A Barely Responsive Exterior

I first saw Melanie’s work last year in the 2011 Marmite Prize exhibition at the Nunnery in Bow.  I was struck by the delicacy, fragility and the overwhelming presence in her painting Woman with Cardigan.  It was this sense of presence which confirmed for me it should be in This ‘Me’ of Mine.   How could such an overwhelming presence be perceived from a view of someone’s back rather than the face, where it would be expected, and what did this suggest for these issues of self and identity?  Were the curious mixture of pattern and texture in her clothing personal choices or were these visible clues to circumstances imposed upon this woman’s life?  These were compelling questions and the basis for my choice of Mel’s work.

Not Dead Yet (c)2012 Melanie Titmuss

Not Dead Yet (c)2010 Melanie Titmuss oil on canvas

Jane Boyer: Your subjects are often elderly, you are a young adult; what are you exploring in the topic of ageing and the elderly?

MT: People are often drawn to images that depict the appealing side of old age. I have been looking at these romantic versions as well as the social and moral [issues], particularly the care of the elderly, the sacrifice involved. Sitting in an old people’s home as a young adolescent really stuck with me. I found the banality of it really shocking. The quality of life is so diminished and yet the confirmation of life lived, so explicit, and in some cases, so contained, unreachable. What was most striking was the isolation of each person in the room. They are agonizingly remote from each other, from their visitors. There is great pathos in the discrepancy between the outward and inner life.

In response to the issues of abuse, invisibility and poverty surrounding ageing, I painted Not Dead Yet, a vivid and joyful scene of an elderly couple dancing. There is an element of fading away, a nostalgic nod to a bygone age, living with memories – the old man is featureless and she shimmers somehow, almost stepping off the corner of the painting but the overall effect is life affirming. There is warmth and laughter and tenderness.

JB: There is a delicacy and a fragility to your painting technique, is this at all related to your subject of ageing? Did you have a sense of the boundary between your projections and perceptions of her [Woman with Cardigan] and the reality in the experience of her presence?

Woman with Cardigan (c)2010 Melanie Titmuss

Woman with Cardigan (c)2010 Melanie Titmuss oil on canvas

MT: Woman with Cardigan was painted from a sketch from life so it has this quality more so. Having to ‘fill in the gaps’, I found that I projected qualities onto her. A friend described her as ‘kind of not here, elsewhere’ but her actual presence was overwhelming. When I’d completed the sketch in her presence, I realised I’d captured something else: a frail, ethereal version of a tall, robust woman who was animated and resolved to stand for her entire conversation with somebody seated. Picking up on certain visual signs, I immediately endowed her with old age; exaggerating her ‘old lady’ characteristics to create the archetypal one, stooped and weighed down by this enormous cardigan. A mind’s picture will conjure a visceral impression, based on the physical sensation of a person nearby – the potential for interaction. To engage with another person is a process of searching and illuminating and this was the case without knowing her face, or her knowing mine.

JB: Your paintings are quite psychologically intense, not in their struggle but in their quietude.  They capture a sense of living a life and the effects of that living, the compromises, the pain, the joy.  When you connect with these individuals in that moment of observation, what passes through your mind?

MT: How people carry their lives around with them. I don’t wonder particularly what the experiences are that have bought them to this moment, just what is visible and what is not, how the body responds to the ravages of ones life’s events. How fragile and unforgiving it is. How a face at rest is open to interpretation. I want to portray them just as they appear, not to project suffering or any emotion onto them. I have painted sleeping teenagers, women talking on their mobile phones, someone stealing a microwave – I am looking across the entire spectrum of possibilities, encounters and circumstances. The pain and joy in all of it.

Bupleigh Mansions (c)2012 Melanie Titmuss

Bupleigh Mansions (c)2012 Melanie Titmuss oil on canvas

JB:  “Within a constant flow of people, anonymity and custom create a definite one of interior and exterior. So even though I observe and paint individuals, it’s the collective that I’m interested in.”  That is a really interesting statement on the source of the interior and exterior self, can you explain that further?  What is in the ‘collective’ that interests you?

MT: The connection to place, each other and ourselves; the sensations and movement that are specifically bound to transient space form an experience that is both internal and shared. I am talking mostly about non-space – i.e. mall space, suburban space, corporate space, generic or interchangeable space – the space of postmodernity. They are communal areas that stimulate a unique level of perception and consciousness, and the habitual presence of strangers can inspire a sense of participation, reassurance and continuity.  It is deceptive and the energy of it, quite seductive, ‘dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite.’ Though for many, these journeys take place within one’s ordinary sphere of existence, they are far from mundane.  Merging into the crowd, with all those arriving and departing, ‘you are delivered from all depth – a brilliant mobile superficial neutrality, a challenge to meaning and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture.’[1]

Man waiting for tram (c)2011 Melanie Titmuss

Man waiting for a tram (c)2011 Melanie Titmuss oil on canvas

JB: Do we see the toll taken by socialization in your paintings?

MT: All of the individuals I’ve selected to paint could only be in a metropolis. Fully contained, there is no interaction and therefore no projection at all – no awareness, no anticipation (on their part). Because of this, no decision or distinction is made regarding what to put forward, or reveal.  All that is visible is a barely responsive exterior.  The sheer volume and flow of people in the city can contribute to a sense of ‘conscious-less’, and is usually an opportunity to switch off.  This indifference, characteristic to the figures in my paintings, suggests the social is almost taken away.  You wonder what is revealed in this state of consciousness, just mindless projections on to others perhaps.


[1] Jean Baudrillard. America, Verso Books, 1989, p.124

In an effort to raise funds for This ‘Me’ of Mine, I’ve asked the artists to share a list of books they find informative for their practice. Follow the links here or visit the Bookshop to see all the books suggested so far. We hope you will see something inspiring for your own interests.

If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to participate in our This ‘Me’ of Mine Companion Book head-count, see the footer section at the bottom of the page for the sign-up form and more information.

Melanie’s Reading List:

On Photography by Susan Sontag

Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity by Marc Augé

The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym

The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The Tourist Gaze by John Urry

The Letters of Van Gogh by Ronald de Leeuw & Arnold J. Pomerans

America by Jean Baudrillard

Jane’s Additions:

The Life and Death of Images by Diarmuid Costello and Dominic Willsdon

Wim Wenders: Places, Strange and Quiet by Wim Wenders

Matisse in Morocco by Jack Cowart

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

If you enjoy what you see here, follow the progress of the project by clicking the ‘follow’ button at the bottom of the page and share content you really like using the ‘share this’ buttons below each article.

Leave us a comment too, we would love to talk with you.

If you would like to support the project contact me at ThisMeofMine@gmail.com


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