The previous post in this sequence asked: How can a person technically excluded from the canons of her field and religion relate to them? This and subsequent posts will present my attempts to answer this question.
Her first step is to understand the tradition in which she works. With this in mind, last year I based a project on one of the earliest oil painters in northern Europe. Repeated, partial, and laborious copies of Robert Campin’s 1420 nativity painting supported a strategy of forcing myself to study it for a long period of time. The project stemmed from the conviction that sustained attention given to a single artwork results in deeper understanding of it than simply reading others’ insights.
One goal was to discover why a minor character in the bottom right corner of the painting consistently stood out as the most important figure. Each successive repainting of this midwife used a different reference to the biological realities ignored by Campin’s depiction of childbirth. These interventions ranged from superimposed text to symbolically destroying and reassembling the painting.
While that was satisfying on a personal level, it did not answer the original question of why that figure drew my eye before I researched her own ambivalent narrative. Being the only figure violating the theatrical convention of facing the audience was the sort of subtlety that takes time to notice. I used transparent overlays to diagram the formal elements of the painting, and thereby learned that many of the techniques Campin used to establish the tiny Christ child as the center of interest also highlighted this midwife.
I required six painted copies, two short films, a woodblock print, and eleven diagrams to reach a personal sense of resolution with Campin’s midwife. I began to see copying as an important way to artistically come to terms with precedent. I decided to do it again, but with less obscure artworks.