Took the train up to Edinburgh recently, just for the day, in order to visit the exhibition of Joan Mitchell’s work at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden. Okay, a longish way, not so far off ten hours in total on the train, but it was a comfortable enough journey and, aside from window gazing (great views of the sea, quite stormy, from Berwick upon Tweed north), I managed quite a bit of reading – and, at least, unlike Jackson Brodie in When Will There Be Good News?, I was travelling in the right direction. Besides, not so very long ago (2002) I flew over to New York to see the major retrospective of Mitchell’s paintings at the Whitney, so this was nothing …
It says much about the position of woman artists internationally, both now and in the recent past, that this is the first solo museum showing of Joan Mitchell’s painting in Great Britain. Mitchell began painting in her home city of Chicago, lived briefly in Paris with her first husband, before moving to New York in the early 1950s amidst the tumult of early abstract expressionism. Encouraged by Willem de Kooning and the poet and art critic/curator Frank O’Hara, she seems to have succeeded to a significant extent in keeping her head above water in what must have been an intensely masculine, testosterone-fuelled environment. (By all accounts, she swore like a stevedore and could drink many men under the table) In 1957, her work was included, along with that of fellow women artists Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan and Jane Freilicher in an important group show at New York’s Jewish Museum, Artists of the New York School: Second Generation. But by 1959, she had moved to Paris along with her lover, the Canadian painter, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and France was where she spent most of the remainder of her life, until she died in 1992.
Landscape and nature were always, I think, an important element in her painting, an element which helped to give a structure to the abstraction, and living and working in France, she naturally took on the influence of such artists as Monet, Cezanne and Matisse. This influence is already clear in some of the earlier pieces in the Edinburgh exhibition, which, although small, gains greatly from its situation, the gallery’s high windows looking out towards the trees and shrubbery of the Botanical Garden outside. And there’s a full and persuasive review of the show by Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times.
If I had to choose one painter whose work I could live with to the exclusion of any other, Joan Mitchell would be the one.