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The Story Behind 'Anne Desmet: Kaleidoscope'
Anne Desmet RA
[ Artist in Focus, Stories )
We caught up with Anne Desmet RA and asked her to explore the inspiration behind her current exhibition Kaleidoscope.
Last year I created 5 experimental collages that were inspired by an unlikely object – a kaleidoscope toy that I bought at London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum. When you look through it, its faceted lens breaks up any view into fantastic triangulated repeat-patterns. These images sparked the idea of cutting up and reassembling proofs of my representational linocuts into equilateral triangles and reconfiguring them into semi-abstract compositions – pure explorations of shape and pattern.
The kaleidoscope made me think afresh about architecture and ideas of time and change, all of which are ongoing themes in my work. From purely abstract kaleidoscopic patterns – made from Deserted Pool VBM, a linocut (2007) of the interior of Manchester’s semi-derelict Victoria Baths swimming pool, these collages evolved to evoke hot-air balloons, Towers of Babel, imaginary worlds and modules for sustainable living.
Kaleidoscope (from which the exhibition gets its title) and Serendipity and Snowflakes are the most abstract results. The other three developed various figurative aspects. Between Order and Chaos is about finding equilibrium but also about aspiration and hubris – much like my recurrent Babel Tower images. Crystal Dome marks the start of thoughts about geodesic domes, whereas Flight of Fancy began to look like a vast stained-glass window – an effect I enhanced by collaging details of another print, Living History (2019), into it. In this collage’s lower half is some prototype hot-air balloon imagery.
When I was approached by Pallant House and invited to put on an exhibition of new work, I was at the start of treatment following a diagnosis of breast cancer (now, happily, that’s behind me and I’m completely well). In that context, I found the time spent creating a new collection of collaged prints very liberating because they involved spontaneity and intuition, rather than the rigorous planning and sustained concentration of my wood engravings.
I made five new large collages all involving equilateral triangles cut from another selected linocut of a panoramic Sicilian landscape, Teatro Romano (2002). A hexagon of tonally diverse linocut triangles, for instance, evoked the 3D canopy of a hot-air balloon and the rest of the composition of Early Flight (2022) developed naturally from that idea. Its thoughts of freedom, taking flight, escape, travel, new perspectives, with a focus on keeping calm/hopeful/optimistic were all uplifting in the midst of my cancer treatment.
Out of this World (2022) grew from another large hexagon formed from a different selection of triangles from proofs (in a different tonal range) from the same “Teatro Romano” linocut. Its green “moon” is a piece of marbling I made at school. It’s been in my collage drawer for decades waiting for its moment! The small “meteorite” is collaged from the stand of trees in the middle of my engraving, Bath Circus II (1997). For me, it recalls the encroaching baobab tree in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince (1943). Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera floating in space might represent our Earth with hints of Terry Pratchett’s “Unseen University” (from his Discworld novels) and the general absurdity of life! The climate crisis was also in my mind.
Sustainable Living (2022) also relates to climate change. It uses different triangles from the same Teatro Romano linocut – pieces that suggested organic forms.
I am interested in US architect, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) and his geodesic domes. By extension, Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall (opened in 2000/2001) and the fictitious geodesic domes full of plant-life in the environment-themed post-apocalyptic science fiction film “Silent Running” (1972) also informed the geometric structures in this collage.
The geometric flower-forms suggested futuristic, sustainable, modular structures – perhaps glasshouses for plants co-habiting with humans. They are surrounded by an arid desert-like semi-abandoned cityscape with remnants of older buildings from the historic English cities of Bath and Oxford. It’s an idea of the Earth maybe a century from now – an imaginable future unless we address climate change now.
Build Your Own Babel Tower (2022) arose from putting together paper triangles cut from the same lino print but only selecting its most architectural elements – columns and archways. When I assembled them into small hexagons, the way in which the architectural forms did or didn’t interlink and the relationships that developed between the diverse parts intrigued me. They seemed to hint at Escher’s impossible staircases and also at origami – not least because a friend had just sent me an origami stork in a Get-Well card. That led me back to thoughts of the Tower of Babel (a recurrent theme in my work) and the idea of building one from folded paper. It had to be an impossible structure because the Babel Tower is a metaphor about hubris, ambition and communication, but it’s also about failure and about trying all over again.
Suggestions of Sunlight (2022) is a more mathematical, compositionally simpler construction. It’s a purely abstract reworking of the same Teatro Romano linocut, converting all the linocut’s figurative order into tile-like decorative patterns. Ultimately, when assembled in a tonal arrangement that moves from light to dark, it seemed to suggest a shaft of sunlight on an elaborately tiled wall. It reminded me of somewhere like Spain’s Alhambra Palace (though I’ve never been there) – and also put me in mind of music: Myles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. I’m interested in the collage-constructions of US artist Joseph Cornell (1903-72). He too made evocative works that alluded to places he’d never been.
Nostalgia Disrupted (2022) is inspired by the idealised design of Roman ruins on a smashed Spode plate. The plate seemed to evoke genteel dinner parties and the Grand Tour – suggesting a “perfect” past time that never existed. I aimed to disrupt those allusions by adding in assorted digger trucks at work. They warn that nothing is permanent, whether that be our institutions of learning or seemingly eternal buildings (symbolised by Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera) or the world’s plant and animal life. Complacency is dangerous; the downfall of Ancient Rome demonstrates that.
The recent and older prints involved in making all these collages are also included in the show at Pallant House, as well as some of my wood engraving blocks and tools. Without making new engravings, I’d have no new material for collage – each of my chosen ways of working actively feeds the other.
Finally, Fragile Earth (2022) was inspired by the purple streaks in the inner surfaces of the 40 razor shells on which the image is collaged. They suggested dawn or dusk skies and their extreme fragility seemed an apt metaphor for the subject. The collage involves glimpses of Italian cities – Rome, Lucca, Venice and Bergamo – aspects of our cultural heritage in Western Europe. It also includes images of London’s iconic St Paul’s Cathedral as well as the Manhattan skyline. The composition is intended to suggest that we are all interdependent and that climate change impacts us all. There is intended irony in the title since it’s our cities and civilisations that are fragile. The Earth will probably continue very well without us.
By a process of thinking through making, these new works seem to me to have chosen their own themes and directions – yet all the streams of conscious or subconscious thought that went into them stemmed from the simple act of looking at the world through a child’s toy.
Anne Desmet: Kaleidoscope ran from 22 October 2022 to 5 February 2023. Find out more on the past exhibition page here.