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Chantal Joffe: Me and my mentors

Published 17 March 2015

In the latest in our series on turning points in artists’ careers, Chantal Joffe RA tells Sam Phillips about the impact two teachers had on her work.

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Appropriately for an artist famous for her paintings of figures, Chantal Joffe’s epiphanies involved people, specifically two men whose encouragement changed her life. She was 15 years old when she met the first, painter Sargy Mann (Lucas Gardens, c.1974, pictured). It was 1985 and an art teacher at her Islington comprehensive had signed up Joffe to a summer art course funded by the Greater London Council.

    “I was one of a group of kids from inner-city schools who were taken to the countryside, near Seaford, to spend a week painting,” she explains. “Sargy was the teacher. He gave us oils, brushes and easels, taught us how to make a palette, and took us outside to paint the landscape.” In the evenings, he would show slides of French painting. “I can remember looking at a Monet and the ideas that Sargy was explaining seeming so fresh,” she continues. “He taught us about how Monet painted paths in his pictures so that our eyes would walk into his paintings. He taught us about how the shadows in Bonnard were built up with different colours. It blew our minds.”

    More significant than this wisdom was the respect with which Mann treated the teenagers. “I remember painting a bush and trying to make the shadow purple rather than black, like a Bonnard. It was a mess, but Sargy took it seriously. He talked to us like we were artists, and he had such humility.” Sargy Mann’s eyesight was deteriorating at that time, but although he was soon to go blind, he has continued to paint.

  • Sargy Mann, Lucas Gardens

    Sargy Mann, Lucas Gardens, c. 1974.

    Sargy Mann led a summer course in painting that Joffe attended as a teenager.

    © Sargy Mann/Courtesy Cadogan Contemporary.

  • “I remember one evening, I was drawing on the lawn by myself, trying to draw the shadows crawling across the grass. I know this sounds a bit breathless, but the light was so incredibly beautiful – it was English early summer light across bright green grass – and I thought, “How could you ever want to do anything else but draw it?” In a funny way, all the time I’ve been an artist I’ve tried to get back to that feeling. Very rarely as an artist do you get that real ecstasy of painting – you are always chasing it.”

    If Mann gave her “a glimpse of what painting could be”, she learnt the discipline she needed to develop her career from her MA tutor at the Royal College of Art, Chris Fisher (his diptych Hornet for Molloy, 2012, pictured). “I was quite full of myself at that time, but Chris challenged me. Why was I using those colours? Why that size of board? Why only one figure and not two figures or no figures at all? I realised I had got mentally lazy. My style had become stale, as I had stopped asking why I was painting something.”

  • Chris Fisher, Hornet for Molloy

    Chris Fisher, Hornet for Molloy, 2012.

    Chris Fisher was Joffe’s tutor at the Royal College of Art..

    © Chris Fisher.

  • One question that cut through was Fisher’s first: “Are you going to paint from life your whole career?” They discussed painting from photographs instead of models, and, because Joffe wanted to paint nudes, she decided to use pornography as a source. Shy of buying some herself, Joffe went with Fisher to Soho to find some magazines, before they visited Tate’s show of Picasso sculpture in the afternoon.

    Working from photographs refined Joffe’s practice, giving her distance from her subjects. Even in her latest self-portraits, one of which is on view in her solo show at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings (Self Portrait at Night, 2015, pictured), she retains a distance, thanks to the discipline Fisher taught her. “I’m almost in a frenzy when I paint them, but because they’re in such intense colours, I can’t indulge myself. And I think of Chris and hear him telling me not to be complacent.”

  • Chantal Joffe RA, Self Portrait at Night

    Chantal Joffe RA, Self Portrait at Night, 2015.

    © Chantal Joffe RA/Courtesy Jerwood Gallery.

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