Metamorphosis & Metaphor in the Art of Kate Walters

Talking to Kate Walters about her work, it’s interesting how often poetry crops up. Blogging about a visit we made together to The Horse exhibition at the British Museum last year, she described finding a book with a poem by Rilke in her hotel room and quoted the lines: “You run like a herd of luminous deer/and I am dark, I am forest…” Only Kate could stay in a hotel where the rooms contain books with poems by Rilke – poems with imagery so very close to her own.

Kate’s titles tend to sound like poems even when they’re not. Nothing is single if it lives takes Donne’s philosophy that no man is an island and expands it to cover the whole of creation, animal and vegetable. The title of this exhibition itself, The Secret Worth a Thousand, is taken from Goethe and relates to a theme – of man’s kinship with animals – explored in the most painted cycle of poems in history, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Gods changed into swans, hunters transformed into deer, nymphs turned into trees… the transformations of matter described by Ovid were the images that launched a thousand Renaissance paintings. And those transformations – and the idea of the wafer thin line between ourselves and other life forms that has now been proved by the scientific discovery that we share 50% of our genes with a banana – still excites the contemporary art world, as we saw last year in the National Gallery’s Metamorphosis exhibition in which Mark Wallinger, Chris Ofili and Conrad Shawcross riffed on Titian’s paintings inspired by Ovid.

These three artists, like Titian, are of course all men. Much of the reason for the popularity of Ovid’s stories in Renaissance art was their eroticism – Zeus’s semen raining on Danae’s bed in a shower of gold was one of the most popular. But these stories of transformation have also inspired contemporary women artists like Paula Rego and Ana Maria Pacheco. One reason, perhaps, is that in the lives of mortals, rather than gods, the female sex has the monopoly on such transformations. Sitting quietly like an animal turning blood to milk, as in Kate’s painting, is something nursing mothers do on a daily basis.

Kate’s transformations, though, go back further than the nursery, and further than Ovid. The shadows of ancient civilizations flicker across her pictures: the many-breasted figure in Inmost Affinity reminds us of Diana of Ephesus, while other images in the show – such as The kiss of the womb restores the souls of the lost – have an Egyptian look. But although Kate draws inspiration from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, she never quotes. On our way round The Horse show, I pointed out a carving she might almost have made herself and she turned away as if from temptation, saying: “I mustn’t copy”.

If Kate’s imagery reminds us of ‘primitive’ art, it’s because it springs from the same ancient source: what Thomas Hardy called ‘the old association” between man and nature. As another of her titles simply states: ‘We share our flesh’. In recognizing this, Kate’s art aligns itself with a ‘primitive’ value system rejected by the modern market economy. As the American journalist Richard Heinberg has expressed it in an essay on civilization and primitivism: “As we grow accustomed to valuing everything according to money, we tend to lose a sense of the uniqueness of things. What, after all, is an animal worth, or a mountain, or a redwood tree, or an hour of human life? The market gives us a numerical answer based on scarcity and demand. To the degree that we believe that such values have meaning, we live in a world that is desacralized and desensitized, without heart or spirit.”

Heart and spirit are at the centre of Kate’s art – you could describe it as ‘sacral’ rather than ‘sacred’. As such it is heir to an imaginative tradition represented in Britain by artists like Cecil Collins, David Jones and Ken Kiff – and more recently by Francesco Clemente in Italy. (By coincidence, Clemente’s latest London show at Blain Southern which closes today includes a painting of a man and a woman within the belly of a horse.) What these so-called ‘visionary’ artists share is a poetic quality – David Jones, like William Blake, was also a poet. Poets deal in metaphors, where one thing stands for and merges into another, and metaphors are the lifeblood of Kate’s art. Women metamorphosing into deer were the stuff of poetry long before Ovid. “Thy two breasts are like young roes, that are twins, that feed among the lilies” might refer to a painting in this gallery – in fact it’s a verse from The Song of Songs.

Sacral art is the polar opposite of Pop Art. It’s slow art, slowly made for slow consumption. You could call it contemplative, except that that sounds too detached. There’s an urgency about Kate’s work that disrupts contemplation – the lap of one of her many-breasted women would not provide Matisse’s businessman with a comfortable armchair.

“When I was a little girl,” she recalled in a diary of a recent pilgrimage to Assisi, “I used to wonder whether the earth suffered when it was covered with tarmac. I had a strong sense of how alive the earth was, and I imagined it was suffocating. I never told anyone my thoughts”. Instead, as a mature artist she has made paintings that strip back the tarmac to expose the suffocating earth beneath. There’s a feeling of self-exposure about some of her work, an undercurent of outrage at our rape of nature and abuse of fertility that gives it a ragged and dangerous edge. The bloodied watercolour Mother Feeding Herself was done after reading about genital mutilation, while The Parts of Osiris she describes as “a response to all pictures of waiting women looking out to sea, putting women back in a position of power rather than weakness”. Here in Newlyn Art Gallery, you could read it as a contemporary feminine riposte to Frank Bramley’s Hopeless Dawn.

‘Poema’ was a word the Romans took from the Greeks; they didn’t have a word of their own. The Romans were a practical lot but the Greeks were practical about poetry, because their word ‘poema’ comes from the verb ‘poiere’, meaning to ‘make’. Poetry is a thing made, like painting, and its manufacture dictates not just its form but its consistency: its depth, tone and speed of consumption. In his Art of Poetry, Horace makes this comparison: “As in painting, so in poetry. Some works will captivate you when you stand very close to them, and others if you are at a greater distance. This one prefers a darker vantage point, that one wants to be seen in the light since it feels no terror before the penetrating judgment of the critic. This pleases once, that will give pleasure even if one goes back to it ten times over.” Kate’s poetic paintings belong in the latter category.

Laura Gascoigne

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