THE JOY OF LIFE
Lydia Corbett/Sylvette David.
Both Pablo Picasso and Sylvette David had an enduring love for the Mediterranean. For Picasso, particularly after the Second World War, it was a place of joie de vivre, a classical world, where he could live simply and be happy again. Until he met Sylvette he was with Françoise Gilot; he had her beauty and youth to feast on. He was in contact with nature and the sea. Picasso loved to be by the sea, he was not a good swimmer but he liked to be near it. He liked to be in the sun, going brown. He had a striped vest like a sailor (Sylvette would have one too). When Sylvette came into his life, Picasso transformed everything for her. He even created new art forms for her. As a young woman being re-presented by Picasso gave gravitas, weight and a new foundation to her life. Above all, he helped her establish a transcendent, nonverbal imagination, and the inward experience of imaginative intuition. Lydia Corbett paints with a kind of hovering, a dual awareness that everything can be both true and false; that who one is can be and yet is constantly changing; that nature and the well-being of us all are built on the quiddities of chance that is in flux, that what appears as stable is built on the quicksand of chaos. Picasso introduced to her the dialectic of making and unmaking. This gives to painting something essentially non-doctrinal and it transcends ideology.
Lydia Corbett’s paintings are both celebrations of being in the present, but also work upon the unconscious, the irrational, the supernatural of others as much as the religious, and the spiritual. Interlocatedness in the work is a presence in many of the paintings. Her inward Joie de vivre is mediated by a landscape through which touches both memories, calme, luxe, volupté of childhood, the rocks and the sea, but also the childhood house on the Mediterranean island where in the Unoccupied Zone, she and her younger brother were sheltered from the war with her mother living under a false identity. In these late paintings there is always a narration of a shared intimacy and her works are deeply absorbed by history and tradition, and whilst she paints without any need for conscious specific recollection, all her paintings own their own past. Lydia Corbett understands what Simone Weil meant when she said the the present is something that binds us. We create the future in our imagination. The past is the only pure reality.
Sylvette David does not often speak of the Occupation of France, only if asked, and then obliquely. Her concerns as a child of the Second World War were complex as they were for all children. The period of Arcady on the island was short-lived for her, but it did exist. Her mother had the foresight to bring her children to a place of naturalness and innocence when all around was brutality and the knowledge of the worst things that people could do. On the Island, her own joie de vivre was experienced in a visual immediacy and mediated by the air she breathed, the light she saw, the smells, the sounds, the silences, the people around her childhood. Her childhood and early girlhood were mediated by the exterior. She was in a state of immanence, of being-in-the-world. The photographs of Sylvette with her little brother capture this period of time. The photographs of herself as a mermaid, show the serious face of an adolescent girl, full of life, fresh and healthy, fearless in her regard. The Sylvette portraits Picasso painted and her own later self-portraits show a more complicated movement into womanhood. They are as multifarious as her changing moods. Her different ages are not part of a single articulation, she seemed destined to be as she grew older, still in the process of becoming. Her being, her inner being is perpetually remaking herself and rediscovering herself; as if her appearance was a mere snag upon which her deeper sense of self attached itself. Sylvette was destined to become an artist under the aegis of another world, a past.
Matisse painted Luxe, calme et volupté In Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1904; he learnt the theory of Neo-Impressionism from Paul Signac. Sylvette David/Lydia Corbett has reclaimed something of Matisse in her paintings of 2015 to 2020. Both have practiced a divided brushstroke technique, both extemporized, and for Lydia Corbett it has developed into a new style of painting interior portraits of luminosity and contrast of colour. Soon Matisse was painting with more uniform colour – the beginnings of Fauvism. Luxe, calme et volupté is a classicized rendition evokes Matisse’s favoured theme of the Golden Age, and its rich artistic heritage recalls as the poems of Ovid, his old friend Aristide Maillol and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, from Poussin to Cézanne’s Baigneuses to the Symbolist frescoes of Puvis de Chavannes, one senses Matisse is looking for a way through emotion to a freedom in colour. The following year (1905) Matisse would be considered amongst les Fauves, it was a trial by fire (Derain’s phrase), by fusion, in the crucible of light and colour. Le retour aux sources exemplified in these late humanist paintings of Lydia Corbett are not an anachronistic or atavistic fantasy, it was her childhood and formative reality. It is the paradox of her childhood that Sylvette managed to find peace in the middle of the Second World war. It is a testament to her avant-garde risk-taking mother, who managed to protect her young children by finding far away places in what was at first the Unoccupied Zone of France, and when it was in turn occupied by the Italians, to move the children to Dieu-Le-Fît in the Rhone-Alpes. For the French tourists of the 1930s the fauve paintings of the south of France had already shaped and informed how they saw the landscape when they visited it. Sylvette’s mother had initially gone south, in the 1930s to the island to live a balanced life and to be at one with her nature.
Lydia Corbett’s painting Sitting in the Presence embodies Sylvette’s restless spirit. It is both a painting of youth and yet the painting shows la durée, Sylvette traits have aged. The face has also turned inward. It is not unwilling to show time. The quintessential pony tail is still holding the hair high, but breasts have lowered, the hands are more puffed. The body is now that of an older woman. In composition, the green and the red framing seem to reference Matisse’s Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (1914). The stripe of green and red are literally a start and a stop, that frames the figure, an alpha and omega. Gaston Bachelard wrote some words in The Poetics of Space that could have been written for Sylvette David: “Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special colour. Consequently, it is not until late in life that we really revere an image, when we discover that its roots plunge well beyond the history that is fixed in our memories. In the realm of absolute imagination, we remain young late in life. But we must lose our earthly paradise in order to actually live it, to experience it in the reality of its images, in the absolute sublimation that transcends all passion.” 1
The photographs of Sylvette on the beach at île de Levant, as a mermaid, and playing naked on the rocks with her brother attest how much of what was a dream for Matisse was to be a reality for Sylvette. For Sylvette David every work of art is a transposition, in her lived experience of Joie de Vivre, one might recall the lines from Novalis’s The Disciples at Sais: “Everywhere rise flames of life […] old times are renewed, and history becomes the dream of an endless present as far as the eye can see.” Sylvette David/Lydia Corbett sketches directly on to the canvas, not sketching from life, but from the mind or the imagination. Sometimes the sketches work as finished works in their own right and she has no wish to add colour or more to them, at other times they are the beginnings of a process of change and light and colour. The contents of her paintings are not simply what they represent, they are of an expressionist leaning, the paintings themselves bear agency, and the paintings take over from the artist at some point, as if they have been free to develop almost independently and have their own mode of being, regardless of the artist’s intentions. They are not detached from the world, their disposition is to give wine, give bread, give back the heart to itself, the stranger who has loved us. Lydia Corbett/Sylvette David’s work never denies the sufferings of human society or the contingencies of history. Painting is not a substitution of power for pain, but is based on its acceptance. Perhaps above all, this show of paintings at the Fosse Gallery attest to the power of being in the present and this exhibition is a homecoming for Sylvette David/ Lydia Corbett. As the poet Derek Walcott put it: The time will come/ when with elation/ you will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door, in your own mirror/ and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
-Lucien Berman – Combas, France.
1 La Poétique de l’Espace (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958).