In this month’s column, Suffolk-based artist, educator and presenter Grace Adam takes flight to appreciates three pieces of art about stairs
I recently made an installation called Stride at Bayfield Hall, Norfolk, so I’ve been thinking a lot about locomotion, movement and walking in art. Here are three pieces of art about stairs, yes stairs; places for memories, encounters, stumbles, secrets, hierarchies and superstitions.
The Doll’s House, William Rothenstein (1900)
Started in Normandy in 1899 and finished in Kensington in January 1900, this dark scene is taken from Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, which focuses on gender, power and patriarchy. It’s a painting of intrigue and tension. Rothenstein’s wife Alice Knewstub (the actress Alice Kingsley) and artist Augustus John posed for the picture. The two protagonists hide away in a shadowy corner. She sits, he stands.
He looks at us, she doesn’t. The geometry of his ink black arm and leg mirrored by the banister and spindles is such a clever way to draw us into this claustrophobic awkward space. These are not the grand stairs meant for show in a middle-class house.
Born in Bradford, as a young man Rothenstein studied in Paris where he hung out with Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec and Sickert. An exhibition he staged there impressed Pisarro and Degas, and later in his career he was appointed Official War Artist in both world wars.
To Rothenstein’s biographer Robert Speaight, the painting ‘suggests an anecdote and conceals a mystery…It was a strange picture to have come out of a honeymoon summer…this man and this woman, though they are so nearly touching, are each alone in the prison of their own thoughts.’
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. II Marcel Duchamp (1912)
It’s difficult for us to imagine what seeing this painting in1912 must have felt like, made just twelve years after The Doll’s House. Impressionism and now Cubism and Futurism challenged gallery goers to see the world anew, but this was really something else.
One human – an almost unrecognisable female nude seen multiple times in the same painting cascades down the stairs. Shoulders, hands and pelvis roll forward with modernist momentum from top left to bottom right. This was the new age of time-lapse photography, the movies and speed. Duchamp reimagines the figure, disassembling it into its constituent mechanical parts. We see her frame simultaneously from multiple angles. It seems to almost shudder.
Duchamp said that “a painting that doesn’t shock isn’t worth painting” and this shocked. This radical work was rejected and mocked. The New York Times critic wrote that the work resembled ‘an explosion in a shingle factory’, and Roosevelt compared it unfavourably to his Navajo-designed bathroom rug. Duchamp made something novel and daring, that rolling tumbling motion was a new kind of human body.
Staircase III Do Ho Suh 2010
From tripping down the stairs to gazing up at them. Staircase III is about the transitional space connecting the artist Do Ho Suh’s New York apartment to his landlord’s. Constructed from steel and ‘ottoman red’ polyester it reveals the pipes, broken spindles and mis-matched light switches. A narrow overlooked unnoticed space becomes noticed, revealed as we stare up at it and into it.
The use of rice paper and fabric means his pieces can be folded up and transported, and reference hanbok, traditional Korean clothing.
The South Korean artist, who now lives in London explores personal memories of architectural spaces, He makes work about home and memory, simulating the places he’s lived. ‘The space I’m interested in is not only a physical one, but an intangible, metaphorical, and psychological one.’
Next time you skip or trudge up a staircase, think of all those memories, encounters and secrets.