(self-portrait, oil and copper leaf on board, 68.9 x 52.7 cm)
'I am the last...', 2020
This painting was inspired by this poem by Charles Simic published in 1987:
‘I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It’s almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don’t even have any clothes on.
The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.’
After I read this poem I knew I wanted to turn it into a painting and it lurked in the back of my mind for about eighteen months until I finally figured out the composition. I kept thinking about how all time is both eternally present and past and how we can insert ourselves into history through our imaginations. I made myself the last Napoleonic soldier because I can empathise with that experience through the first person narration of the poem - I am the figure sitting at the base of the tree in the bottom left. I made myself corporeal in the painting so I have skin and a body while the bodies of the other figures are only implied by their clothes and long hair because their physical being is made up by the gold background of that imagined landscape that’s particular to that moment and that conceived scene, both real to me and not real.
I wanted to pair the Western subject matter with a traditional Japanese style because I mostly do realistic oil painting and I love the style of art from East Asia. I am very drawn to Japanese screens and the copper leaf felt appropriate for a scene where the ghostly figures may already be in a heaven - though a heaven connected to the trauma of the battlefield. Metal leaf is very beautiful because it looks so different in different light. The reflections mean it won't look the same from different angles and it always glows. Something I also really like about Japanese screens is they have no obvious light source so there are no shadows and this gives the figures a stylised quality. They look like toy soldiers in the aftermath of a toy war I play with in my head that is just a passed down memory of a war that once was.
My brother posed for all of the soldiers in different positions. If you look closely the figures at the edges have his hair.
All the uniforms are historically accurate!