The Book in Your Hands

by Guy Brett

It has been a challenge, almost an adventure, for Jeanne Masoero to render her paintings in print. To offer them to the spectator in the form of a book. To translate them from canvas and pigment into paper and ink, via the intermediaries who collaborate in the process: the photographer who produces the transparency, then the operator who scans it, then the printer. The essential result of this chain of artifice lies in the way the painting occupies its new container – the page – and the way the white of the paper interacts with the coloured marks.

At some point the reproduction of a painting may tip over into being an autonomous art work in its own right. The images in this beautiful book are still reproductions of existing paintings, yet in my view the printed versions are not inferior to the original paintings. The book is not an illustration of the pictures. Both cope in different ways, and offer a different solution to a problem which is basically insoluble since it is a paradox. How does an art work which is a model of endlessness deal with the finite limits of the canvas or the page?

Much is implied in the words ‘model’ and ‘endlessness’. In many ways they encompass the drama of the development of abstract art in the 20th century. On the one hand there is the vastly expanded notion of space and time given to us by the new astronomy, physics and biology. On the other a sense of the inadequacy of the existing conventions of representation, of representation itself, to encompass such a reality. The result was the search for a new kind of art object which would stand in a new relationship to the world in the midst of which it was situated, would mediate between the world and the receiver, the spectator, in a new way. A work that is abstract is not a representation but something like an emblem, map, model, token or template. Its concreteness, its suitability to the human eye or the reach of the hand, is the paradoxical vehicle of its appeal to a notion of nature so vast or so tiny that it is beyond human laws and lines of demarcation.

There is certainly a deep paradox embedded here because our concept both of the measurable and the measureless must pass through our consciousness, our subjectivity. There must always be the relationship between universe and mind, between the ‘out there’ and the ‘in here’. The painter Ad Reinhardt seemed to be alluding to this when, in certain of his writings, he described the nature of the Asian tradition of art as he understood it. “The Eastern perspective begins”, he wrote, “with an awareness of the ‘immeasurable vastness’ and ‘endlessness of things’ out there, as things get small as they get closer, the viewer ends up by losing (finding?) himself in his own mind.” 20th century interpretations by scholars of Chinese art, specifically of Sung Dynasty landscape painting, offer a strikingly similar interpretation. James Cahill, for example, describes the aims of the painter-poets, in their compositions of mountains, trees and water, being “to give lodging to one’s mind”. Another modern writer, Wen Fong, titled his study of Chinese literati painting, Images of the Mind.

In Jeanne Masoero’s own notes on her paintings, references to the theme of endlessness, and the nature of the finite object which must be invented to suggest it, occur frequently. They overlap and interpenetrate in certain subtle ways. Thus:

“The paintings are fragments of something bigger and reaching out towards something that does not yet exist. This ‘completeness’ is closed to a final and definitive form, it’s only possible to circle the centre and come closer to it with each step of the work, each new painting, or group of paintings”.

“Scale rather than measurable size has to do with feeling, and in these paintings the spaces to be traversed, symbolically, are huge…”

“An ambiguity as to what is near and what is far…”

“I like everything that gives me a sense of being drawn into a world which is entirely artificial and which contains everything, but which opens out into the much vaster world outside.”1

At the same time she speaks of “the need to make images that have concrete realness, as the best abstraction has – it’s both an object and an image – and not decorative abstraction […] By ‘object’ I mean a complex form existing in the round, inside its own space with a centre of gravity visible and the concreteness of a definite though unfamiliar object […] This is not a dream object, neither is it the object of psychoanalytical interpretations of art. The nearest real object I can think of is a crystal that’s turned round many times and viewed from different angles, and which appears to contain spaces that one can, symbolically, get into and forms that infold light.”2

One example of the ‘model of endlessness’ which can be found in the art of the 1960s are the Bolides of the Brazilian Hélio Oiticica and the Non-Site boxes and accumulations of the American Robert Smithson. These objects are all the more interesting for the connection they have with one another, despite the fact that the artists at the time probably did not know of one another’s existence. The box, or the container (the common form of both these bodies of work), was essentially a way of linking the specialised, delineated and set-aside world of the exhibition-space with the vaster reality of the world outside, the entire cosmos, by the device of separating out a portion of the material flux (earth, rocks, pigment, etc) so that it would take on the energy of a visual nucleus. ‘Bolide’ in Portuguese means a fireball, or meteor. “The bins or containers of my non-sites gather in the fragments that are experienced in the physical abyss of raw matter”. This was how Robert Smithson put it, a phrase which could also apply well to Oiticica’s objects. Both Oiticica’s and Smithson’s work leans towards the more conceptual, Duchampian stream in 20th century art, whereas Jeanne Masoero’s work is a continuation of painting. One of her main preoccupations, she has said herself, is “how to get light into paintings”.

Her efforts to ‘get light in’ can be followed across the range of different approaches she has taken since the early 1970s: from the permeable clouds of colour of the ‘stain’ paintings of 1971-72, to the cut and folded paper reliefs – usually monochrome white – of the mid-1970s (as Paul Overy remarked, the light is reflected from these works in quite a different way than from paint, allowing the eye “to sink in, as it were, to be absorbed into the work, [as] the use of paper pushes the tension onto the surface”).3 These were followed in the early 1980s by the first works using small flecks of colour. Among them are paintings horizontal (or horizon-like) in format with a great deal of white space and varying densities of the formations of small strokes suggesting a recession into a great depth or distance. By the middle of the 1980s colour was becoming important again. Keeping the technique of the application of flecks of saturated colour, Masoero embarked on an intense, almost enraptured exploration of the figure/ground relationship, the manner in which the painted marks meet the white of the canvas, leading to the invention of strange, personal, ambiguous structures. Her most recent works are delicate and highly complex fissurings of the white surface, exquisite hybrids of painting and drawing, of linear vector and density cluster, of macrocosmic and microcosmic scale.

In a catalogue essay of 1993, describing the paintings using predominantly red and green, Sarah Kent spoke of the coloured points as “particles of energy”. The paintings suggested, for Sarah Kent, “matter that has not yet come to rest or cohered into a stable form”.4 The way is left open for multiple associations: of landscape, of galactic gas clouds, or nerve ganglia, or thermal images of conurbations from the air, patterns of sound, a musical score rendered in a fantastic new form of notation – or simply a kind of automatism of the application-in-time of the countless painted dots and broken lines, a fusion generating its own form of visual energy.

Around 1971, after leaving the Slade School of Art, Masoero worked for a time in an Architecture and Town Planning Office, drawing maps. On the walls in the corridor of her house are some London maps she drew at that time, giving various forms of data. Maps are certainly one of the associations her recent paintings conjure up. Not so much the literal resemblance to a map as the activity of map-making as a layering process, as the overlapping of multiple levels of experience to form an approximation to the complexity of reality. A city map, for example, can become the basis for imposing any number of conceptual orders: ‘maps’ of very diverse data or desires can be laid over the grid or tangle of streets, as when, for instance, a chart of the movements of the characters in a novel can be overlaid on the map of the ‘real’ city.

Adopting a completely different tack, a further glimpse from Jeanne Masoero’s biography would lead us back again to her paintings in another sense: her prolonged exposure to, and learning to sing, Gregorian Chant when attending convent school in London as the child of Italian immigrant parents after the war. “At school we were taught Latin and Gregorian Chant and nothing much else, so one could daydream like anything all day long and one’s head wasn’t crammed with facts.”5 As so often, there was an unusual teacher involved, a Mother Mary Gregory who passed on her “deep love and understanding” of Gregorian Chant to this particular, highly receptive pupil who never forgot it. Either it is the music itself, or the words Masoero chooses to describe it, or both, that echo a crucial aspect of the paintings, Gregorian Chant’s “great circular rhythms and its rising and falling from the silences between the phrases”.

The ‘silences’ in the music are the white spaces in the paintings. In Masoero’s paintings of the last ten years, the way in which the edge of the painted field meets the white canvas is endlessly intricate: an extraordinary visual elaboration of the feeling of an edge which hesitates to define itself, a continual exploration of the interface of a coherent body or organism with the limitless space beyond it, of the known with the unknown, a meeting which takes place as much in the interior of the figure as outside it. Its indentations, its tiny spikes and inlets, are as complex as a coastline, or as a coastline may be imagined to be, more complex than can ever be mapped or measured. James Gleick, in his book Chaos, points out how approximate the measurement of a coastline must always be since to be ‘accurate’ one would have to measure the way round every rock, tuft and pebble. This is where the artistic ‘model’ both takes hold of, and wisely or elegantly lets go again, of the richness of reality.

Up to now, two tiny biographical facts have crept into this essay: the references to map-making and to Gregorian Chant. I hesitated to include even these, out of respect for work which is abstract, which has no overt autobiographical or anecdotal references, and out of fear of making simplistic parallels based on a very slender knowledge. Although I first saw and wrote about Jeanne Masoero’s work as long ago as the beginning of the 1970s, I saw her primarily as a leading abstract painter on the London scene, knowing little about her personal history. And it was only tentatively that Jeanne offered to lend me, in preparation for writing this essay, an autobiographical memoir she had written.

It turned out to be a fascinating document of Italo-British history and the minute particulars of an individual itinerary: her early childhood in a farming village in a valley in the Alpine foothills while her father worked in London hotels; the atrocious treatment and deportation of Soho Italians during the war by the British Government as enemy aliens; the fervent atmosphere in Mussolini’s schools; the increasing threat from the beleaguered Germans in North Italy and the family’s escape by train through Spain to Portugal; the perilous journey by flying-boat to Britain; learning English and growing up in Camden Town; the struggle to become an artist and eventually to enter the Slade school.

It was only in certain ways, however, that reading this memoir brought me back again to Jeanne Masoero’s paintings: the two experiences mentioned earlier, and also a childhood memory of a sensation of space, looking from the mountain tops down towards distant Turin and the beginning of the Lombardy plain. Besides this, there was Masoero’s own insistence that she paints “in order to transcend my fallen state”. “My painting doesn’t have to do with social and political issues, political in the narrow sense, but is concerned with the practice of art as a means of transcending the self, the tyranny of the ego, the false self. It has to communicate a reality which can’t be seen or described but which is sensed as something concrete and which is the only way work can communicate itself to others.”6

Looking at Jeanne Masoero’s painting of the last thirty years one has the impression of an increasing density. Schematic structures and single effects are gradually relinquished for a more personal and searching process, resulting in the layering of space in ways which take time to unfold in the perception of the viewer. In this sense they go against the trend towards instant impact and ‘one-liner’ attention spans imposed by the huge expansion of the ‘exhibition-going’ experience. In the ‘optimum’ lighting conditions of an art gallery, the intricate changes of light intensity and nuance of everyday experience are obliterated. Jeanne Masoero’s paintings may be more suitable to a domestic space, or more accurately to a time dimension of ‘living with’, rather than visiting, a work of art. Yet they have little to do with domesticity. They remain models of infinity.


1. Jeanne Masoero, Studio Notes 1999

2. Jeanne Masoero, Studio Notes 1995/97

3. Paul Overy, Basis for Light – Works in Paper 1976-1979, catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1979

4. Sarah Kent, Figures and Light, catalogue, Mall galleries, London, 1993

5. Jeanne Masoero, Extracts from a Conversation between the Artist and Jasia Reichardt, catalogue, Angela Flowers Gallery, 1985

6. Jeanne Masoero, Unpublished Autobiographical Notes 1997

© Copyright Jeanne Masoero