I have told you on a few occasions that I tend to write about artists who have passed away and steer clear of living artists as they may take offence about what I have written! My featured artist in the next two blogs is a living painter who I was fortunate to meet and talk to her about her art. She is an utterly fascinating person, as are her works of art. She is strong-willed and holds very strong opinions with regards feminism and things that face us with twenty-first century living. Her works, which I will show you, are hard-hitting and thought-provoking and although they may not be liked by all, I am amazed by them and of course you all well know that I like paintings with a background story. My artist today, Natalie Papamichael, who is based in Brighton on the south coast of England where she has her own studio, which I was fortunate to visit. However, let me start this story before she was born and as we meander along her life’s path, I will introduce you to some of her paintings.
Natalie was born on September 5th 1971 in Slough, Berkshire. She has one sister, Helen, who is three years older than her. Her father Nicholas came from Greek and Cypriot parentage and grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. He and his brother left Egypt to study in UK in 1956. Natalie’s mother, Nicole, is French and came from Paris. She moved to the UK in order to study English and it was in London that the couple met. They married in Athens in 1965 and had intended to live in Greece but a far-right military junta overthrew the caretaker government that ruled the country in April 1967 and the couple decided that it would be safer to stay and live in England. They settled in south-east London. Natalie’s father, a mathematician, worked at Brunel University in the Uxbridge area of west London, and her mother worked at the French Consulate in central London. Natalie was born on September 5th 1971. Her only sibling, a sister, Helen, was born in May 1968.
Natalie started her schooling, aged five, at the Seer Green Church of England Primary School in 1976, and in 1983 she moved to the Chesham High School, Buckinghamshire where she remained until the age of sixteen. In 1987, having achieved good grades in nine GCSE subjects, she attended the Further Education establishment of Amersham College where she attained her A Levels in French, English Literature and Art. Natalie left the college in 1989 and applied for a place on an Art Foundation Course but was rejected. Subsequently she was offered a place on the “Reserve List” but still feeling aggrieved that they had turned her down initially, she rejected the place and decided to spend her “Gap Year” in Paris, where she had some friends and relatives. There she began working as an au pair, an occupation her sister had undertaken years before.
Natalie returned to the UK where she had a place at Leeds University to study French and Brazilian Portuguese. Her reason for choosing this combination of subjects was less to do with future career ideas but more to do with the fact that she would get to spend time in Brazil and France. However, her university plans were abandoned when she became very unwell. Her illness was due to her excessive alcohol consumption combined with a debilitating eating disorder. Her weight at that time was down to below eighty pounds. Around this time, her parents had taken the decision to leave England and settle in Greece. But in the meantime her father accepted a visiting professorship in Portugal . Natalie’s father was a Socialist and the re-election of Margaret Thatcher was more than he could bear !!! Her father eventually was offered a temporary teaching post at the University of Braga, near Porto and he and his wife travelled to Portugal. Later, due to her illness, Natalie joined them.
At this time, her sister was living in Paris and so Natalie decided to leave Portugal and join her in the French capital. Initially she lived with her sister but later lived on her own in many different arrondissements around Paris. She loved Paris and continued with her painting. She would often visit the Musée d’Orsay where she would sit for many hours sketching. She loved films and would regularly go to the cinema. Another pleasing pastime was reading and she loved to while away the time sitting and reading in the many city parks. Natalie took on a variety of jobs such as working in some Irish pubs. She also had part time jobs at Chicage Meatpackers, Habitat, Galleries Lafayette and finally she got a job which she stayed at for several years as a receptionist at KPMG. At weekends she would sometimes visit and stay with relatives who lived in the suburbs of Paris.
But all was not well and she began to have health problems due to her continuing high alcohol consumption exacerbated by her constant partying and this coupled with an eating disorder soon took its toll. She had made many friends and went to parties but as her drinking got worse, she became much more isolated and began to self-harm. Finally, she was admitted as an in-patient at L’ Hôpital Sainte Anne. She recalled later:
“…I did not realise at the time that it was a psychiatric hospital. I discovered that it was a famous psychiatric hospital in 2006, when I was sitting in a lecture at the Courtauld Institute. My tutor was talking about Nancy Spero and Antonin Artaud. She mentioned that Artaud had been in Hôpital Sainte Anne in Paris. I nudged my friend (who was also half French, half Greek) and told her I was in that hospital. She said did I realise it was a psychiatric hospital! I then looked into the history of the hospital and realised it had really interesting links to another artist, Unica Zurn. What was also very interesting about this was that Unica Zurn had lived a few doors down from where I lived with my sister in Rue Mouffetard…”
The narrative behind Natalie Papamichael’s 2019 painting entitled Massacre of the Madwomen resonated with her own story and her time spent in L’hopital Sainte-Anne in Paris. The characters that she used are pertinent for the stories that they are taken from. The women she enacts are the typical ‘hysterics’. Her work is based on a black and white print of the event entitled Massacre at la Salpêtrière, 3 September 1792.
La Salpêtrière was a famous asylum in Paris, which, during this period, was operated more like a prison, housing women who were prostitutes, the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled. The Massacre was part of the bloody September massacres in Paris during the French Revolution. On the nights of September 3rd and 4th 1792, La Salpêtrière was stormed with the intention of releasing the detained women. However, out of fear that the inmates would join the foreign and royalist armies, thirty-five of the women were dragged into the streets and murdered. Natalie’s painting is a re-imagaing of the Massacre once again using her own performance still images as well as characters from other sources, such as her favourite films, The Red Shoes and Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari.
When Natalie was finally released from the Paris hospital she began to concentrate on her art and plan for the future. She created many paintings whilst in hospital which she exhibited at Finnegan’s Wake. Her excessive drinking became worse and after a progressive mental and physical descent, she managed to stop drinking. She has not had a drink now for twenty-seven years!. Natalie knew the only thing she really wanted to do was art. She had hoped to apply for entrance to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but they did not recognise her English qualifications and so in 1996 she returned to London. She gained employment as a receptionist at Talkback TV Production and it was whilst working there that they allowed her to work part time so she was able to enrol on a part-time Foundation Course at the prestigious London art school, Central Saint Martins. In 2000 she married Mark, an English teacher and musician, at a civil ceremony at Brighton Registry Office, followed by a small wedding in Agios Dimitrios, a small church at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. Having completed the Foundation Course at CSM, she went on to do a full time BA in Fine Art at the school. During her final year at Central St Martins, she became pregnant with their first child. She used her pregnant body for performances at a time when she was looking at the feminist performance artists of 1979’s. She became involved with the Women’s Art Library, researching feminist performance artists of the 1970s and creating her own performances. In 2002 her first born, Ziggy, was born. Four years later, in 2006, she studied for a MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, a degree she attained the following year. It was at the Courtauld that she explored the exclusion of women from academic training and how art history had recorded the struggle of female artists to gain deserved recognition.
One of her most beautiful works is her 2013 painting, Self portrait with Ziggy (as Madonna and Child) which she completed in 2013. She used the Madonna and Child painting by Artemisia Gentileschi as the direct reference and re-interpreted this to show the reality of motherhood. It is such a tender depiction of Natalie and her first-born son. Did the baby sit still for the portrait? Actually she used a teddy bear !! (She said that she collaged two photos together, the calm pose was the one with the teddy bear and the other was the one with Ziggy crying).
Maud Allan, born as either Beulah Maude Durrant or Ulah Maud Alma Durrant in August 1873. She was a Canadian dancer, chiefly noted for her Dance of the Seven Veils. She was a favourite of the music hall and popular theatres, where a population from diverse social backgrounds went to watch a variety of plays, sketches, comedy and songs- much like a modern variety show.
As a tribute to Allan, Natalie has crafted her oil on aluminium painting Self-portrait as Salome (after Maud Allan).
……………………….to be continued
The idea to write about Natalie Papamichael came from an interview I read in Natasha Moura’s excellent art blog: Women’n Art