with Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf
"all my work has been an investigation of the self"
Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf is an interdisciplinary artist who grew up between Germany and the UK and is currently living between London and Lisbon. She works across a range of media including painting, photography, printmaking and video. Her work, which focuses heavily on self-portraiture explores concerns around the mediated relationship to the body and self-image as experienced in contemporary digitised culture; whilst drawing on themes and imagery inspired by art history, mythology and the occult. She is a co-founder and director of Infems: Intersectional Feminist Art Collective and former vice president to the Society of Women Artists (UK).
What are the themes within your work that most interest you? What is it about them that you’re interested in?
Themes around female identity, sexuality and mortality are the ones that are present throughout my entire practice. These take on slightly different forms and focal points from series to series but form the core around which my practice is based. These themes are the ones that I’ve been personally grappling with my entire life. In essence it’s about exploring the human condition, which in my case means being a woman. Female identity is bound up with sexuality and mortality through millennia of myth and religion. We obviously still live with this legacy today. One of the things I explore in my art is how this legacy shapes us and how we can reclaim and reframe it.
"In essence it’s about exploring the human condition, which in my case means being a woman."
As we look at your work, we recognise many (art) historical references. What is their meaning for you? How do they inform your work and thinking, and how do you respond to them?
I’ve always been drawn to figurative painting, the old masters and the idea of a memento mori. Growing up in Europe, this visual language is incredibly familiar to me as it is to so many others too. It almost forms part of our collective unconscious. So much of it informs contemporary visual culture whether people are aware of it or not. In my work I want to use this language consciously whilst experimenting with ways that I can play with it and make it my own. Ways in which I can disrupt and question the narratives presented, as they obviously always come from the patriarchal perspective.
In my last series for example I used meats, fruits, feathers and mirrors alongside the female nude, mixing the genres of Dutch still life painting, Vanitas Art and the long history of the reclining nude. Each of the items in the setting is laden with meaning, often referring to female sexuality, such as the apple (representing the original sin). As such it created a visually appealing whilst simultaneously uncomfortable mix.
"...Ways in which I can disrupt and question the narratives presented, as they obviously always come from the patriarchal perspective."
There are lots of (broken) mirrors in your more recent work. How come you started working with them? What is/are the meaning(s) you see in them?
Shiny surfaces always attract me, and I’ve been using reflections in my work for some time, whether it’s painting on perspex and glass, using metallic pigments or glazes, or ultimately mirrors as I am doing now.
I had this idea about working with mirrors and water in a video piece I filmed just prior to coming to Portugal, then when I arrived here and had to go into lock down, I found some broken mirrors on the street going home and grabbed them. I spent 2 months alone in an apartment, during which time those broken mirrors became a type of gateway for me. A way to engage with a moving body in my isolation and a way of experimenting with my own body image. That they were broken has added an interesting angle, as it suggests a shattering of an idealised image whilst also implying damage and violence.
Mirrors have so much symbolism; They present an incredibly rich territory to explore. Obviously, there is the idea of vanity, so often associated with women, who are expected to be beautiful and care about their appearance whilst also being castigated for being vain. The image of the young woman and the mirror is commonly used in Vanitas paintings as a warning against a focus on worldly beauty and pleasure. Therefore, this connection with the woman and the mirror is one I am very aware of.
There’s the ancient occult symbolism, a mirror as a gateway to other worlds, but also as a tool, both for self-knowledge as well self-undoing. Stare in a mirror long enough and you will begin to feel dissociated from your own image.
I’m also interested in Lacan’s ideas around the Mirror phase, and the fragmented self which examines the notion that we can never truly see ourselves and depend on mirrors and reflection, both real and metaphorical in order to piece a concept of ourselves together.
The experience during lock down really enhanced my fascination with our digital selves, our avatars, how we use them to self-mythologise and how these digital versions can also almost develop an identity of their own. This duplicate of ourselves, a kind of mirror image of ourselves, is one we can try to control and distort.
Your work has shifted quite a bit from (purely) painting to a hybrid between analogue and digital mediums, the physi-digital. How has this shift influenced your thinking about the work?
This time in lockdown which I just mentioned enhanced my interest in the digital self; The disparity between the real and the digital and their relationship, where one informs the other and vica versa. I began developing my current physi-digital method in part out of necessity, because of the physical constraints of lockdown and a lack of access to my usual working space and materials. But it was definitely also born out of this time of isolation, where all my interactions for 2 months were digital, so incorporating this into the work seemed really important as a way of reflecting my present experience.
Even though I have moved into other media I still think of myself as a painter. As my aesthetic and my approach to the subject matter is still very much the same as it was before. I am a figurative painter who has ventured into other mediums.
"It was also born out of this time of isolation, where all my interactions were digital, so incorporating this into the work seemed really important as a way of reflecting my present experience."
How do the contrasting elements of chaos and control, both present in your work, come into play and relate to each other?
This dialectic was very much at the core of my painting practice where I would work with very gestural, loose mark making techniques which really focused on the pure materiality of the paint, and then I would contrast them with quite tightly focused areas of line and figuration. I would then paint over areas I wasn’t satisfied with again, quite ruthlessly, pouring and wiping the paint and then try to incorporate that new reality into the next step of figuration. There was only a limited amount of planning I could do with this method, as I would work in many layers and the control of my figuration would always be compromised by the unruliness of the gestural marks.
I was really concerned that I would lose this within my digital working methods but I have found that other accidents and elements have crept in whilst working with technology which introduces the unexpected into the mix again.
How does this dynamic between chaos and control reflect and/or inform your life in general?
I very much believe that our life is just this. We have to have a certain amount of control and focus in our lives but in the end there are so many external factors that we have no control over, so we are in this continuing dance between the two sides, if we stay too controlled we shut ourselves off from possibility and the magic of life, but if we don’t exert any agency and will, we will just drift aimlessly and never achieve anything. So it’s a constant balancing act. Trying to direct our lives towards the things we want but also remain adaptable and open to chance.
"We are in this continuing dance, if we stay too controlled we shut ourselves off from possibility and the magic of life..."
"... but if we don't exert any agency and will, we will just drift aimlessly."
We see a lot of women portrayed in your work. How would you describe your perception of women and femininity, and what meaning do they have for your work?
The female form – and in the case of the last few years, my own body – represents a vehicle through which I can express my ideas on identity, mortality and my experience of being human. There are a myriad of different ways of being a woman and expressing that femininity. There is both shadow and light and as much as a large part of my work is about empowering women and celebrating womanhood in all its beauty, it’s also about confronting the viewer with the realities of what that means. Whether that’s the reality of objectification, societal expectations and confronting the many taboos that still exist around the visceral realities of living in a woman’s body.
As one of the founders of the collective InFems, can you tell us about the collective’s work? How does that work influence your own artistic work and vice versa?
We’re an organisation that aims to empower women and girls from diverse backgrounds to enter the arts and share their stories. As I have mentioned, visual culture is so important and unconsciously shapes so much of our self-image. Therefore encouraging women across class, race, sexuality, ability etc to own and be part of creating this culture is incredibly important. In practice this means that we put on and curate exhibitions in different locations, always inviting local guest artists and then we also host talks and events. The aim is to encourage discussion around intersectional feminism and to continue to broaden our horizons on what feminism means to different demographics.
We’ve mentored emerging artists, as well as hosting our first Infems residency, and have also worked with Carolina Herrera to create a set of NFTs for international women’s day 2022, with all proceeds going to fundacio Ared.
To be honest this endeavour has been quite challenging in terms of my own art practice as it’s taking up a lot of time and headspace. I often find myself in more of a managerial/producer role, but I really believe in this project and enjoy working with and getting to know so many amazing creative women from around the world!
One way working with InFems has affected my own practice is that having this community within the collective is encouraging me to be bolder in my work. As well as making me even more aware of how important it is for us to share our creative vision and our voices.
"visual culture is so important and unconsciously shapes so much of our self-image."
"Therefore encouraging women across class, race, sexuality, ability etc to own and be part of creating this culture is incredibly important."
Lately you’ve been working a lot with self-portraiture. How does your relationship to yourself find expression in your work?
Even when I wasn’t working with self-portraiture people would often say that all my paintings looked like me. I think that in essence our creative work is always an expression of ourselves. In terms of the actual focus on self-portraiture though, this started with the pandemic; being in isolation for months in a foreign country in an airbnb completely by myself after the break up of a long relationship. In this isolation I had no choice but to examine my relationship to myself. In a psychological sense I entered a deep phase of introspection, but also in a pragmatic sense I was the only available model to work with.
Having come out of this phase I found that it still made sense for me to continue this investigation into the self. That in reality all my work has been an investigation of the self, and that it’s possibly more honest to do this through self-portraiture than through the use of other people as models.
Something I’ve always aimed for though is to make work which is personal and universal at once, whereby, although the work is about me and my experience of being a woman, it can also translate into something more archetypal which other people can see themselves reflected in also.
"Something I’ve always aimed for though is to make work which is personal and universal at once, whereby, although the work is about me and my experience of being a woman, it can also translate into something more arche-typal which other people can see themselves reflected in."
In turn, how does your work (with self-portraiture, or other), affect your relationship to yourself and to the world around you?
I think that my latest work over the last two and a half years has really helped me to work through so many resistances and insecurities. There’s always a fear of judgement when you are making art. Especially if you’re working with self-portraiture. Will I be judged on my appearance? Will it be perceived as narcissism? How much of myself am I willing to show? How much of myself is it socially acceptable to show? Both literally and figuratively.
At first I felt very awkward saying that it was my own naked body in the images, but over the course of the years I’ve become braver, and have also managed to find a certain distance between myself as the subject of the image and myself as the creator of the image. The primary aim has got to be the image I’m creating. I can’t be limiting the creative potential of the work because I am feeling self-conscious about showing a nipple – where if it was another model, I would happily show it if I felt it made for a better image! This process, although challenging, is very liberating. Taking ownership of my own body and its representation.
Going further into this line of though also means that I can do whatever I want with that image. I can distort an exploit without holding back as I might with a model.
"How much of myself am I willing to show? How much of myself is it socially acceptable to show?..."
"... This process, although challenging, is very liberating. Taking ownership of my own body and its representation."
Does your mixed European heritage influence your work? How so?
I think it does influence my work in terms of the different visual references I had growing up, which inevitably find expression into my work.
It always strikes me how the art historical canon is different from country to country even though we think that (in the west at east) we have a very clear story. But go to a museum in Portugal and you will find a lot of prominent artists who you’ve never heard of if you grew up in Germany for example and vice versa.
photos: Eglė Duleckytė
A Practice Proposition
by Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf
– Movement and Daydreaming –
For me movement and daydreaming are key parts of the creative process. I find that walking really helps to clarify my ideas. I like to walk to the studio when I can, which takes about an hour. It helps to create a separation from my domestic life. It gives me time to daydream but also to contemplate how I will approach something before I am actually physically confronted with the possibility of doing so in the studio.
And on a larger scale, travel refreshes my mind creatively. Being away from my day-to-day surroundings always has a positive effect on my artistic practice. It also helps to shake off different ways in which we can get stuck mentally by reminding ourselves that there are many different realities out there.