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Cairns, Mitch - 2017.16

Mitch Cairns

Agatha Gothe-Snape 2017
oil on linen
140.5 x 125 x 5 cm
Purchased 2017

Mitch Cairns’ Agatha Gothe-Snape adopts a series of motifs drawn from art history to suggest the artist’s relationship to the sitter, his partner of eleven years. The most apparent reference is to Henri Matisse’s portrait of his wife, La Raie Verte 1905, in which a band of green paint divides the nose. In Cairns’ reworking, this gesture becomes a ready-made sign for the marital: the same green stripe runs down Gothe-Snape’s nose, creating a compositional line with the engagement ring hanging from her necklace below. The influence of Matisse is evident also in the juxtaposition of interior and exterior scenery, use of prismatic colours, elevation of the decorative, and the collage-like quality of outlines. These latter qualities lend the painting its flatness and discrete push and pull – qualities revered in mid-century modernism.

The idea of ‘push and pull’ – how colours advance and recede – is literalised in Cairns’ portrait through his depiction of Gothe-Snape’s body, which seems to move forward, backward and to the sides simultaneously. The sitter’s pose and the setting also call to mind Eugène Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartment 1834 and 1849. As in Delacroix’s paintings, Gothe-Snape is seated on a rug in a lavish interior, her gaze an ambiguous mixture of invitation and resistance. Today, Delacroix’s paintings are considered examples of nineteenth-century Orientalism, a European fantasy that represents the Middle East in a stereotyped manner. Cairns appears to make a connection here between Delacroix’s Orientalism and common perceptions of the ‘artist bohemian’, both of which exploit sensual, exotic and colourful tropes.

Édouard Vuillard’s Outspoken Dinner Party (After the Meal) c. 1891 may be another point of reference. Here, Vuillard painted his sister Marie, a withdrawn and awkward woman. Animated by drink, food and the conviviality of artists, Marie is seen emerging from her shell, suddenly social and gregarious in deportment. Cairns appears to evoke Marie’s posture in his arrangement of Gothe-Snape upper body: contorted and languid, flirtatious and analytical, her head rests in her hand at an exaggerated angle, ready to playfully interrogate any interlocutor. The contradictions inherent in the pose and the gaze tally with Cairns’ description of Gothe-Snape as ‘both an active subject and a recalcitrant muse, embracing and resisting simultaneously any idea of what it is to be fixed.’[1]

A popular misconception, inherited from romanticism, is that a portrait tells us something truthful about the sitter, something essential about their character or the state of their inner life. Cairns avoids this cliché by keeping the portrait focused on the mechanics of painting. As such, the viewer gleans little of Gothe-Snape’s inner life and instead encounters her as part of a broader play of surfaces, shapes and colours. Where aspects of Cairns’ and Gothe-Snape’s relationship do emerge, they do so discretely, mediated by the language that they share as artists, namely, the codes and orders of art and its histories. Like all portraits, Agatha-Gothe Snape tells us more about the painter than the subject. It shows us that Cairns is a painter critically invested in the formal language and traditions of his medium.

Shane Haseman is a lecturer in the Department of Art History and Theory at the National Art School, Sydney.

[1] ‘Winner: Archibald Prize, 2017’, press release, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2017, accessed 28 November 2018,