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Face to Face
Portraits by Margaret Clarke, Rosalie Favell, and Aaron Anaïs Kimberly
by J.K. Jefferson
Three works from the exhibition Portraits: Unsettled Subjects (2001) are compelling to me because they show strong, passionate women defying prescribed social boundaries in an effort to express their identity. Margaret Clarke’s Mary and Brigid (1917), Rosalie Favell’s Living Evidence (1994), and Aaron Anaïs Keimberley’s Autoportraits (1997) depict individuals embedded in cultural dilemmas and each artist’s unique attempt to reconcile or interrogate that dilemma. I am engaged first by the direct confrontation of each subject’s gaze and, as I look further, by the interplay of universal, personal, and artistic significance within each image.
Margaret Clarke. Mary and Brigid
(detail) 1917. Oil on canvas. 107 x 83 cm. MSVU collection. Gift of John Shelly, 1967.
Margaret Clarke’s oil painting, Mary and Brigid
(1917), draws on the tradition of the Madonna and Child and depicts a somber and beautiful dark-haired woman holding an alert infant. The mother’s gaze is diverted and suggests wariness but the child beholds the viewer with a steady, curious, and defiant stare. A twisted tree and stone steps through green grass occupy the space immediately behind the mother and child, and in the far background a barren rural landscape stretches away to a thin stripe of deep blue water.
The woman depicted was Margaret’s sister, and the child, Brigid, her niece. The landscape is that of the Aran Islands and the conspicuously rustic costume 1 is typical of the islands’ peasants. The painting was made and exhibited shortly after the Easter Uprising in Dublin in 19162, a dramatic and pivotal moment in Ireland’s long struggle against British oppression. Later in her career, Margaret Clarke achieved recognition as an established portrait artist in Ireland and was elected to the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1927. Mary and Brigid, once damaged and unrecognized, was restored to become a prized piece in Mount Saint Vincent University’s permanent collection.
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1. Peggy MacKinnon, Confrontations: Unquiet Images from the University Collection (Halifax: MSVU Art Gallery, 1999).
2. BBC: Easter Uprising, Dublin 1916 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/easterrising/index.shtml). Last verified: 15 October 2005.