Monday, 22 February 2016
Shinsui Ito 'Portrait of Miss Elizabeth Keith'
One day in 1923 the Canadian artist, Walter Phillips, was taken to Notting Hill Gate in London to meet the critic and writer, Malcolm Salaman. There was something provincial and naïve about Phillips' reaction to Salaman's flat, heaped as it was with prints of all kinds from old master to whatever peccadillos or whim had appeal in the market for etchings. For instance, there was Arthur Briscoe's manly array of rigging and seafarers and Elyse Lord's foppish, oriental confections. And there Miss Elizabeth Keith. And what did they think about her? Because, as with Phillips, there was something naïve in her own make-up. Phillips' work looked fine until it came up against real printmaking talent like Ian Cheyne and then, I'm afraid, it was sent packing. In a similar way, Keith's Tokyo publisher, Shozaburo Wantanabe, was possibly tempting fate when he arranged to have an artist as talented as Shinsui Ito prepare a design with Keith as its subject simply because Keith's weaknesses would be made all too obvious.
To start with, Keith would have been incapable of the bold candour of Shinsui's blues, pinks and marmalade orange. Nor could she have achieved the subtle simplicity of the hands, the uprightness of the back nor, most importantly, the scepticism of that steady gaze of hers. But here were two artists bartering gaze for gaze and while it is obvious that Keith was in no way intimidated, Shinsui rose to his subject as Keith could not. Only look at the brilliance of that swirl of marmalade feathers around her head, that frivolous crown of glory. Who chose the hat? Shinsui, Keith or even her zealous publisher? It sets off the pale north European skin so perfectly. Nothing remains of the young Japanese beauties that were Shinsui's stock-in-trade. Instead we have a perceptiveness so acute it verges on satire. The outlandishness of the hat, the tumbled folds of her blouse, the intrepid eyebrows, that crooked mouth, they all invites us, by way of minute exaggeration, to take pleasure in this rather extraordinary European with her tomboyish, adventurous ways. Look at her in front of that sumptuous car sharing a garland with her friend and fellow-Scot, Kate Bartlett. What amuses us is what amused Shinsui.
I need to credit and thank Darrel Karl at Eastern Impressions for the photograph of Keith and Kate and Charles Bartlett.