On Fionn Wilson's portraits of Gladys
Every painting is a portrait of the artist who painted it. It can't be helped, and this applies whether we're talking about figurative painting, abstract, concrete or otherwise. As I have argued in another short essay on Fionn Wilson's work, in a sense the self portrait is the most pure figurative genre, or at least the one that comes closest to the heart of the matter.
Painting a portrait of someone else, however, is an entirely different thing. Every day we are bombarded with images of people, hundreds of them, thousands of them, and we have become so accustomed to the phenomenon of the portrait that it's easy for us to forget what an almost magical thing it is. I am reminded of a quote by Henry David Thoreau, in "Walden", where he asks: "Could a greater thing take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?" With everybody doing selfies these days, trying to shape a public image and control how other people perceive us, I feel that Thoreau's question is as relevant as ever. However fascinating or amusing the selfie might be (and for an artist, of course, rewarding), the portrait of one done by another is nothing less than a small miracle. It is us seeing ourselves through somebody else's eyes, and when the portrait is a good one, it proves and pays tribute to our deep humanity. Go look at any portrait by Rembrandt and you will see a profound understanding of, and capacity to communicate, even that about a person for which no words will suffice. It seems such a poor label to use, incapable of truly summing up all that this means, but I will nevertheless call it 'empathy'. I don't know what else to call it. The term empathy was coined in 1909 as an attempt to translate the German expression 'Einfühlung', which literally means 'in-feeling', and this is what a good portrait is about.
Our ability to 'in-feel' is miraculous, but we forget. It is what makes us humans, and the good portrait shows it but we see so many portraits, so many photos, images, again and again, that we become desensitised. And we need an artist like Fionn Wilson to remind us. It makes good sense to me that she is a big admirer of Rembrandt. Her three portraits of Gladys reveal a familiarity, an 'in-feeling' and insistence on what is human; a similar empathic understanding. In the midst of this rush of images that we as viewers find ourselves in (many of them quick snapshots or images intended to shock us and grab our attention) there is something persuasively and deliciously slow about Wilson's three portraits, something distinctly un-rushed and meditative. Something silent. Gladys is a woman at the end of her life with a whole history behind her; she is right there in the paintings, and looking at them you get this sense of time stretching, the minutes turning into hours, the clock slowly ticking whilst the past moves forward to meet with the present. It is right there in the bed in "Susan's mum". Her head resting on that pillow. It is sad, but it is beautiful, and Fionn Wilson's portraits are full of respect and care. Again, I prefer the German word, which is 'Sorge'. It means care or concern. In Danish we have the equivalent term 'omsorg', and we have the word 'sorg', meaning sorrow. It seems to me that this is exactly what characterises Fionn Wilson's three portraits of Gladys, and what makes them so powerful: they show care for sorrow, and in a time of sorrow they show care.
The three portraits are masterfully done, showing an incredible talent for figurative painting. Knowing that Fionn Wilson is self taught with no former training and still only a few years' painting experience only makes it that much more impressive. Speaking as a painter myself, I have never seen anything like it. These portraits of Gladys, I believe, are amongst her strongest works which is saying quite a bit considering the oeuvre she's already managed to produce. They not only show her truly remarkable technical skills, but also and vitally importantly they prove that she is an artist with a deep interest in, and understanding of, the humane. Of the human soul or spirit. They are quite simply wonderful.
Bo Gorzelak Pedersen,
Art critic for the Danish art paper Kunstavisen