Preview: Personal
Feeling is
the Main Thing

London-based figurative artist Chantal Joffe’s first solo show in the north charts her relationship with her daughter.

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“It’s an amazing moment to be a woman painter,” giddily enthuses Chantal Joffe. “For too long, our story and our history has either been painted in secret or hardly seen. Now people want to see and hear it. We’ve been hearing about white men for a long time. It’s quite amazing that there’s now going to be something different.”

Personal Feeling is the Main Thing, Joffe’s upcoming solo exhibition at the Lowry as part of its biennial Week 53 festival, was conceived long before Time’s Up, #MeToo and questions about the gender pay gap dominated cultural conversation, but in many ways is the perfect exhibition for these enlightened times.

Named after a quote from pioneering German expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker, the exhibition features around 50 portrait paintings by Joffe, the majority of which focus on women. A small selection of Modersohn-Becker’s works, selected by Joffe, will also be displayed in the show, partly as an act of homage – “I wanted more people to know about her because I think she’s so fantastic,” she says – and partly though their shared interests.

“She talks a lot about women and children and pregnancy and I wanted to include that crossover,” explains the 48-year-old London-based artist, who was born in Vermont before her family moved to England when she was 13. The fact that Modersohn-Becker made her paintings in the late 19th century, when it was extremely hard to be a respected female artist, makes her a lasting source of inspiration, says Joffe.

Chantal Joffe. Photo: Thierry Bal. Main image: Poppy, Esme, Oleanna, Gracie and Kate, 2014

“Male artists don’t know what it’s like to see a show that you love and it’s all men and how excluded and crap that feels. When you come across people like Diane Arbus or Alice Neel or Paula it makes you feel that maybe I could do this too.” The idea of anybody seeing Joffe’s large-scale figurative paintings and thinking the same would make her “so happy,” she adds.

When Crossrail opens later this year, the number of people encountering her work will hugely increase as Joffe is one of several artists chosen to make paintings for one of London’s 10 new stations, in her case Whitechapel. The project marks her first foray into public art and while she admits to finding the process “quite scary”, she welcomes the opportunity to take her highly distinctive, uncompromising and bold portraits to the masses.

For years, the subject that has fascinated Joffe most has been her own family, particularly her daughter Esme, whose transition from newborn baby to self-conscious teenager forms a major element of Joffe’s first solo show in the north. “There’s lots of paintings of me and her together charting our relationship and how that changes as she gets bigger.” The artist goes on to say that her work is “infused with the psychodrama of families.”

“The hardest person I ever tried to paint is my mum because you never at look at your mum from a distance. Their face is the layer of all the faces they have had over the last 40 years. To try and do an actual painting that holds that still is really difficult and really affecting for me to try.”

Personal Feeling is the Main Thing is on display at the Lowry from 19 May to 2 September as part of Week 53 festival

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