…an empty shell, like an empty nest, invites day-dreams of refuge
Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space
A room in a converted chapel is visited by a woman on a journey back through northern France. She arrives in the dark. As dawn breaks the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, the window with its iron handle that looks out onto an old village barn, the heavy armoire, the lamps and gilded mirror all reveal themselves, cautiously, like shadows emerging from the fog of a dream. Paintings suggest stories, other worlds. Like mirrors they reveal many possibilities.
Chambre: the French word is like a breath, a whisper. The room is a world that time has forgotten; a world redolent with other lives that have passed through and left their marks like pale ghosts. It is as if the woman has always known this place; has, in some sense, returned home. In the short time that is left before departure she absorbs this faded interior as the light slowly changes: the blue glass bowl and Wedgewood plaques on the mantelpiece beside the brass candle stick, the ultramarine bed sheet tangled after a night of sleeplessness, the blueness of which, in the pearly dawn, glows like the Madonna’s robes in a quattrocento painting, a time when lapis lazuli from the distant mountainous mines of Afghanistan was more precious than gold. It is as if each object has slipped from fact to dream and acts as a trigger into the remembrance of things lost and past.
The room draws her in. Instinctively she recognises it for, like Virginia Woolf who spoke in her famous Girton lecture about the importance of women having a space to work and dream, she understands its significance. It is a place to think, to be entirely herself, however briefly, away from the demands of daily life; a place of reverie and primal safety. For artists such as Van Gogh and Gwen John the rooms they inhabited, the rooms they painted, represented not only freedom from bourgeois constraints but also became metaphors of their souls, their psychic core as artists. Gwen John’s empty wicker chair in her little attic reflects her sense of loneliness that was to become the spur to her creative impulse, just as the empty bed in Zara Matthews’ paintings, becomes the catalyst for a whole new series of work.
Set out in the shape of the actual room the paintings form a conversation each with the other. Objects that occur in one canvas are echoed like a continuing thought in the next. Time is the predominant element which ties these works together, as in Monet’s Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral series. The deep blues and greens seen in the early first light are later saturated by the morning sun to become pink and gold. That these paintings grew from photographs is no coincidence. The Latin term, camera obscura, means a darkened chamber or room. To take photographs is to engage with the passing of time. For when the camera shutter closes it traps each moment, as in aspic, so that it can never be truly revisited except through nostalgia.
Longing and desire are among the most profound human urges. They form the the theme of much great literature and art: Rilke’s poetry, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and that quintessential French novel of yearning, Alan Fournier’s Le Grand Meulnes, while the Impressionists understood, as no other painters, the impossibility of fixing a single moment in time within the constant flux and shimmer of light. Here, in these haunting, meticulously rendered paintings, Zara Matthews creates a series of epiphanal moments, dialogues between colour, tone and shade, light and dark, photography and painting. La chambre becomes a place of refuge, a shelter, a womb into which the artist retreats to re-nourish the creative imagination in order to reach out and create new dreams.
Zara Mathews Chambre at Emma Hill Fine Art Eagle Gallery from 16 September to 21 October 2011