“Still Life” by Sue MacLaine

at Warwick Arts Centre, Saturday 4th May 2013

I see theatre which actually teaches me something less frequently than I’d like. Sue MacLaine’s Still Life, however, managed to do so this weekend, taking me through two personal revelations.

Revelation No. 1: I Can’t Draw

Having entered Warwick Arts Centre’s Mead Gallery and positioned the drawing board, paper and pencils I’d been given, a feeling of dread snuck in. I remembered those horrible afternoons at school when, hour after hour, I failed to use the simple tools of a pencil and a pad to render anything remotely life-like. But a small part of me believed that, with the passage of time, I had become a better artist without knowing it. Then, as MacLaine (previously sat in a robe, smiling at us as we entered) bared all and took her first pose, my hopes were dashed. Attempting to create something vaguely artistic, I ended up drawing what looks like a bad Picasso parody (apologies for the quality of the photo).

2013-05-05 18.36.00

There’s something stupidly naive about this attempt at life-drawing. Like a child, I’m trying to reach for something abstract after realising I have no hope of a decent drawing. But even in that I fail. My excuse, I guess, is that at this point I was still focussing on the way that Still Life was working. Sue MacLaine plays Henrietta Moraes, muse to Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and many others, her words drifting in and out of focus as we focus on attempting to capture through our drawing both her image and, as she describes it, her “soul”. The poetic, flowing script mimics the poetry we can find in the shapes and contours of her body. Throughout the performance, she tells us she’s about to pose and how long for: “I will hold the next pose for eight minutes”. Here’s what I came up with:

2013-05-05 18.49.12

Again, not very good, but here I’m starting to understand that in order to draw effectively, I have also to look.

Strangely, though we were all scribbling and concentrating throughout, I don’t think I’ve ever been in an audience which has been less attentive to what’s being said. I took the decision early on to only draw when MacLaine was clearly posing, but others sketched throughout and didn’t seem to pay any attention to what this character was saying. Watching Still Life, we are halfway between theatre and art class, and though we are in the position of powerless audience, we are also clearly able to act. There is no way we can change Moraes’ drug-fuelled, hedonistic, somewhat tragic story, but we can document it in our own way.

For the next pose, I couldn’t see MacLaine in her entirety due to the head of the gentleman in front being a little in the way. So I drew a foot instead:

2013-05-05 18.53.01Beside it, I’ve written the quote, “Giving the illusion of depth”, and though I can’t quite remember what MacLaine was referencing when she said this, it feels apt to position it by this image; it’s naff, but there’s something in it which tries to go deeper. I distinctly remember thinking that I was being clever by drawing just a foot. But I probably wasn’t, as you can tell.

In fact, the quotes I wrote throughout Still Life are fairly useless in doing the intended job of jogging my memory, but they do give a sort of narrative on their own:

“I am now going to do three poses for one minute each”

“Bacon”

“Audrey”

“Giving the illusion of depth”

“Look Look Look”

“Just going out to buy cigarettes”

“The everydayness of the everyday”

“Zero needs one to confirm its zero-ness”

I don’t even know if these are in chronological order, but they at least give an idea of the cadences of MacLaine’s text. She speaks in deep, husky received pronunciation, adding another layer to the levels of sensuality and femininity on show.

Still Life is a piece which contemplates the effect on one woman of being merely someone else’s muse. Moraes spent her whole life being looked at, often in the nude, meaning that for a long time she was simply an object. She had numerous affairs, was used and abused by many men and had her body viewed, dissected and critiqued by thousands. As the piece wears on, this deterioration becomes clear; her words start to make less sense and tears begin forming in her eyes. She can no longer hold poses, and we only capture snippets of images.

Which brings me to my second revelation:

Revelation No: 2: I can draw

As I hope these images demonstrate, I improved throughout the hour. As Moraes’ story became more fragmented, my drawings became more detailed. Here is my final try:

2013-05-05 18.53.12

Though I couldn’t bring myself to try full-body drawings, I found myself being able to capture close-ups pretty well. Within the space of an hour, then, I had two directly contrasting revelations, throwing into light the temporality of art and the glorious ways it can embody contradiction.

Looking back through these images, it also strikes me that my choice of body parts to draw is probably pretty revealing, though I hasten to add there are other sketches which give a more, well, complete image. In this selection, I’ve focussed on breasts, feet and genitals, both as a result of feeling unable to draw full sweeps but also my position in relation to MacLaine herself. But this is what Still Life does, asking us to consider the parts which make up the whole and to closely examine the female form. In scrutinising and drawing MacLaine, then, are we guilty of the same things which seemingly made Moraes’ life so unstable? Or are we being told that, in our own little way, we are all artists?

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