Cathie Pilkington RA at the Royal Society of Medicine

Earlier this week Professor Cathie Pilkington RA delivered the Royal Society of Medicine’s 2018 annual arts, society and medicine lecture to a packed auditorium of medics and artists. Cathie Pilkington RA, who was born in Manchester, was elected as a Royal Academician in 2014 and was the first ever female professor of sculpture in the history of the Royal Academy Schools.

Whilst Pilkington’s early work focused on, (in her words), ‘bodging’, ‘cobbling,’ ‘bungling,’ ‘muddling up’ and ‘jumbling together,’ her more recent installations present a developing language of increasing ambivalent forms that challenge our approach to the sculpted female body and objects.

Whilst Pilkington’s early work focused on, (in her words), ‘bodging’, ‘cobbling,’ ‘bungling,’ ‘muddling up’ and ‘jumbling together,’ her more recent installations present a developing language of increasing ambivalent forms that challenge our approach to the sculpted female body and objects. 

Professor Pilkington said: ‘To celebrate the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Academy of Art, I have transformed the School’s Life Drawing Room with my new series of sculptures called ‘Degas Dolls.’ While the installation doesn’t incorporate any found or actual doll parts they are meant to evoke objects such as rag dolls and tailors’ dummies.’ Such unusual objects inspired French Surrealists such as Andre Bréton and Marcel Duchamp. ‘The doll offers a way of tackling the female adult body – it could be real, or fake, or both,’ observes Pilkington.

A very important influence on Pilkington’s RA ‘Dolls’ series, is Degas’s poignant ‘Little Dancer aged fourteen’ figure (1880-81) depicting a young student of the Paris Opera dance school which caused outrage at the time. The sculpture is two-thirds of life size and was originally sculpted in wax, a somewhat unusual choice of medium for the time.

‘My new Degas Dolls’ series refers directly to Degas’s ‘Little Dancer’ series’ When they were X-rayed it was found that the dancers were imaginatively cobbled together with bits of string, cork and wire – whatever was at hand in the poor artist’s studio.’

Cathie Pilkington continues: ‘Degas ‘Little Dancer’ has always been an important object for me. It aroused horror at the time as the only sculpture Degas exhibited in his lifetime. Degas’s idea was to depict a young, working girl in Paris – but the late 19th century French public accustomed to sculptures that portrayed idealized women in marble were horrified that his subject was such a common subject – a skinny, teenage working class dancer who had nothing goddess like about her – possibly occasionally on the game. Even worse, instead of fashioning her in marble Degas, who was probably almost as impoverished as his subject had created her from beeswax and discovered junk.

Like Degas, Pilkington isn’t afraid to experiment with unusual combinations of materials. ‘My installation ‘Degas Dolls’ is ‘strange and beautiful – there is sexiness and dumbness in these sculpted dollies. As the eye roams around the work we ask ourselves – is it soft – is it hard?’

‘Everyone who has a doll as a child undresses it to explore how it is made.’ It is a surprise to find the plastic limbs and materials and the false naturalism is a bit disappointing. ‘Degas Dolls’ explores the moment when growing up you discover this puzzling discrepancy.’

Disrupting the grand sculptural canons of depicting nudes and goddesses with the more intimate registers of toys, ornaments and dummies, Pilkington’s sculpted ‘dollies’ are at once beautiful and strange.

Disrupting the grand sculptural canons of depicting nudes and goddesses with the more intimate registers of toys, ornaments and dummies, Pilkington’s sculpted ‘dollies’ are at once beautiful and strange.

Carefully created from a vast array of materials and cultural references, these objects approach the immediacy of ordinary figurative playthings, thereby challenging the art world’s conventional relationship between the viewer and the artwork.

Another of Pilkington’s important influences is the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who successfully married his interests in arts and science. She particularly admires Freud’s book, ‘The Wolf Man,’ published 100 years ago, in 1918. In reality ‘Wolf Man’ was the pseudonym of a Russian aristocrat, best known for being one of Freud’s patients who had recurring dream of a tree full of white wolves. He committed suicide in 1907.

How does Pilkington think the work relates to herself? Are her sculptures self-portraits? ‘I don’t think you can separate an artist from their work. The girls are not acting out my life. They are objects. My work is not confessional. I spend a lot of time looking on EBay for furniture for my needs.’ It’s all about cross disciplines these days. If we are talking about specialism I could be described as a sculptor. Sculpture isn’t like painting – the history of sculpture is an anxious one. For me it’s the awkward nature of sculpture that makes it so vital. Everything I do is intentionally mixed in and reconfigured.

‘I would like to encourage people to experience the process and physicality of making things.’

Degas Doll 1 2017, 75cm x 60cm x 55cm, Painted resin, steel, wood, photo credit: Perou
Rebecca Wallersteiner

Rebecca Wallersteiner

Rebecca Wallersteiner is a health and arts journalist, who writes for The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, NetDoctor, Telegraph, The Times, Traveller and
The Oldie magazines. She also works for the NHS and is the Hippocratic Post's roving reporter.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

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