An exhibition exploring mysticism in art alongside the conference ‘Art and Articulation’, Jacqueline du Pre’ Music Building,
St Hilda’s College, Oxford, 2016
‘As Above, So Below’
The title of this exhibition, ‘As Above, So Below’, intentionally conjures up a sense of sameness and unity, which is at the same time tempered with separation and a call to transverse space. Comprised of the work of four artists, the exhibition explores ways in which mysticism and art interact; indeed for all four artists the term ‘mysticism’ carries a special resonance.
Recently academics have begun to place the word ‘mysticism’ in inverted commas, signally that they hold it to be something of a weasel word; a modern construction that simplifies and constrains spiritual masterpieces of the past. Yet it is also a word with a modern life of its own. This becomes immediately apparent when embraced by these four contemporary artists. None seeks to engage with particular mystical texts – medieval or modern – yet their art still plays with and struggles against this term in its modern conceptions; struggles in many ways echoed by literary scholarly counterparts. Whilst the purpose of this catalogue is in no sense an atttempt to try to define and delimit the exhibition theologically or historically, sited in this conference, Art and Articulation: Illuminating the Mystical, Medieval and Modern, the exhibition invites us to explore what might be gained from seeing the mystical differently, with our eyes fixed on images and sculpture that prioritise visual over verbal exposition.
The catalogue draws on four interviews conducted by Louise Nelstrop with each of the artists in which they were asked to talk about their work in relation to themes and ideas that are often associated with the mystical in scholarly discourse.
Francesca Nella works in both oil and egg tempera. Describing herself as a craftsperson, she takes pride in creating objects of beauty. Her engagement with the ancient art of egg tempera, a skill passed from generation to generation, fuels her sense of art as traditional craft. Yet at the same time the craft of art is for her bound up with the mystical – a word that she does not use lightly. It is a craft that refuses to allow one a sense of closure, or satisfaction; one’s art is always incomplete. To be an artist is to suffer; it is to learn to let go of that which you first loved in order to truly see and love. One must realise too that what you see will change as it interacts with the light and colours that you paint; it will change also as you change. Discovering the mystical in art is to allow art to lead you, to let the picture draw you in, to allow it to inform you about what is needed. Yet lest that sounds too serious, she stresses that her art is filled with punning. Indeed she sees humour and the capacity of laughing at herself essential in her own self-discovering; for to find oneself one must be willing to be destabilised.
This sense of self-mocking is exemplified in one of the pieces in this exhibition – a self portrait that takes inspiration from Piero Della Francesca’s diptych of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, the Lords of Urbino.
Engaging with this artist, she puns on her own name, playing with the original piece by offering a painting of herself in two halves – a London side and an other Italian side (reflecting her origins). One side has Italian landscape with Federico da Montefeltro’s ducal palace in the background also the location of her art school, the other side has a background of London. Her sign of the zodiac Saturn appears in the shape the Thames – quite by accident. She audaciously takes the colours and symbolisms of importance from the Renaissance original – red clothing and pearl earrings – fueling an intentional irony through which the piece brings her self into question. The painting is not an attempt to resolve duality, the multiple identities that so many carry in today’s societies. It rather puts herself into a position of not knowing through the personality that opposes it. As Amin Maalouf writes, it is about recognising how: ‘I scarcely need exaggerate at all to say that I have some affiliations in common with every other human being. Yet no one else in the world has all or even most of the same allegiances as I do.’ It is about seeing too that as one grows older one’s earlier views of life become more and more meaningless, especially in the face of what we suffer.
A sense of suffering radiates through all her work – but her work is not about suffering. She has always been deeply attracted to nature, especially to trees, water and mountains, as well as to the challenge of portraiture. The suffering comes in the process of creation. Egg tempera is extremely demanding and is a technique with which she has struggled. One has to first learn how to layer the gesso, to create the white luminous smooth surface, like an ice-rink, which is itself an object of beauty that reflects the light. To paint on it one must use traditional ground colour powders which are mixed with egg, the binder, by hand – a process that she compares to cooking. Painting in this way allows the light to shine through to the surface. Egg tempera demands precision, there is, she states, no room for mistakes. One cannot correct. One must first draw a sketch then transfer this onto the board. Colours are added like a mathematician as one colour layer influences the next one. This is a flowing process so the work is never static, there is still room for accident as one colour is added to another.
With oil the process is very different. One begins by painting something one loves, thinking about blocks of shapes rather than lines as you would with egg tempera. Composition and form is important but as one applies colour everything changes. Suddenly the colours and shapes you first used start to relate and demand the changes that may need to be made. The work takes on a life of its own and will evolve as it needs to if you remain open. The brush strokes, the movement, begin to make the thing happen. They bring their own peculiar rhythm. Speaking of one work which shows trees beside water, she states that suddenly she found that the trees seemed to be dancing. If she had held on to what she loved in what she had first seen this would never have happened. As such, painting in oil involves a movement from what one loves to a letting go of that love if one is to find something new, to see trees dance. One needs to allow space for accident and not knowing.
Yet one must first be struck by something – a tree that seems to almost be on fire as it is refracted by the light, for example – she points to another piece in her workshop. The art is not forced against one’s nature. Yet, if one holds onto that moment one spoils the experience. Paintings are not photographs that seek to capture and contain. They are like children that one must let grow and allow to become and to leave. It is only as such that the faults become the possible virtues.
Nella’s painting continually points to the need to see beyond what we see. We see the tree, but the roots beneath are another world. Many trees are older than we will ever be. They have been seen and see generations. Francesca stresses that in the act of painting one looks for a long time before one sees. One must look for a long time before one paints, and one must not stop looking. The process does not come to a close.
In both mediums light is key. In egg tempera the light of the shiny white gesso base will shine through. Light is what responds to form and creates colour. Yet one should not view this idea too simplistically. One must be aware that darkness brings the light. It is the relationship between light and darkness that brings the energy, the movement. One must not paint the object, one must paint the shadows and light which delineate the form.
Deeply important in all this is the physicality and materiality of the craft. Like chemistry, it is formed by more than one thing. The art is formed by the interaction of feeling, thinking and the body. To over-emphasise one – to forget the physicality of the art – is to forget that it is a craft and to create an imbalance. The mystical is to be found in the midst of this.
Francesca Nella spent her early years in London, where her family has been in the knife-grinding business for the past 150 years, and she went to Italy in her early teens. For her quality, beauty and meaning have always been part of growing up in a household of craftsmen, particularly Italian craftsmen, who are so in touch with their traditions. She studied Fine Art and Photography at the Istituto d’Arte of Trento and Urbino, obtaining a Fine Arts Diploma. Family circumstances then led her back to London. While working in a photographic studio for a number of years, she kept her passion for art alive through professional courses. One formative experience was the Illustration and Life Drawing Course at St Martin’s School of Art, as well as Airbrushing at the London College of Printing. She regularly attends Heatherley’s Art School in Chelsea for Open Studio Life Drawing and Portraiture in oils. The artist Fernando Montes, a dear friend and neighbour, taught her the technique of egg tempera. Fernando, one of Bolivia’s most distinguished artists, was also drawn to evocative landscapes of quiet contemplation. She enjoys egg tempera as it allows the colours to be used in a very pure form so they are very saturated and consequently shine like jewels. She also uses other techniques, such as oils and soft pastels which allow her to create and explore different moods. Oils have also allowed a more immediate response as they can be used outside in the open landscape and can be worked and reworked to suit the changing light. Francesca mainly likes to start from a strong set of drawings as this demands the discipline of looking until something is seen and hopefully better understood. This is an ongoing process as she feels no work is ever really finished, it is a gateway onto the next piece. She is looking for a relationship with the outside and all the moments witnessed add up to something visual and hopefully express some of this energy.
In 2011 she joined the United Society of Artists. She mainly works in her Wimbledon Studio and is happy to have visitors see her work and have their valuable feedback.
Dr Louise Nelstrop, college Lecturer in Theology, Oxford
 Amin Maalouf, In The Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, trans. B. Bray (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 20.