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American beauty and the Caravaggesque

Valadon, American beauty with pear and nectarine blossum. 2009

Valadon, American beauty with pear and nectarine blossum. 2009

In 2009 artist Rosemary Valadon had a sell out show at Eva Breuer Gallery with a suite of giant teacups under the title Euphoria: the tea party. At first glance they appear all very feminine, domestic and decorous. On second look these works are anything but!

This one, American Beauty with pear and nectarine blossum is my favourite and I’ve been trying to work out exactly what it is about the piece that I find so enticing. Perhaps it’s something to do with the size; all the works in the series are over a metre square which effectively blows this delicate teacup into such exaggerated dimension that it takes on aspects of the grotesque.

It also could be something to do with the black. Sentencing these highly decorated, colourful and generally buoyant teacups to stand knee deep in black, was a stroke of genius on Valadon’s behalf. No other colour or context could have been nearly as descriptive or as meaningful as black. It becomes so Caravaggesque (not, it’s not really as word, but I think it does the job). The creeping shadow around the handle and the half finished brew serve to conjure the macabre for me.

American Beauty is also a variety of rose, which probably comes as no surprise to many of you, given the title of the piece. I see it here now on saucer and cup, winking deep pink at me, all curved petals and flouncing sensuality. And it’s the very same rose that was used so successfully as metaphor in the film American Beauty which is inevitably what I think about when I look at this painting.

Like the film, this painting raises questions of what lies behind the perfect and the domestic – and this work begins in the domestic, with prim little tea cups and thoughts of lace napkins and sweet morsels. But just as we see in the film, this painting calls to mind that behind the domestic, behind beauty and the idea of perfection lurks the sinister and the uncontrolled.  And the carnal.

Valadon has successfully presented us with the perfect poisoned piece of ambiguity.

Eva Breuer lists several smaller works from the Euphoria: the tea party as being for sale in her show room.

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