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In a Zoom phone call, Helen Flockhart speaks to me about the Beasts. As she does, for her upcoming exhibition of the same name, I am enjoying a series of high-resolution photographs of 27 works on my laptop. In 2020, particularly during 14 days of self-isolation, that’s how we art writers feel.
The oil paintings are all intended for Edinburgh’s Arusha Museum, where Flockhart had a rather good exhibition on the life and times of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 2018. Since the beginning of the year, most of the new works have been painted; a time during which Flockhart, a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, regularly worked with her normal concentration.
“As an artist, 2020 was not insurmountable,” she says. “It was good to have the focus of this exhibition. I tend to work on small paintings at home, and I was able to work through Lockdown,” she says. “The only problem was getting new art materials. When things eased up, I’d go to my studio in downtown Glasgow and work on larger canvases.”
Helen Flockhart’s development of a painting is a slow-moving affair. She typically works on two paintings at a time and says it takes about a month on average for a small painting, while it can take up to five months for a larger painting to complete.
Asterion, one of the biggest sculptures, is just under six feet wide and a little more than three feet high. The canvas, which is dense with deep green foliage and hanging fruit, is surrounded by two figures. A red-haired woman in a flowing robe emerges from the undergrowth on the left side of the painting. A tiny nude human figure with the head of a bull plays with a ball of twine in the lower right corner. He is her son, Asterion, known as the Minotaur, a beast with a bull’s head, born to Queen Pasiphae of Crete after having accidentally mated with a bull. It’s happening. Anyhow, in Greek mythology.
In the Beasts, caught in a spinning blood-red labyrinth from which there is no escape, our hero, the Minotaur, plays a significant role.
A painting by Helen Flockhart is not a mistake. Microscopic, but never clinical, is her attention to detail. In spartan interiors or in nocturnal environments with thick vegetation, figures are nestled. The characters, whether human, animal, or even half-man, half-beast, have very little contact. The pictures are carefully drawn. They raise more questions than they ever respond to. Like the swaths of designs, many of which come from nature, their rich colors are seductive.
Many – but not all – of her new paintings are drawn from Greek mythology, which has been a rich source of inspiration for artists for centuries. For this new body of work, she was drawn to women who have been used in painful ways. Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempted by an omnipresent serpent, and St. Enoch, the mother of Glasgow’s patron saint, St. Mungo, are both represented.
Flockhart said that after reading Gerda Stevenson’s poem Teneu, she discovered that St. Enoch – described as “Scotland’s first recorded rape victim” – was sexually assaulted by a Welsh prince, Owain. After the rape, St. Enoch (or Teneu, as she is also known) tells the would-be suitor who confused her by disguising himself as a woman, “Do not weep, my sister, for I have not known you as a man is wont to know a virgin. Am I not a woman like yourself?” St. Mungo, known as the patron saint of Glasgow, was the result of this union.
The painting “Weep Not My Sister” could be considered a #MeToo moment in painting. A full moon floats in a jet-black sky in the background, while a flame-haired teneu leans against a lone rock in a bright green field, staring blankly at the viewer. Her dress has ridden up to reveal a white lace petticoat. Owain’s figure is partially obscured, but a woman’s dress is visible – as is a man’s clearly bare leg. In the background of the field, a chorus of beasts with humanoid faces looks on.
With titles like Labyrinth, Daedalus and Icarus, Pallas Athena, and Bacchant, Flockhart returns to Greek mythology again and again. Influences range from Renaissance greats such as Botticelli and Lucas Cranach the Elder to the 19th-century French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.
“In the case of Queen Pasiphae’s desire for an ei