And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.
Richard Wilbur _ R.Frost 100th B’day
I was stunned by the defined style of Elizabeth Passerieux’s work seen last year at the Simon Family JCC Art Gallery. The work, for such a young artist was so defined, detailed, humorous and prolific. The stylization of the figures is reminiscent of famous French Caricaturist Honore Daumier and the great Spanish artist Fransciso Goya. Her drawings are often imaginary portraits of decaying old men decorated in 18th century pancake makeup and powered wigs. One can imagine the horrible things these characters have done in the name of selfishness power, aristocracy and the stories speak from every wrinkle and line describing their faces.
Elizabeth was born in Montpellier, France in 1995, later moving to Spain before settling into Virginia in 2007. She was influenced from travel and living in Europe and the broody Romantic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries that often featured intricate and haunting etchings. She works primarily in graphite, charcoals, and ink. Themes of loss, pride, vanity, and love populate her work. The style ranges from detailed, crosshatched scenes of Gothic romance and melancholy to loose charcoal portraits of imagined fops and dandies.
AltDaily: How do you begin and end your drawings?
Elizabeth Passerieux: The arch of the eyebrows! I’d like to say I begin with huge concrete ideas or tons of preparative sketching, but I don’t think there’s a single drawing I’ve done in the past two years that hasn’t started with two curved lines that dip down into a nose and gone from there. I’ve always felt my best work comes out of letting the pencil go where it needs to, the looser the structure, the more dynamic.
Sometimes they never end! I’ll come back after a few months and add a few lines of shading here or there, deepen shadows – I seldom know when to stop.
How would you define your artwork?
I think the most important aspect of my work is that it is influenced by Romantic notions of the 18th and 19th centuries, not just in subject matter, but in the soft curves of lines, the busy details and delicate figures. When I say Romantic I emphasize the movement’s obsession with emotion over rationality, with tragic beauty in the midst of death. That’s why so much of my art involves lost love, mourning, spiritualism, folklore, etc.
Most of what I do is storytelling, even if I’m just depicting little character vignettes. I like to draw broken people, I guess. Sometimes they’re melancholy romantics and other times they’re vain, crumbling fops.
Who are these characters?
Most are people you’d never want to meet! As a child, books and films that depicted these over-the-top aristocrats from the 18th century fascinated me, but they were always a bit eerie to me too. I like the idea of covering yourself up in a mound of silk, lace, powder, and makeup (fatally lead-based paint, at that!) to hide ugliness. Not just disease or skin disorders, but moral corruption too. So many of these fops and royals I draw have lived very dark lives in my mind. The softer characters, the ones I love and identify with, are those experiencing loss or depression, finding solace in the spiritual world and in ritual. Many of them are ghosts themselves. These are usually framed in a Victorian setting.
We talked about stories from your childhood, particularly ghost stories. Can you recall some from your childhood in Spain?
Spain is an incredibly beautiful place, full of esoteric wonder for me. It is so old and it shows in every street you walk through. The Spanish side of my family has always been into this kind of stuff so everything felt supernatural living there!
I spent much of my childhood in the coastal town of Rota. My grandparent’s own home was reportedly haunted throughout the 1970s and 80s by a woman who’d been killed in the neighboring pine woods. My mother says she saw her over her bed, curiously looking down at her sleeping friend. Even my grandfather remembers hearing heels click up the stairs in the middle of the night, and he doesn’t believe in these things!
A lot of people think the Hotel Playa de la Luz is haunted – only the old locals know about its history as a site used by the fascists under Franco to execute communists in mass during the civil war. There’s something about knowing the tragedy and darkness behind a now beautiful space that feels overwhelming when you’re there.
There’s also an entire neighborhood nearby where those fascists dumped the bodies, which are still there, so everyone gets the morbs when they walk through it.
There are honestly so many stories just from that town, I could write a book with them!
What is your interest in the 18th and 19th century time periods?
Everything! The fashion, the architecture, the literature and politics. I think it’s important to mention I don’t have any rosy fantasies about it and I feel that it shows in my work. It was a terrible time for everyone, especially minorities and women, of course. There was so much darkness, disease, ignorance, unexplainable death. I’m interested in how a society living in these conditions grappled with such a low life expectancy and extreme social restrictions. I understand how religion and superstition can become so entrenched in daily life, when there’s only so much for people to look forward to in their own present. There’s a dichotomy here because we get the Enlightenment and incredible progress in social and scientific fields, but still don’t understand so much of the world. We made medical strides in the 19th century and yet it also birthed the Spiritualist movement of occult séances, mediums, and spirit photography!
How does modern society deal with death in life and art compared to the Victorian Era?
It is pretty well known that the Victorians made an art out of mourning.
I feel like on the one hand an increasing number of people now see death in scientific and objective terms, but it seems that in Western culture especially, we’ve distanced ourselves so much from the realities of it that it feels impossible and crushing when it does happen close to us. We see it everywhere – on the news and in movies and shows, in more graphic detail than ever before, and yet it is somehow made unreal and distant by this media exposure. Death for Victorians was a constant companion; even though survival rates were improving by the mid 19th century for middle and upper classes, the average life expectancy was still 41 years. Infant death rates were very high, and frightening diseases were a constant reminder of our fragility.
They had something called “Memento Mori” which in Latin means “Remember you shall die,” so these were tokens meant to remind us of our own mortality. This is by no means a uniquely Victorian concept, but at this time it took the form of death photography of loved ones, and mourning jewelry made from the beautifully weaved and braided hair of the departed. Morbid stuff for most of us now, we just don’t like to reflect on how transient our own lives are.
That isn’t to say that we should be obsessed with death, but I think it’s logical that our quality of life can be improved by greater awareness of this reality, and treating it like the beautiful and short experience it is.
How did the Victorians deal with death and decay differently than modern society?
I just don’t think they were as frightened of their dead. They seemed pretty comfortable posing next to the bodies for pictures, even if decomposition had started to set in. Many homes took care of their own dead, washing and clothing them, and practiced wakes; staying with the body at home for three or four days.
There are families here, unfortunately, who don’t realize it’s their right to keep a family member home when they die and care for it themselves, with corporate funeral homes whisking the bodies away immediately. I think it’s important for a lot of people to have that closeness as part of the grieving process. Dealing with the body so personally isn’t for everyone, but a lot of people are missing out on an experience that could help give them peace and closure because they’re not made aware of all the options available to them.
Most of our funerary customs today do come from the Victorians, though. Embalming as we know it really took hold in the mid 19th century, for example. Funeral processions and how they’re organized are almost the same. In many ways we’re very similar.
What is whispering to the beehive about ?
So this is a neat little custom I read about a few years ago. It seems to have been around for a while and seems to have fizzled out for good around the mid 20th century. The thing is bees have been really important for a long time, and families who kept beehives felt that bees had a special knowledge of things, or were portents of future happenings. So naturally many believed that bees should absolutely be told about every important event of the household; marriages, births, and, of course, deaths.
Some say if bees weren’t properly “put in mourning” by a relative that they might become sick or leave altogether. So the wife or the husband might go out and whisper to them “Lucy has died” and “stay with us,” and drape them with a black crepe fabric. Some would sing to them, knock on the hive first, or turn the beehive towards the funeral procession.
There’s a story of a keeper’s bees actually showing up at his funeral and sitting in the vault’s ceiling completely still because they hadn’t been told beforehand!
Your images and characters are dark but I detect a thread of humor. What purpose does it serve in your work?
I just feel that humor is such an important aspect of life, especially when dealing with dark subjects. Maybe that’s why I like to make my pieces a little cheeky. I’m also often inspired by Edward Gorey and his brand of humor. It’s a fun contrast, ugly imagery and silliness. I also like to think my darker characters are very mischievous, so they don’t always look serious and I wouldn’t want them to.
What experiences of life in Spain shaped your way of thinking about life and your art?
I think growing up so wrapped up in ghost stories and old surroundings has deeply influenced the way I see the world. I like to look towards the past a lot and imagine all the stories that might’ve been part of a landscape or a building. I’m more of a skeptic nowadays, but I can’t stop my passion for the idea of immortality and love after death, the romantic aspects of hauntings, and the dark beauty of old religious folklore and artwork. That’s something you can’t escape in Spain – the gorgeous and dark cathedrals remind you of a time when that was what people lived for, and that lead to a lot of beauty and a lot of horror. All these things are main sources of inspiration for me; superstition, folklore, ghost stories, and ritual.
What direction are you heading in with your work?
Right now I feel like doing more complex storytelling, I want to give my characters more of a context. I’d also like to explore more deeply my own anxieties and fears. I think it’s time for that to come through and for my art to become a more honest expression of myself, not just my interests. I think I’ll find a catharsis in that, like I don’t want to hold back anymore and just say what I want to say without worrying about it being too ugly or silly.
As for my aristocrats, I want to draw more frills, so many more frills.
For more of this artist, here is her website.