The Fine Art Society’s galleries, located on London’s New Bond Street, have held a number of exhibitions that have made history in the art world. Since the society’s establishment in 1876, it has showcased the works of prominent artists of the English school, including Sir John Everett Millais, John Singer Sargent, Burne-Jones, Frank Brangwyn, Sickert, and Walter Crane. As such, this establishment has played an important role in fostering an audience for local artists.
The 2005 refurbishment of the premises opened a new gallery space designated specifically for contemporary art shows. Here, London-based painter Annie Kevans (b. 1972) exhibited portraits of what she calls “successful female artists over the last 500 years, many of whom have been all but written out of art history.” 1 Publicity for the exhibition suggested that Kevans may be a rising star in the British art world. Across town, in the City of London’s Barbican Art Gallery, another series of works commissioned from Kevans was seen as part of the concurrent exhibition, The Fashion World of Jean Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. This Gaultier exhibition was conceived by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Toronto and, before coming to London, was shown in New York, Rotterdam, and Stockholm. Next, it tours to the National Galleries of Victoria in Melbourne (October 17, 2014-February 8, 2015) and Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris (April 1-August 3, 2015).
Exhibition curator and former model, Thierry-Maxime Loriot, was impressed by Kevans’s series All the Presidents’ Girls(2009), which depicted the mistresses of U.S. presidents. After seeing these exhibited in New York, he asked her to create portraits depicting Gaultier’s muses and inspirations, from Gaultier’s grandmother to artists like David Bowie and Boy George. [End Page 1025]
Born in France to British parents, Kevans graduated from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design (University of the Arts London) in 2004. She first became known when all thirty paintings from her BA degree show, the Boysseries, were bought by Charles Saatchi.
Her thesis was on images of children in art, and Boysportrayed the faces (some based on existing portraits and others invented) of twentieth-century tyrants, dictators, and war criminals, including Hitler, Pol Pot, and Radovan Karadzic, as children. She painted the portraits in thinned oil paints, cultivating a technique that has become a hallmark of her work so far. Adopting a limited monochromatic palette, she applied the paint with deft brushstrokes, drawn sketchily on paper primed specifically for oil paint. The portraits have a washed-out appearance: “a melancholic, dreamlike feel—all eerie wide eyes, drippy hair and smeary lips,” The Independent has observed. 2
Childhood is usually seen as a time of innocence, but Kevans matches it with evil in these portraits. They originally sprang from Kevans’s interest in the relation between power and identity, in how truth is manipulated in the recording of history, and in how history is recast. These works pose questions about how history and memory relate to the composition of (artistic and/or documentary) images. This is a thread that continues to run through Kevans’s work. She paints figures whom she regards as being overlooked, exploited, or objectified in history or contemporary culture. Her works are a composite of existing images, research, and imagination. Her “portraits” may or may not be based on real documentation, and she has been criticized for painting portraits in such a loose sense, with many of them largely fictional.
Kevans herself believes that “a person’s identity is not preset but is a shifting temporary construction,” and her work “questions our verdicts on history and perceptions of intellectual solidity.”
The Women and the History of Artseries consists of thirty-two portraits of successful women artists whose history and significance Kevans considers have eroded over time. She says that they remain “separate” from art...