Lydia Corbett World in a Flower: Exhibition review

Originally published by The Upcoming on 5th March 2014.

It might seem a little odd for the accompanying text of an exhibition to focus so heavily on the artist’s encounter with another artist – especially when that encounter was some 60 years ago – but when you learn that artist was none other than Pablo Picasso, it certainly makes sense from a promotional point of view. Lydia Corbett, then called Sylvette David, spent four months as Picasso’s muse and protégé, inspiring more than 50 of his paintings.

It does, however, seem to be doing Corbett something of a disservice to be paying so much lip-service to Picasso, when this exhibition proves she is a prodigious and unique talent in her own right. World in a Flower combines crisp black lines with the dreamy, soluble style that characterises watercolour landscapes.

Corbett’s composition tends to place the typical subjects of still life paintings in the centre – flowers, vases and fruit – while rapturous, almost spectral figures, some real from Corbett’s past, others imagined, float weightlessly at the margins. And yet, through subtle mastery, nothing takes priority – everything feels in a zen-like state of equilibrium and balance. Corbett’s paintings are like those heightened experiences usually only attainable by spiritual fulfilment or with the help of psychoactive drugs: everything in their universe is at one, a single organism. Evidently this is the reference of seeing the World in a Flower.

The delicate, ethereal palette is embellished occasionally with the regal elegance of glittering gold, but it’s not brash or boastful – it remains tranquil and calming. The usually separate spheres of domesticity and the outside world seem to melt together effortlessly, while simple reoccurring motifs – like the texture of fish scales or chequered squares – undulate across the page providing a satisfying familiarity.

Corbett herself was in attendance at the preview, regaling any curious punters with her tales of that special summer of 1954 in Vallauris. For Corbett, this collection of nearly 40 works made over just two years – prolific by anyone’s standards – is a “bringing together [of] experiences and feelings from both past and present…[an expression] of my dreams and ideals.” Fitting, then, that the exhibition includes Corbett’s own reimaginings of Picasso’s depictions of her; projecting an image of herself through his eyes, even mimicking his distinct style at times. It’s clear the name drop wasn’t just for marketing purposes, it was justified as something that was clearly such a seminal experience for this enchanting artist.

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