March 8, oh blessed date, used to be International Women’s Day. Now the whole of March has been designated International Women’s Month, according to a flyer sent out by the National Museums of Kenya.
It seems to be a booming celebration. Stand by for Year, Decade, Century and even Millennium.
The flyer is for an exhibition called Butterflies by the artist Jeffie Magina who celebrates women with a tribute to girls — around 50 paintings that explore their social, intellectual, physical and spiritual aspects through the prism of their everyday lives.
How sweet. One thinks of angelic faces, huge soulful eyes, honeyed smiles, sunlit meadows of dancing wildflowers and waving grass alongside tinkling streams, the air filled with the joyous tweeting of little birds.
Yet Magina’s exhibition put me in mind less of sugar, spice and all things nice and more of another adage and a quotable quote.
The adage comes from the theatre: Never work with children and animals.
And the quote is by Picasso, who said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
I remembered that because to my eyes the finest painting in this show is not by Magina at all, but by his four-year-old daughter, Ella. And it is much to Magina’s credit that he should hang it, well framed, and risk the inevitable comparisons with his own work.
Called Portrait of my Dad, Ella’s picture is fresh, free and just bursting with life.
The head dominates, a wash of delicate grey, bent forward from the neck and set off superbly by unselfconscious scribbles of cerise. Dad’s mouth runs vertically, the teeth revealed in a loving smile, and two arms reach down protectively, the fingers a series of loops. Across the base lies a flower.
The colours harmonise, each helping to project the other; the mass and lines counterbalance impeccably; the volumes are perfectly placed; the composition satisfies; the whole thing speaks of an urgent wish to encapsulate love.
It is wholly instinctive and it refreshes, excites and stimulates.
Perhaps it is bizarre to try to analyse the painting of a four year old — nearly all children have similar unfettered talent, after all — but by studying children’s paintings as works of intuitive expression we can hope to apply their lessons to art generally.
Spontaneity, vigour, freedom of line and colour… wed those to the discipline and formal skills needed to focus on your subject and communicate with fresh insight and you are really getting somewhere.
In this exhibition, on until March 25, Ella’s picture overshadows some of Dad’s own paintings.
The idea behind the show is good but its execution varies from reasonably sound, to shaky to frankly deficient.
Clearly composition is Magina’s strongest suite. This can be seen particularly in his Blue Door series of four watercolours, each of a figure set before that door, which appears at different and surprising angles in each painting. The arrangements attract the eye, but the figure drawing often appears hesitant and occasionally just plain wrong.
What makes this all the more puzzling is that I know he can be much, much better than this. I have seen ink wash drawings by Magina that are excellent; studies of a standing man and others of crows, for example.
But here his drawing generally starts well but ends awkwardly with feet and shoes being particular difficulties. Mostly these are far too small and do not look as though they are supporting their owners.
Better drawing can be found in his ink study of a girl in a yellow dress, called No! in which a scratchy line, feeling for shape, produces a believable child; so too with the more delicate Moh!, part of the same group, this time of a girl in a long white coat.
Perhaps best of all is his charcoal study of two standing girls — a sensitive and simple line searching for volume and weight — although even there the legs of the girl on the left look too weak.
Generally, the simpler things are, the better they are; less is more, and all that.
Matisse and Picasso spring to mind for their hard won reductive skills but also — and especially — the prehistoric cave drawings of animals by unknown hands; threads of charcoal line occasionally enhanced by ochre or umber clays rubbed into the stone.
In Butterflies we have an excellent idea for a timely and welcome exhibition. But I do think it might have been better to hand the whole show over to Ella and her friends.