Art, Artists, Painters

Interview with Contemporary Artist Natalie Papamichael

Hi there,

thank you all so much for the support in this new project. And keeping with the series of interviews… this month we had the pleasure to interview the figurative artist based in England Natalie Papamichael. Enjoy!

Do you remember when was your first contact with art?

I first started drawing and painting as a means of escape. I have always loved drawing and would often find pictures to copy. I was more inspired by films than artworks. My favourite film was ‘The Wizard of Oz;’ I also loved the movies of Hitchcock and Powell and Pressburger. Films have remained a strong influence in my paintings.

When did you know that you wanted to become an artist?

I was in the first year of primary school and I remember getting a gold star for one of my drawings; one of my designs was also chosen for the Christmas cover of the school play of The Wizard of Oz.

(1) The Masquerade, 2014-16, Oil on linen, 90 x 126.9cm .Natalie Papamichael

Who encouraged you to pursue an artistic career?

I come from an academic background, and this was the expected route so I was not initially encouraged. Being an artist was not regarded as a ‘proper job’. In my teens and early twenties I had significant health problems and was interned at Hôpital Sainte-Anne in Paris. During this time my sister brought me painting materials to use in hospital and encouraged me to develop my art. Following these difficulties, my family have always encouraged and supported me.

Raised in England but coming from a multicultural family, Greek father and French mother, do you think that this has some influence on your work?

Absolutely, I love both cultures and in my work I always try to reference my roots whether it is through the style of painting or the imagery used.

The painting ‘The Masquerade’ (1) is based on a photographic tableaux by the conceptual artist,  Eleanor Antin. It is based on the story of the Greek painter, Zeuxis. He was considered the greatest artist of the era and was asked to do a painting of Helen of Troy, considered to be the most beautiful woman. Claiming that there was no such thing as a a perfect woman, Zeuxis took the five most perfect women from Croton and took a different characterist from each. In Antin’s photography, the women appear as if at a casting call for a movie. I have replaced Antin’s women with my performance stills, which I made whilst at college, in different masquerades and at various stages of my pregnancy.

The painting “Massacre of the Madwomen” (2)is based on a black and white print of the event titled ‘Massacre at la Salpêtrière, 3 September 1792. La Salpêtrière, a famous asylum in Paris, during this period operated more like a prison, housing women who were prostitutes, the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled. The Massacre was part of the bloody September massacres in Paris during the French Revolution. On the nights of 3rd and 4th September 1792, La Salpêtrière was stormed with the intention of releasing the detained women. However, out of fear that the inmates would join the foreign and royalist armies, 35 of the women were dragged into the streets and murdered. The painting is a re-imagaing of the Massacre using my performance still images as well as characters from other sources, such as the film, ‘The Red Shoes’ and  ‘Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari.’

(2)Massacre of the Madwomen, 2018-19, Oil on linen, 127 x 152.4cm. NataliePapamichael

It is known that you feel inspired by the work of other women artists from very different styles and eras of the history of art. Who are those women and why their works are important for you as inspiration?

The list of women artists is very long! I have drawn inspiration from a variety of female artists, from seventeenth-century baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, to contemporary photographer, Anna Gaskell. For my MA dissertation, I explored the exclusion of women artists from academic training and art history. I based my dissertation on the book, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf in which she says that as women “we think back through our mothers’. Thus, my inspiration follows this imperative of creating dialogues and engaging with women artists both past and present. They are also important as they provide a story and works in which I can see myself.

Where have you studied art?

I returned from Paris to London in the mid 1990s to pursue my studies in art. I got a job as a receptionist at Talkback TV Production. Whilst working there they allowed me to work part time so I could do a part-time Foundation Course at Central Saint Martins. Following on from this I went on to do a full time BA in Fine Art at CSM. During my final year I was pregnant and subsequntly had a gap in my studies. In 2006 I an MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Motivated to focus on combining my research with my studio practice, I went to Florence for a two week course at Angel Academy to learn the classical painting techniques of the Old Masters.

You are self-trained in the tradition of the academic model; can you tell us more about this experience? And why do you decided to learn it on your own?

Whilst at CSM I became involved with the Women’s Art Lirbary, researching Feminist Performance artists of the 1970s and creating my own performances. I was very interested in the subjugation of women through their bodies and how women artists had used performance art as a method to subvert this subjugation. I created short videos based on the images of Muybridge, using my own pregnant body. I also did a collaboration and performance at London School of Hygene and Tropical Medicine. There was not a great deal of interest in painting and drawing and I was excited by this new direction.

However, after leaving CSM, I felt compelled to return to painting and drawing. For my MA at the Courtauld I studied psychoanalysis and feminism and for my dissertation explored the exclusion of Women Artists from academic training and  received Art History. Informed by my studies, I sought to challenge this exclusion in my practice. Thus I decided to teach myself to paint in the traditional manner as a challenge to the Old Masters. My paintings are an attempt to re-create a herstory rooted in a re-interpretation of Art History. I wanted to experience the training process that the old mastes underwent in order to show that a woman with minimal training could achieve what had been denied to her in the past.

Can you tell us about the importance of the masquerade and performance in your work?

Performance and masquerade reference my earler interest in the Feminist Artists of the 1970s which finds expression in my work.  I have a library of stills from my performances that I made whilst at college which have become an integral part of my paintings. Through creating and rewriting my own personal narratives I question the position of women as both subject and object in phallocentric art history.

(3) Self-Portrait at La Salpêtrière, 2018, Oil on wood panel, 80 x 120cm. Natalie Papamichael

Self-Portrait at La Salpêtrière (3) is a reimagining of an original painting which was produced in Paris by Andre Brouillet in 1887. La Pitie- Salpêtrière is a famous hospital for the mentally ill in Paris. The original depicts the renowned neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, giving one of his regular Tuesday lectures in how to treat a hysteric. It depicts the ‘queen of hysterics’ swooning and being caught by the nurses. In this painting the hysteric is replaced by my Self-Portrait as a hysteric. Instead of passively swooning, the hysteric is actively reading a book entitled ‘The Science of Woman’ and challenging the male gaze of the doctors.  On a personal level it also engages with my experience of living in Paris and being interned at Hôpital Sainte-Anne.

In my paintings I am both performing as the ‘male artist’, but also as the traditional, passive, female subject of the painting, thus challenging the binary opposition inherent in Art History. It is a way of inserting myself into the narratives and combining the past with the present to illustrate the similarities as well as to subvert the meaning.

What is the importance of self-portraiture on your work?

The importance of self-portraiture relates back to my interest in Performance and a search for my own voice. In one of my more recent paintings, ‘ID2020’ (4), I have Matt Hancock on a tele screen behind a self-portrait of myself in sunglasses. Reflected in the sunglasses is the image of John D. Rockefeller and I am about to be injected with a syringe labelled ‘Bayer Bayer.‘ The doctor and the position are taken from the 1960s sci-fi film ‘La Jetée’ by Chris Marker. It is an imaginary depiction of World War 3. It brings the past, present, personal and political together into one image.

(4)ID2020, 2021, Oil on aluminium, 39x39cm. NataliePapamichael

How would you describe your creative process?

I usually discover a narrative or image that in some way resonates with my own story. I then find a background to use and using my performance stills and other images sources from different media I create a collage to work form. I plan the composition using the Golden Rule. Following the academic tradition I then create a small study of the piece in burnt umber acrylic. Having planned my painting out I scale up and get a made-to-measure canvas. I begin by priming my canvas in burnt umber or more recently, I have been using aluminium panels which provide a grey ground. I measure a grid to transfer my image to scale. The stages are then as follows: charcoal drawing, drawing in burnt umber oil paint, the dead painting which is monochrome oil painting, followed by the first painting stage, second painting stage and the glaze. I follow the fat over lean rule for this process. I photograph all the various stages and have a mirror at the back of my studio which I use for self-reference and to see any problems. This was a technique recommended by Da Vinci.  

Among your works we can find oil paintings, acrylics, and drawings. How do you decide which technique will you use when you have an idea for work?

Eva Hesse said that she always worked within the constraints of her circumstances. I have learnt to do that due to illness and other personal difficulties.  I used drawing when I was unable to paint and would choose pictures to copy from other women artists or magazines. When I work at home I use acrylics as these are much quicker and non-toxic. My oil paintings tend to be much more carefully planned and can take up to 9 months to complete.

Do you have a favourite among your work?

I don’t have a favourite but I feel ‘Herstory Rhymes’ (5) is an importance piece amongst my works as I feel this encapsulates everything that is relevant to my practice and shows the most development from my early stages. There is reference to the film ‘Fahrenheit 451’ as the setting. I have changed the book titles so that each book is important in terms of censorship as well as my personal story. The poster which is  about to burn in the background is ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. This references the deep recession of the 1980s and suggests the notion that ‘history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’ My self-portrait is again a reflection of the apathy of people ignoring what is happening around them whilst looking at their mobile phones.

(5) Herstory Rhymes, 2020-21, Oil on aluminium, SIZE.Nataliepapamichael

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on an oil painting depicting the mythology of The Hydra (6). It is an allegorical piece based on contemporary world events. It is a corresponding piece to ‘Herstory Rhymes.’  

For the beginning of the piece I used a still from a Percy Jackson film with the mythical creature, The Hydra. The Hydra is a monstrous serpent with nine heads.  When a head is cut off another one simply grows back to replace it, thus the evil continues.

In my painting I have replaced the heads with politicians and people accused of orchestrating the constraints emerging on civil rights around the world. I am in the forefront of the painting looking at mobile phone – in my Marie-Antoinette wig – ignorant of what is happening around me. I  have used one of my performance stills, as Salome, and am about to strike one of the serpent heads. In the background there are screens depicting the widespread propaganda prevalent in the major media outlets around the world.

(6)The Hydra (work in progress), 2021, Oil on linen panel, 70 x 80cm. NataliePapamichael.

Do you think we can expect an exhibition of your work soon?

I have faced a lot of problems with censorship in my work, both past and present so an exhibition of my work is not the most straightforward undertaking. I have shown work with Gallery Different in London this year, who have been very supportive. I will also be in a group show in September in Alfriston entitled ‘Keep Smiling’. I would like to have an exhibition of all the work I have made in the past year as there is a strong political narrative which connects all the works and I think would make a very strong exhibition.

Has the pandemic affected your work? How?

The pandemic has significantly affected my work. I have become much more overtly political. In order to challenge the ideological shift towards centralised power, I wanted to create more work and to diversify the ways in which this artwork may be seen and experienced. Therefore, alongside my oil paintings, I am now creating smaller pieces, which take less time, as well as printing my work onto clothing, bags and other accessories, as well as working on a small book of paintings.

I have also begun looking at feminism from a different perspective. Whilst it is integral to my work, there are other issues which have now assumed more significance. My position as a woman and female artist is more implicit within the works.

I aim to shine a light on the lies and deceit prevalent in the world today. It is also especially important to remain true to myself and stand up against the tyranny, censorship and the attack on freedom of speech which is happening in every sphere of life. This necessarily means communicating a marginalised message which has already caused many difficulties in my personal and artistic life.  I fuly expect this to continue to be the case.

For further information on Natalie’s work:

All the images were kindly provided by the artist.