Arts & Books

Art review: Naïve artist who knows how to break the rules

A detail from Boy with Bird (1992) by Eileen Cooper

Hide and Seek
Drawings by Eileen Cooper RA
Royal Academy, until August 23

You can practically hear the Saturday crowd whisper, “My daughter did a picture just like this last week, I’ve got it up on the fridge.” Eileen Cooper is the first female Keeper of the Royal Academy, which is about as prestigious as it gets. Looking at a new exhibition of her drawings, however, it can be hard to see what all the fuss is about.

Her figures are naïve, with thick black charcoal outlines and strange proportions. The heads are almost always too big for the bodies, and the bodies have a disconcerting lack of ligaments. They contort themselves into impossible shapes, as if they were made from rubber.

As for Cooper’s use of perspective? Plain wrong. In one of her pencil drawings it looks as though she has really tried to get it right, too. An artist’s desk recedes into the picture plane, but as it does so it tilts clumsily towards us. If this were a study from life, it would be wholly unconvincing.

So why is Cooper so acclaimed? It’s down partly to artistic intention, partly to the idea that you need to know the rules in order to break them. Cooper’s methods of rule-breaking transform her drawings from amateur sketches to inspiring, finished forms.

In Jump, for example, a pastel and gouache drawing on Japanese paper of a naked man leaping over a naked woman, she bends space so that it fits around her subjects. This pushes them to the fore. The viewer, meanwhile, looking up at them from ground level, is forced into an uncomfortable face-off with the woman as she scoops to gather a plant from the soil. The effect is one of primal force.

Cooper’s earthy pastels call to mind African art, or more particularly Picasso’s take on African art. “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” Picasso once said. Cooper has the same aim, engineering ways to eschew the rudimentary rules of perspective in order to present the earth as though she has only just arrived on it.

Her drawings are sometimes described in terms of magical realism, recalling Marc Chagall, but her main themes, womanhood, childbearing, movement and dance, are more primeval than otherworldly. Although Cooper works from her imagination rather than life, her pictures make strong allusions to the life cycle.

A highlight of this small show, which occupies the two rooms opposite the Summer Exhibition space, is Boy with Bird. It is sensitive and full of life, a flash of blue emanating through the thick layers of black charcoal and focusing the eye on the child’s arms. Wide-eyed, pensive, he nurtures the lively bird, fearful of the moment it will take flight.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (19/6/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!