It is widely known, even to the layperson recalling just a little from a school art history lesson that artists from all over the world have frequented the Louvre in Paris to copy the works of Great Master Paintings. By this process, a diligent self-motivated student could and does experience an immediate lesson from the ghosts of artist past. Montparnasse, the well renowned area of Paris is alive with the spirit of these artists, as many had flocked there between the years of World War One and Two for its cheap rents and vibrant atmosphere; selling their works to buy food.
Trentham resident and painter Catherine Abel always had an affinity with those far away artists as a school student in North Queensland. I asked Catherine if there was any particular member in her family that may have influenced her as a child.
Whilst at school, I always had an affinity with the artists living in Paris, particularly the cubists and surrealists. But no one in my family had a direct influence on me in this way. Although, I did happen to take ballet at the age of five and loved Anna Pavlova and that whole period of the 1920’s.
I tried to dig further, but Catherine tells me that she was really a ‘black sheep’ in the true sense of the word.
I think I was just born to do it! I never knew my father, but the little I did find out was that he had immigrated to Australia from Italy in the 1960s and worked as a cane farmer. I later found out he was quite creative and loved making things from wood. He was also half Italian so, perhaps it’s in my blood!
What led you to Paris?
I always had this dream of living and painting in Paris. I went on a holiday in 1997 and met a French guy who came over to Australia the following year after he finished his studies. In 2000 we moved to Paris. He had a really good job offer there and said that he would help me establish myself as a painter. Although I had made art all my life I had only made a few paintings. It was really confronting – did I even have any talent? So I basically set myself a target. I wasn’t sure if I had what it took to have some sort of congruency. I asked myself if I could execute 10 paintings in a row. I basically spent a huge amount of time at the Lourve and then would go back to my apartment and paint.
Catherine sites female artist Tamara de Lempicka as a huge influence and the ‘future she never had’.
She was a very free and flamboyant Polish artist who went to Paris in the 1920’s. She was taking lessons and spending lots of time at the Lourve, just like Matisse and Picasso. I had been reading her biography and had been by her studio in Montparnasse, I was just so hungry to paint!
You portray women in a classical form; highlighting their natural ‘strength and beauty’ do you think it somewhat of a backlash against the often-negative way many women are depicted through the media?
It’s not something that is done intentionally. I often get that question but I’m not making intellectual choices-it just flows in a way. If you look through history the female form has always been depicted and interpreted in a number of ways. Being female myself, its natural, I don’t fear it. I find the form so beautiful and graceful, both the shapes and the emotion. I feel that the strong background designs of my paintings compliment the women. Also, something extra comes in when a female paints a female. In contemporary painting men often paint women more sexually.
I asked Catherine about her style and in particular, her highly patterned and colourful worlds that house her beautiful figures.
In the last five years, I’ve noticed realistic figurative painting becoming a strong presence in the art scene. A lot of people are painting the female form. They’re often beautifully rendered with a plain background. I’m bringing another dimension into the background with the strong cubist influence. I love Picasso and the act of breaking down images-it becomes another side of my mind. There is a strong design element harking back to art deco and nouveau. I also love the work of French designer Edgar Brandt. He produced the beautiful wrought Iron lace work and door grates in Europe during the 1920’s.
What led you to want to represent yourself -away from the gallery/artist relationship?
For the first time I don’t have gallery representation. I have been very frustrated with the art scene in Australia. The gallery that represented me in Sydney basically deterred me from doing my cubist works. They wanted a certain style of image that ‘could sell’. My work sells very well through my own representation.
How is your work received by the general public and especially in your new community?
Almost everyone who visits my gallery resonate with the cubist works. One person called me a “living Cubist” which really made my day! I think they love the abstraction yet find they can still identify with the imagery. I feel like I will never exhaust the theme, which is great because the demand and interest is there.
What can people expect from their visit to the Open studios?
This is the first time I have participated and I’m replicating my studio into the gallery. I really wanted to be a part of it. I live in the one bedroom apartment at the back of the shop, so two rooms at the front will become the gallery and studio. There will be an easel set up with a few paintings on the go and I’ll be available for questions.
Catherine assures me that she will have work on display despite the six paintings that have been whisked away to the Toorak Village Art Fair! These time laborious works are in high demand and are keeping her very busy.
View the times for Open Studios here:
Read another interview with Catherine Abel on ‘The Countryphiles’ here