We’ve been hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ a lot recently: ‘unprecedented times’, ‘a truly unprecedented situation’. And it certainly is true that the current events (being stuck indoors, isolated from family and friends, being unable to work or socialise) have not unfolded on such a world-wide scale before. Loneliness and solitude may be the defining words of the last ten weeks, but the theme features in the work of countless artists. This blog post is going to explore four artists and a selection of artworks which I think embody the feeling of the moment. From mid-century Surrealism, to contemporary masterpieces, the theme of isolation is omnipresent in the art world. The following paintings attest to the surprisingly seamless relationship between loneliness and beauty, drawing on household names and maybe a new face or two.
Giorgio de Chirico, ‘Piazza d’Italia con Piedistallo Vuoto’, 1950
There’s been a lot of de Chirico paintings floating around recently, and it’s not hard to see why. His deserted Italian city-scapes are reminiscent of the empty streets of once bustling cities, pictured below in Malaga, Naples, and Paris. The quieting of these hectic cities is simultaneously peaceful and eerie, and this is reflected perfectly by de Chirico’s abandoned piazza.
The painting is a vertical slice of a quiet city at sunset, with a hint of bustling life in the distant background. In this painting, de Chirico’s Surrealist inclinations are revealed through the empty pedestal, the piedistallo vuoto, where a statue should be but appears to have wandered off. The dotted outline on the floor also implies a sense of emptiness, perhaps outlining a building that the artist has chosen to remove, leaving only its floor plan as a token of its existence. Subtle details disrupt the comfortable viewing experience: the greenish clouds that drift like flags from their poles, the equal lengths of the clock hands which remove the scene from a sense of time, the harsh shadows, and apocalyptic sky…
De Chirico’s work is notoriously evasive, open to interpretation, and perfectly Surrealist. We have all become familiar with the feeling of being detached from time, and of being alone in a once busy world. For me, this painting epitomises not only the world’s empty cities, but the feeling of distant time that has become so familiar.
David Inshaw, ‘She Did Not Turn’, 1974
Inshaw’s paintings are dreamily reminiscent of earlier modernist periods. ‘She Did Not Turn’, was painted in 1974, and uses blocks of midnight colours, impossible shadows, and a reverberating luminosity that de Chirico would have approved of. Inshaw is most famous for his painting, ‘The Badminton Game’, 1972-3, which has a similar, almost animated quality, to ‘She Did Not Turn’. I have chosen this work to discuss as a ‘quarantine painting’ due to the sense of solitude, interrupted by a rainbow of hope. Although at first glance the painting seems to be about loneliness, the rainbow is a steadfast symbol of hope. I think that the current situation exactly reflects this: although we may be alone for now, the glimmering rainbow reminds us that things will change eventually.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this painting is the lighting – deep midnight is illuminated by an unpictured, golden sun. The hay bale-come-house, the rolling pathway leading into the unknown distance, the candyfloss clouds placed with unwavering intention: this painting is a melody of celestial forms, and its message of hope at the end of a long path of loneliness embellishes the sense of national isolation.
The painting and its title are inspired by a Thomas Hardy poem of the same name. The undulating landscape is based on the Wiltshire Downs, where Inshaw lived at the time.
Edward Hopper, ‘Cape Cod Morning’, 1950
If you hadn’t noticed, Hopper has become the poster boy of lockdown. There are countless articles about how his paintings, usually ‘Nighthawks’ or ‘Morning Sun’, relate exactly to our situation. And that is why Hopper could not be excluded from this post, because he is the master of lonely, solitary paintings that hit a little bit too close to home at the moment. Obviously, Hopper was not inspired by lockdown, as his most well-known artworks were painted during the 1950s. He was, however, inspired by the loneliness induced by modern life, and how we often choose to isolate ourselves through over-work and overuse of modern technology. Somehow his paintings seem to have even more significance now, as we channel ‘Morning Sun’: sitting atop a bed, hollow-eyed and lonely, gazing out at a freshly-deserted city.
‘Cape Cod Morning’ is one of Hopper’s lesser-known works, but its vibrant colours and the warmth of the sun adds a much needed element of calm to an otherwise lonely painting. It is nice, in a way, to interpret peace in isolation because true peace can only really be found when you’re alone. Whilst Hopper’s indoor-dwelling figure gazes expectantly out of her window, perhaps more of us should channel our inner ‘Cape Cod Morning’ and try to savour this strange time. Our lives have been put on government-induced hold, and we’ve had to stop rushing and fretting; maybe we should take inspiration from the peaceful warmth of this painting and just stop, feel the sun on our faces, and be grateful for this time.
David Lake, ‘Wicker in Winter’, c. 2018
“There is no exclusive location for beauty; beauty is never exclusive.” – Lake, 2022
“What inspired the picture was the abandoned chair, whilst traversing an obscure lane near Foxton Locks (Leicestershire) in March 2015 on a bright, overcast day. I love miserable weather. So from a single snap the painting evolved to be first shown in a local gallery (Pejean) in Launceston, Tasmania (also on the Tamar River near Exeter) in May 2016.
Most of my paintings are ‘constructed’, bits snatched from hear and there, sketches and photos, always with some attraction to an aspect of light, often falling on shape to amplify some presence of silence.
Painting for me is an every day ritual and enjoyment. I find one is drawn, governed by the work as it takes form. I paint in silence, returning to the sound of the brush as often as it is discovered that one has been carried away by thought.”
– David Lake, 2022
You may not have heard of David Lake. He is a contemporary artist working in Tasmania, Australia, whose work is inspired by the interplay of light and shadow. I came across Lake’s work in a Bedfordshire art gallery, and was stunned by his beautiful use of colour and inspired subject matter. His paintings are simple slices of everyday life that are executed with elegantly exaggerated colours and heightened clarity. Not only do his paintings bring vivacity to otherwise mundane scenes, but they are enlivened by considered layers of meaning.
The rolling blue-grey road slices through the painting like a tarmac tongue, and the exceptional contrast of light and shadow implies a winter’s afternoon akin to a Robert Frost poem. The combination of warm and cool colours entices the eye, offering shelter from the winter air.
A solitary chair sits on the side of the road. It is unclear if the artist has placed this object intentionally, contrasting yet complementing its surroundings, or whether the wicker chair has been abandoned like some remarkable, artistic apparition. Either way, the chair could imply a sense of absence in this painting, as though it is missing its sitter. The colours and symbols encourage this to be seen as a lonely painting, with an empty chair and an endless road; this would be perfect to describe the sense of disconnect that many feel during this strange time. However, it is a surprisingly warm painting, perhaps inviting the viewer to take a seat, an offering of rest in an otherwise empty landscape.