Zoe Bray's "Stages of Life" in the classroom at Garaziko ikastola

November 18, 2021

Earlier this month, the children of Garaziko ikastola in St Jean Pied de Port encountered some new classmates: seven female figures of different ages and appearance that featured in a two-meters-square painting by artist Zoe Bray.

The painting is on loan under Itzal aktiboa’s "An Art Work in the Classroom " project and will remain there until the end of January. It gives the children an opportunity to get to know both an artwork and the artist who created it. With the aid of a quiz-game, they explore the painting and how the artist has presented each of the characters depicted in it.

Zoe lives in the United States and she introduces her painting via a video-recording. She was living in Bayonne when she painted it, in 2006. She had moved there from Florence, in Italy, where she had spent seven years immersing herself in the art of the Renaissance. Her ambition was to create a large work with several characters, drawing inspiration from the frescoes, paintings and sculptures that she had known in Italy.

In several cases, the gestures of her characters echo those of figures in paintings that she saw in Italy: "The School of Athens" by Raphael, Michelangelo’s "Last Judgment", Veronese’s “Feast in the House of Levi” and Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Susanna and the Elders”, for example, as well as paintings by Tintoretto, Masaccio, Ghirlandaio, Correggio and Titian.

Inspiration for the painting came to her when a friend whom she hadn't seen for years came to visit her in Bayonne.

"I had bought this huge canvas without knowing what I was going to paint on it. When my friend sat down on a chair in front of me, she suddenly struck me as like some kind of magical witch. That was the vision that got me started. "

The painting developed organically around the figure of this dark-haired young woman wearing a long black dress and seated in the centre of the composition.

“My idea was to explore different representations of femininity,” Zoe recalls. “I also thought of Shakespeare’s monologue in one of his plays on the "Seven Ages of Man", to which I wanted to offer feminine and androgynous alternatives.”

The woman in the centre of the painting is the only figure painted from life. For the others, Zoe had a friend photograph her in different positions to help her understand the anatomical underpinning of the gestures she was trying to portray.

The figures and their gestures are symbolic. One looks up to the sky, another downwards to the earth. An elderly woman points to the belly of a young pregnant woman, a symbol of fertility, and another lifts her arm in a gesture of self-protection. In one corner, the youngest figure plays with dice, a symbol of chance, while all the while the central figure remains unshakeable and impassive.

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