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Tess Jaray RA, How Strange

How Strange, 2001

Tess Jaray RA (b. 1937)

RA Collection: Art

How Strange… shows one hundred white squares arranged in a grid, converging towards the bottom of the canvas. The title of this work is taken from a line by W.G. Sebald, the German writer long resident in England. Jaray also published a screenprint of the same title, on the verso of which appears the full sentence alluded to: ‘’how strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time’.

The printed version of How Strange… was part of a set of images and texts from Sebald published in 2001 (comprising a title page, 18 images and 16 texts). In the prospectus for the series Jaray wrote about how her discovery of Sebald’s work coincided with a series of profound changes in her own life, including the deaths of close friends and leaving her long-time teaching post at the Slade (she also returned to studio work around this time after a decade working on public projects, partly inspired by his work). She gained Sebald’s approval to create a work using his texts, which she described as follows:

‘A clear and absorbing process followed of selecting the various texts both for their relevance to the image and as poetry that stands on its own, and of developing text and image together in such a way as to suggest links between the two, and which would change the way the text is seen. Taking it out of context constitutes a literal and metaphorical kind of framing … There is nothing literal in these images. They do not illustrate the text. Rather, I was finding an explanation for my aspirations in the weaving and threading of the writing’.

Also in 2001, the same image was used in For Years Now, a collaboration between Sebald and Jaray, both as a cover image and facing the following poem:


the red spots

on Jupiter are

centuries old


Discussing this book in a 2013 interview Jaray explained that Sebald described her work as ‘weightless’—a quality she also found in his work—and said that ‘his words evoked colours of fire and lemon: rich but sharp. Lime, fires, sky. I think perhaps I simply felt the words in terms of colour and in terms of space’.

It is not known whether the painting or print came first—Jaray wrote about finding the colour in her essay ‘Red: Diary of a Painting’ (published in her book of writings Painting: Mysteries and Confessions). This essay concerns the search for the right colour. Initially stating ‘it has to be the cadmiums’, Jaray later reconsiders: ‘the red I really want is vermilion. The vermilion of the red scarf of Ariadne in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne; of St Jerome’s robe in Masolin’s St Jerome in the National Gallery, in Bellini and Vermeer, and thirteenth-century Japanese paintings on paper or silk’. However, the essay makes no reference to Sebald, and it also describes the making of three vermilion paintings (two large—the other is possibly …Or Rather, 2001—and one small). Jaray describes the search narrated in the essay as ‘something between a parable and a moral tale’, and it is more a work of literature in its own right than a document on the making of How Strange… For a work steeped in her non-illustrative relationship with Sebald’s work this is of course appropriate.

Object details

How Strange
Tess Jaray RA (b. 1937)
Object type
Copyright owner
Oil on linen

1430 mm x 1150 mm x 34 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Diploma Work given by Tess Jaray RA accepted 5 October 2010
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