Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Review – “She Shook Tate Britain” | Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

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LLooking at Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s No Such Luxury painting, I suddenly saw how much she has in common with Belgian surrealist René Magritte. The artwork depicts a woman seated at a table with a cup and saucer in front of her, looking straight. It sounds simple but the more you look, the more foreign it gets. Magritte portrayed himself in the same pose in his painting The Magician – except with four arms. Yiadom-Boakye’s canvas may seem, in comparison, a slice of real life. But it’s strangely off scale, a bit larger than life. The woman is a monument, her gaze mystical and far-sighted – a suburban Buddha.

Yet Yiadom-Boakye has a much deeper affinity with Magritte. She makes us believe in someone who doesn’t exist. Everything about his photos of people says “portrait”. But these are not portraits. They are fictitious creations, imaginary characters. “This is not a pipe”, wrote Magritte under a painting representing a pipe. Yiadom-Boakye’s exhibition could have been simply called “This is not a portrait”.

‘This is not a portrait’… Citrine by the ounce, 2014, by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Photography: courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

His paintings would look great on the covers of Penguin Modern Classics – you might have a lot of fun adapting them to your favorite novels. Pale for the Rapture is a diptych – two canvases side by side – of elegantly dressed men in different but equally conventional poses of melancholy, both resting their faces on their hands as they sit cross-legged on sofas , one of which is padded in a diamond pattern, the other in yellow and red stripes. A painting entitled Instead of a Living Virtue “represents” a young bearded man in a salmon sweater with a cat resting on his shoulder.

Maybe these men aren’t so much novel characters as they are novelists’ characters – they seem to be taking a break after a morning typing in a 1950s Greenwich Village cafe. A lot of people here could be. novelists, poets, philosophers, for the real theme of Yiadom-Boakye seems to be sensitivity itself, the nature of inner life. Some of the most touching images are the simplest. To Tell Them Where It Got To shows a woman turning away in the shadows, her head bowed in sadness, steeped in secrets.

This painting, like several others, has a deliberately nocturnal palette. Dark sweater, brown background, black hair and black skin. Yiadom-Boakye paints Blacks, and in the most sacred of traditional European art forms: oil painting on canvas. No acrylic for her, no collage; no photography or abstraction.

His paintings would look great on the covers of Penguin Modern Classics ... Complication, 2013.
His paintings would look great on the covers of Penguin Modern Classics… Complication, 2013. Photograph: Marcus J Leith / Courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

She turned Tate Britain upside down. In a normal year, the Turner Prize would currently reveal the latest video, photography, interactive art, and, who knows, maybe a few paintings (Yiadom-Boakye was shortlisted, but didn’t win, in 2012). It was canceled due to the pandemic and here instead there is piece after piece of oil paintings. It’s like you’ve taken a wrong turn and found yourself in the 18th century galleries. Apart from blacks who only play servile roles, secondary roles in these portraits now occupy the foreground and high spiritual plane once reserved for white faces in art.

Yiadom-Boakye clearly does not hate the great tradition of oil painting. She can’t do enough. His approach may sound postmodern but it is saturated with pictorial scholarship. For there is a long history of portraits that look like painted fictions, and she knows it – distilling that narrative quality while removing references to real people. The ventricular shows a man in a red shirt stretching his arms out on a red sofa, vividly reminiscent of Degas’ intimate pastels while also being a crucifixion. The young man who stands in a strange environment of aquamarine blue, as if underwater, wearing a ruffled collar like a clown in A Passion Like No Other looks out with the intense loneliness of the sad harlequin Gilles by the rococo artist Watteau, someone caught on the anxious border between theater and life.

Likewise trapped in the flashlight is the young man in For the Love of Angels, one of the truest “paintings” here – except that’s another fantasy. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and jacket, harshly lit by electric spotlights, he could be a model on set. But he’s miserable in the role and turns his face away, casting a dark shadow on the wall as he suffers in the light. This, too, has its old masterful echoes – particularly how Velázquez captures the model’s sadness in the Rokeby Venus, where a nude showing us her back reveals her misery in a mirror.

A journey into the imagination ... Condor and the Mole, 2011.
A journey into the imagination… Condor and the mole, 2011. Photography: courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The light is brutal, public. Shadows hold freedom and introspection. This show is a trip to strange and dark places of the imagination. Again and again, Yiadom-Boakye portrays black faces in the dark. This is his most profound foray into painting’s past: into the realm of chiaroscuro, the shadow-melting luxury that peaked in the Dutch Golden Age, when Rembrandt and his pupils basked in nocturnal decorations which intimate the soul.

One of the most sensitive 17th-century Dutch paintings, in the Wallace Collection in London, is that of Rembrandt’s disciple Govaert Flinck. He is known as The Young Archer and represents a young African. Flinck focuses on his thoughtful, private expression and turns him into a chiaroscuro soulfulness figure. But he is no more real than the people of Yiadom-Boakye. Dutch artists of the Golden Age often painted fictional figures. They were interested in the expressive potential of the human being, beyond any banal concept of “portrait”. There is even a name for this genre, the trony.

So what Yiadom-Boakye does is paint tronies. Like Flinck, she reveals that a picture of someone can be so much more than the mundane record of her, him, them – much more than a selfie. They are paintings of states of being, of states of the human soul. They don’t always work. Some group paintings look ridiculous compared to the loneliness studies. But my goodness, what courage to reclaim figurative oil painting, on such a scale, filling Tate Britain with the type of art, in terms of contemporary work, that it generally avoids a lot. And serious painters who stick to it improve with age. So look forward to when she is a living old master. Although in many ways it already is.

  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League With the Night is at Tate Britain, London, from December 2 to May 9.

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