Yvonne Mabs Francis, 1945–

Artist insight: Yvonne Mabs Francis

I was born in Oxford in 1945. I attended Brighton School of Art and The Slade School of Art, London, in the Sixties. After leaving college I created Mabs, a business designing and manufacturing clothes. In 1980 and after the birth of my son I returned to painting full time and work in my studio at my home near Oxford. My first notable series of eight paintings were begun in 1998. I painted my experiences I went through in 1969, after the death of my father, having had a serious nervous breakdown and being hospitalised for three months. All these painting were exhibited with a text which was essential to them. After this series I began to work on a personal but more general theme. Works such as ‘The Impossibility….’ and ‘Weighs of Ancestors’. I was still exhibiting with a text but my direction changed and I decided to let the viewer make what they will and I in turn felt free from any particular meaning. I began with such paintings, ‘onseeing…’, ‘Metamorphose’ and ‘Batwoman Building’. My last series are on the theme ‘Dare to Wear’. They are in preparation for an exhibition with the same name, to be held in St Pancras Crypt Gallery, London in November 2012. The themes are clothes in which to meet ones maker. A great theme for me bearing in mind I was once a dress designer even though I do not believe in a ‘maker’. My works are large scale oil paintings. In recent years I have begun to produce drawings as finished works, due to my ever increasing problem of rheumatoid arthritis, which I have suffered from my twenties. I enjoy my work, its creation and its exhibiting. I do not search for deep meanings or spiritual experiences. I am more concerned with the affect images make on people. To attempt to create the WOW factor. Or as Chuck Close an American Photo Realist painter said, ‘I want to knock people socks off’. Well I may not have the ability to render you stockless, I however would like to have a try. I have exhibited with Outsider Artists and I am now a member of the Society of Art of the Imagination. I exhibit in Oxford and London. Links:- www.suekreitzman.com/wow/artist.php?ID=6 www.open.edu/openlearn/profiles/yvonne-mabs-francis www.artofimagination.org/Pages/Francis.html

Liar

Liar by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
Liar by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

The painting Liar is mentioned in the main interview with the artist. Here’s what Yvonne says about the painting.

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall who’s the liar of us all?’

This painting shows a figure looking into a mirror but she refuses to accept that the horns on her head are only imagined. The mirror tells the truth but the figure is so convinced of their existence that she believes the mirror is lying.

Thirty five years ago just before I entered the Warneford Mental Hospital I believed that my brains had grown like reindeer horns outside my head. I looked in the mirror, constantly asked people if they existed and even felt the space above my head to attempt to examine these horns. None of these actions convinced me they were imaginary. I believed I had brains like this on my head and absolutely nothing would convince me otherwise.

Breakdown

Breakdown by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
Breakdown by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

The Madness of Medication

The Madness of Medication by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
The Madness of Medication
 by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

My name is Yvonne Mabs Francis. I’m an artist by training. I went to the Slade in the Sixties and I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to paint for the last thirty years more or less full time. In the summer of 1969 my father died and I immediately felt ill. The first thing was sleeplessness, and this went on for a period of about three weeks, and I had obsessive thoughts that later became delusional, the delusional of the painting Liar I experienced at this time. I thought that these thoughts had made my brain protrude like horns from the top of my head. I would ask people whether they were there and I didn’t believe them, I would look in the mirror and I still didn’t believe them. I would even put my hands above my head and I still was convinced I had horns on my head.

Within about another two weeks I’d submitted myself to the Warneford Mental Hospital, Oxford. On entering it I was asked whether or not I was likely to commit suicide. I wasn’t likely to commit suicide, I’d felt quite a successful person, I felt there was everything to live for, I was simply terrified by the fact of what I’d gone through and having brains outside your head is, you must admit, pretty terrifying. I knew I was suffering something mentally so I’d gone there thinking that they would talk me through it, but none of them ever tried it at all. And I’m pretty certain that it would have worked because I remember at one stage a sister saying to me that the pieces that were sort of jangling about in my head, they would go away and in time I would feel better. And I remember just for a short moment lifting up my head and all these pieces that were in my head went to the back of my head and I felt defiant and I felt less afraid.

This just happened for a moment so I really felt totally convinced that if the doctors talked you through it, in the same way they may talk to you today about having a heart attack or any other physical illness, this would have relieved me to some extent. I appreciated it was something I had to live through but it would have helped. Mental illness is like a wall. You are behind your wall, you’re fairly logical behind your wall actually, and what you say isn’t always very easy for other people to understand, your language is, in other words, slightly disjointed or confused.

After four weeks when I was hospitalised I went up into a locked ward for more severe cases. They tried deep sleep treatment which really didn’t work because obviously you are partly conscious, and it made it even worse because the power of your body ceased with the medication that they’d given you so you couldn’t in any way sort of express your distress. What did help me, however, although I do feel at that time I was just beginning to turn the corner, was electric shock treatment. The Warneford, for all my criticism, were actually very good at electric shock treatment. Don’t ever be taken in by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it really is wrong. And they did it in such a way that you hardly knew what was happening and you felt an awful lot better afterwards. It may only be temporary but you just hold onto the better times. After about three to four weeks of this treatment I managed to be well enough to leave hospital and I’m afraid I never returned there, I never returned to my outpatients appointments because I’d simply been too horrified. In fact I’ve never walked up the driveway in all the years since then.

I painted these series of pictures at least 35 years after my experience. I did it because they would make good images but I did it also – but this was secondary – I wanted to lay to rest this silence that I felt I had over this, and these issues that I had over my treatment up there at Warneford, and to try to put over exactly what mental health delusions are. Many people talk about them, they analyse them, they work out that it’s this and that but nobody actually says exactly what it is that they’re suffering. And this is what I was very, very keen to do because I felt that that would help people, that that would have helped me when I was suffering if somebody had done this to me, and I’d hoped it would help people in the future. And in fact one comment in a book when I showed them at a gallery was that they’d had a father suffering mental health problems and they’d never up until that point realised what they were suffering. So in that way it was done to not only help people that were suffering but to help people around them to see exactly what they may be suffering.

A lot of people have asked me whether these paintings were a cathartic experience for me. Well they were not, they were done in a really cold calculating way. I was out on a mission for mental health and I was out to produce good images, and it didn’t affect me in the slightest looking back and thinking about these experiences. My paintings do have great meaning for me in my life. I don’t think I’d want to be without working. I have, as I said, I do suffer depression, not to an unmanageable extent but it does certainly help my depression, and it also gives my life great meaning. This is the problem, you know, with sort of a lack of religion is finding meaning, and for me my meaning is my work and that is a huge sort of coping mechanism.

The Bodily Time Machine

The Bodily Time Machine by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
The Bodily Time Machine
 by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

Stages of Hospitalisation

The Stages of Hospitalisation by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
Stages of Hospitalisation 
by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

Third Month

Third month by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
Third Month
 by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

Here’s what Yvonne says about the painting.

This painting is a following on from the Stages of Hospitalisation, where I had divided time spent in hospital by three, all in four week stages. In the third month I believed I had become a severed head: a realisation I made while sitting in a side room as the left hand figure sits in the painting.

So I had entered the third month. To my horror my third month was not in a locker but I had become a severed head which swung from side to side in order to waddle down the passageway. My long hair caught under the bleeding severed neck and mixing with the blood, was pounded against the hard corridor floor and made a squeaking noise which set my teeth on edge, a sound I remember to this day.

A stream of blood runs across the sea to the suggestion of Arnold Bicklin’s, ‘Isle of the Dead’, a Symbolist’s picture where death is shown as part of life’s experiences. The stylised fish and the bottle-shaped fish, float in a cage on top of the water, while the bird, unappreciative of it’s freedom, hovers demanding to be in their places.

The Electric Bed

The Electric Bed by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
The Electric Bed by Yvonne Mabs Francis

The artist’s work would comfortably sit alongside paintings by Frida Khalo, Dorothea Tanning, Paula Rego and Leonora Carrington, the greatest female painters of magical realism/ surrealistic imagery of the 20th and 21st centuries. Fearful but equally invested with grace and humour, Francis’s paintings are beautifully crafted with a sublime use of colour.

Over the years some paintings enter your psyche as ‘old friends’. I had forgotten the scale of the genius of Francis’s ‘Mental Health series’. The Electric Bed was one such painting. Then, as now, it struck a chord partly because of a personal association the painting evokes of a fear of being plugged into the electricity supply with ECT.

Yet, The Electric Bed has a far more peaceful quality to it than I remembered. The figure lying supine on a bed wired up to the electricity meter is clearly not comfortable but equally she conveys a resigned nature. The vivid colour and above all the Iris petals that float from the sleeper’s bed with a cloud-like skull that surrounds the central image, give the narrative a protective quality, unwieldy as her predicament is.

Like Magritte’s The Reckless Sleeper, you get the sense that whilst in her prostrate state she is reinventing the world and is far less of a victim than you might think.

Yvonne Mabs Francis's painting The Bodily Time Machine, this colourful painting illustrates the cycle of life from woman to girl, to foetus, showing each incarnation emerging from the other.

Yvonne Mabs Francis, The Bodily Time Machine

Dominating the gallery space are three works that define Francis’s ouvre: The Bodily Time MachineManacles or Bracelets and The Impossibility of Being Inside the Head of Someone Living.  Colossal paintings, they represent a form of religious art for the secular age. There is a timeless and universal sensibility to the figures Francis presents us with. Each painting poses a question about contemporary life from a feminist perspective.

The Bodily Time Machine is most reminiscent of Frida Khalo drawing on motifs of flowers and skull while exposing the inner organs of the female body. The painting illustrates the cycle of life from woman to girl, to foetus, showing each incarnation emerging from the other. In the text accompanying the painting Francis talks about how it illustrates a feeling she experienced of going backwards in time to meet her death.

Again, it struck a chord personally, having also had the sensation of growing towards the foetal state during a psychotic episode. It’s an exhilarating feeling and echoes the story of the mythical character of Merlin who was said to have lived from old age to infancy.

Yvonne Mabs Francis's painting, The Impossibility of Being Inside the Brain of Someone Living. In the painting a tree supports a central head with an exposed brain, which draws new life, fish are in either corner and a dove flies overhead.

Yvonne Mabs Francis, The Impossibility of Being Inside the Brain of Someone Living.

Manacles or Bracelets represents the imperative to reproduce, asking whether that which confines and restricts us can also free us. There are echoes of the many-armed goddesses of Hindi art, and of mediaeval manuscripts, but the figure in this painting is a modern woman questioning her fate. She is an old soul reflecting on universal dilemmas.

Two pheasants placed on either side of the central figure add to the symmetrical, eastern influence in the painting. The text accompanying the painting says they are there because they are signifiers of beauty although they are going to be shot by gunmen. I like the plain language Francis uses to describe her narratives. It enhances the viewers’ appreciation of the work in a concise unpretentious way, conveying the backstory to the symbolism she employs.

Double Deaths

[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs FrancisDeaths

Double Deaths by Yvonne Mabs FrancisCopyrighted image Icon
Double Deaths
 by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

Yvonne Mabs Francis, The Impossibility of Being Inside the Brain of Someone Living.

The Impossibility of Being Inside the Brain of Someone Living takes the 1999 American magical realism film Being John Malkovich as its inspiration. In the painting a tree supports a central head with an exposed brain, which draws new life. Again there is a dark comedic touch to the subject matter, an allegory for the limitations of being human.

Sources http://www.outsidein.org.uk/Yvonne-Mabs-Francis

https://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/Mental-Spaghetti-The-Mind-Machine

Hear Francis describe the link between her art and mental illness in this Open University programme

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/body-mind/health/health-studies/artist-insight-yvonne-mabs-francis?in_menu=13548