, nor she has to peel the layers of concepts and meanings. It is a very feminine art, generous and mysterious, intimate and universal.

Home at Cornwall-1Home at Cornwall. Acrylic on Canvas. Beatriz Acevedo

(Available for Sale or Giclee print)

Mary Fedden’s appeal lies on her talking to your imagination and your memories, to the colours of the sea, to the rosy exhilaration of the landscapes, the tranquility of a cup of tea by the sea or the exuberance of a plate of spaghetti! Because it is here in the domestic domain where M. Fedden’s dialogue takes place. This very fact makes her work central to gender politics and to political issues. This does not mean that she somehow is accepting the domestic as the “woman’s place”, on the opposite, she reveals the domestic as a world of transformations, it is all about the magical and mysterious, her deep blacks are voids for imagining new possibilities, it is an art of soothing and harmony, an art for emancipation! Because it is “beauty” in its purest form articulated in colours and shapes, revealing the mysteries of fruits and flowers in the canvas, which connects to the inner “divinity”, this possibility of accessing the viewer’s memories with hope and exhilaration, in other words, exploring the present for living an intended future.

Sketchbook Rye Oct2013Sketchbook in Rye. Beatriz Acevedo. Pen on Paper.

From this visit, and for my own process, the message is the originality of the way of seeing the world. I have dozens of sketchbooks of memories and emotional landscapes, these are the major treasure I can have. I feel like coming back to them, colour them, make them dance and honour Mary Fedden’s legacy. In these days of reflection and recollection, it is nice to have a “sign” -of colour and poetry- reminding me who I am and what type of art I want to do. As this year is coming to an end, there are many things I’ve learned and many actions achieved: art is a journey of self-discovery and this is all about finding my own voice. Far from trying to make myself like somebody else Mary Fedden is reminding me of my very own treasure: my own way of seeing the world as drawn in the many sketchbooks and illustrations ready to see the light! Thanks Mary Fedden, your work continues to inspire!


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