Painting a picture of my pain

When agonising illness struck artist Sarah Raphael, it wreaked havoc on her life, but it also transformed her work. The results are compelling, reports Rada Petrovic
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"WELL! I'VE often seen a cat without a grin," thought Alice. "But a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!" Like artist Sarah Raphael, Lewis Carroll was a migraine sufferer. In fact, his attacks were so severe that he had to throw in his career as a fine art photographer, and became a writer of hallucinogenic tales instead.

Sarah Raphael hasn't stubbed out her paintbrush after a lifetime spent placating this nasty neurological disorder. But her last attack, which lasted one and a half years, during and beyond her last pregnancy, sent her work spinning into what you might call a fourth dimension. "Strip!" is her new series of paintings which were eked out during that retina- burning period.

They are very, very different from the Freudian portraits and naturalistic landscapes that have built her reputation as one of Britain's leading artists. Instead, they are huge, abstract works based on the format of cartoon strips. Hundreds of tiny boxes contain stripped-down forms, half- familiar objects which you think you ought to recognise, but don't quite. Nonsense, rather than narrative, prevails. They scream "tense, nervous headache" to me.

It's a minor miracle that these pictures exist, given the agony Raphael was in during their genesis. Migraine symptoms are not just confined to a blinding headache, but encompass the sea-sickly triumvirate of nausea, vomiting and extreme sensory disturbance. "I basically had them non-stop, which made me insane. I couldn't see properly, couldn't stand noise, bright lights or any kind of movement. I didn't stop painting straight away, but it slowed down till I was in bed in a blacked-out room, taking large amounts of Pethidine [a narcotic painkiller] and not having a life."

It soon became apparent to Raphael that her old life would have to go. Her studio became off-limits - too far away from the toilet bowl and her bed - and she set up in the kitchen of her rambling Camberwell home instead. Here, she started work on "Strip!", a half-formed idea that had been rattling in her pictorial bottom drawer since she was a child. "I'd had this obsession for ages but thought it was silly, it wasn't proper painting. But now I knew that the only way I could work was to paint here and to paint these."

Raphael devised a migraine-friendly working method. The hundreds of tiny, individual pictures that comprise these paintings lent themselves perfectly to working in staccato fashion - her only real option. "I was only able to do bite-sized sections because I could do them one at a time."

Raphael also had to give up her favourite medium, oil paint, as the smell of linseed and turps became a relentless trigger for new migraine attacks. In came flat, harsh but mercifully fragrance-free acrylic paints (some would say a much more appropriate medium for the pop-artish flavour of the new works, anyway).

To me, the paintings look like the inside of someone's scrambled memory bank, but Raphael is reluctant to admit they might be anything more personally significant than an old idea made good and a timely response to a set of physical constraints. "I loathe the idea of art being a vomiting forth of one's deepest miseries and neuroses," she says, in a disappointingly un-artsy manner.

The series marks a mood progression which mimics the phases of the attack. The earlier paintings are chromatically jarring, claustrophobic and organised with the desperate zeal of a control freak. In contrast, the last painting, done when Raphael was finally recovering, is "less graphic, less contained, all the elements within it starting to come out and travel."

As "Strip!" testifies, migraines ain't all bad. "This work should have been a lot more dark and interior than it is," says Raphael. "I painted these coming out of the most horrific period of my life, but ironically, they are more playful and effervescent than anything I've done before." Alice, I mean Lewis, would no doubt agree.

'Strip!' is showing at Marlborough Fine Art, Albemarle Street, London W1 until 6 November

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