The Lacquer Room (1936) by Grace Cossington Smith (1892 – 1984) is the focus of my second annotation of an interior view. It’s a slight stretch to see this as “early twentieth-century”, but corresponds to the time-frames of the two suggested artists Matisse (1869 – 1954) and Dufy (1877 – 1953). The painting is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and is an example of exciting, vibrant, original, Australian art. Light, space and the relationship of figures to the setting are important elements in the painting of interiors, and I think this work provides an exceptional example of all.
The image above from my phone’s camera has dulled all the colour, lost all the vibrancy and crispness of the original. The AGNSW website (link above) has a better but still not really good version.
The picture shows the basement café of a major city department store. On the right is shown a sketch Cossington Smith made at the café, including notes of colours and materials (the sketch is held at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) – see http://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/CossingtonSmith/Detail.cfm?IRN=133969).
Light shimmers in this painting. There are a few dark notes – shadow under tables, winter clothing – but most of the painting is in mid to high tones. The light has no obvious source. The wall-mounted Art Deco lights cast only a slightly increased light on the walls above them. The top of the free-standing lamp and the ceiling lights can’t even be seen. Instead an opalescent light suffuses the entire image, reflecting off surfaces to up-light faces. The light bounces around from the walls, floor, counter-sides, and mirror on the right. There’s so much light it is hard to believe this is a basement room (see a roughly contemporary photograph on the NGA site – http://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/cossingtonsmith/Default.cfm?MnuID=2&GalID=4).
There is a darker bulk at the left of the image, women in dark hats and coats. This is cleverly balanced on the right by a truncated figure. Our eyes insert the additional weight.
The lower part of the image is filled with curves repeating and echoing – chair backs, heads, bodies… The closer you look the more you see – hair, eyes, caps and saucers. There is a uniformity imposed that unites areas across the work.
However that is only the beginning of the lines.
Contrasting to the lower section, the top third of the picture is boxy, with vertical lines predominating (highlighted in green). Other lines (in pink) vary in direction, but remain straight, distinct, uncompromised.
The two sections are divided by one long gentle curve of countertop from one side of the picture to the other. They are linked vertically by curves which run from one shape to another – a man’s hair parting to a woman’s jaw, for example. A few verticals also venture into the lower section – where lines run amok. The strongest are the red of the chair frames, with a strong band of dischordant near-verticals traversing the image. The edges of tables veer in slightly “off” directions. The floor heaves up to the right. The overall effect is busy, but strangely harmonious. This is a working room, a bustling café, and there is a sturdy sense of order in the momentary disarray.
The picture is full of colour, particularly complementary colours. The immediately apparent colour contrast is red – green. At the bottom of the picture red chairs reflect in the green tabletop in a wide range of “reds” and “greens”, but blues with orange, yellows with purple are also well represented.
The oscillation of the vibrating contrasts adds to the luminosity of the image. Little dabs of repeated colour – blues in a coat seen again in tiny shadows on chair backs for instance – help to contain and unify what could have become chaotic.
Cossington Smith wrote of the genesis of this work “… I didn’t know it was there, but I just went down to get a cup of tea I think. And found this lovely restaurant. It was a great surprise to me. I was struck by its colour and general design … Scarlet, green and white held me spellbound. I quickly began drawing, writing the colours in words as I worked” (Cossington Smith, 1979). Colour was her inspiration. Writing colour names on her sketches was a standard part of her practice. Bruce James has suggested such notes “represented far more than a collective aide-mémoire. They constituted a chemical table via which the painter could conduct her polychromatic investigations into the dazzling Australian environments around her…” (2013, p. 34). James goes on to suggest that these notations were “so legible, so viable, so realisable” that the charting alone could be the full conception of the work, an early Sol leWitt.
Cossington Smith used distinct short, aligned brushstrokes to create the painting. Generally colour-mixing was done on the palette, or optically in the eye of the viewer. This increases the shimmering effect of the contrasting colours. The modern, highly reflective nitrocellulose paints used in the café itself are captured in matte oil paint – “Light reflecting from the shiny surfaces is cleverly captured through broken swatches of colour” (Dredge, 2013, p. 118).
The distinct brushstokes allowed the use of many colours without muddying, maintaining the bright, clean feel of the picture. The direction of the strokes provides some modelling of forms otherwise flattened in the patterning, and at the same time provide a unity and stability to the pulsation of light and colour.
There is a definite sense of depth in the painting. In the centre the eye is funneled in, through an empty space between patrons and tables to a waitress, then on behind the counter to be stopped by the back of another worker. However on closer inspection the space makes no sense – it is flattened and distorted. Tables dip and bend, their sides twisted from perspective lines. Just left of centre is the dominant figure of a man sitting behind a table – but where is woman who appears just to left of him? Is she sitting at the same table, but somehow just behind it as well? That seems to be her hand, but too large – or is the man possibly waving to us? In which case is the woman at another table further back? Behind this couple is one waitress apparently taking an order, and another possibly serving someone – but who, and how can there be space for them?
Space is sacrificed to pattern, to pleasing rhythms and repetitions. This is an interior, but not one we can really enter.
The various figures are firmly occupying their positions, especially those seated, but there is little relationship between them. Even those sitting at the same table do not interact. Most of those seated look out of the painting at us – or really at Cossington Smith in the act of sketching them. The café workers seem busy, solicitous to the needs of their customers – but which customers? None of those we can see. Faces are sketchy or not described at all, and one patron is cut off right through her face.
This is a bright, modern, dynamic, urban scene. Although an introspective and solitary figure, Cossington Smith found urban scenes a source of energy and exuberance. The ‘Soda Fountain’ in the lower ground floor of David Jones was everything fresh, modern and exciting – art deco fixtures, American influences, an interior possibly designed by fellow artist Thea Proctor (McNeil, 2013, p. 98).
While celebrating the material aspects of modern life, The Lacquer Room also suggests disquiet at the human impact – “… in this colour- and light-filled vision, the darkly dressed patrons who sit silent, mostly solitary and hardly welcoming in their cartoon glances, continue to express the artist’s ongoing reserve at the strangers the modern city makes of its inhabitants” (Edwards, 2013, p. 148).
The Lacquer Room is a complete contrast to The first born by Gaston La Touche (see 19-Jul-2013). La Touche created his work to please the jurors of the Paris Salon. Cossington Smith had financial security allowing her to follow her own vision. La Touche created an idealised view of the life of the poor worker, Cossington Smith observed and celebrated her own environment. Colour and techniques are obviously entirely different, as are space (depth, flattening / patterning) and the relationships of the people within. La Touche explored morning light through the window while Cossington Smith suffused her work with modern electric lighting. I think the pair make a good introduction to the interior view in painting.
Cossington Smith, G (1979) quoted in ‘Grace Cossington Smith: The Lacquer Room’, Australian Eye: series 2, video recording, Film Australia, Lindfield, NSW & Art Gallery of New South Wales. Producer Malcolm Otton. Director David Muir.
Dredge, P. (2013) “Colour and modern paint in the interwar decades” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 118-119. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Edwards, D. (2013) “Ultra-moderne: Implement blue and The Lacquer Room“: In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 148-153. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
James, B. (2013) “Writing colour: from Mrs van Gogh to Grace Cossington Smith” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 34-37. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
McNeil, P. (2013) “Thea Proctor: towards a stylish Australia” In In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 98-103. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2