Am off to a conversation between artist Andrea Büttner and Chus Martinez at Tate Britain. Martinez was one of the authors who contributed to Büttner extensive monograph published by MK Gallery and MMK Frankfurt (see earlier posting). Tonight’s discussion marks the launch of the book Hidden Marriages: Gwen John and Moss and will range from the Hidden Marriages project to the broader concerns of her practice, currently on view at Tate Britain.
In 2011 Büttner was invited by the National Museum Wales to explore its collections. Hidden Marriages is the culmination of this research, which draws together a selection of objects from two disparate bodies of knowledge: the museum’s collection of drawings by Gwen John (1876–1939) and the extensive collection of mosses preserved in its herbarium. Büttner’s research findings were first presented as an installation at National Museum Cardiff in spring 2014, and culminate with the artist’s book.
Within the museum’s collection of almost 1,000 drawings by Gwen John, Büttner focuses on images of church congregations and portraits of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a carmelite saint. St. Thérèse’s writings on ‘The Little Way’ played an important role in Gwen John’s life and work.
The concept of ‘littleness’ has also been of longstanding interest to Büttner. Much of her work makes connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, vulnerability and sexuality, and the belief systems that underpin them. Although working a hundred years apart, John and Büttner share an interest in the spiritual, social and aesthetic notions of ‘littleness.’
Büttner has discerned similar characteristics in the classification and description of mosses – plants that fall under the term cryptogam (meaning hidden sexuality). Moss is also described as a ‘lower plant’ – incorrectly implying a lesser, or more primitive, evolutionary development than flowering or ‘higher plants.’ Hidden Marriages: Gwen John and Moss draws these two seemingly unconnected collection areas together, making links between the reproductive processes of ‘lower plants’ and the contested sexuality of Gwen John; between littleness as an aesthetic, biological, and social discourse; between the scientific ordering of the Museum and the harmony and beauty that John sought in her work; and, ultimately, the way institutions ascribe relative importance to objects, ideas and people.
The book Hidden Marriages: Gwen John and Moss includes over 60 drawings by John, most published for the first time, and essays about Gwen John and moss by art historian Lily Foster and biologist Ray Tangney, Principal Curator of Cryptogams at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. It was edited by Ben Borthwick and designed by Studio Quentin Walesch. It is published by Koenig Books, London.