We’re in lockdown as a virus spreads through our lungs, and everyday I take a walk around the neighbourhood for my sixty minutes government-approved outdoor activity. I live in Haggerston, London, where it’s pleasant to wander. There’s the canal nearby, now chock full of new joggers, and there’s London Fields, with benches, trees and small, helmet-clad children zigzagging through legs on tricycles. Personally, I prefer to wander the four or five streets that form a web directly behind my flat: they are quiet and they are posh, with well-tended front gardens, their peonies and wisteria bursting with new blooms. I am careful when I cross paths with others, I move to the side, I keep two meters away, so my droplets won’t infect them. We side-eye each other. Some children also chalk up the sidewalk—there’s a pastel-pink dinosaur growling next to someone’s garbage can. The truth is, I like to walk these streets because they’re empty and manicured, but I also walk them because I enjoy looking into other people’s homes. Actually, the whole point of my walk—besides getting some fresh air—is to pass by one specific window. It comes just after the magnolia tree, whose flowers are still unfurling from their tightly bound purple-pink shallot buds. Beyond this window hangs a painting, a portrait of a woman by the artist Kaye Donachie.
‘The women I paint appear as spectres’, Donachie once said in an interview, and this spectre caught my eye one evening. I had seen her before, several years ago, hanging on Maureen Paley’s gallery walls. Donachie, I learned then, works from archival imagery, black and white photographs of early twentieth-century women. Writers, poets, artists and activists who remain marginalised figures in history. The artist works like a medium, conjuring them back to life. She does this through the sensuality of paint, seducing us into feeling their presence anew. ‘I’m crushing. Hard.’ wrote the art critic Rosanna Mclaughlin in a review of Donachie’s work, wooed by the portraits’ bruised lips and melancholy looks. I can relate. I don’t know who the sitter is in the painting I peer at through my neighbour’s window, but I love visiting her at night. She glows from within the lit-up interior, her skin and hair a medley of purples, greys and blues, otherworldly colours that anchor her out of this world. She has the sad look characteristic of Donachie’s portraits. Her gaze is downcast and to the side, a bit shy. You can look at her for as long as you want, she won’t challenge your stare. Or at least you could if you saw this portrait in a museum or a gallery, or if you were its lucky owner. I don’t exactly feel comfortable standing outside someone’s window, admiring a painting hanging on their wall, especially when they’re enjoying a pasta dinner beneath it. So I slow my step before the magnolia tree, I pass her by, and that’s that.
This is the only painting I can see in person with museums and galleries currently closed.. At a time when the material strangeness and pleasure of our immediate surroundings are heightened by sustained intimacy, our encounters with visual art, that inherently material thing, now mostly take place digitally. Sprawled on my sofa, my neck forming a double chin, I can inspect all 936 of the Prado’s Goyas and zoom in on Monet’s water lilies until the aqueous landscape becomes a tight weave of canvas fibres. It’s a closeness that no security guard would allow in the physical context of a museum and I’ll admit that there’s a value to this. But paintings are defanged when squeezed into the small space of the screen: they lose their ability to catch you and devour you. When I walk through a museum in real life, an artwork might pull me by the texture of its surface, the way the light hits its features, or the whispering couple standing next to it. On my computer, the webpage containing the image of Monet’s landscape is bookmarked between tabs holding my email account and BBC news. Staring at those pixels on my screen I feel deadened, inattentive, and dazed.
I long for museum visits again, but it’s just one longing among many: I can’t wait to see my partner, my family and my friends again, to touch their hands and feel their skin. It’s overwhelming, panic-enducing even, to think of the flurry of contact that will happen after this long period of social deprivation.
Before the outbreak, I read a profile of the novelist Jenny Offill, and something she said stuck with me, and now seems newly relevant. It relates to scurvy, the maritime killer that took the lives of some two million people between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Offill sees parallels between the disease and the longing we feel on our warming planet, for a world disappearing before our eyes. Sailors suffered from jumbled perceptions and pin-sharp emotions as the lack of Vitamin C disinhibited their sensory receptors of smell, touch, taste and hearing. They simply felt too much. The perfume of blooming flowers made them cry out in agony. ‘They felt like they would die from the bite of a piece of fruit,’ Offill said. ‘The voluptuous luxury of it was so overwhelming.’
Edmée Lepercq is an arts writer based in London.