Interview Flora Yukhnovich - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Interview Flora Yukhnovich

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INTERVIEW // Through the Language of the Rococo: In Conversation with Flora Yukhnovich

Laura Franchetti

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Flora Yukhnovich (b. 1990 Norwich, UK) is a visual artist based in London. Yukhnovich studied MA Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School (2016­­­­–17) and has a Diploma and Post-Diploma in Portraiture from The Heatherley School of Fine Art in London (2010–13). Yukhnovich has had solo exhibitions at Victoria Miro Gallery, Leeds Arts University, Parafin (London) and the Brocket Gallery (London). She has recently completed the @thegreatwomenartists and Palazzo Monti Residency in Italy. Yukhnovich’s work uses the language of the Rococo, drawing from artists such as François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, to explore aesthetic expressions of femininity throughout art history.

 


Fig. 1 Flora Yukhnovich, Le rire de la Méduse, 2017. Oil on linen, 210 × 180 cm. Photo: Peter Mallet. © Flora Yukhnovich. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Flora, you have a background in portraiture, which you studied at The Heatherley School of Fine Art in London. What precipitated your move away from portraiture to abstraction?

The portraiture course that I completed was three years of painting from life: we would have the same set up for three weeks and you would paint a figure. It was an amazing opportunity to think about what paint could do and to work out ways of describing something in two dimensions. But you are doing this day in and day out. Progressively, I began to find the paint itself more interesting, especially the possibilities of paint being able to do more than just describe things. I began to explore the materiality of paint: how it could describe flesh and fleshiness. I started to move into a domain which was more about paint and abstraction, even though it was still, at that stage, attached to a figure. Then I hit a wall. The training [at The Heatherley School] had been very technical – not much to do with art theory or reading. Completing the MA at City & Guilds of London Art School gave this other interest momentum: it gave me an opportunity to explore and experiment with paint.

 

Are there any elements of your training in portraiture that inform your current artistic practice?

Yes, many. I think the way that I use paint is very much grounded in the things I learnt during this period. It is where my visual vocabulary started, and everything is built from that. I tend to gravitate toward form rather than space in my work, and I am very interested in the way the heft of paint can represent the heft of the form in front of you. There are also certain fleshy mixtures of colour which I always end up gravitating toward. I think it informs everything I do. It has also shaped my interests. The paintings that I am interested to explore through my own work are often chosen because there is something fleshy about them that taps into my painterly sensibilities.

 

What attracted you to the Rococo movement? How did that become an interest of yours?

It is difficult to explain. There were so many different interests which ended up coming together at the time when I first found this book on Fragonard [by Mary Sheriff].[1] I had all this portraiture knowledge from my MA, when I had been painting the human figure and I had looked at painters like Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach – all very male artists. But I then began looking at decorative design. At first it was about the very flatness of it, which I really enjoyed. Then it became about the ways in which paint itself can do things, like create drop shadows, or the different ways in which paint can be used to construct space. It became apparent to me that I was gravitating toward these things because they were related to femininity in a way, but they also all happened to be derived from a Rococo aesthetic. When I found [Sheriff’s] book on Fragonard, I realised that a lot of the Rococo seemed to tap into all these different elements that I had been looking at. The aesthetic of the Rococo feels very familiar to me, and there are lots of things that I, as a woman and also as a girl growing up, interacted with which seem to have a Rococo sensibility to them. I do not feel like that about many other art historical movements. That is why I landed on it. It was about a lot of different interests coming together.

 

You mentioned Mary Sheriff’s book on Fragonard, what role does art history have in your artistic process?

I think it varies from painting to painting. Art history is really important to me because I think that the way in which we look at an artist or at an art historical movement is informed by how it has been written about. With the Rococo movement especially, one of the things that interests me is that it has this reputation for not being very intellectual or rigorous. But the art history written about the Rococo, particularly in Sheriff’s work, tells a completely different story. I think it is always interesting and important to open up this other perspective, which I try to engage with within my work. It does depend on the artist, though; with artists like Tiepolo, for instance, I really enjoy looking at his work, so my engagement with it in my own work becomes more about that visual experience.

 

Your work draws upon the paintings of the Rococo Movement, which are often recognisably present within your paintings. Could you tell us a little bit more about how you create your work? Do you draw from multiple Rococo works per painting, or does each work have a single point of reference?

I usually start with a lot of different Rococo sources. I put them together alongside more contemporary sources and then it is a process of free association. I try to see what is happening between them and try to capture something that I want to convey in my painting. Usually, I select one main source which I will pin the whole painting on. That source then becomes almost like a stage set; I use it to form the basic space, which I then fill with elements drawn from the other works. Sometimes I will have a plan for what else I want to bring into a particular painting, other times there will be a compositional problem and I will end up looking through art history books trying to find solutions. I quite like doing this because I think that is how all painters work – they are always referencing other artists or artworks to problem solve.

 

Many people think of Rococo artworks as being very substanceless, frivolous or even kitsch. Yet paintings from this period, particularly those by Fragonard, contain very expressive brushwork where the physicality of art making itself is on display for visual pleasure. In the past, you have stated the importance of paint’s materiality within your own artistic practice – did the handling of paint in the Rococo era influence your own relationship to the medium in any way?

I am very interested in the way that I can use paint – the way that I apply it or the way that I handle it – to enhance the meaning of a work. That is how I began thinking about paint and Fragonard similarly does just that. This is what was so appealing about his work and about the work of the Rococo period more broadly. Sometimes I will pick certain Rococo sources because of their imagery, but often it is because of the way they are painted. I find that this is the case with a lot of Fragonard’s work, but I also find it in paintings by Boucher because they can be so fleshy. I find in Rococo paintings that the sense of the touch varies not just from artist to artist, but from painting to painting; it is very much about the way that it is painted and to use paint like that seems very contemporary to me, which I find exciting.

 

One of the most striking features of your artistic practice are the titles that you give your works, which frequently reference popular culture and are often provocative. For example, Its Better Down Where Its Wetter (2018) derived from Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989); or Le Mercredi, on s’habille en rose (2017), derived from the film Mean Girls (2004). The titles of artworks often set the boundaries for interpretation, acting as signposts which anchor the viewer’s response or engagement. How do you conceive the relationship between your works and their titles?

The way I understand things is that visual languages are always built out of visual languages that have come before. Language is always evolving, but it is built upon this foundation which affects its meaning today. I find that really interesting. Usually the paintings I choose to reference in my own work contain elements that remind me of something contemporary. I use references to contemporary culture in my titles to direct the viewer to identify or contemplate these connections. Part of the reason I was drawn to the Rococo was that it seemed to encapsulate this historical idea of femininity, which I found interesting when considering contemporary ideas of femininity (by which I mean all of the things that are so often thrown at women today!). Most of my inspiration comes from trying to bridge the gap between these notions of femininity, or from trying to explore the relationship between them.

By referencing areas of contemporary culture, I want to encourage the viewer to explore that. I also like it to be quite light-hearted. The Rococo paintings that I look at are fun. This is one of the reasons why people are so dismissive about the movement, but it is also one of the great things about the Rococo! It is playful and I want to maintain that a little in my work. I see my titles as a way of doing that.

 


Fig. 2 Flora Yukhnovich, If All the World Were Jell-O, 2019. Oil on linen, 180 × 250 cm. Photo: Peter Mallet. © Flora Yukhnovich. Courtesy of Victoria Miró.

 

Historically, one critical observation of the Rococo Movement has been its erotic objectification of the female body. Recently, your work has been described as using ‘colour and form to explore the representation of the female form and male gaze.’[2]What strikes me about your work is the way in which references to nude female figures seem to elude objectification via abstraction. What role do you see abstraction playing within your work in terms of subverting or disrupting the male gaze?

Whilst I do use abstraction as a way to resist objectification, I borrow a lot of nude female figures from Rococo paintings. In my work, I want to recentre the imagination on something more to do with their sensual experience in an empathetic way, rather than coolly surveying their shape. Abstraction enables me to do that by not complying with the confines of form, but instead breaking free and becoming more about colour and the sensation of various marks. The looseness of abstract brushstrokes also brings a more subjective, fluid quality where the viewer has to fill in the blanks from their own dictionary of marks; the works then slip in and out of focus at different moments, so that they then become not quite still enough and not quite tangible enough to invite objectification.

 

Alongside the Rococo, your work draws from the aesthetic tradition of abstract expressionism, which, according to many, has been historically regarded as a very macho movement. You have stated before that you see your work as ‘tak[ing] on the ideas of masculine vs feminine forms’. Could you say more about it?

I think of abstract expressionism as the most painterly moment in art history: the paint and the canvas really become the subject of painting. As an artist, I enjoy the possibilities of paint so much that it is impossible not to be drawn to the works of abstract expressionism and the way that they showcase the different facets and possibilities of paint as a medium. I admire Willem de Kooning’s work; I often study his paintings when thinking about how to express a certain experience. However, I do find that there is so much about that particular moment in art history – the way that it is written about and the way that the artists themselves wrote about their work – that is uncomfortably macho and I often feel the presence of that when making my own work. It is hard not to feel as though you are referencing this every time paint splatters or each time the marks get progressively more gestural. In this sense, I do feel that in some ways I am reclaiming or reexploring paint and abstraction from a female perspective. By drawing on that immediate painterly language of abstract expressionism, I am aware that I am confronting this history and I feel like I need to do that in quite an assertive way.

 

Returning to the titles of your works, one that particularly stands out is ‘Le Rire de la Méduse’ (2017) which takes its name from French feminist critic, Hélène Cixous’s essay of the same title (1975).[3] In this essay, Cixous states that women must write for themselves or risk remaining trapped in their own bodies by a language that does not allow them to express themselves. What was the significance of Cixous’s essay for your work or artistic approach?

I love the lyrical flow of Cixous’s writing. I find that in itself very inspiring, but when I read [‘Le Rire de la Méduse’] I had previously been making work with the idea of always having to push against the more male parts of the history of painting, reacting to them in a way. Cixous’s idea of writing the feminine, however, offered me another way where I would not have to take the lead from the masculine: that writing – or in my case, painting – could be a valid feminist act in itself. In this way, my work and the pictorial language that I developed could contribute to the populating of painterly discourse with a multitude of differing female voices.

 

Last Autumn (2019) you completed a residency in Venice, which was organised by the Victoria Miro Gallery, where you studied the work of Venetian Rococo artist, Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Tiepolo (1696-1770). There are some striking differences between Tiepolo’s Rococo works and those painted by his French counterparts, most notably their subject matter, which tends to be very religious. Did this change in subject matter impact your work or alter your approach?

Yes, the subject matter is very different, but I think I was mostly curious to work out how they were similar: how the Rococo sensibility present in French painting of the period also exists beneath the religious imagery in Tiepolo’s work and in a lot of other Italian Rococo painting. I realised that the sense of play that is apparent in the paintings of Watteau and Boucher and French Rococo artists more broadly, is there in Tiepolo’s paintings in the way he constructs his compositions and plays with the viewer’s eye. From this, my work became more about movement, pace and more abstract concerns, whereas when I had been looking at French eighteenth-century paintings it had been more about the imagery and iconography.

 

Of the works produced during your Venice Residency, you’ve said that your sources included the music of Vivaldi. I was wondering if you could say a little more about that: how did his music inform your work?

Music did not influence the work I was making directly. Rather, I had this ‘a-ha!’ moment in the Chiesa della Pietà, which is where Vivaldi composed some of his music and taught in the adjoining music school. The ceiling there has this beautiful soft-blue fresco, which Tiepolo painted a few years later and which referenced the musical history of the building. I was walking around beneath it, listening to Vivaldi’s music, and I began to notice musical rhythms that run through Tiepolo’s painting. In the identification of this rhythmical sense of play that ran throughout the composition, I finally began to understand how Tiepolo was connected to the French Rococo painters and also how artists like Fragonard had very clearly taken inspiration from those elements in his work. I was never trying to paint a particular piece of music; it was more of a way of thinking about pace and rhythm and direction; how to punctuate a space; and how variations between marks and shapes can create a playful jauntiness.

 

This year at Leeds Arts University Gallery you had an exhibition entitled ‘Fête Galante’ (28th February – 20th March 2020), which was named after the subcategory of Rococo painting coined by Antoine Watteau. The fête galante was understood to be an elegant, courtly gathering or excursion, often depicted in amorous and otherworldly scenes. What was the appeal, interest, or importance of this category in particular for you?

The fête galante is such a strong Rococo trope and it is one that I frequently use as a starting point. When I discussed the exhibition with the curator, it felt like a natural choice for the focal point of the show. I was particularly interested in the otherworldly or more mythological elements of fête galante. I have been reading this brilliant book called Enchanted Islands by Mary Sheriff (2018) where she examines stories that had become popular in the eighteenth century.[4] The stories revolve around the idea of the island as a sort of fantastical other-realm, rather than a specific location: somewhere where the rules and confines of society do not apply or might be inverted in some way. Sheriff’s description of the characters Rinaldo and Armida, from the poem ‘Jerusalem Delivered’ by Torquato Tasso (c.1575-81), particularly interested me. In the poem, Armida bewitches and seduces Rinaldo, taking him back to an enchanted garden that she conjures and where he remains under her spell. Sheriff argues that Rinaldo takes on feminine qualities whilst he is there, until he sees his reflection in a mirror and the spell is broken. I like that idea of the almost contagious female landscape, conjured by and occupied by women, and I thought, why not remove the male protagonist and think of what that metaphorical place could be like. The works in the show were the product of that thought process and explored this idea of an otherworldly female landscape.

 

The exhibition also referenced the influence of Sheriff’s revisionist work on the Rococo movement. How did Sheriff’s work inform your perception of the Rococo era, and in what ways did it shape your artistic engagement with the movement?

Sheriff’s writing has been incredibly important to me. It is such a strange experience when someone so precisely articulates your own experience of looking at a work of art, and I felt that really strongly with her writing on Fragonard. The way she describes the eroticism of the brushstrokes in his work speaks to the way that I understand painting. She treats the paint – all the different touches and marks – as part of the meaning of the work, giving it the same attention as the narrative. She also describes both surface and narrative as working in conjunction in Fragonard’s painting. It is exactly this interplay between figuration, abstraction and the formal qualities of paint as a medium that I am searching for in my work. These thoughts and ideas can often feel quite fragile when you do not yet know how to explain them yourself, so seeing them expressed so clearly and so solidly by Sheriff helped me move forward in my own painting.


Fig. 3 Flora Yukhnovich, Le Mecredi, on s’habille en rose, 2017. Oil on linen, 170 × 240 cm. Photo: Agne Kucinskaite. © Flora Yukhnovich. Courtesy of the artist.

 

What has been your experience of creating art in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Initially I was working on several pieces that I began during my residency in Venice, so although I had to move home with my work, I had some consistency. These works were almost finished, however, so I was just reacting to what was already on the canvas, rather than drawing inspiration from other artworks. My experience was not too different from usual, because I am quite insular when I am in the studio. Yet, it was interesting for me to move onto starting new work, which now had to be guided solely by reproductions, and to see the way that affected my palette. I think the colours have become much more extreme because they tend to be enhanced when they are digitally reproduced.

 

What’s next for your work? Do you feel like there is still a lot more to explore within the Rococo Movement?

I will definitely continue to look at French Rococo painting. I have found that I keep returning to imagery which relates women to food, with sayings like ‘cupcake’ or ‘tart’. I am really interested in the connotations of desire and consumption that are held within that. It is something that I have looked at before, but I would really like to set aside some time to look at this in greater depth.

 


 

[1] Mary D. Sheriff, Fragonard: Art and Eroticism (London: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
[2] Flora Yukhnovich, ‘Flora Yukhnovich’, Parafin (2019, accessed: 24th August 2020, http://www.parafin.co.uk/artists–flora-yukhnovich.html).
[3] Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, transl. by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen, Signs, 1.4 (1976), 875-893.
[4] Mary D. Sheriff, Enchanted Islands: Picturing the Allure of Conquest in Eighteenth-Century France (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

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