Life & Culture

The graphic art of confessing in public


A new show looks at what happens when we put our most intimate thoughts up for public consumption.

In a cultural climate fascinated by the private self, obsessed with celebrity exposés, and inundated with the daily revelations of countless bloggers, we are rarely provided with the opportunity to reflect on what happens when we put intimate information about ourselves into the public sphere.

This week, the Centre for Recent Drawing in London presents Diary Drawing, an exhibition curated by Sarah Lightman, which brings together visual journals and autobiographical graphic novels to examine how drawing can be used to document intimate and individual histories to a public audience.

Sarah Lightman's Dumped before Valentine's 2

Lightman acknowledges that an exhibition of diary drawing “is pretty contradictory. Diaries are private — an exhibition is an exposé. Often what is written in a diary could be that which one might think twice about saying or showing in public — which makes them both fascinating and somewhat dangerous.”

The exhibition has taken Lightman, a former Young Jewish Artist Award winner, two years to prepare, and it showcases a diverse international body of work.

Ariel Schrag’s daily comic diary was written while studying abroad in Berlin.

Lightman’s own drawings report scenes of her everyday life, including a view of her romantic disappointments.

Rebecca Swindell’s delicate cigarette-paper drawings have confessional titles like After The Dolls House Was Burnt.

In Lucky 1, Gabrielle Bell draws a night out and what happens. Lady Lucy uses a slide-film format to replay her diary drawings. Miriam Katin’s graphic novel tells the story of her childhood in Europe under the Nazis, and celebrated Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan presents a diary that originally appeared in the New York Times.

There are brilliantly drawn extracts from Mio Matsumoto’s diary of the five months she spends in treatment for cancer (which is being published this month by Jonathan Cape under the title My Diary).

The exhibition suggests that what we think of as our most private experiences are actually universal.

Lightman says: “Rutu might be Jewish, but I think what she is describing — family dynamics, tensions and reactions — could be about anyone. That is what is wonderful about diaries. They show us how similar we all are, even in the utmost privacy of our sketchbooks.

“Miriam Katin’s work is about the Holocaust, yet the scene she is exhibiting, about her parents reuniting after the war, is about how she, the child, felt. In a way it epitomises a real moment of diary writing, when you feel alone, things transforming into your own narrative.

“Her book is called We Are On Our Own. This applies to much of the work in the show, because it is when we are alone, our fears and demons appear and we need to draw them out, literally line by line.”

In contrast, Modan explores the impossibility of being alone — the way our stories are shaped by those around us, both in terms of our internal, family history, and those who would seek to mould us in their image.

David Blandy's Hermit Diary

The interplay between image and text in her work captures the dance between private and public selves, and our frustrating attempts to try to bridge them.

Lightman’s own work presents iconic images of communication breakdown in London. We see what the artist sees, sharing her own vision, enhanced by the emotionally charged text that accompanies it.

The pattern of repetition in her images suggests the extent to which we are trapped in our own subjectivity, and in patterns of behaviour, opening up questions as to how far we are in control of our own lives.

This personal process is reflected in the diverse relationships the featured artists have with their diaries. For David Blandy, a diary is a quest, full of surprises.

“I always find that the act of writing helped to clarify situations in my head,” he says, “often leading to a conclusion that I don’t think I would have come to otherwise.”

The sense of art as a journey is also reflected in Oliver East’s approach: “The act of going on a series of walks, where the choice of route is taken out of your hands, sometimes for eight hours at a time, will produce moments of honesty or clarity from the artist. I try to be as conscious as I can of what I’m thinking along the route, and it all goes into the books.

“I’ve got to get you as excited about the small things I notice here and there, as I am.”

Diary Drawing is at the The Centre for Recent Drawing, 2-4 Highbury Station Road, London N1 until May 23 (020 3239 6836)

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