What do writers do in lockdown? We write, right?
But I seem to have found myself another job in this strange time: recreating works of art with my husband using things found around the house. My Dad is an art lecturer and I have worked for years for an art and craft publisher, but I never expected to become so deeply and joyfully involved.
It started as a lark with Van Gogh’s Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear. We found a broom head in the garden, taped it to Jon’s head, added a bandage, approximated a few background details and posted on Facebook. People seemed delighted, as if we’d injected some much-needed fun into the troubling early days of the lockdown.
We started to do a recreation a day. I would emerge from the intense focus and realise I hadn’t thought of the virus for an hour or more. It was worth doing for that alone.
We began with the obvious paintings and even while sending them up, we gained a surprising insight into what makes them work. It wasn’t only poses, expressions, colours and shapes that we needed to recreate but also texture, tone, lighting, contrast and mood. I became fascinated by the artists and their original models. It was like the most enjoyable Art History course ever.
Our second effort was Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The pose looks like an effortless glance, but I soon became aware that it’s painfully unnatural as I stretched my neck and eye muscles. I can only imagine what the original model went through. This was my first wake-up call: I am a tiny bit older than most artists’ models! The Older Lady With a Pearl Earring.
The Card Players by Cezanne was the first one to involve our 24-year-old son as photographer. He did not want to faff obsessively about details as I do and was far from amused that we had commandeered the entire kitchen when he wanted to make breakfast.
For Munch’s The Scream, Jon perfected his Expressionist expression while I created distant figures from cardboard and a sunset from an orange towel. I always place our effort next to the original, cropping and placing it to enhance the resemblance. Oh the frustration when a glaring omission comes to light when it’s too late to take the photo again! I fussed over not getting the perspective right here. ‘Oh, Munch exaggerated it,’ said Dad. Now you tell me!
You’ve got to do Frida Kahlo, because of her amazing paintings and monobrow. I don’t really have eyebrows at all and have to paint them on for most recreations. Maddeningly, my head angle is not right here, but everyone’s patience was at an end, especially our cat, Misty’s. She got sick of being held over my shoulder and scratched us all.
I came home from shopping to find Jon dressed as Whistler’s Mother, with a fake painting and black bin bags pinned to the wall. I think you’ll agree, Jon was born for the role.
For Millais’ Ophelia, we dragged an old car roof box from behind our shed, but it was locked, so Jon hacked it open with a saw. It was early April so we had to search for flowers to strew. Jon filled the roof box with water and I lay down in it, which really made me feel for the original model. Millais found Elizabeth Siddall in a hat shop. She posed lying in a bath in his studio and the cold gave her pneumonia – her father made Millais pay the medical bills.
Everyone kept daring us to do a Picasso, so here is his Portrait of Dora Maar. I painted a mask with oil pastels and my face with liquid eyeliner, and I had to twist my mouth to conceal it under the mask. It’s not much of a likeness but those Cubists really messed with reality.
Sometimes you think a painting is going to take hours to recreate and then it just falls into place. Renoir’s A Dance in the Country was one of those and got a huge reaction. People just love to see marigolds in art.
Social distancing restrictions explained the deserted scene in our version of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergeres. I sinched in my waist, corset-style, with a sports bra, and a cardigan, kitchen paper ruffles and some clear plastic made up the barmaid’s outfit.
Contemporary critics assumed that Manet’s demure, smartly dressed model, Suzon, was a prostitute, which perhaps says more about them than about her. I’d never noticed before how unhappy she looks. She really worked at the bar, but the scene was reproduced in Manet’s studio where she posed behind a table laden with bottles. The angle of her reflection was hard to reproduce, and it turns out that Renoir just put it where he wanted it. It has been fascinating to learn how artists have faked things in the staging.
I had though Jon would be The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, but he didn’t have the hair for it and it turned out I did. We faked the hat from a fancy-dress witch’s hat and the facial hair from gardener’s coconut matting – very tickly when you’re trying hold a swaggering pose.
Vermeer’s Milkmaid had had a kitchen refit! Again, her pose looks natural but almost did me an injury. Perhaps that’s why my expression could turn milk sour! I am still consumed with regret that I found the perfect bright blue cloth to hang from the table, then forgot to put it in.
Magritte’s Lovers 1 was recreated on Southborough Common. You’ll all be wearing these hygienic facemasks soon!
Modigliani’s Woman With Red Hair was not a difficult pose, but I had to paint my eyelids black to recreate her blank stare. I should get some real white lace – it would save me a lot of kitchen paper.
Around this time the local news channel featured some of our efforts, but it wasn’t the heady fame that kept us going, but friends and neighbours saying that our ‘art’ was cheering them up every day and we mustn’t stop. They are still saying that eleven weeks on!
For Magritte’s Son of Man, I confess we ordered a bowler hat online and taped an apple to its brim. People particularly liked the clouds stuck on the wall.
Pre-Raphaelite paintings are perfect for lampooning because they are already quite silly. Sometimes, it’s a prop that inspires you, and I couldn’t wait to wear the red travel neck pillow on my head for Frank Cowper’s Vanity.
Noir et Blanche by Man Ray. Our mask was a bit big, as was my hamster-like cheek as gravity pulled it south. The model, Kiki, attracted Man Ray with her ‘cute accent and air of mystery’ – and probably her firm young cheeks.
Next came Rosetti’s Prosperine, holding an onion in place of a pomegranate. Do I have a short neck or did Rosetti exaggerate hers? The model was Jane Morris, embroiderer, wife of William and lover of Rosetti, who married Elizabeth Siddall from Millais’ Ophelia – keep up now.
I wonder why Egon Shiele’s Woman With Legs Drawn Up is wearing rags for shorts, (reproduced of course with kitchen paper)? I learned here that artists de-emphasise perspective to imitate the way our brains adjust for it, but the camera records it faithfully, so limbs stretching towards the lens looking huge and distorted.
Lucien Freud’s Girl on a Sofa does the same thing in reverse – her feet look normal-sized but mine in the photo look stunted. I butchered my fringe to imitate hers and have lived with the result for weeks.
Jon got out his fairy costume, veteran of fancy dress Parkruns and school pantos, for Degas’ Dancer with a Bouquet. I think he captured her feminine grace to perfection.
The pose for John Singer Sargent’s Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast must be natural, as it worked best when I imagined I really was drinking a giddy but heartfelt toast. A bit of transparent plastic recreated Madame’s gauzy wrap.
It all went a bit haywire as the global pandemic continued. For Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, I cast around for something for Jon to munch and found the rubber chicken my son uses for teaching. Like Abraham’s ram, it meant that the son himself was spared.
By now my lockdown hair was barely controllable – perfect for Caravaggio’s Medusa. The original shows Medusa undone by the sight of her reflection, with ‘a shocked gaze, a terrified scream’, which is how I felt looking in a mirror. No snakes were required to reproduce the horror.
Hygienic gloves and a Pound Shop brolley were perfect for Manet’s The Balcony.
We found yeast in the shops after weeks without homemade pizza, so it was lovingly placed, with flour, in The Cradle by Berthe Morisot. She was the first woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, and painted her sister, Edma, with her baby. Edma’s expression is hard to read and some have suggested she was yearning to paint, as she did before motherhood. I was yearning to do some writing and for Lockdown to end – but mainly for pizza.
The photo we did before our VE Day street party created controversy. Albert Eisenstaedt snapped a sailor kissing a nurse on VJ Day in Times Square. Some Facebook comments said his photo showed a sexual assault. We were too busy partying to engage, but the debate raged so fiercely on the Recreate Works of Art page that admins took the post down! We could only get the pose right once we realised it’s like a dance move. As my son took photo after photo of his snogging parents, he said, ’This is the worst thing I’ve ever done.’
Jon insisted on wielding a real axe for Ferdinand Hodler's The Woodcutter, and regretted it as I kept saying, ‘Lean over more… no, much more…’
I thought it would take ages to recreate Andrew Wyeth’s decrepit and downcast old woman, but I put my lockdown hair up and there she was! This one proved popular, probably with other people missing their hairdresser.
I was delighted that we were able to recreate the lighting and composition of Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, if not Mr Clark’s hair. The sombre expressions and the bright outdoors just beyond reach seemed to sum up Week 9 of lockdown.
Jon took a while to wash off the Emperor Augustus’s bronze-verdigris green. I used liquid eyeliner for his hair and that washed off too, though many thought he should keep it. A teacher on Facebook asked to use this for GCSE History. We were happy to consent.
It was fascinating to investigate American Gothic, which many people suggested for us. The original scene was completely contrived: Grant Wood used his dentist and his sister to pose in front of the house and ordered her puritanical-looking apron from a mail-order firm. I felt no less authentic standing in front of a neighbour’s garage in Jon’s black sweatshirt, with a paper ‘brooch’ and a bit of cut-up fabric pinned to my front.
We no longer have the time to do a recreation every day, but we will carry on as long as restrictions remain and people enjoy our efforts. Thanks to the Recreate Artworks From Things You Find at Home Facebook page, which has been full of hilarity and inspiration. In strange times, we do strange things, and God knows, we need a laugh!