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Issue 240

Lisa Brice Takes on Manet, Degas and Vallotton

The artist’s smoky painted world at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris opens an a-historic space for female pleasure

BY Hettie Judah in Exhibition Reviews | 20 NOV 23

In a grand blue oil study, a naked artist clasps a sheet to her chest while gazing into a mirror to paint a self-portrait (Untitled, 2023). Nothing so unusual there. Except the mirror is on the floor and, as she stands one foot raised, the intimate view she paints is Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World, 1866), flourishing pubes and all. Setup, joke, punchline? I could spend hours going around Lisa Brice’s ‘LIVES and WORKS’ piecing together art-historical references. It might be fun. But Brice’s art is not a puzzle to be solved. Her smoky, sultry, painted world is richer than that: it is a space for female pleasure, among other things.

From the 1960s, gynaecological self-examination was promoted avidly within the Women’s Movement. Acquaintance with intimate anatomy represented a transfer of knowledge and power in spheres both medical and sexual. Earlier this year, at London’s Huxley-Parlour Gallery, Eileen Cooper exhibited previously unshown mirror examination drawings from the late 1970s. Reimagining L’Origine du Monde as a product of that context explicitly transforms it into a feminist gesture. The identity of the person holding the brush changes the reading of the work. 

Lisa Brice, Untitled, 2023, oil on trace, 42 × 30 cm. Courtesy: © Lisa Brice and Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London, Paris, Salzburg and Seoul; photograph: Charles Duprat

Biography weighs on Brice’s exhibition title. Both in the sense that writer Giorgio Vasari considered artists’ Lives (1550) as well as their works, and as the commonplace construction identifying an artist’s place of residence. Brice is attentive to location. For a 2018 display at Tate Britain, she released John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52) from her watery grave in the pre-Raphaelite gallery and painted her emerging through a curtain of coloured streamers into a bar; teenage tragedy turned party girl (Untitled, 2018). 

Opening in the same year as the Musée d’Orsay’s ‘Manet/Degas’ show, ‘Works and Lives’ references Edgar Degas’s Absinthe Drinker (1875–76) and Édouard Manet’s consumer of Plum Brandy (c.1877), who appear among the customers in Brice’s grand restaging of the bar at the Folies Bergère, Untitled (after Manet & Degas) (2023). 

Lisa Brice, Untitled, 2022, pigment and gouache on canvas, 200 × 83 cm. Courtesy: © Lisa Brice and Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London, Paris, Salzburg and Seoul; photograph: Charles Duprat

Brice has long portrayed women in intimate moments of self-regard. Since the start of her ‘blue period’, around 2016, she has explicitly taken up the proposal made by, among others, Carolee Schneemann (in the naked self-portraits for which Bard College suspended her for ‘moral turpitude’ in the 1950s) and by Tracey Emin (in her 1996 performance Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made): that a naked woman might be an artist as well as a model; that a nude can be actively engaged in making rather than passively waiting, per art’s martial vocabulary, to be ‘captured’. 

In her cobalt blue studies, Brice gathers her cast of art-historical characters and presses paintbrushes into their hands. The naked artist examining her nethers in Untitled has the same sharp bob as the supine white model in Félix Vallotton’s La Blanche et la Noire (The White and the Black, 1913) – a painting Brice appropriates with delicious virtuosity in Untitled (after Vallotton) (2023). Seen through a curtain of streamers, the Black model (performer Aïcha Goblet) is reimagined as an artist, painting her companion, now sunburned and bikini marked. Pink skin lends its blush to the white bedsheets, against which is also just visible the trace of Goblet sitting on the bed, where Vallotton originally positioned her. In a narrow painting hung opposite, also Untitled (after Vallotton) (2023), the scene is reflected back in a mirrored door.

Lisa Brice, Untitled (after Vallotton), 2023, pigment and oil on canvas, each panel: 200 × 95 cm. Courtesy: © Lisa Brice and Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London, Paris, Salzburg and Seoul; photograph: Charles Duprat

This self-contained arrangement suggests a completeness to Brice’s bohemian fantasy. She has created a separate world for previously mute and inactive figures. In this a-historic mirror maze, all paint and all pose, all drink and all serve, all work and all rest, all look and all are implicated in looking. 

Lisa Brice's 'LIVES and WORKS' is on view at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris until 23 December 

Main image: Lisa Brice, Untitled (after Manet & Degas), 2023, pigment and oil on linen, 1.5 × 2.4 m. Courtesy: © Lisa Brice and Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London, Paris, Salzburg and Seoul; photograph: Charles Duprat

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.