On body movement
by Dominique Barbéris
Bernadette Kelly demonstrates a certain finesse that Baudelaire called ‘l’art d’évoquer les minutes heureuses’: a flair for capturing moments of contentment. Her long, narrow studio is a timeless oasis of calm; its shelves are lined with books; its chaotic disposition of chairs and tables inspires reflection; the room contains the remains of time. These features are brought to life in the artist’s works. In her most recent depictions, Kelly gives prominence to deep blue hues reminiscent of Poussin, and to ochres, greys, and purplish reds. Her creations recall Maurice Denis: we find the same body movements, similar shades of grey and pink, and a shared apathy towards all that is finite.
A lamp in a corner casts light upon teapots and cups; the same lamp illuminates a figure in one of Kelly’s latest works: a man reading, sprawled upon a chaise longue, his legs stretched out. He appears unfolded, such is the feeling of relaxation we sense. In the artist’s studio, we come across a small blue table: bottles stand on it in a nod to Morandi’s still-life oeuvres. Another portrayal focuses on a younger man; in one of its corners we observe the same bottle-laden table. The man is dreaming, his reverie fixed on past lovers whose bodies recline on the left. Many of Kelly’s works are rectangular, more wide than tall. They read like frescoes telling stories. The smallest are preparatory pieces or sketches: these capture youthful figures; women painted tirelessly, their guilelessly sensual forms bathing, sleeping, dreaming or twisted into intriguing positions. For example, we find a woman drowsing, her pale thighs draped in a black-lace nightdress. The artist’s larger depictions blend bodies and space: for instance, an extensive, smoke-filled café taken up by the broad, round, white face of a Chinese waitress carrying a tray.
Kelly’s smile is dreamy, her lips robust, and her well-preserved youthfulness mystifying. The latter seamlessly links the former student at L’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs with the woman who stands before us today: she is attentively reserved, curious, and exhibits a certain frontality. This continuity, atmospheric or subject-related, is discernible in the artist’s oeuvre. In one of her older pieces, we observe figures on La Baule beach, bent over, looking for cockles. The work is filled with geometric lines, dark shades, browns, and greens. In the foreground, two children lie down. They appear exhausted. The bright white triangle of a pair of underpants dazzles on their horizontal lines.
In a later oeuvre, a polyptych, the sea is depicted again: here it forms the backdrop to carefree scenes from a trip to northern Brazil. However, the sea’s colour is different this time. The style has changed too: we find more faded tones and ochres; the atmosphere is airy and windy; there is that disjointed feel of an unfinished jigsaw. Children play with a ball while others sleep; tall teenagers with round, childlike bellies and loose hair hold an inaudible gathering; bodies float in the large, turquoise swimming pool whose fragments underlie the artwork.
The same pieces of turquoise water hide on the right-hand side of another oeuvre, to the rear, in a secret, paradisiac nook where a tree-lined swimming pool can be reached via a few steps. Where are we? There is a nod back to Kelly’s studio: the small, blue, bottle-laden table stands in the foreground. We are at a spa near Padua. It could be a Roman villa: tall columns dot the scene. We find ourselves among hanging violet and purple drapery where figures are arranged in a frieze. There are men dressed in red and blue gowns; they are as slender as El Greco’s saints. Unclad young ladies recall the Graces or the slim women that adorn the Villa of the Mysteries: their blonde hair, pulled up into chignons evoking Chassériau, is the same as that of Kelly’s latest muse, a young girl who was initially reticent about posing nude. In the artist’s most recent works, her figure suggests a dancer’s nape and back. We see her looking downwards slightly, enough for her blue coat lapels to reveal a bare breast (‘le temps d’un sein nu’, as Valéry wrote) and a strip of pearlescent flesh rendered with broad brushstrokes.
Baudelaire comes to mind again: he spoke of ‘nude eras’ (‘époques nues’) in allusion not just to antiquity but to that yearning for harmony between bodies, space and light. Kelly’s artwork reclaims this balance. Her characters move as the walkers, runners, athletes, and acrobats of engraving.
Although she paints the tall, ochre, red-roofed houses of Corsican villages, Kelly prefers open buildings to closed constructions. She has a penchant for an eternal, or timeless, architectural style where openness prevails; where air swirls around colonnades towering over figures who curl up, lie down or form orderly arrangements; where bodies breathe freely.
This predilection can be observed in one of Kelly’s latest oeuvres where she depicts the forest of high columns in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Blue shades are found in clothes, the sky’s far reaches, and the greyish marble of the pillars and floors. Rusty hues, shadows, and light clothing suggest a summer’s evening. A young red-headed girl daydreams in the foreground, her chin resting on her knees. Behind her, a woman with straight, ebony hair passes by solemnly and stiffly. A slit in her midnight-blue dress reveals a white, fleshy calf recalling the decorative characters of Minoan temples. More distantly, an indistinct figure in ankle boots wears a shorter, pale blue dress; the faces are featureless; children run around, hiding, shrinking the further away they go. The work’s sweeping depth of field covers countless stealthy passers-by. A teenager sports a grey tee-shirt and a matching pair of trousers. He crosses his legs. We cannot grasp this gesture’s tenor yet we know it must mean something. This sensual, subtle artwork appears half-remembered, as if it is keeping a secret. The oeuvre is a dance whose music has been forgotten; it invites us to rewrite a melody to accompany the ceaseless movement of bodies.