Reminded of Mary Pratt by Lee Kvern I decided to salivate on this article about her art:
The 'erotic' jellies of Mary Pratt
Published on: April 4, 2015 | Last Updated: April 4, 2015 8:37 AM EDT
Detail from Red Currant Jelly (1972, oil on Masonite, 45.9 ¾ó 45.6 cm) by Mary Pratt. MARY PRATT / NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA
When Mary Pratt, then a young artist and mother, finished her painting Red Currant Jelly in 1972, she recalls that “people who knew painting” told her that its design wouldn’t do, and, for example, that a section of yellow on the left of the painting was all wrong. Her reaction, she says this week in a telephone interview from her home in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was, “Well, I like it this way, so I’m just going to keep it like this. Nobody will care anyway, because probably nobody will ever see it, so I’ll go ahead and do what I like.”
Pratt, now aged 80, was so wrong to expect that nobody would see the painting. Red Currant Jelly ended up in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada and is a bona fide treasure of Canadian art. Pratt went on to have art in many major collections. She was recently feted in a major retrospective at the McMichael Gallery of Canadian Art. Her many awards include nine honourary doctorates. And now, Red Currant Jelly is the first painting by a living artist to be featured in the National Gallery’s series Masterpiece in Focus.
“This Little Painting,” as it is referred to by Pratt and in the exhibition title, is 45 by 45 centimetres (18 inches or so), but it was made just as she began to use photography as a reference for her painting. That moment was the big bang in her development as a painter.
Pratt was working in her kitchen in rural Newfoundland when she noticed the sunlight shining through the jelly on the windowsill. It was afternoon and the window was facing east, she remembers, and the soft light reflected on the metal foil beneath the jelly. She loves jellies — she, like her mother before her, made them, and the jellies “were as beautiful as those stained glass windows” she’d seen in church as a child. “There couldn’t be anything more beautiful than the setting sun coming through these amazing jellies.”
She took a photograph, and discovered that “photography is a great teacher.” Though she downplays her photographic skills — “I don’t know what an F-stop is” — she recognized how “photography stills everything, so you can look at things, and see how they work.” She describes how a photograph showed her how on the oval lip of a jelly jar, “every quarter inch, the colour changes. The colour is transient and beautiful, and just breath-taking.”
Her enthusiastic recollections show that eight decades have not diminished her passion for making art. “I absolutely love to paint,” she says.
In a video produced for the exhibition, Pratt tells the gallery’s Jonathan Shaughnessy — who co-curated the exhibition with Mireille Eagan of The Rooms in St. John’s — about the “erotic charge” she experienced in those early, landmark moments. Later, I ask Pratt to explain the erotic charge.
“I don’t know how to explain it. In those days — not now, because I was 80 the other day, and when you get to be 80 erotic charges are few and far between — but it happened with the painting of the bed,” she says, referring to her 1968 painting The Bed, her earliest work in the exhibition. “When I opened the door and saw that bed, it was as if somebody had punched me in the gut. It was as erotic as I could imagine anything to be. I was stunned. I thought, this is what it’s all about. This is how I’ll know what I have to paint.”
The Bed (91 by 91 centimetres, oil on canvas, 1968) by Mary Pratt, at the National Gallery of Canada.
The jelly painting is also significant as the moment when red fully explodes into Pratt’s oeuvre. It was there before — you can see it in the bed spread from several years earlier — but in Red Currant Jelly red emerges as the abiding theme that runs through her work to this day, seen in later jellies, or in the blood and guts of her eviscerated chickens or disembowelled fish.
She grew up in a house of full of reds, she says, and she recalls going to a movie as child and seeing the actress Susan Hayward dance while wearing a red dress. Pratt developed “a belief in red,” she says. “It isn’t just a colour, it’s an emotion.”
When she painted Red Currant Jelly she was in her early 30s and had several young children of her own, with her husband Christopher, who by then was already a well-known artist. (They later divorced. One of their children, John, is a lawyer and environment consultant with the federal government in Ottawa.) Amid all the mothering and housekeeping, she would find time for paintings, including Red Currant Jelly.
“It was something that you just did. It was like making bread or making a cake or doing anything else around the kitchen. It was what you did,” she says. Though she was happy with the painting, “I never thought of it as being particularly wonderful.”
I ask how she felt when her little painting was purchased by the National Gallery.
“Of course I was pleased. But there were so many things going on in my life at the time. Painting wasn’t the only thing. It was part of my life, but at that point, so were the children and so were there lessons and so was cooking and so was housekeeping, and so was everything. So, it wasn’t as if it was something I aimed for, it just happened, and it was nice.”
Pratt’s work is a celebration of the everyday object — the Mason jar, the cluttered supper table, the kitchen sink. I’ve never before seen an exhibition of art and been transfixed by kitchen wraps. Look closely at the plastic wrap beneath the trout in a painting from the mid-1970s, or — my personal favourite — the wrap in the 1974 painting Cold Fillets on Tin Foil. Look closely at the foil wrap and marvel at how it is made of a thousand shards of colour that are pure abstraction that, once you step back again, become something that is recognizable, and remarkable.
The cod fillets painting is owned by private collectors, who have generously loaned it for the exhibition. I implore them to donate it to the gallery, so it can be seen and savoured in perpetuity. Red Currant Jelly may be the painting that defines Mary Pratt’s work, but it is not her only masterpiece.
Mary Pratt — Masterpiece in Focus
When & where: To Jan. 4, 2016 at the National Gallery of Canada
Cod Fillets on Tin Foil (1974, oil on Masonite, 53.3 × 68 cm) by Mary Pratt, at the National Gallery of Canada. (Collection of Angus and Jean Bruneau)