Some would argue that a dreary Sunday afternoon is the ideal moment for a stroll around a museum. So we seized the opportunity and met up with painter Clara-Lane Lens (21) at MSK in Ghent. Wandering around the permanent collection while looking for work by female artists felt somewhat like a treasure hunt, but we did manage to find some gems in the current exhibition The Ladies of the Baroque – Women painters in 16th and 17th century Italy. A perfect setting to discuss Clara-Lane’s recent and ongoing work: the Genderless Series.
Interview by Yente Vaneerdewegh
Photos shot by Tiny Geeroms at MSK and the artist’s atelier
How do you feel walking here?
Although I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the Baroque style, it’s not immediately something that I would seek out myself. But it’s the stories behind the paintings that I find especially inspiring. I actually came here last week and rented the audio guide. It was really interesting to hear about the rebelliousness and determination of these women painters despite the setbacks and restrictions of their time.
It was really interesting to hear about the rebelliousness and determination
Is the practice of painting (still) ruled by men?
We’ve obviously come a very long way from the women of the Baroque who were strictly confined to painting landscapes and portraits of people they actually knew. But I also feel like there’s been a major shift in more recent years, since gender is becoming a very ubiquitous topic surrounded by a great deal of debate and discussion. Personally, I don’t get the impression that women in painting have less opportunities nowadays. The majority of the students in my Master at Luca School of Arts are female, so maybe the tide is finally turning?
I noticed that your own work tackles the topic of gender as well?
Yes, but in a way that attempts to disengage the concept of gender altogether. I’m currently working on my Genderless Series, which consists of portraits where I consciously eliminate the notion of gender from my subjects. Instead I focus on personality, attitude, posture, a certain look in the eyes or curve of the body. All elements that I consider to be completely unrelated to someone’s sex or gender.
I focus on personality, attitude, posture, a certain look in the eyes or curve of the body
Can you tell us about your creative process?
The starting point for each painting is a picture that I take myself. The settings and situations tend to be quite intimate so I usually ask close friends to pose as this feels more natural and comfortable. I use the photograph as a blueprint for the posture, but after a while I let go of it to focus on facial features and details, which are distorted and remodeled in the process of painting to create an androgynous look, as this is the image I am interested in.
The series itself is also evolving. At first the canvases were smaller, the faces more in close-up. More recently I’ve been incorporating elements of body language and scenery to add new layers of context, expression and interpretation.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
The androgynous aspect of people really appeals to me
Most of my inspiration comes directly from my subjects. The androgynous aspect of people really appeals to me. I feel like everyone possesses this facet to a certain extent, whether it be mentally or physically. It’s exactly this particular trait I find so fascinating. Sometimes I apply the filter I use in the Genderless Series to my daily interactions with the outside world, and that keeps bringing me new ways to interpret my surroundings. Visiting museums and galleries really sparks my inspiration and motivation as well. Seeing beautiful images automatically adds to my need to create them myself. But I try not to limit myself to painting, I’m also fond of photographers like Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar or Pierre Debusschere.
Sofonisba Anguissola – The Chess Game
Lavinia Fontana – Minerva Dressing
Any favourite works from the exhibition?
Sofonisba Anguissola is probably my favourite artist in this exhibition, because she has a very strong focus on manifesting moods and character in a physical form, and that’s something I can relate to very much. If I’m not wrong it might actually be rather unusual for the Baroque period to explicitly try and reflect personality through appearance. I particularly love this painting because there’s four people who are occupied with the same chess game, but mentally they all seem to be on a completely different planet.
According to the audio guide, Lavinia Fontana was the first woman artist to paint female nudes, which is already pretty revolutionary in itself. Minerva is also the goddess of wisdom and war, and therefore she is generally considered to be inherently strong and fierce. So it’s quite surprising and refreshing to see her pictured here in this fragile, delicate manner.