Apollo Magazine

Chantal Joffe on painting, pastel and parenthood

An interview with the British artist, renowned for expressive portraits of family, friends and fellow artists

Chantal Joffe photographed in her studio in March 2018.

Chantal Joffe photographed in her studio in March 2018. Photo: Kate Peters

Chantal Joffe’s The Squid and the Whale (2017) depicts two figures sitting on the edge of a bed, one almost obliterated by the other. The figure in the foreground, naked but for a pair of pants, is hunched, with a wide expanse of pale back and a small, beetle-like head. Behind, a child sits upright, taut, her face puckered with anxiety. The colour is concentrated: apart from the child’s blue striped dress, a green pillow and a blanket swirled with pink, the painting is almost white. The image conveys the difficult nexus of mother and child, a criss-cross of emotions in which the mother – lumbering, defensive, pallid – is outgrown by her wary and watchful offspring. ‘There’s a brilliant bit in Deborah Levy’s new book [The Cost of Living] where she says that after having children you go on believing you’re the same person,’ says Joffe. ‘But you’re not the same person. Becoming a parent is the most radical change you ever experience. It remakes you from the ground up, and you become someone other.’

We’re in Joffe’s studio, a first-floor room flanked with windows, near Old Street in east London. It’s large and messy, and falls into two parts. At the far end, beneath the windows, paintings are stacked against each other and propped against easels and chairs. There are portraits of naked women, heavily pregnant, and of Joffe’s friends, the painter Ishbel Myerscough and the writer Olivia Laing. At the other end of the room, where we’re sitting, are a small sofa, a chair, and a table piled with catalogues and books. As we talk, Joffe’s 13-year-old daughter, Esme, home for the Easter holidays, clatters about in an annex off the main studio, a space where ‘she makes things’.

The Squid and the Whale (2017), Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; © Chantal Joffe

It’s a particularly busy period for Joffe, and the studio on this morning in late March reflects her preparation for two exhibitions that differ in both medium and subject matter. For the first time, she is about to show solely works in pastel on paper, at Victoria Miro Venice (until 19 May), while at The Lowry in Salford an exhibition of paintings spanning her career will examine motherhood and adolescence (19 May–2 September) – familiar ground for an artist who has continually documented the changes wrought on women’s bodies through maternity and ageing. Joffe is interested in chronicling female experience from the first anxieties of motherhood – ‘the sense that, if I die, no one else will care so much’ – to the remakings of the postpartum and ageing body. Since January, she has painted herself every day. These small portraits line the walls of her studio, close-cropped and uncompromising. ‘Recently I was at a party,’ she explains, ‘and I was dancing, and it was weird because all I could see were these painted heads, these hideous self-portraits, shifting and moving. Everyone wants to have an illusion of themselves, that they’re a bit attractive, but the older I get it seems more important to be absolutely honest and direct.’

Joffe made her breakthrough in the 1990s, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, with small-scale paintings of pornography, ‘absolutely precise’ works through which she learnt to edit herself: ‘I wanted clear, bright colour, clean lines between light and shade. The subject matter was wild enough, but I wanted to contain my own expressiveness in this very deliberate way.’ Expressiveness is what Joffe has become known for, though she veers in scale between the miniature and the larger-than-life. Her scenes of leisure and domestic life, of family and friends, are gestural, created at speed with broad brushstrokes so that the residue of wet paint makes tracks down the surface of a painting. Her nudes use dark reds and pinks, often on coloured grounds of apple green, with flecks of fluorescence glimpsed through the paint. Yet despite the immediacy of her more recent portraits, her early precision remains: every gesture is considered, colours are distinct, and backdrops – interiors and abstract textiles – are kept to a minimum. She is invested in the evolution of figuration through the 20th and 21st centuries; Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Alice Neel, Alex Katz (‘I think he’s brilliant and underrated’), Paula Rego and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (‘her figures are imaginary, but I feel I’ve seen or known them’) are all artists she mentions as we talk.

Self-Portrait Pregnant II (2004), Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; © Chantal Joffe

The early shift of focus from pornography to motherhood in Joffe’s work reveals her interest in nature’s entire reproductive drama. The title of her Lowry show, ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’, is a line from the diary of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), with whom she is ‘sharing’ the exhibition. In her short lifetime, Modersohn-Becker made a radical contribution to the modernist avant-garde, though she is little recognised outside her native Germany. Hailed as the first woman to paint a nude, in 1899 she left the artists’ colony where she was living and made the first of several prolonged visits to Paris, where she painted more than 50 of them, often with children, alongside still lifes and self-portraits. Her style, often described as expressionist, is for Joffe ‘naked and direct’, glowing with luminous colours and experimental with outline in a way that anticipated artists such as Picasso, Modigliani and Gauguin. Joffe has looked to Modersohn-Becker for years: ‘It’s the way she paints the connection between mother and child, the baby breastfeeding and looking back at its mother. I hope we share that directness.’ 

Modersohn-Becker’s subject matter was unfashionable: she was a domestic painter and a painter of children. She sold only three paintings during her lifetime; many were destroyed by the Nazis. Joffe’s exhibition is an act of reclamation; with four of Modersohn-Becker’s works on display, it’s a chance for UK audiences to encounter an artist finally on the cusp of international recognition (MoMA and the Neue Galerie New York jointly acquired a self-portrait in 2017). Joffe tells me she’s recently been to Tate Britain’s exhibition of figurative painting, ‘All Too Human’ (until 27 August). ‘It was quite an excluding show for women,’ she says. ‘The final room, which showed only female artists, felt like an afterthought, like it had been shoved on. I’ve been thinking about whether it’s possible to edit history, because Paula has had to make it through a lot of it.’

Paula in a High-Necked Blouse (2015), Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; © Chantal Joffe

Though short, Modersohn-Becker’s life was fraught with activity. In Paris, she broke free of the oppressions of domestic servitude and devoted herself to painting, producing work feverishly: 80 pictures in 1906. ‘Life is serious, rich and beautiful,’ she wrote home to her parents. But her ambition was complicated by her desire for her own child. She was joined in Paris by her husband, the landscape painter Otto Modersohn, and became pregnant, giving birth to a daughter in November 1907. With pain in her legs, she was ordered by her physician to bed, where she remained for 18 days until, finally permitted to move, she took a few steps and died almost instantly of an embolism. ‘In her diaries, she knew how good she was,’ Joffe says. ‘But she also knew what it meant as a female painter to have a child. I love that in her paintings of mothers and children, you can see her working through those desires. They’re direct and transcendental without sentimentality, because painting is the truest representation of what people are interested in, what they want.’

Like that of Modersohn-Becker, Joffe’s career doesn’t reflect the temperament of the art world. It’s partly a matter of timing (the year after Joffe’s graduation, Charles Saatchi bought Jenny Saville’s degree show and the atmosphere changed) but also of resistance; motherhood is rarely in the zeitgeist. Where Saville pursued fleshy bodies, flawed through fatness and surgery, turning only later to depicting children, Joffe was consistent in her representation of maternity. Pregnant bodies and mothers with children are threaded through her work; long before she had her daughter, she painted other people’s babies, a way of ‘thinking my way into it’. ‘I wanted to show how it felt,’ she says. ‘Early on, it was so incredibly and physically hard, and I had anxiety, and I was struggling. I wanted to see if I could paint the unpaintable, both the extraordinariness and the physicalness, but also this sense that I was going to pieces.’ More recently, she has focused on double self-portraits, depicting herself alongside Myerscough or her own daughter, Esme. The Lowry show plays witness to the changing bonds between mother and child. ‘It’s very much about the heartbreak of the child separating itself from you, that process of detachment,’ she says. ‘Your desire is still to own and to protect and to care for them, but they want it differently, they don’t want to be smothered. And in some of the paintings I am literally doing that to Esme.’ This is the drama playing out in The Squid and the Whale, in the sorrowful hunch of the mother’s whale-back and the nervousness of her child, desperate to wriggle free.

Self-Portrait with Ishbel (2014), Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; © Chantal Joffe

When she visited Modersohn-Becker’s house in Bremen, Joffe wore a long skirt and tied her hair in a bun, embarrassed only at the last minute that ‘everyone might have thought I was literally masquerading as her’. Joffe’s attachments run deep, and she is readily infatuated by the artists and writers who inspire her. As a student she fell for Sylvia Plath – ‘I painted myself as her, I painted myself as her father’ – and later she painted small-scale self-portraits in gesso ‘imagining myself as Paula’. ‘When I get obsessed, I inhabit my subjects,’ she explains. ‘Going to Bremen was important because it helped me understand Paula’s life. I always thought I’d like to be a biographer.’ It’s partly research, but it’s also something more personal: ‘I make pilgrimages. I remember going to an exhibition of Emily Dickinson’s letters in New York and feeling incredibly moved when I learned her hair was red.’ It’s no wonder she’s drawn to Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City (2016), and a writer for whom personal experience and biography are interwoven, and living relationships are forged with subjects long dead. 

‘There are people for whom the painting or writing of another person is almost more real than their life,’ says Joffe. ‘You think as them; you feel it so intensely. It’s completely human to have that intense over-identification. Otherwise I don’t know what the point is.’ Joffe, who reads ‘until the bath has gone cold and I’ve wrinkled up’, mentions other non-fiction writers who are innovative in their narration of lived experience: the novelist and autobiographical essayist Deborah Levy, and Maggie Nelson, who recounted her partner’s transition alongside her own pregnancy in a supple and revelatory work of theory/memoir, The Argonauts (2015). These writers – for whom womanhood intersects with queerness, with the physicalities and intimacies of the body, with being human and alive – provide sustenance: ‘They become more real, more interesting than your own life.’ Joffe’s repeated use of the word ‘direct’ fits here; in her own work, in portraits angular, awkward and tender, she strives for the honesty of what it is to live within a body. 

Esme on the Beach (2016), Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; © Chantal Joffe

Recently, Joffe has turned to pastels, a medium poised between the expressiveness and precision which form the poles of her practice. ‘I had always thought pastels and contemporary pastel drawing were a bit naff,’ she explains. ‘They always seemed like something you needed an elaborate technique for, but they’re soft and amazing and the colours are so intense.’ Drawing Esme on the beach at Hastings, she discovered ‘something very close to painting, but much reduced and simplified’, and continued to draw from photographs in her studio. Her pastels at Victoria Miro are distinct from her portraits in paint. The subjects have an elusive quality; where usually they confront and hold the viewer’s gaze, here they’re turning away. In pastel, Joffe is alert to the nuances of bodily expression, catching her subjects off-guard and preserving moments of awkwardness and vulnerability. ‘It’s very tempting to have the figure always looking at you, because that’s what we want to see,’ she says. ‘We want to see the eyes.’ Here, however, she deals in sideways glances, figures stooping away from the viewer, or else preoccupied with their own activities. These works are driven not only by observation but also by an attention to how people are. By depicting Esme sewing, with her friends, or beach-combing, she creates drama from moments of leisure and the everyday. The mother and child theme returns; now 13, Esme is distinct and separate, no longer a dimension of her mother’s body.

Joffe worked rapidly, producing 100 drawings in two weeks, which she presented to the gallery spread out on her studio floor. ‘I couldn’t stop making them. Each one led to the next.’ She revelled in the immediacy of the medium, drawing ambidextrously, with no colours to mix or brushes to wash. She had been thinking about Degas: ‘We’d gone roller-skating as a family, and everywhere I looked it was a Degas, the image of a child bending to put on a skate. I was obsessing over the fragmentation of the figure through motion and light.’ In another series, recently shown in ‘From Life’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, Joffe depicts herself naked, in her garden at night. She used flash photography to capture the contrast of her skin in the darkness, though in pastel, she says, ‘The white was fugitive, I couldn’t draw hard enough, the sticks kept breaking in my hands.’ She describes drawing as ‘the absolute equivalent of the experience itself’; her pastels are attempts to realise these contrasts, of soft flesh touching a metal chair, of a camera’s flash against a dark background, a non-space, an absence of light.

Self-Portrait Naked in the Garden (2016), Chantal Joffe. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; © Chantal Joffe

Joffe has often spoken of painting as a kind of ecstasy, of ‘absolute immersion or connection or whatever it is’. But that state, ‘like how I imagine drug addicts feel’, is elusive. On her worst days, it can be cumbersome – ‘Things are often too close, and the figure gets bigger, and I can’t hold everything together’ – mired by the monotony of stopping and starting, of painting’s practicalities and the pure, physical graft of the work. ‘I wash my brushes every half an hour because I literally can’t keep them clean,’ she says. Discovering pastels has felt like peeling layers off her process, freeing herself from the expectations and restrictions of painting. ‘When you find a new medium, everything changes. It’s like a window opening.’

‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing – Chantal Joffe’ is at the Lowry, Salford until 2 September.