Moderation Be Damned
This major essay appeared in the publication Moderation Be Damned which celebrates the life and work of the exraordinary artist and writer, Edith SImon. The publication, which was organised and facilitated by the photographer Antonia Reeve also is lavishly illustrated and also conatins a contribution by the artist's sister, Inge Goodwin.
Edith Simon’s Art
Edith Simon’s life brilliantly encompassed a number of careers: book illustrator, graphic artist, novelist, historian, essayist, painter, sculptor, draughtswoman and translator. Her output was prodigious and prolific – her career as a writer alone would have satisfied more modest talents. However, in her late forties she turned from writing full-time to making art, an occupation that again turned out to occupy her time and talents fully. A catalogue of more than eight hundred extant works in a wide variety of media testifies to her passionate dedication to developing her art.
In the minds of most, Edith Simon’s work will be remembered for the medium in which she excelled and had developed and made her own – the ‘scalpel painting’. Simon had originally termed this ‘papercut bas relief’, but for good reasons opted for a much more vigorous and slightly threatening label. The technique is explained in more detail below but essentially involves using successive layers of cut paper to create images. The images have a three-dimensional quality that becomes more pronounced when viewed under specific lighting conditions.
In an undated manuscript written around 1976 Edith Simon set out some of her ideas for a book which she hoped one day to write about her own idiosyncratic approach to art-making. The sub-title of the proposed work was ‘An Art Book with a Difference’. The short text, with its didactic and discursive approach, is revealing of the artist-author in a number of ways:
In the beginning was, not the word, but image. Visual art gave birth to language, religion, ideas, science, technology: the lot; and from the first accidental hand print till the coming of photography and wireless transmission, the artist worked for people … But then the camera imposed a rigid template on the world of appearances and the new media gradually monopolised communications. The third eye, that sees beyond immediate appearance, became dimmed; older arteries of communication grew clogged. The artist and his audience ceased to be in step. People became ‘other people’, no longer tacitly including the image-maker himself, who now had to say, in effect, ‘to hell with you, I’m doing my thing’ or perish.
Simon discussed what she believed also to be a unique aspect of art: the ability to see beneath the surface of the thing itself. Simon’s philosophy of art-making is important in another aspect. It introduces the idea of the audience as a crucial component of her approach. Art does not need an audience to exist; but it does need one in order to be shared. By way of explanation for her gradual move from writer to visual artist she contrasts the isolation of the former with the more public exposure of the latter:
The slow sometimes isolated and sometimes non-existent feedback from books contrasted with the instant and immediate apprehension of the purely visual object. Although in all these lines of endeavour one starts out without an audience and is in no way deterred by this, the tremendous new stimulus of an unexpected audience … helped … me to express what I felt I had to say about life … in … compact visual shorthand …
In an age where the specialist is revered and the generalist regarded with some suspicion, Edith Simon was a maverick figure. She had never baulked at the idea of challenging convention:
I was … trying to do what I most wanted to do in the teeth of a then ruling fashion that led me to the techniques by which I learned most and which in other ways too became rewarding: paper-cuts, continuous-line, rope sculpture, plastics.
The focus of this short study is, therefore, Simon’s work as an interpreter of religious themes and as a portraitist; these two areas bring her fascination with people together with her passionate historical, philosophical and spiritual interests. Such a study, confined by space and time, cannot do justice to the entirety of Simon’s oeuvre as a visual artist; the approach has been to prioritise depth of comment and analysis over breadth.
Many aspects of an artist’s life can inform their art: upbringing, training, family, relationships and life in general. Edith Simon was born in 1917 into a Germany that was at war; the privations of that society and economy were part of her familial experience. Her emigration to England at the age of fifteen was a common experience for many Jewish middle-class intellectual families. This diaspora, although tragic on one level, made our society all the richer.
Edith Simon did not suffer personally during the rise of National Socialism. However, even though she records no anguish or fear at the experience of leaving Germany (she returned within months to complete her Reifezeugnis) her work was informed at a sub-conscious level by events she witnessed or heard about. In terms of early artistic influence the works of Helmut Hügel (one of whose works Simon’s parents owned), Lovis Corinth and Oskar Kokoschka had a lasting effect. Throughout her life the artists of the Renaissance also held a great interest. Indeed, one of the defining treasured moments in Simon’s career was when she visited the Sistine Chapel (then under renovation) and was invited to climb onto the scaffolding to look at Michelangelo’s masterpiece and to ‘touch the hand of God’. But a good artist wastes no experience in the pursuit of their art and all facets of Simon’s world informed her work; and much also formed its subject matter.
Simon’s work has been widely collected, indeed to such an extent that only around forty works remain in the possession of her family – the rest have been dispersed to an avid and enthusiastic audience of international collectors, from public institutions to private households such as that of Alison Elwell-Sutton whose collection is both highly representative of Simon’s work, yet unique and deeply personal. Public collections include the University of Edinburgh, the John Innes Centre (a posthumous portrait of Sir Rolland Biffen, founder of the Plant Breeding Institute, Cambridge) and The City Art Centre, Edinburgh. It is, therefore, one of life’s curiosities that at the time of writing none of Simon’s work has been bought for a national collection. This despite specialising in portraiture for three decades in a city whose Scottish National Portrait Gallery purports to reflect the activities of its artists and citizens.
II Religious Themes
Although Simon’s artistic output has ranged over a wide number of media and explored an equally diverse variety of themes, particular constants have re-occurred at regular intervals throughout her career. One of these is her treatment of religious subject matter; this particular fascination has also been apparent in her career as a writer. Her novels and historical studies have included titles such as The Golden Hand, The Reformation, The Saints and Luther Alive. A number of key works deserve particular mention.
[MS 7202 ‘Jesus and the Fig Tree’ ]
This sculpture illustrates the passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark where Jesus ‘curses’ a fig tree in the presence of his disciples:
Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, ‘Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever.’ And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, ‘How soon is the fig tree withered away!’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.’
Theological interpretations of this event differ; some believe the fruitless tree was used by Jesus as a parable or metaphor for the nation of Israel. Simon saw the passage as representing Christ’s fallibility and earthliness:
The incident of Jesus cursing the fig-tree was always of particular interest to me because as far as I know it’s never been depicted in religious art … in interpreting it people usually skate over it … but in contrast with all Jesus’ other actions being a pure tantrum, as it were, [it is] the behaviour of a man in conflict and obviously extremely worried … it seems to me to be the nearest thing to factual evidence of such a person.
The theme and the questions it poses are important, leading Simon to give the subject a more compelling reworking in 1991 [PC 9115].
The majority of the viewing public and the critics received Simon’s textile work favourably and enthusiastically. Writing about Simon’s 1973 ‘Adventure Show’ at The University of Edinburgh’s Chaplaincy Centre, Martin Baillie observed:
....These sculptures make the show and if they are not art, then one can only paraphrase a comment of David Hume on philosophy, so much the worse for art. I enjoyed this show enormously....Adam and Eve tasting the forbidden fruit on a green sward thrown over an iron bedstead; a monument to a well known art impresario complete with column and goat; an elegant seated dancer; Beethoven and Mozart as a child prodigy....the Annunciation with the Virgin kneeling, one hand to her breast, the other with nervous fingers plucking at her robe – this, in its fashion, is as moving as medieval painted-wood sculptures.
The following year ‘The Observer’ gave an upbeat notice of Simon’s ‘Open House’ show at the Andsell Gallery, London which it described as “…by far the wittiest, most flagrantly frivolous art show in London for some time.” The reviewer continued:
Mrs Simon ...works with the most unlikely materials, mainly on theatrical or erotic themes most appealing are her life-size, rather rag-doll figures made of stuffed delicately-painted canvas – a huge Beethoven (‘The Deaf Man') standing silently next to a piano at which sits a tiny figure of Mozart behind the score of a sonata; a couple sewn together at the lips and groin. The bath at the gallery was painted by Mrs Simon with a nude girl inside and another climbing out up the wall and over the tiles; and most spectacular of all are two large armchairs with quilted upholstery – a male and a female nude painted sitting on each one.
Despite the prevalence of such favourable reaction, other observers seemed less convinced. Reviewing Simon’s work on BBC Radio, David Miller noted, somewhat testily: “How else could they [the life-size dolls] be described? Fun pieces, perhaps? I can’t take their limp uncertain forms seriously, and they could, through time, degenerate to something akin to a soiled eiderdown.”
Such opinions were in the minority and can be seen as the outmoded opinions of commentators who still, apparently, viewed Simon’s blend of sculpture and craft as ‘women’s art’ and as such was seen as being inferior to the then predominantly male pursuit of the ‘fine’ art of painting. Such blinkered views may, in part, be explained by the peculiarly snobbish British attitude of valuing ‘art’ over ‘craft’. While the former is often revered as the product of unique processes, the later has frequently been seen as an “artisan’s” activity, reproducible if only the necessary skills could be acquired.
The views of Miller, and others, highly prevalent in the early 1970s, may also partly be explained by that fact that such textile work could be safely relegated to the “lower” realm of “woman’s art” and were, therefore, taken less seriously than paintings and sculpting in more ‘traditional’ materials such as metal and stone. The work of women artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Paula Rego and Judy Chicago - all of whom have used textiles with great power - constructs an overwhelmingly powerful case against such attitudes. Like these artists, because of her inherent skill as an object-maker and her gifts of observation and draughtsmanship, Simon was able to bridge the gap between the so-called crafts on the one hand and the ‘fine’ arts on the other.
Simon’s rare ability in this area has been seldom recognised. Art critics, generally raised on a diet of the academicised fine arts have been, therefore, both unable and unwilling to give Simon’s work the notice it has so clearly merited. One exception to this more or less hard-and-fast rule was W. Gordon Smith who devoted an entire programme to an examination of Simon’s figurative textile sculptures in 1973. Such a treatment obviously signified that in at least one case, proper notice had been given to the work of a remarkable and unique artist.
In ‘Crown of Thorns’ [RS 7302 ], a three-dimensional study of the Crucifixion, the medium is a single coil of rope, solidified in a particular position to create a three-dimensional effect where the ‘negative’ empty spaces are as important as the ‘positive’ filled ones. The rope sculpture – a technique which Simon pursued for a number of years in the 1970s – is a logical extension of the continuous line. Explaining her fascination with this method Simon commented:
It seems to lend itself very well to expressing movement. The discipline of having to get round the object in an unbroken line forces concentration … you’ve really got to consider what you are doing and how you are expressing form …
It may also be that Simon had been influenced in this technique by the work of the Polish artist, Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. 1930), whose work was shown in Edinburgh in 1972. [image of Abakanowicz’s rope sculptures ]. Abakanowicz’s imagery was typically dark and suffused with images of suffering. Additionally, the Polish artist’s choice of subject matter may have also influenced Simon’s approach – even at a sub-conscious level. Stylistically there are also links, as Abakanowicz’s work is figurative and deeply expressive, as is Simon’s. Scotland, traditionally averse to such dark, painful imagery, undoubtedly found works such as ‘Crown of Thorns’ difficult to stomach given the nation’s preference for the kind of belle pienture espoused by the Edinburgh School in the first half of the twentieth century. One notable exception to this general rule is John Bellany, whose early paintings tapped directly into the kind of pain, suffering and violence which belle peinture implicitly denied. It is perhaps no coincidence that Simon was a some-time admirer of Bellany and completed a portrait of the artist and his wife in 1989. Simon’s choice of imagery and the force with which it is expressed would seem, therefore, to have much more in common with the northern European and particularly German tradition of image-making. Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim can be said to represent this tradition of iconic pathos and Simon’s work – with its conscious and sub-conscious roots in the Germanic tradition – must be seen in this context.
Further explaining her approach Simon commented: ‘The whole point of the Crucifixion was the voluntary sacrifice so that suffering by itself seems not enough in referring to it. So here is Christ crowning himself with a crown of thorns rather like Napoleon when he made himself Emperor …’ In the New Testament it is, of course, others who ‘crown’ Jesus:
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers. And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had plaited a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! And they spat upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.
By transforming a passive event into an active one Simon reinforces the idea of self-sacrifice – an action, in effect, willed and sanctioned by Christ himself. Much of the force of this work however derives from the apparent tension created by the medium and its subject matter. Rope is traditionally associated with execution by hanging and indeed one of the earliest extant artistic images of the Crucifixion – an ivory relief dating from c. 420–450 – shows Christ on the cross, adjacent to the figure of Judas, hanged by a rope. The confounding of expectation, even by subliminal methods, is a deliberate technique employed by Simon to create the jarring, uncomfortable sensation experienced when looking at ‘Crown of Thorns’.
[PC 8913 Crucifixion: An Alternative Scenario ]
This study is a natural successor to ‘Crown of Thorns’, executed as a scalpel painting. Since the early fifth century, depictions of the Crucifixion had become common in western art. The subject has held a fascination for artists as diverse as William Blake, Titian, Tintoretto, Albrecht Dürer and Francis Bacon. It is a truism that each artist brings his or her own interpretation to such a subject and these representations are inevitably the result of prevailing contemporaneous factors such as social context, purpose and fashion. The early twentieth century saw a new kind of realism entering the treatment of religious subject matter, best typified in terms of the Crucifixion by the German artist, Lovis Corinth (1858–1925). Corinth’s raw, uncompromising handling undoubtedly appealed to Simon and it has been observed that the artist had an influence on Simon’s early artistic development.
Simon takes Corinth’s approach and develops it. Unlike most depictions of the event, Simon’s does not attempt to encompass the whole story in her scenario but, instead, focuses on Christ himself. Inge Goodwin, the artist’s sister, has pointed out Simon’s method by stressing that ‘the idea of ‘An Alternative Scenario’ is that Christ had the power to save himself and descend alive from the Cross, rejecting his own crucifixion. Instead he chose the Crown of Thorns and the Cross to fulfil His (God’s) purpose and save Mankind.’ Most images of the Crucifixion locate the artist and viewer at ‘ground level’ so that the figure of Christ on the cross is elevated; and, as a corollary, the audience must look up, both figuratively and literally, to observe the event. This approach relates to the elevated concept of ‘Christ in Majesty’. Simon turns this convention around by positioning the audience (and herself, as artist) at eye-level with Christ. We are therefore obliged to read the work in a way that is essentially different from many other artists’ treatments. By looking the crucified figure in the eye, Simon brings us close-up to the harsh, brutal reality; this is akin to cinematic technique where a camera mounted on a ‘cherry picker’ moves in and up towards a figure. Part of the considerable power of this work derives from the pervasive feeling that Christ, should he wish, could pull the nails from his hands and free himself.
[PC 8505 The Creation of God and Heaven and Hell ]
How do we gauge when any artist has reached the apogee of his or her career? This is a complex question because implicit in any answer is the idea that all preceding work is merely a series of stages (presumably ever-improving) on the path to aesthetic truth while all following work is in some kind of decline, reached after a highpoint.
Without wishing to imply or assert either of these notions it is, however, possible to state that, with the execution of ‘The Creation of God and Heaven and Hell’, Simon created a masterwork which was more ambitious and complex than anything she had made previously.
Limited only by the power of her own considerable imagination and the constraints of space imposed by the studio, Simon nevertheless created a significantly sized work (measuring 6’ x 10’) whose physical scale was matched by the complexity of its design, composition and content. Discussing the Judeo-Christian mythology of the Creation (and in her characteristic style) Simon explained some of the thinking behind the work:
Possessed of such unbounded inventiveness as confronts us everywhere in nature, such a Creator would never have been content to fashion humankind after an existing prototype in his own image. No, it was the limited imagination of Man that saw the needed deity as a mere magnified reflection of himself, for better or for worse.
This concept seemed a challenging subject for allegory, for a pictorial shorthand statement of something that in words could run to volumes.
In discussion with W Gordon Smith some ten years previously, and elsewhere, Simon had explained her differing approaches to the respective practices of writing and visual art. Although both had similar satisfactions, the notion of immediacy in relation to visual art provided great affirmation: ‘You can take someone by the scruff of the neck and say you’ve got to look at my picture … and they can’t help but see it but you can’t force anybody to read a book …’ The idea of creative urgency and immediate communication had suffused Simon’s desire to make ‘The Creation’ and, as she pointed out, she viewed the work as ‘pictorial shorthand’ for a complex series of ideas and feelings.
The basic approach of the work proposes that the opposing notions of heaven and hell are two sides of the same coin; and, further, that heaven and hell are entirely subjective: ‘For it is soon clear that anybody’s personal heaven is likely to contain hell for someone else.’ Perhaps this was Simon’s attempt to illustrate the Existentialist belief of Jean-Paul Sartre that l’Enfer, c’est les autres’.
Simon sets up a number of opposing images and proceeds to unify them pictorially and philosophically through a series of motifs, including the image of the birth-giver and the octopus. In her use of the representation of the earth goddess, perhaps the oldest of deities, epitomised by such ancient sculptural forms as the ‘Willendorf Venus’, Simon asserts that procreation is the ultimate goal of all life; while the use of the octopus emphasises that, even in the midst of life, death is all around – as the female octopus retires to die after giving birth.
Elsewhere in the work a skier plays in the snow and ice while another person freezes to death and, continuing the theme of mutual opposition, a sunbather relaxes while a drought victim slowly dies. The powerful and disturbing portrayal of the act of rape suggests that in the ecstasy of the rapist there is the simultaneous and wholly opposing suffering of the victim. In the act of violation the woman looks towards a laurel bush – this image refers to the Greek myth where the nymph Daphne was transformed into a laurel bush so that she might escape being raped. Yet within the bush there is a lone figure – an onlooker who is neither wholly detached from nor actively involved in the act he is witnessing. Here, Simon seems to be suggesting that the figure represents ourselves: constrained, unable to act, impotent: ‘a wistful onlooker – one who is undesired, unfulfilled and thus dwells in heaven and hell, peace and hopelessness, at one and the same time.’
As a writer and artist, Simon took her inspiration and ideas from an eclectic range of sources; she was a wide reader and this life-long passion reflected the interest, love and excitement she felt for the world around her. Scientific ideas – as much as the arts and humanities – were never far from her frame of reference; it is not insignificant in this respect that her long, fruitful and supportive marriage was to Dr Eric Reeve an eminent geneticist at the University of Edinburgh. It is therefore appropriate and consistent that in ‘The Creation’ Simon employs the images of Charles Darwin and Leonardo Da Vinci to represent God and the Creation; they represent what CP Snow called the ‘two cultures’ of art and science’ here united as one, reflecting the integration of art and science represented by Simon’s own marriage. Each of these figures holds a mirror in which is represented, respectively, a serene and a wrathful deity. Emerging from this compound image is a Möbius strip on which the artist has represented a food chain and cycle of life.
Compositionally ‘The Creation’ is based on a series of diagonal parallel lines – these consciously echo techniques used by Renaissance masters such as Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo. Structure was important to Simon and reinforces her belief in ‘freedom through constraint’. In other words, the discipline of working within an existing set of rules paradoxically allows greater freedom of expression. [include diagram as seen in ‘Moderation be Damned’ catalogue ]
Through these varied references and the conscious acknowledgement of artistic precursors it would seem that Simon was positioning herself in a respectable art-historical lineage. Such referencing should not be seen as fanciful or over-ambitious; this was acknowledgment of our universal inheritance and her attempt to build upon it.
The desire to express action, emotion, and concept in a simultaneous non-linear narrative is by no means without precedent and by implication therefore not an unreasonable ambition. The deliberate lack of a specific focal point allows the viewer’s eye to move at will over the work. Simon well understood the idea of structuring the audience’s viewing experience, for her exhibitions were laid out with such ideas in mind. Here, however, there is no obvious narrative thread. The intention was therefore to bombard the audience with a number of powerfully charged visual elements seen in no particular order and by doing so suggest the scientific idea of the Chaos of the universe. Techniques such temporal and narrative distortion were, of course, the basis of Modernism. There is, however, real excitement here in the dynamic expression of ideas, feelings and imagery – a series of qualities which can be found across Simon’s oeuvre.
III Edith Simon as Portraitist
From the evidence of Simon’s earliest extant work (including her juvenilia) it is clear that her forte lay in the depiction of individuals. Works such as ‘Aunt Cilly’ [DP 3203 ], ‘Walter’ [DP 3301 ], ‘Dolly’ [DP 3302 ] and ‘Inge’ [DP 3901 ] reveal a precocious talent – all were completed during her teenage years. Collectively they reveal a flair for observation and an ability to convey more than the bare physical details of the sitter. These are important aspects of a two-fold definition of successful portraiture, as Professor Shearer West has pointed out: ‘While a portrait can be concerned with likeness as contained in a person’s physical features, it can also represent the subject’s social position or ‘inner life’, such as their character or virtues.’ Stylistically, these works owe a great deal to German Expressionism – perhaps an unsurprising fact given Simon’s early upbringing in Weimar Germany.
These early works – executed in a variety of media, from ink and wash to oil paint – concentrate on Simon’s immediate family. By definition these were individuals whom she knew well and to whom she had easy access. Such an approach is not surprising, particularly when one considers the financial and social restraints then operating on a teenage girl in London in the early 1930s. As well as differing in their respective media these portraits reveal a stylistic development which corresponds to changes in Simon’s circumstances and her exposure to artistic training and other external influences.
As the artist’s sister, Inge Goodwin, points out in her introductory biographical essay Simon briefly attended (on an informal basis) the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in 1932 and, following that, the Central School of Art and the Slade School of Art in London. Here her precocious and latent talent was exposed and developed but it is not possible to attribute specific stylistic developments in her work to particular teachers or methods taught at the various schools Simon attended. It is however possible to see a movement from a tentative, yet powerful work such as ‘Aunt Cilly’ (1932), through to the bolder more assertive style of ‘Self Portrait’ (1934) culminating in the stylised yet haunting image of Inge Goodwin, ‘Inge’ (1939).
The visual art of portraiture and the literary art of biography, both of which Simon practised, share a number of important qualities. Both attempt to describe an individual in terms that extend beyond mere surface information; biographies often contain visual portraits (photographs, paintings etc.) and portraits often contain visual clues as to the status, occupation of the sitter, even to the extent of sometimes using written information in the work itself to convey additional information. However, whereas a portrait nearly always deals with temporal stasis, a written biography often includes the entire course of a person’s life. It is no mere coincidence that Simon excelled in both; for a time they were complementary activities but as Simon’s long and distinguished career as fiction writer, biographer and historian waned, so reciprocally her career as a visual artist evolved. There had been almost a thirty-year gap in Simon’s activities as a visual artist, although she did pursue visual art on a part-time basis, describing herself quite literally as a ‘Sunday painter’.
Between the late 1930s and late 1960s Simon’s artistic productivity, although limited in relation to her subsequent prolific output, amounted to over forty works. As Inge Goodwin points out these works were done at a time when Simon was engaged in a full-time career as a writer as well as bringing up a family of three children. Her achievement as an occasional painter and artist is therefore not insignificant given the strictures within which she operated. The majority of these works are portraits and studies of people (the two genres, it should be noted, are distinct). They show dancers (studied from life at a nearby ballet school), family members and friends. They range across a number of media but comprise mostly drawing and painting. A study of a young woman ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) [DP 5901 ] is perhaps typical of Simon’s approach at this time. It shows a reclining figure in a slip with a towel wrapped around her head – indicating that she has recently bathed. The work is sensitive and conveys something of the character of the woman in question, in particular, her erotic sensual beauty. The setting is stylised and the floral background adds to the impression of delicacy and femininity.
Inge Goodwin notes that Simon’s earliest scalpel paintings date from 1967 [PC 6701 Jay Reeve aged 13]. Inevitably these early essays in a medium which is, apparently, unique to Simon were unsophisticated by her later standards. Another early work in the same medium entitled ‘Hatted Girl’ (1972) [PC 7201 ] again shows the emergent technique. Completed in three colours the work displays many of the facets which Simon was to develop more fully in later years. The portrait achieves a likeness as well as conveying something of the sitter’s character: jauntily sporting a cap and necklace the young woman appears as confident as she is fashion-conscious.
It is unclear how Simon first began to develop her technique of scalpel painting. Its relationship to the more purely three-dimensional technique of sculpture (which she had practised since 1969) is important because it presents a more workable, if no less technically complex, medium. The development of scalpel painting can also be traced back to Simon’s use of the continuous line : this was explored purely as a drawing technique which then led on, several years later, to sculptural works formed with a single length of rope [RS 7301; RS 7302 FULL CAPTIONS NEEDED]. Such increasingly adept handling of layers of colour also owe much to Simon’s early career as a book illustrator and graphic artist [illustrate examples of these including ‘Somersaults’ and ‘Diderot’ FULL CAPTIONS NEEDED]. These skills were certainly enhanced and developed by her early association with the Artists International Association whose members included a number of gifted illustrators and artists such as Alex Koolman and Cliff Rowe.
The starting point of Simon’s scalpel paintings was also a line drawing: preparatory studies always formed the basis of these works and they were almost always executed on large sheets of paper drawn with a thick black marker pen which allowed Simon to concentrate on the more telling features in the subject. Her consummate skill in drawing and sketching allowed these preliminary studies to be completed quickly and effectively with a high degree of accuracy.
Simon often took less than an hour to complete several preparatory studies. Antonia Reeve, the artist’s elder daughter, observes that Simon’s ‘visual memory meant that even if one study was inaccurate in one or other detail (and the majority were very life-like) – she could remember how it differed from the sitter and therefore keep the likeness in the master drawing for the scalpel painting’.
In 1973, Simon herself explained the approach:
The Continuous-line drawings were the first step, exploring form and leading the eye round the picture in one fluid movement; each drawing consists of a single line, unbroken from start to finish … Invisible masses are caught within the outline, with startling plasticity. Next the Papercuts move into the third dimension with the added amenity of subtle changes arising from different angles of illumination – thus these pictures may be varied even by simply transferring them from one wall to another, as well as by lamps placed in different juxtapositions to them.
Discussing the technique of scalpel painting, Simon’s husband, Dr Eric Reeve has observed:
Wanting to introduce a three-dimensional element into her paintings, she thought of the brilliant and completely original idea of setting up on a hard board a number of sheets of paper, each of a different carefully chosen single colour and each of the same size, and fastened by staples round its edges to the board, which was then held vertically by the easel. A master drawing was traced through to give a faint outline of the picture onto the top layer of coloured paper. This tracing did not remain on the final picture, any visible tracing marks being removed.
The real work then began, first by revealing a few areas of particular colours required in the final picture cutting through and removing the layers above, and then working through the picture in stages. Numerous scalpels were required, in the form of blades which could be attached in turn to a suitable handle, and important points are: a) it is essential to arrange the colours in the right sequence for the picture, as otherwise it will be impossible to complete due to a particular colour being impossible to bring out at some point where it is needed; b) one would think it almost impossible to complete the whole process without making errors of position or depth in the cutting process, such as would force the artist to start again; yet in the high proportion of her scalpel paintings which I have observed her making as I came and went from our house and looked into her studio very quietly, I have very rarely found that she has made a mistake.
It is important to distinguish Simon’s apparently innovatory technique from other related processes such as découpage. An art form with a long history, contemporary découpage essentially involves creating decorative surfaces on pre-existing objects using paper cut-outs. As Simon’s own technique progressed and evolved its methodology inevitably became more complex. She devised a series of self-imposed rules within which she felt bound to operate, advancing her long-held ethos of ‘creativity through constraint’:
… with papercuts, a master drawing is made from sketches. Then the colours are selected. It makes a great deal of difference how many colours there are and in what order they are put together, one on top of the other. The sheets are stapled and placed vertically on the easel. Cutting by scalpel is from the outer, top layer through all the rest, exposing what is needed where. It requires much control and can be very laborious. ¬It often takes as much time in making step by step decisions as in carrying these decisions out. No amount of planning can allow for all the questions and possibilities that arise in the actual process. It is as if the work gradually revealed its secrets in the act of being explored. Each sheet must remain in one piece though perforated, maybe, to the extent of lace. Portions may be modelled and interwoven, but no separate bits can be cut out and stuck on. The end result goes into a specially constructed frame of the necessary depth and is totally durable.
With portraiture, Simon had clearly found her vocation. It was not an easy route and she felt unable to be both a full-time writer and a full-time artist. Explaining the change in her career she wrote: ‘Once upon a time I forsook art for writing, because I did not know what I wanted to say, except in words … When later on revelation struck and I went back to art, I found that my artistic values were unfashionable and my artistic abilities under-developed. To be any good, you have to keep at it, with total application of all your powers.’ Simon’s realistic attitude in relation to her artistic powers is matched by her commitment, not only to succeed but to excel.
The circumstances surrounding the execution and presentation of a portrait can be complex; involving a sitter, artist, commissioner and audience. However, at the heart of the process, and integral to it, is the relationship between the sitter and the artist. Although constructing a portrait in the absence of the sitter is not rare, it is certainly less common than when the artist and the sitter are in close physical proximity, for example, within the artist’s studio. One such example of the former situation is Simon’s posthumous portrait of Matthew Nelson [PC 9202 ]. Nelson, an admirer of Simon’s work, was a gifted student of Computing Science at Stirling University who had died after a long fight with cystic fibrosis. Simon was commissioned by Nelson’s parents to complete a portrait of him after his death. At the time Simon recorded that this was the greatest challenge of her career to date. The portrait was based on photographs and her experience of visiting Nelson’s home and study.
Simon’s favoured location for the initial stages of her composition (a master drawing) and subsequent development where she worked with a scalpel and sheets of coloured paper, was often in her sitters’ homes, studios and places of work. It was only in the late 1980s that Simon started to make use of photography as a visual recording medium and to work increasingly from her own studio.
The interaction between sitter and artist is a crucial aspect of portraiture. It is this as much as any other factor (compositional sense, power of observation, artistic ability) which contributes to the success of the work. Simon explained this process as like being ‘steeped in hypnotic empathy with the subject for the duration, every time …’ Sir Timothy Clifford, who sat for Simon twice, observed that ‘Edith asked me to sit for her on two occasions and I was delighted to do so. I suppose I cringed somewhat at seeing my own likeness and didn’t buy either piece, mainly because they were large and wouldn’t fit in my home. I recall Edith worked very quickly, using a line drawing and photographs.’
[PC 9812 On Your Bike – Giles Sutherland ]
My own experience of sitting (or rather, standing!) for Simon was, I suspect, both typical and unique. We had met at an exhibition opening and rather out of the blue she suggested that I sit for her. At the appointed time I arrived (by bike) at her studio in my cycling gear. Immediately she insisted I wear this and pose standing with my bicycle. It was certainly an unorthodox, although entirely welcome, approach. Simon explained that in order for her to work properly I should talk but that she must be silent: ‘… my sitters are asked to speak while they pose. People go slack and frozen-featured when allowed to sink into ruminant torpor … I like the subjects … to choose what to wear, because of what this will tell us about their self-regard.’
So, for the space of two or three hours, I stood intoning a relentless monologue. I have no recollection of what I talked about but I understood that as well as the visual stimuli set before her she also relied, however subconsciously, on the impression she formed of me through my own speech and mannerisms. Simon spent the time quickly sketching a series of line drawings with a thick black ink marker pen; but she refused to let me see the results. Several months later she had completed the work to her satisfaction and I was invited to inspect it. I can only record my pleasure with the work, particularly the facial likeness, the intricacy of detail lavished on the clothing (gloves and trousers) and of course the presence of my ‘prop’ – the bike. In truth, I was flattered, not only with the end result but also by being asked to sit in the first place.
IV A Focus on Portraits
From around 1980 Simon’s work increasingly tended towards the medium of ‘scalpel painting’ while other media such as video, ‘mobile sculpture’, ‘ropescapes’, ‘scrollworks’, ‘see-throughs’ and ‘2½-D pictures’ became less prevalent. ‘Kissing the Wind’ [PC 7912 ] of 1979, shows a female figure on all fours partially submerged in water, with tousled hair and head aloft. This is a convincing study and although there appear to be certain technical deficiencies in relation to anatomy, Inge Goodwin explains that ‘Edith could be entirely accurate/realistic as to anatomy and proportion, but deliberate stylised distortion for a purpose is surely a component of modern art.’ Although not a portrait (it lacks the personalised detail which would allow it to be termed as such) the work’s overall composition, balance and increasingly deft handling of the medium (here the number of layers of paper has increased to six [CHECK] illustrate the fact that scalpel painting was increasingly Simon’s medium of choice. A much darker work ‘[TITLE]’ [PC 8006 ] completed the following year is a more abstracted, simplified image. It shows a cloaked figure with a skull-like head holding a bag. The apparition – for that is what it appears to be – stands on a pavement or quay in darkness while a strange light illuminates the background. The subject is in fact Sir Gerald Elliot, one-time chairman of the Arts Council. Inge Goodwin comments that ‘what fascinated Edith was the conjunction of eye-patch, kimono and handbag.’
Simon was always a social animal; her love of and interest in people and her position as the wife of a well-connected Edinburgh University academic ensured access to a particular stratum of Edinburgh society. Increasingly, members of this circle became the subject of her work and what had previously been studies of people in general became progressively more oriented towards portraiture: studies of specific, identifiable individuals contextualised by their clothes, surroundings and other ‘props’.
[PC 8105 ] ‘The Descent’
One such early work is ‘The Descent’ which shows its subject, Andrea Targett-Adams who ran an up-market PR agency, descending a staircase in an elegant Georgian interior. The practice of portraying subjects within a specific setting reflecting the sitter’s occupation or social status has a long lineage. Although her formal training in art history was limited Simon, nevertheless, had a highly sophisticated understanding and knowledge of such matters. Although there is no specific documentary evidence to categorically prove the assertion, Simon would almost certainly have been aware of works such as Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (1912) and Gerhard Richter’s ‘Woman Descending the Staircase’ (1965) – only Richter’s work could approximate to the label ‘portrait’ (it shows a blurred ‘photo-painting’ of the opera-singer Maria Callas). Simon’s and Richter’s works share some startling similarities. They both show elegant, sophisticated and well-dressed mature women descending a flight of stairs. But whereas Simon’s subject looks straight at the viewer, Richter’s take is more tangential. Although the media differ widely, both works portray an identifiable individual within a certain context; and both give a number of clues as to the social standing and preoccupations of the subject.
[PC8705 Dr Elizabeth Mason ]
Dr Elizabeth Mason is well-known figure in the Edinburgh social and arts scene. She is a colourful personality and has led a full and eventful life. It is therefore entirely apt that such a figure, whom Simon had known since 1947, should form the subject matter of one of Simon’s portrait scalpel paintings.
The portrait shows the sitter – in typical attire – resting in a large red armchair. The subject’s head is turned fully to face the viewer and, somewhat atypically for one of Simon’s portraits, shows the head disproportionately larger than the rest of the body. This, one can speculate, is a device employed by the artist to focus the viewer’s attention on the head, the ultimate focal point of the majority of the artist’s portraits. Dr. Mason’s hat – large, red and extravagant – acts as a device which both illustrates and symbolises the larger-than-life personality of the sitter. However, it would be a mistake to consider the use of red for both the chair and hat as a technical short-cut in the construction of the work. Simon was seldom interested in developing easy solutions. Indeed, it is clear that the opposite was true: she continuously set herself technical challenges which she effectively had to surmount before the work was deemed a success by the artist. The Mason portrait is a case-in-point because the red of the hat and the red of the chair differ in tone: the latter is lighter and pinker in hue than the former. The jarring tonality may have been Simon’s method of commenting on what she perceived to be the sitter’s personality. Why indeed do something the easy way when a more complex solution would present greater challenges and, as a corollary, greater rewards?
[PC 8704 Lord John McCluskey ]
This ‘double’ portrait, completed at around the same time as the Mason portrait, shows the Edinburgh-based judge, Lord John McCluskey. McCluskey held the post of Solicitor General for Scotland between 1974 and 1979 and at the time of portrait was a Senator of the Court of Justice. The work shows McCluskey in two different but complementary roles: one domestic and one professional. Clearly, the sitter’s domestic and social role has been emphasised by showing Lord McCluskey seated in a relaxed pose; to the rear, smaller in scale, and tonally more subdued is his professional self. He is attired in formal dress, including the long robes and wig which form part of judicial regalia. The clearly distinct juxtaposition of the two ‘selves’ is a useful device – although not without precedent. Paul Wunderlich’s portrait of George Sand, for example, presents two ‘faces’ of the nineteenth century novelist. However, in Wunderlich’s work one of the faces is blank, prompting Richard Brilliant to observe: ‘… identity and naming are inextricably bound together in portraiture … the picture implies a dialectic, turning on the name, that logically requires the viewer to be far more cautious about taking portraits, any portraits, at face value …’ Although it would be difficult to argue that Simon’s work sets up a dialectic, the portrait does allow simultaneous comment on and portrayal of two entirely separate roles: public office and private citizen.
[PC 8929 A Bouquet for Helen and John ]
As Simon’s reputation grew and her work became more confident and ambitious, her talents as a portraitist became increasingly in demand. Often, work was created on the basis of commissions, either mediated by a third party or directly from the sitter or sitters themselves (info here about how the work was commissioned). In relation to the genesis of the portrait of John and Helen Bellany, Simon commented: ‘Motivation, format and title for this double portrait burst upon me in one lightning stroke, in joyful reaction to a new phase in John Bellany’s paintings … The key colour, too, was in the package. It could not be anything but yellow, partly in compliment to the subject, partly because yellow seems to me to touch off the phantasmagoric nerve in me.’
Simon considered situating the couple amid Bellany’s art works or showing Bellany himself in the acting of painting (as she had done previously in her portrait of Sir Robin Phillipson [PC CHECK ]); but that seemed too literal an approach. The portrait was essentially a tribute to the Bellanys’ marriage and to John Bellany’s status as a respected painter – thus the idea of a floral tribute, included in the title of the work. A number of motifs suggested themselves to Simon in the process of constructing and composing the work. Two derived from the idea of equestrian portraits – a form of high accolade since Classical times. The first specific art-historical reference, seen in the fabric of the sofa in the foreground (and echoed in the patterning of Helen Bellany’s dress) was to Simone Martini’s fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano in Siena. Continuing the equestrian theme, Simon positioned a partial silhouette of Verrocchio’s Colleoni statue in Venice behind Bellany’s head. The third motif was the addition of what Simon describes as ‘wand-land’ trees which were common in Renaissance quattrocento backgrounds. In a typically light-hearted and modest way, Simon related how these various elements had occurred to her: ‘Horse! Equestrian monuments, Society’s ultimate accolade … Not a bad furnishing fabric, at that, for something that originated in a sofa. Complete with stylised flowers, leaves, stalks, twigs, moreover, for the ‘real’ bouquet to shade into. Thank you, Subconscious.’
[PC 8912 Sheena MacDonald ]
Simon’s portrait of the well-known journalist Sheena MacDonald was completed in 1989. The main conceit of the image involves the kind of visual complexity in which Simon delighted – it shows the broadcaster as a reflection in a mirror; beside this mirror image stands a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair. By implication, we understand the chair to be a prized possession, because although aligned to one side of portrait it nevertheless assumes an important position in the overall composition. In turn, this prop allows us to attribute certain traits and qualities to the sitter: expensive and cultured taste, the desire to collect and the will to display acquisitions. That the sitter is portrayed before in mirror suggests other qualities: confidence, self-regard and even, perhaps, vanity.
The device of the mirror within a portrait has a long lineage in the history of art. Most famously, perhaps, the mirror was used as a device by Jan Van Eyck in his ‘Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami (The Arnolfini Marriage) in 1434. But whereas here the convex reflective surface is used as a way of including the artist himself in the work (and thus recreates the portrait as, additionally, a self-portrait) Simon’s purpose is different. The mirror does not show the artist, only the sitter, and again, unlike the Van Eyck there is only one created image of the sitter. Simon, it should be noted, also alluded to Van Eyck’s masterpiece, in her double nude portrait, ‘Marriage’ which shows a nude couple holding hands with a mirror in the background reflecting the artist.
[PC 9803 + PC 9102 Sir Timothy Clifford ]
The former Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Timothy Clifford, posed twice as a sitter for Simon – in 1991 and 1998. The first portrait entitled ‘Cliffhanger’, shows Clifford seated on an armchair which itself is perched vertiginously on the landing of a staircase – the setting is in fact the rear stairway at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. The chair appears to be almost ready to topple from its precarious position taking its hapless occupant with it; he, however, nonchalantly looks on, head resting on one arm, legs comfortably crossed. The setting is not unlike the Targett-Adams portrait [PC 8105 ]; above is an elegant cupola, and the Albacini portrait busts. In the foreground and, therefore, correspondingly larger and more prominent, is a portrait bust of Apollo (god of art and war). The tone of Simon’s work is characteristically witty and mischievous; the work reveals an ambiguous attitude towards the sitter. She wrote:
… the portrait is a companion piece [to ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ [PC 9103 ]] … demon king to good fairy perhaps … in each the central figure occupies a mere third of the total space … In real life … the directorial throne does not occupy the physically commanding position it has here – where it could either bar access altogether or eventually come to grief. The latter possibility is denied by the incumbent’s attitude, at once imperious and relaxed. Withal there is in his face some vulnerable sensitivity, a soft-shelled nakedness …
Previously, Simon had hinted at this type of approach: ‘… [it] … doesn’t mean the portrayal will be all sweetness and light, sugar and spice. Empathy isn’t necessarily sweeping approval. The creative equipment includes a form of X-ray illuminating hidden aspects.’ The title of the work ‘Cliffhanger’ therefore is a coded message telling us that the artist was well aware of the sitter’s political manoeuvring and his apparently precarious tenure of a public office held so idiosyncratically and controversially by its incumbent.
Throughout her long career Simon completed a number of self-portraits. In terms of art history this sub-genre has, arguably, as long a lineage as portraiture itself. Inevitably, the field is vast; but it is a truism that most figurative artists, especially those who have worked on portraits have, at one time or another, turned their expressive and observational powers away from others and towards themselves.
Edith Simon was, therefore, no exception to this general rule. Her earliest extant self-portrait dates from 1934 (‘Self-Portrait’ [DP 3401] ). This is a compositionally assured work, vigorously executed in thick oils; stylistically it is akin to the work of artists such as Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1988) and Lovis Corinth, both artists Simon admired. (Kokoschka and Corinth self-portraits) These studies were painted within a decade or so of Simon’s own self-portrait and both are perspicacious and revelatory. Physical verisimilitude aside, both attempt to probe the psyche and reach below the surface. Simon’s portrait also takes this approach; it is not a mere superficial copying of style and composition. It should be noted that Simon’s work was completed when she was only seventeen years of age, while Corinth’s and Kokoschka’s were painted when these artists were sixty-six years old and fifty-one years old, respectively. Despite this, the Corinth portrait especially and Simon’s bear some similarities – the angle of the sitter’s head in both is similar: slightly askew, and turned in half-profile. But Simon’s is a more intense close-up whereas Corinth’s field of vision extends to include the various accoutrements of his vocation: easel, brush, and palette. The older painter’s occupation and status seem assured while the younger artist is less emphatic and altogether more tentative in terms of defining her self-identity.
A work completed more than forty years later takes up where the earlier self-portrait left off (‘Self Portrait’ [PC 7602] ). It shows the artist as an artist, complete with easel and pen or brush, in her studio. Here she looks straight out of the image and holds the gaze of the viewer. In a typically erotic gesture, one breast is shown, deliberately revealed and this, at least in geometric terms, forms the centre and focus of the work. Through this physical gesture and, therefore, by metaphorical extension, the artist emphasises the emotional self-exposure inherent in self-portrayal.
Simon returned to the theme of exposure in a work entitled ‘What is Truth?’ [PC 9202 ] which she described as a ‘composite’ self-portrait. The eight[CHECK?]-layered scalpel painting shows five separate versions of the artist, all framed within one composition. The question posed in the work’s title is a valid one and the issues it addresses are complex. By presenting a multi-faceted view of herself, the artist questions the notion of representation by asking, indirectly, how artists choose to interpret and present themselves. Set within a claustrophobic domestic interior, five ‘Ediths’ appear to vie for the label ‘truth’ or, perhaps, ‘who is the real Edith?’. Each has a quite separate – but closely linked – identity and each is preoccupied with a distinct activity. On the extreme right is the ‘public’ face of the artist – fully clothed, with characteristically flamboyant glasses and hat; on close inspection the patterning on the dress is revealed as comprising a series of miniature portrait heads. Although generic rather than specific, they nevertheless point us to Simon’s public face as artist. Adjacent to this image is a more tortured and troubled representation. It shows the upper torso and head of the artist; her hair is dishevelled and her facial expression is one of anguish. The figure clasps and cups her unevenly-sized breasts in a gesture of despair and critical self-examination. The frailty and fallibility of the ageing body appears to preoccupy the artist. This is the intimate, private self laid bare, replete with self-doubt and self-criticism. Compositionally, this work is divided into two distinct halves; on the left three ‘Ediths’ – eat, drink, gossip and chat. They look either to the two figures of the ‘private’ and ‘public’ self or look back out of the picture towards the audience. In a way, these figures represent the audience too, observing from a safe vantage point the conflicting personae of the artist.
Satire, levity, and a mischievous sense of humour were all effective weapons in Edith Simon’s artistic armoury. She uses these tactics to great effect in another self-portrait dating from 1988 (‘Edith and the Perishing Wasps’ [DP 8828] ) and used for a poster. This portrays the artist in bee-keeper’s guise, complete with helmet and face guard, smiling smugly, safe in the knowledge that the wasps who are attaching her do so in vain. Although they attempt to harm they are unable to penetrate the artist’s defences. To anyone with any familiarity with the world of Scottish art it is obvious that two of the faces of the attacking wasps are none other than the former art critic of ‘The Herald’, Clare Henry. But the tone of this portrait is good-humoured and well-meaning; it pokes fun at the artist herself, as much as the critic. Indeed, Clare Henry, along with a number of other professional critics, had consistently praised and encouraged Simon. Discussing another of the artist’s portraits of Clare Henry (‘Clare and Columbines’ [PC 9509] ), the critic wrote: ‘She draws superbly … I had to wait months till the picture was completed – and I was thrilled with the result.’
Simon loved debate and discourse. Writing in 1991, she effectively sums up a number of essential points about her approach to art:
Looking back, I would say that initially I'd rather floundered, unsure how to express what I had to say in visual terms; whereas with words I'd no such trouble. Later on, with some 17 books to look back on, it struck me that here there was no lasting truthfulness, because in the written word presentation is selective manipulation, which after a time can lose its validity. You may no longer wish to stand by the former convictions, but couldn’t really spend your life re writing. Whereas with the non verbal, visual statement every possible interpretation is securely latent for the extracting. People delight me when they find concepts in my work I’d never even thought of.
Edith Simon was a dedicated writer and artist who believed in developing her considerable talents to their utmost. As one of her oft-repeated dictums ‘freedom through constraint’ illustrates, she continuously devised new sets of self-imposed rules within which she practised her art. Rules were important because they allowed her to set a whole range of challenges – involving composition, media, subject matter and message – which she strove to overcome. In the vast majority of cases, these challenges were met and indeed surpassed.
Her constant curiosity about materials meant that at junctures in her career Simon experimented with different and ever more challenging media. The use of rope to create sculpture and the use of a scalpel and paper to create ‘paintings’ are two areas in which her success was marked. Both techniques were innovatory and the latter, in particular, Simon made her own. In time, this technique, with all the exciting possibilities it threw up, may become to be seen as being as revolutionary as the use of collage in the early twentieth century. Simon successfully bridged the art-craft divide, creating as synthesis uniquely her own. However, this artistic success was not only predicated on the innovatory use of materials but was also, equally, because of her very considerable talents as an artist. Her strengths lay not just in the surface layers of her work, but also deep below based on the accumulated experience and mastery of colour, drawing and perspective.
Those who may be tempted to dismiss Simon’s art as inferior, or as the work of a ‘woman artist’ will undoubtedly be forced to revise their opinions. As has so often been demonstrated in art history, the reputations of maverick figures and true innovators, almost always outlive those of their detractors.