My recent sorting of scans brought to light this interesting opportunity to compare two oil paintings of similar subjects. The one on the left is an aboriginal elder, painted by Helen Andersen. On the right, an elder painted 4 or 5 decades earlier by Helen’s mother, Fannie Anderson.
What a difference in treatments! Many casual viewers would prefer to hang Fannie’s painting on their wall. It is conventionally realistic, almost photographic. Everything about the picture is safe and comfortable. I believe that Fannie knew the sitter as an individual, but she titled her work “Grandmother”… safely categorizing the likeness as a typical genre painting rather than as a portrait of a particular person. It is a kindly treatment of a kindly personage, one who smiles out of the canvas without looking us in the eye. The “native” aspects of the picture, aside from facial characteristics, dwell on the centrally parted, braided hairstyle. I’m not sure if the brightly coloured print of grandmother’s blouse was also meant to be typical, but I suspect it was. The background is generalized and nondescript, although it is curiously similar to part of the background behind Helen’s elder.
So, let’s compare.
Fannie’s composition is simple, safe, central and symmetrical. Helen’s is more ambitious and interesting… off-centre and active with diagonals. Let’s go to the face, as we all do, first. No friendly smile here. Helen’s elder has the toughened expression of a person who has experienced adversity. Her eyes are downcast and she seems to be in thought… or perhaps remembering. She’s no victim, though. Helen’s elder seems as full of resolve as resignation. That cocked black eyebrow. Isn’t there a shrewd realism there?
Fannie’s sitter’s hands don’t show. Presumably they are resting quietly in her lap. Not so with Helen’s subject. That aged hand rises up, not quite clenched, but certainly not feeble. The power to act is there.
Now look at what Helen has done to represent her elder’s culture. The headband, blanket and totem belong to her own people, owing nothing to Europe. She is who she is, she’s tough and she’s durable, even in old age.
It seems to me that Fannie liked the person she was painting and did her best to depict her subject in a warm and well-meaning way. Helen’s work is much more powerful, though. She respects her elder and admires her. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it went further than that. Helen, a struggling outsider artist in a somewhat alien society that frankly oppressed women, probably identified with her.
So the difference between the two paintings comes down to this: Fannie was a Sunday painter, her daughter was an artist. Fannie’s work is agreeably pleasing and quickly forgotten, lost in a sea of similar works. Helen’s picture will never be tiresome. It is powerful, alive and rich with personality and meaning.