Would you describe this image as 'grotesque'?








Her face is soft with wisdom, alongside a peculiar grace that contradicts the vulnerability of her naked form. Her smile, ever so slight, gives a hint of humour, of secrets held. She has a stoic honesty that asks a question for which, I suspect, she already knows the answer.

Yet there is compassion in her stance, as well as pride, together with the weight of history. And I marvel that the painter, Aleah Chapin, at just twenty-six years of age, has managed to both recognise and capture the inimitable beauty of experience. Just one of the reasons that this painting, ‘Auntie’, is a worthy winner of the BP Portrait Award for 2012.

This is the same painting that art critic Brian Sewell labels a ‘grotesque medical record’ (London Evening Standard), with ‘purblind’ eyes and ‘rictus’ smile. His aversion is viscous, his loathing raw, and his disgust sharpens his words into missiles where even the syllables hurt:

This ancient crone stands life-size, full-frontal and stark naked, heavy breasts drooping low, skin stretched and sagging, looking as though, par-boiled and with the lividity of death about her lower quarters, she has just escaped from a cannibal’s cooking-pot. This is the figurative realism of the new American academic painter — no sympathy gentles the stark observation of every detail, nor is desire roused; instead, this painting stimulates revulsion.

I beg to differ. Strenuously. Not just because Sewell takes us on a gigantic leap back to medieval days with his derivative use of the term ‘ancient crone’, but because his own revulsion has (pur)blinded him. Skin stretched and sagging? That’s called age. Par-boiled? The normal skin tones of a woman of her years. No desire roused? If that is his prerequisite for beauty, then it is his flaw, not hers. No sympathy? But it is right there, in her eyes, for us.

But wait, there’s more. Sewell continues with a description of the body as ‘disproportionately large’ and accuses the artist, in her obsession with the ‘ghastliness of ageing flesh’ of enlarging the ‘repellent body beyond the scale of the head’. It sounds almost cartoon-like, where the monster rears above the fleeing crowd, its fleshy body undulating with malevolence. But Auntie is nothing more than a normal ageing woman, in a normal ageing women’s body. Her proportions are unique, but universal.  She is my grandmother, my mother, my aunt. And she is me.


Over at the Jackdaw, critic David Lee is more perceptive. He sees love there, but nevertheless feels compelled to add that ‘the sitter has comfortably the noisiest breasts in the show.’ Having somewhat taciturn breasts myself, I found this remark rather perplexing. Until, that is, I examined the painting a little further. And Lee is right, these are noisy breasts. They speak of a full life. Of puberty, swollen with surprise; of lust, cupped by the hand of a lover, finger trailing round stiffening nipple; of pregnancy, engorged and eager above gravid belly; of babies suckling, their tiny hands batting against milky-blue veins.  Of existence itself, moving inexorably forward.

For Sewell, it seems, an absence of desire is synonymous with revulsion. Yet I have a Constable print on my wall that features a couple of boys and a draft-horse. I do not desire the boys, or the horse, but the painting still gives me pleasure. As does Auntie.  I am quite sure that Brian Sewell’s response says far more about him than her, but I also suspect that it has something to say about our culture, and our expectations, and a lack of imagery of the normal, ageing female. A 2009 study found that only 1% of images across the media were of elderly women, with a further 5% of the middle-aged. Even though these two groups make up 20% of the population.

Perhaps, therefore, it is not so much about the answers that Auntie offers, but the ability to interpret the question in the first place. To see a woman who is not in the 18 – 35 demographic, and hasn’t been airbrushed or enhanced or otherwise altered, and still comprehend the dignity, the wisdom, and the humanity. Auntie is a long-time friend of the artist, Aleah Chapin, who said ‘Her body is a map of her journey through life. In her I see the personification of strength through an unguarded and accepting presence.’ And, I’m thankful to say, so do I.

Ilsa Evans is an author who is currently working on a project titled The Invisible Woman, and other remarkable phenomena of middle-age. You can find details about her other books here, and follow her on Twitter at @ilsaevans.

How would you describe the image of ‘Auntie’ in only a few words?