At this moment in time, Eileen often finds herself painting younger women, whom she calls “alternative selves”. The first work she made during the March lockdown was a melancholy double portrait of her printmaking assistant Julia and her sister Teres, who were isolating together in their tiny London flat away from their family in Italy. The girls are hunched over a table, spring blossom creeping into the frame, taunting them. “I was thinking, how are they coping?”
She now has a daughter-in-law and a grandchild, a factor which has also prompted her to revisit the theme of motherhood – and dig out an old poster of a Masaccio virgin and child. Early Renaissance art has always been an influence, alongside Japanese prints, Native American art, African art, early modernists (Picasso, among others), and women artists such as Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel. “When I think I’m working in the dark, imaginatively, of course there are all these things that I’ve absorbed.”
Eileen, like many women artists and authors, is often asked if her work is autobiographical, a question to which she has a stock answer: “It’s personal but it’s also universal.” She never wants it to be anecdotal or self-indulgently about her; instead, she wants it to be poetic, allegorical, symbolic. And it is. Capturing moments of transition, whether physical or emotional, her art is about rhythm, movement, balance – an unconscious nod, perhaps, to the balancing act that is being a woman and a wife and a mother and an artist.
Interview by Chloë Ashby.
Images by Justin Piperger and Malcolm Southward.
For more information and to see current works on show at the RA, see Eileen Cooper's website.