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In the Frame for November 2013: Dawe’s ‘My Own Mother and Myself’

This month, a friend of the museum - Rebecca Olajide - writes:

Locked away in the archaic Bethlem archives a piece of work done by a relative unknown makes its home. Very little is known about the artist Dawe, not even a first name accompanies his work. Since there is an absence of information, a treat for the inquisitive mind ensues. There are a few facts available: My Own Mother and Myself is the title. Paint, paper and evidence of pencil markings are the tools used to form this piece. Lastly it was painted on the 7th January 1949 as part of a group of art works by chronic schoziphrenics.

Based on the title of the work we are led to believe that the two figures are Dawe and his mother. On first observation I was drawn by the colourful rhythmic folds of Dawe’s cloak, the mother's eyes and the unspoken relationship between mother and child. Dawe adopts the beautifully-balanced Raphael triangular composition. Like the Madonna and Child altarpieces that have adorned many places of worship throughout time, there is a sense of adoration and reverence for his mother.

The liberal application of colour, the explosion of bright tones and the curious relationship between the pair creates a whimsical impression. Dawe’s detailing in the facial features and hands seems rudimentary. The features are simplistic, ageless and unsymmetrical. There is no sense of depth or perspective since the painting has no shade or shadow. This creates a flatness to the piece which is reminiscent of the theatrical Parisian prints by Henri De Toulouse Lautrec. Smoothly applied thick and confident brush strokes surge through his work. In contrast to his cloak, his mother wears defined block colours of black, orange and gold thus illustrating Dawe’s attempt to bring distinction between himself and his mother. The fluidity of Dawe’s illuminated cloak creates an organic form which proceeds to flow into the decorative head and neck pieces and finally to the floral backdrop. Text which may allude to Edward Adamson, an important figure in art therapy, and the in-full bloom floral prints are suspended in the air to fill the negative spaces. By looking away and fixating his eyes onto his mother’s, Dawe has, like us, adopted the role of a viewer.

Dawe’s mother conveys a myriad of emotions from her beguiling gaze and smile; control, power, warmth, playfulness and curiosity are just a few. While the technical execution of the painting has a sense of naivety and a lack of technical ability, the actual success of the painting lies in the way it somehow portrays the complexities of the relationship between a mother and child, especially a mother and her adult child. For me My Own Mother and Myself has no full stop or absolute. Deservedly, it continues to pose questions, be suggestive and be multilayered - and hence a true reflection of the human condition.