WHEN CHARLES BAUDELAIRE’S ESSAY “The Painter of Modern Life” was printed by Le Figaro in late 1863, Paris was a city in the midst of artistic revolution. For centuries, the French Academy had emphasized historical subjects and classical ideals, teaching students to take their models of beauty from the great masters of the past. But now, a new generation of avant-garde artists wanted their work to reflect the realities of the modern age. Their inspiration came from the street rather than the Bible and history. For models of beauty, they looked to women they saw wandering the boulevards rather than the Virgins of Raphael. Like Baudelaire’s painter, they strolled through the world as “flaneurs,” finding beauty in the transitory and glimpsing eternity in the everyday.
As she stood on a Liverpool street in the early hours of an October morning in 2014, British painter Susie Hamilton was continuing the tradition of the artistic flaneur: a detached observer watching the world, looking for beauty. Despite the early hour and the cold weather, the streets were full of young women in short skirts and high heels, laughing, staggering, and clinging to each other as they made their way between the city’s night clubs. Making quick sketches on her iPad, Hamilton recorded the fleeting dramas and brightly colored outfits of these late-night revelers.
There was nothing obviously remarkable about these young “hens.” They were just ordinary women enjoying a night out to celebrate a friend’s upcoming wedding. But the ordinary is what inspires Hamilton. Her subjects are the people she sees in her daily life: shoppers peering into freezer cabinets, diners in a crowded restaurant, sunbathers on a beach, burka-clad women hurrying about their chores. She is fascinated by aspects of life that are usually overlooked, and makes rapid sketches of figures caught in the middle of doing nothing in particular, their bodies often emerging from an indeterminate space [see Plate 8].
Some flaneurs are drawn to observing social interaction. They watch people to understand the invisible conventions that bind society together. But Hamilton watches people to understand their physical form. Her gaze traces the contours of bodies and lingers at their boundaries. She is fascinated by the angle of an arm resting nonchalantly on a hip or the curve of an arched back. As she sketches, she becomes lost in these small elements. She no longer sees a specific figure, but an abstract form dancing through space, a solid body dissolved into fragments of line and patches of color.
Hamilton’s work is shaped by this way of looking at the world. She isn’t interested in recreating specific locations or describing figures with anatomical accuracy, but in capturing a suggestion of her subjects’ physical presence and fleeting movements. Using just a few washes of color overlaid by quick pencil lines, Hamilton conjures bodies that seem to dance, laugh, and radiate warmth. Drawn with incredible economy, these figures are both familiar and strange, abstract and figurative, solid and fluid.
These blurred dichotomies reflect more than Hamilton’s way of seeing the world. They are the product of her fascination with borders and borderlands and her preference for the ambiguity of both/and over the polarity of either/or. She is constantly drawn to the mysterious and uncertain. She seeks out natural wildernesses and urban wastelands, snow-covered landscapes and neon-lit streets. She sketches in places where bright sunlight dissolves solid forms and deep shadows engulf her. The obvious doesn’t interest Hamilton; instead, she is attracted to the frisson of fear and wonder she experiences in shadowlands and margins, where, as she says, the “unknown intrudes into the ordinary.”
Hamilton made her first forays into these shadowlands in the early 1970s as a young student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. Many of her early, student paintings draw the viewer into a liminal space shrouded in fear and foreboding, where women sit alone in dismal, half-lit bedrooms.
After receiving her diploma, Hamilton decided not to pursue a career in art and stopped painting completely. She completed a doctorate in Renaissance English literature and pursued an academic career, lecturing in English at Middlesex University. Then, in 1989, encouraged by her husband, Hamilton decided to return to art school.
Intending to take up where she had left off more than fifteen years earlier, she continued to look for inspiration in the human figure. But she found the approach of her teachers at the Byam Shaw School of Art too heavily influenced by the work and methods of William Coldstream and Euan Uglow, two twentieth-century British figurative painters known for their precise observation and measurement. Their finished works are distinguished by clearly visible construction guidelines; their figures have a solid, sculptural quality with clearly defined edges; and their use of shallow picture planes creates a space that is obviously artificial. Hamilton saw no place for visual ambiguity or mystery here, only a hard-edged clarity and a mechanical approach that left her bored and uninspired.
Reacting against this precision, Hamilton adopted a looser, more expressionist style of painting. But this too felt like a pastiche. She didn’t want to express what she felt; she wanted to capture the nuances she saw. Unable to find what felt like an authentic way to paint the human figure, Hamilton decided to look for a different subject. She found it on a working holiday in Spain at the end of her first year at Byam Shaw.
As Hamilton travelled around La Mancha and Andalusia, she ignored the usual tourist hotspots and instead set up her drawing stool beside motorways. There in the heat, dust, and intense light of the Spanish summer, surrounded by the noise and blur of speeding vehicles, she sketched the trucks thundering past. She became intrigued by ordinary objects, marginal spaces, and the transformative effects of movement and extreme light. Empty buildings and palm trees became her subject matter, too, as did the camouflage of dazzling highlights and deep shadows that seemed to dissipate these solid structures.
When she returned to England, Hamilton searched for similar subjects. She began to go out at night, a flaneur wandering the urban wastelands near her West London home, searching for the kind of strange, amorphous creations of shadow and light that had so fascinated her in Spain. Darkness had replaced sunlight, but this was still a world governed by ambiguity. Once again Hamilton was drawn to the divided highways crisscrossing the city. She also became fascinated by all-night gas stations, seeing them as oases in this nocturnal wilderness, islands of shimmering, neon mystery.
For five years Hamilton explored and painted these urban wastelands. She sat on pavements, hidden in the shadows, watching strangers buy gas, go to the shops, and drive home after work or a night out. She sketched, despite being dazzled by the headlights of oncoming traffic, drawing buildings dappled by pools of electric light. These paintings in her Petrol Stations series reveal a world of shadow and light where the solid becomes fluid and mystery reigns. She suggests the structure of the gas stations with just a few flowing brushstrokes, while rapid slashes, dots, and flicks of color echo the brilliance of headlights and streetlights, dissolving the picture surface into a vortex of visual energy [see Plate 9].
Although Hamilton was still fascinated by the drama of human life and by the human form, her paintings of the early and mid-1990s were figureless and increasingly abstract, stage sets drenched in artificial light, waiting for the actors to make their entrance.
This was to change in 1997 when Hamilton began a new series, Cowboys, inspired by the spaghetti westerns she loved watching on television. She recognized the sun-bleached, empty landscapes from her trips to Spain, and the laconic narratives were as sparse and economical as her own drawings. More importantly, characters such as Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name,” provided her with a perfect antihero. In the figure of the mysterious stranger who appears out of nowhere like a tumbleweed and then rides off alone into the sunset, she found an equivalent for the people she had watched for so many years in the streets around her home, strangers stepping from the shadows into the light and back again.
Hamilton placed her cowboys in landscapes ablaze with color and light; their forms are framed by flaming orange sunsets, their dying bodies by icy blue streets. To avoid the stultifying style of portraiture she had rebelled against at college, Hamilton painted her subjects in moments of action—riding, running, shooting, and falling, using rapidly drawn marks and blurred edges to destabilize any sense of permanence. These translucent figures are in a state of flux, their dark silhouettes burning a corrosive hole through the canvas or paper into a space beyond. Bold highlights may help to suggest solidity, but they also cast a penumbra of uncertainty around forms, blurring the boundaries between figure and ground, matter and air, horse and rider, so that the individual becomes indistinguishable from the whole.
The acute sense of drama in these works is unsurprising, considering Hamilton’s doctoral research into themes of negation, play, and identity in the works of Shakespeare. Poised in mid-narrative, caught at moments of transformation, the cowboys tease us with unanswerable questions. Who are they? What are they doing? Why are they running? What are they thinking? But Hamilton is not concerned with their backstory. Her interest lies in their moments of visual transformation, when shadows fuse a cowboy and his lasso into a new, hybrid creature, or a sunburst dissolves riders into insubstantial wraiths “riddled with light.” These areas of negation, where shadow and light swallow form, are Hamilton’s version of Heidegger’s clearing: a place where the familiar becomes unfamiliar and new worlds are born.
These cowboys are outcasts and outlaws, anonymous figures on the edge of society, hiding in the half-light of dusk and dawn, trapped in a psychodrama of flight or fight like the women in Hamilton’s student works of the 1970s. This focus on the outcast was to change one afternoon as Hamilton sat watching another spaghetti western. Her attention was caught by a group of black cowboys riding through a snow-covered landscape. The scene instantly reminded her of photographs of her father, the polar explorer Augustine Courtauld, as he and his companions battled through Arctic blizzards.
For five months, in the winter of 1930–31, Hamilton’s father had stayed at Icecap Station, a meteorological observation post located high on the Greenland icecap. He lived on his own, gathering weather data for the earliest transatlantic flights. Grainy black-and-white photographs from this and other expeditions vividly capture the pioneering spirit of these explorers, a group who lived beyond the boundaries of civilization in conditions that constantly brought them to their physical limits.
The scene lasted only a few seconds, and Hamilton has long since forgotten the name of the film, but it inspired a new series of paintings. Explorers saw Hamilton paring down details and simplifying forms. The narrative was no longer focused on the figure, but on the relationship of the figure to the environment. Hamilton’s explorers stand shrouded against the bitter cold in the heavy arctic gear worn by her father. They struggle against the wind, leading horses through a formless mist of yellow and blue paint. They ride through forests deep in snow. These are humans adrift in a world of light and color rather than substance and form. They have dissolved into insignificance, becoming nothing more than shadows in the background of the work, half-submerged beneath the blizzards of loosely applied paint that Hamilton uses to represent curtains of falling snow or tangled branches.
Hamilton’s next series, Mutilates, took Explorers to its inevitable visual conclusion. Each of these stark paintings is dominated by a large, misshapen figure. These forms, conjured from a few blurred blotches of paint, stain the canvas with a spectral, liquid light. Any landscape elements have been replaced by a simple black background, a void against which even these melting, semi-transparent figures appear substantial.
The visual narrative of the Mutilates is focused on the dramatic relationship of light to dark, form to formlessness, and calls to mind the Judeo-Christian account of creation, when God calls forth light from the primordial chaos. In the cruciform figure that reaches out to the viewer in two of the works—Crucifixion and Ecce Homo—Hamilton explicitly offers an image of the divine Word, the Logos who makes visible the invisible. But rather than portraying Christ as an earthly figure, Hamilton paints him as a creature of the void, caught between being and nothingness, divinity and humanity. She shows him as both the crucified man and the transfigured, formless creator. She also represents him as the co-creator described in Proverbs 8, the divine flaneur who is with God at the beginning, hovering in the primal chaos, “delighting in mankind” and seeing beauty in a new creation.
Although the explicit Christian subject matter of these two paintings is unusual in Hamilton’s work, the spiritual content is not. As she wanders through the world she is constantly surprised by the sacred. And, like the Gospel parables of the kingdom of God, her works use ordinary contemporary people and spaces to illustrate a vision of heaven in the everyday: those meeting points between the visible and invisible, when the transcendent and immanent merge.
When medieval artists decorated the borders of manuscripts and carved the margins of cathedrals, they offered a glimpse of a sacred world, inhabiting it with strange creatures entwined in luxuriant foliage. These monopods, mermaids, Green Men, and other half-human, half-animal grotesques occupied the space between the sacred and secular, offering a vision of heaven on earth and earth in heaven. They may seem otherworldly and strange to modern eyes, but for the medieval artists who created them, these were images from the real world, albeit parts they hadn’t personally seen. As Hamilton’s figures dissolve into non-human and part-human forms—half-human, half-horse; half-shadow, half-solid—they began to resemble these medieval border-dwellers. Both mysterious and mundane, real and imaginary, they are the inhabitants of a space between the earthly and heavenly realms, where boundaries break down.
Marginal creatures occur throughout Hamilton’s work, from the grotesque silhouettes of the Cowboys and Mutilates to Shakespeare’s “mooncalf” Caliban, the “savage and deformed slave” of the magician Prospero, who Hamilton turned to as a subject in 2011 [see Plate 10]. In her series The Tempest, the shores of Prospero’s fantastical island are verdant jungles bathed in intense, lurid colors—similar to other forests Hamilton has painted since 2003. Monkeys swing through the trees in innocent abandon, while brightly plumed birds chatter in the branches. Hamilton also painted fluid watercolors of the surrounding seas, her bold forms embodying the sprite Ariel’s vision of a beautiful but deathly realm “full fathom five” below, where colorful fish swim through coral reefs that resemble alien worlds. Here, as in the margins of medieval manuscripts, images of a superabundant natural world offer a parable of an earthly paradise, a “rich and strange” space that is both intoxicating and terrifying.
Natural landscapes are unusual in Hamilton’s work. Her explorers are most often found negotiating the urban wildernesses of supermarkets and shopping malls; her inspiration is drawn from the people she sees in the shops around Mile End in East London, where she now lives. These man-made landscapes are her equivalent of the peaks, ruins, and seas that inspired Romantic artists like Caspar David Friedrich and James Ward. Escalators are her mountain slopes, crowds her forests, and the bowed shoulders and determined stances of old women rummaging in freezer aisles and pushing shopping carts are her Arctic explorers facing a Friedrichian sea of ice. As she walks through the vast canyons created by London’s skyscrapers, lost in the miles of urban sprawl that spill out from the center, Hamilton experiences those same feelings of awe, terror, and wonder that Edmund Burke identified with the sublime: the overwhelming sense that the individual is merely an insignificant speck within the whole.
Both fascinated and alienated by the modern city and its inhabitants, Hamilton sees her fellow Londoners as modern conquistadores searching for a new El Dorado—seeking not gold but the latest gadgets and must-have fashions. As she sat watching and sketching treasure hunters in London’s Westfield Shopping Centre, she found herself in a Dantean vision of hell, crowded with figures ascending and descending escalators and walking aimlessly around the avenues. The wandering souls that inhabit her Malls series have been reduced to nothing more than suggested forms, their individuality absorbed in the swirling, chaotic colors of these artificially lit realms [see Plate 11].
Hamilton first explored the theme of the individual lost in the crowd in her Dining Rooms and Beaches paintings, beginning in 2005 with Blue Dining Room. This is not a cozy scene of family and friends gathered around restaurant tables, but something more enigmatic, even apocalyptic. It is unclear whether we are gazing upon the surface of some alien planet, watching diners eating by the light of a dark sun as a meteor shower of blue and white paint falls around them; or whether we are in the depths of the ocean, watching as bubbles of oxygen rise from the slowly dissolving white figures at the bottom of this otherwise dark realm. Or perhaps we are staring into the void as atoms bond and coalesce to transform this empty, dark space with the light radiating from their emergent forms.
The sense of playful mystery and deliberate uncertainty in Blue Dining Room reflects Hamilton’s fascination with things that are simultaneously familiar and strange [see Plate 12]. Throughout the Dining Rooms series we find ourselves in dreamlike, fantastical worlds where the extraordinary seems unremarkable. In a vast heavenly banquet at what appears to be the restaurant at the end of the universe, diners eat beneath purple skies surrounded by strange planets that pulsate with rings of light. The title, Jabberwocky, reinforces the feeling that these are wonderlands—nonsense realms imbued with the surrealism of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Here, Hamilton’s repertoire of watery stains, splashes, flicks, dribbles, and spatters of paint no longer subverts the solidity of the picture surface, but has become part of its underlying structure. Like a swarm of insects, these colorful marks coalesce into a crowd of featureless figures; their heads are exploding starbursts of light, their bodies emerge from casual smears of paint deposited by an experienced flick of the wrist or a dab from the broad end of a soft-bristled brush. Streaks of white paint, disintegrating into runlets of loose pigment, are both tablecloths and planets coming into being. In offering us these apocalyptic visions that hover between becoming and dissolving, Hamilton asks us to become like her Mutilates who stare into the void.
Hamilton’s Beaches also hover on the edge of the void beneath alien skies. But this void is the sea, or more specifically the English Channel that borders the beach at Berck Plage in the Pas-de-Calais where Hamilton and her husband, Peter, a playwright, have a holiday home. A palette of almost fluorescent pinks, whites, and intense blues captures the summer heat and airy atmosphere in this zone where sea and land meet. It also reflects Hamilton’s sense of alienation as she sits watching the crowd [see Plate 13].
Initially the Beaches paintings resembled the Dining Rooms, with groups of figures congregated in indistinct clumps, their forms represented by simple blobs and swirls of paint. But as Hamilton sat on the crowded sand, surrounded by complete strangers lying semi-naked and unashamed, their flesh spilling from tight swimming costumes, their skin glistening with sun cream, she found herself focusing on the drama of individual bodies rather than the wider scene.
Making a large number of rapid sketches on the spot, Hamilton drew sunbathers lying on their backs and fronts, topless and bikini-clad, knees bent and straight, arms by their sides and shielding their faces. Some were sitting up; others dried themselves; some stood staring out to sea; others walked dogs. Hamilton drew in her usual furious frenzy, disregarding anatomical accuracy. With a few deft lines she would capture a pose, a glance, a personality. She expressed movement and moods, and she defined a body’s boundaries.
Hamilton then applied opaque acrylic paint to give these figures physical substance. Each brushstroke became a deposit of flesh on the paper surface, a skin that defied the pencil borders. Instead of being contained within the lines, these clouds of color spread over them, creating a shadow- or alter-image that echoed the linear form without replicating it.
Like all of Hamilton’s figures, these beach bodies question the nature of boundaries and the authority of outlines. They, too, depict a world without solid edges or boundaries between individuals, where even our skin is a porous border—a zone of exchange across which oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other substances flow. These melting and distorted figures, surrounded by splashes of watery paint and abstract marks, are not isolated. Each bather is a momentary coalescence of matter, an area of differing density within the invisible atomic cloud that makes up the universe.
On these French beaches, Hamilton discovered flesh. She became fascinated by the folds and shadowy crevices of the large, semi-naked bodies that surrounded her. A new series, Plumpers, took this fascination further. These sketches and paintings of large women show them completely nude, using bold, curving strokes of pink, crimson, purple, and yellow ochre to sculpt their bodies in paint rather than stone. These unabashed and honest works, just like the Shoppers that followed, are celebrations of the body as physical substance [see Plate 14].
In 2013 Hamilton made her first visit to Marrakech. Just as she had done in Spain twenty years previously, she set up her sketching stool on an unremarkable scrap of land by a busy suburban road. It was a place on the edge, where the desert encroached on the city. But now, with a crowd of curious children playing around her, Hamilton ignored the traffic and began to sketch the people hurrying past: women shrouded in burkas, men in long, loose cotton garments. What she was really sketching, however, was the effect of the intense Moroccan light, which dissolved everything into an anonymous haze, while casting shadows that formed dark, bottomless pools on the ground.
Like the Bathers, Plumpers, and Shoppers before, the sketches in her Marrakech and later her Fez series seem defiantly earthbound [see Plate 15]. They are lumpen forms; their shadows seem at first to hold them down, preventing them from soaring with the joy and freedom of the monkeys of The Tempest. Yet this sense of physical limitation is illusory. The shadows are not anchors, but formless and insubstantial, while the familiar interplay between line and color, figuration and abstraction gives these figures a sense of dynamic energy and freedom. Hamilton’s people may not swing from branch to branch, soar like exotic birds, or swim through coral seas; instead they reveal a world that is both material and immaterial, tangible and intangible. They are an embodiment of the incarnation, in which the beauty of the particular unites with the wonder of the infinite.
Hamilton’s figures defy conventional beauty. They appear grotesque. Their limbs are twisted and foreshortened, their proportions unsymmetrical and inhuman. And yet for Hamilton, these forms—and the people she bases them on—are beautiful. This is not a beauty that can be captured by the precise outlines or studied forms of traditional figure painting, but through the fluid borders and rough edges Hamilton has spent decades mastering. This beauty can be found in the soft splashes of paint that open up portals to other worlds, and in the strange forms that allow the sacred and mysterious to occupy the everyday. Hamilton’s is an image of earthly beauty that is no longer separate from the sublime but is the other half of the same coin. She shows us this beauty in her paintings, and invites us to find it for ourselves—to become flaneurs, wandering the world looking for beauty in the sublime and finding the sublime in beauty.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.