Painter and printmaker, Elizabeth Blackadder was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1931. She is well-known for her paintings of flowers and still life, both in watercolour and oils, but she also painted landscapes and portraits. Her interest and love of flowers began very early in life when she spent much of her childhood alone and began collecting, pressing and labelling local flowers. At first glance her flower paintings appeared to me to be botanical paintings and it was only when I began to research her life and interests that it became obvious that they were much more than that.
Blackadder has always had an interest in collecting objects and is fascinated with the art of non Western cultures. She visited Japan several times in the 1980s and 1990s. In order to understand the composition of her paintings I felt I needed to know more about the influences on her work and so I spent some time researching the ideas behind Japanese art. In ‘Japan Style’, a catalogue from an exhibition organised by the V&A and the Japanese Foundation, 1980, Kodansha International Ltd, 1980, there is an essay: Japanese Aesthetic Ideals by Mitsukuni Yoshida.
“In its constant search for variety of form, Japanese design had developed its own peculiar form of symmetry, which did not depend as in Europe on precise geometrical values. For example, the Japanese preferred to use a diagonal, rather than a centrally placed horizontal or vertical line when dividing a rectangle symmetrically.. In other cases they would seek to achieve a balance based on inner meaning rather than shape…”p 18
Japanese art focused primarily on a love of simplicity in which the arrangement of objects was composed in a standardised way in narrow spaces where there was nothing irrelevant or unrelated. The subjects of the paintings centred around the natural world, reflecting their love of natural beauty. It could be said that Japanese art is a pursuit of perfection.
I then did some research into Zen philosophy and the concept of empty space or ‘emptiness’. I was trying to understand the concept of meaningful space as opposed to background when thinking through the composition of a painting. This was definitely enlightening. ‘Emptiness’ in Zen philosophy is not complete nothingness, it doesn’t mean that nothing exists at all.
I didn’t feel able to accurately comprehend more of this concept in what I read but it left me with the sense that within the spaces that Blackadder leaves between objects, there is movement and life, that they are active spaces in which there is a connectivity. I could see the strong Japanese influence in her work in the arrangement of forms (cats, ribbons, flowers, plants on an empty or abstract background). The natural world features consistently in her paintings.
In studying her flower paintings I was trying to see what part the white spaces played in these works. At first glance they seem like botanical paintings and certainly the uncompromising white spaces have the effect of highlighting the objects. During my visit to the Goya Exhibition at the National Gallery in November, I took particular note of the treatment of the background. In many cases it was simply a dark space behind the portrait and this had the same effect of bringing the subject to the forefront of the image. Even in this it seemed to have a purpose.