Piece of art

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Although it could not be said they were rebels, both appear to have worked outside the artistic parameters expected of them by their peers and society. Gainsborough was an outsider, in the sense that he was a self-made country lover, someone who refused to be influenced by the Masters such as his contemporary Joshua Reynolds, who painted portraits on large canvasses without a landscape background and Gainsborough continued to paint portraitures with the landscape as the background. Shonebare on the other hand has worked outside the expected boundaries of a British artist of African descendant by excluding the heads, something the Yoruba tribe, his family ancestry, considers to be 'the seat of the soul'.

The fundamental differences stem from the fact that Shonebare used mannequins, installed in a gallery, whereas Gainsborough painted in oil on canvas. I was fascinated as to how Shonebare had used the concept of an established oil painter and made an installation in 3-d from fibreglass, dressing the life size mannequins in strikingly bright coloured cotton fabrics, but without their heads. Another obvious difference between the two artists is that one has excluded the landscape whereas the other has included his beloved landscape, which was a significant part of his paintings.

For Gainsborough, the landscape was extremely important and by combining portraiture with landscape, this helped him to cover his love of landscape and at the same time, earned a living, but it also gave us an historical insight into the landscapes and the countryside of that period. Gainsborough's couple almost appear secondary, with the Andrews sitting under the oak tree and just about included in the picture, whereas Shonebare has excluded this which alters the subject piece completely.

The fact that Shonebare excludes the landscape is significant as the landscape depicts the wealth and status of the Andrews and by excluding this, Shonebare has taken away a degree of this power and wealth. This sprawling estate and public pronouncement of wealth may have been imperative to show status and affluence in 18th century Britain but in Post-Modern Britain, and especially in the 1990s when there was a recession, Shonebare may have deliberately excluded these details which may have appeared irrelevant to him; he may have considered the idea too showy and unpalatable to flaunt wealth in this particular way, even although there were and still are very rich people in today's society. There may also have been practical reasons for this exclusion on Shonebare's part, but it could well be the concept appeared old fashioned. The calming blue grey background contrasts well against the vibrant colours of the mannequins fabrics and because there is no struggle for attention and every detail in the mannequins stand out. Paradoxically, although the colours of Shonebare's Mr & Mrs Andrews seem vibrant, the plain background has muted the installation, depicting a clean looking setting. By excluding the estate, this has partly taken away the message of wealth and gentrification but Shonebare has cleverly managed to convey the impression of an outdoor scene, helped by the presence of the Rococo style bench and the gun under Mr Andrews' arm, although the installation is inside a gallery.

It has to be remembered that Gainsborough was a school friend of Mr Andrews and this painting was done soon after he married Frances Carter when he was 22 and she was 16. Robert Andrews had now inherited not only part of his father's estate but now owned a considerable portion of the adjourning estate owned by his father-in-law. This landscape was therefore not from Gainsborough's imagination, but a real estate. It is unlikely that the picture was left solely to Gainsborough's discretion as the entire setting seems carefully delineated with Mr Andrews desperately trying to portray a casually dressed country gentleman, slouching forward to give the impression of informality yet appearing to look proud before his sprawling estate and cradling his gun, crossing his legs, with his dog looking at him. The three small trees on the right balance the large oak tree in the foreground on the left under which the couple are positioned, but one can but wonder the reasoning behind choosing for the couple to be under an oak tree. The oak tree is full of symbolism and Gainsborough may well have been reinforcing the message of Mr Andrews' strength, courage, steadfastness, and commitment to perhaps his estate and his wife. Although Gainsborough may have tried to make the portrait informal, Mrs Andrews does not look casual, dressed in fine satin clothing, which was probably the latest fashion at the time, although there is a slight evidence of casualness with the ribbon on her bonnet appearing to be falling down. She dresses in what appears to be an up to the minute Rococo style attire and is sitting primly on a Rococo style bench with her legs femininely crossed. But what was Rococo? Rococo was partly characterised by gracefully forming curves and pastel shades, originated in France, and Gainsborough was a big follower of the French Rococo artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau. In comparison to the rest of her body, however, Gainsborough's Mrs Andrews has extremely narrow shoulders which seems out of proportion to her neck, and I wonder if this was naturally so or if it was to underline that she was the subordinate of the two. Mrs Andrews' faint smile indicates decorum although her narrow shoulders and posture reveals a degree of subjugation and possibly domination by her confident, no-nonsense, businesslike husband. Gainsborough's painting shows clearly how it used to be in the past with the man standing next to his belongings: his wife, dog, gun and his estate in the background. On the other hand, Shonebare's Mrs Andrews' posture has revealed a more confident looking woman with the shoulders being broader, not drooping and the fact that the couple looks more equal has automatically transformed Shonebare's mannequins into the 21st century.

Like Reynolds, Gainsborough depended on portraiture as his main source of income but Gainsborough hated portrait painting, which he famously calls "The Curs'd Face Business" and it is almost as if Shonebare has responded to this remark by removing the heads from his mannequin installation of Mr & Mrs Andrews. Gainsborough felt "portraits bounded him to the wishes of his sitters." ".......Nothing is worse than gentlemen - I do portraits to live and landscapes because I love them", he once said to a friend. However, Shonebare's installations without heads would not have worked in Gainsborough's 18th century England for the simple fact that there were no gallery commissions and artists relied on wealthy patrons, commissioning for their portraits and other subjects to be painted. As there was no photography then, having a portrait painted was fairly expensive and only the very rich could have afforded this indulgence. This was a way of advertising to peers and the world that you had arrived. These were usually large pieces, showing grandeur and wealth, with the patrons dictating to the artist the kind of end result they desired.

I have seen Gainsborough's Mr & Mrs Andrews, one of his most famous paintings, at the National Gallery and it is not a large canvas when compared to the others in the Gallery, but the viewer is immediately drawn to their eyes, staring straight at you, inviting you into their world. Shonebare on the other hand has used the vibrant colours of the materials as his Mr & Mrs Andrews' 'eyes', to draw in the viewers' attention, as by not having any heads, the viewer's eyes are drawn immediately to the mannequins dressed in theatrically bright colours. It's interesting that Shonebare has created his mannequins without heads as the face and eyes are the main parts that help to distinguish a human being - it is like the window of a person's character and soul and by excluding this, he could have created an emptiness in the story. However, it seems to work as the mannequins appear to be 'alive', looking at the viewer, although because they are made out of fibre glass, there is evidence of rigidity in the hands. It could also be argued that there is something quite unsavoury, disturbing and controversial about having decapitated heads in galleries, especially when the mannequins are dressed in period clothes, and made to look like human beings. Having looked at it several times, the installation is quite surreal as on the one hand landed gentry is observed, but on the other, the eyes are seeing bright coloured clothes which is incongruous as these would be far too garish for these upwardly mobile folks in 18th century England.

By not having any heads, however, Shonebare may have taken away any connotations of race and this may well give the viewers room to decide for themselves the characters of the mannequins. One of Shonebare's strength is his ability to suggest narratives. He said in an interview with Nancy Hynes "I hate conclusive things, once a piece is concluded, its dead. The mind must be allowed to travel and have fantasy and imagination. People's minds need to wander" (in Hynes 1998:15) Another significant reason must be Gainsborough's painting is a celebration of deference and by beheading Mr & Mrs Andrews, Shonebare has somehow deflated their status and power, once again bringing his own message to the piece.

It is fairly evident that the materials Shonebare uses are expensive, and this has proved to be rich and adaptable but it is questionable the combination of some of the colours and patterns he uses in any one item of clothing. For example Mr Andrews' jacket is very 'busy' and the pattern and colour seem to clash with each other and this may be the desired effect. It would have been highly unlikely that gentlemen and ladies would have dressed in clothing from what was then known as the colonies. It is important to understand however that what one may think is African print is in fact Dutch Wax fabric, and although associated with Africa, it is in fact printed fabric based on Indonesian's batik, manufactured in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries and exported to West Africa. Shonebare said "The tangled trans-continental history of the fabric is a metaphor of interdependence". The cotton materials, too vibrant and theatrical for that period, does not marry up with the 18th century clothes designs and lifestyle and it therefore looks wrong, although it may well have been Shonebare's idea of playfully raising the question of race, identity, and class.

Gainsborough has subtly blended the figures and landscaped background into one harmonious whole. The couple's faces and skin look like porcelain dolls, indicating Gainsborough's consummate skill at showing delicacy and refinement of not just the couple, but also the materials. He has painted the powder blue skirt of Mrs Andrews, showing the richness of the material and he has echoed the twisting curves of the skirt on to the bench. In both pieces the dog looks very alive with his eyes portraying feelings and reality. Gainsborough has used thin brush strokes with diluted oil paint to make the hair on the dog realistic. He was the master of naturalistic landscape and this is again evident in the sheaves of corn in the foreground and middle distance which he has applied to create the illusion of depth and again there is symbolism here as corn traditionally is the symbol of fertility. I really like the manner in which he has captured the modern approach to farming by Mr Andrews, with the farm animals, in the middle and distant grounds, carefully confined to their areas, therefore demonstrating that Mr Andrews has eliminated damaged crops, or other animals infecting his animals with disease.

It is very difficult to take on an established piece such as "Mr & Mrs Andrews", Gainsborough's most famous painting, and try to bring a new meaning to the piece. It could be argued whether a reinterpretation of such an established image can work and a new meaning be achieved. However, I feel it should be acceptable if the reinterpreted image has a new meaning, add something new, or if the artist has transformed the original piece completely and I think Shonebare has achieved this very difficult task of adding a new meaning to the subject matter by showing an alternative angle. When I initially looked at these art forms, my immediate response was they were different, but I never really realised how different they were until I started my research. Both artists have had different life experiences and stories to tell. Shonebare was born in London in 1962 and Gainsborough was born in Sudbury in 1727. Shonebare had Nigerian parents and relocated to Lagos when he was 3 years old, only returning when he was 17 years old while Gainsborough had English parents. Gainsborough was one of the founding members of The Royal Academy but he never received a title (unlike his contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds) and Shonebare received his MBE in 2005, letters he has used as part of this signature. Because their life experiences are poles apart, it was obvious Shonebare's interpretation of Gainsborough's image would give a new dimension to the piece, but he has achieved this goal by changing the story completely and bringing the image into the 21st century.

BOOKS

  • Kent R, Hobbs R, Downey A, Shonebare Y, (2008) Yinka Shonebare MBA,New York, MCA Sydney & Prestel.
  • Kalinsky N, (1995) Gainsbsorough, London, Phaidon Press Ltd.
  • Cumming R, (1995) Annotated Art, London, Dorling Kinderley Ltd.
  • Postle M, (2002) Thomas Gainsborough, London, Tate Publishing.

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