More than just words – The Jane Eyre Project: a review
Aruna Vasudevan of The Literary Shed reviews the current exhibition at Hastings Arts Forum.
What is it about Jane Eyre? What makes the book and, indeed, Jane herself so beloved by so many people? Certainly, the themes of love (bordering almost on obsession), madness, abuse and women’s identity, among others, are as relevant today as they were when Charlotte Brontë first penned the book in the mid-1840s.
Since then, it’s been the inspiration for many a creative endeavour and The Jane Eyre Project, an exhibition currently at the Hastings Arts Forum, in St Leonards-on-Sea, is one of the latest. Part of a larger St Leonards-wide festival, involving local businesses, community groups and even the train station, The Jane Eyre Project grew out of a collaboration between the gallery and the experimental theatre company ExploreTheArch (Jane Eyre is the inspiration for The House of the Heroine, part of its Hidden Books season). Sally Meakins, curator of The Jane Eyre Project, and also one of the artists in residence, says that the participating artists’ work draws on their interpretations of the story or the feelings that it evokes.
The Jane Eyre Project is interesting on several levels, not least in the juxtaposition between the physical location of the exhibition in this airy, contemporary and fairly minimalist seafront gallery and that of the dark, sometimes wild, nineteenth-century north-central English backdrop, against which Brontë’s plot unfolds. The work exhibited here is diverse, as one would expect, the 11 artists using a mixture of different mediums to explore and expand on the storyline and its themes.
Sometimes, the art seems to move beyond the Brontë novel though, drawing on the rich fabric of Jean Rhys’s hauntingly beautiful prequel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason/the first Mrs Rochester) before her marriage, her renaming and subsequent confinement. And, as our responses to art, like anything else, are subjective, some pieces resonate with us more than others. Caroline Sax’s intricately detailed, mixed-media box ‘rooms’, among them the ‘Red Room’ and ‘Liar’, are quite stunningly executed. They merge extracts with highly coloured multi-layered images and carefully placed mirrors to reinterpret scenes or motifs from the novel.
Similarly, in Mark Fisher’s four ‘mirror’ pieces, the reflections of female characters appear in mantelpiece-framed Victorian mirrors, while torn scraps of paper, with handwritten lines from the book, adorn the mantels. These pieces are unsettling, challenging our perception: the images reflected back at us as we stare into the mirror aren’t our own and, seemingly, the figures in them could just as easily be watching us. ‘Beautiful in a quiet way’ is particularly haunting as we are presented with the back of a woman, herself staring into a hand mirror, a reflection within a reflection. There is a vulnerability in the lovely lines of her exposed neck and shoulders. We could almost reach through the mirror and touch her naked skin. But is she, in fact, watching us watch her?
Sally Meakins’ work, in particular ‘The Chamber’ and the enlarged image of ‘The Cell’ (pictured at top of article), are works in progress and will evolve and change over the course of the exhibition. They focus on Bertha’s imprisonment in the claustrophobic attic of Thornfield Hall, when, as Meakins explains, she’s ‘devoid of any sensory perception’, exiled from the light and the warm, lush beauty of the island on which she grew up; these pieces pay more than a nod to the Rhys novel. But it’s Helen Scalway’s single piece, ‘The Thornfield Papers’, that stands out most for us. A seemingly simple scrapbook contains wallpaper samples derived from the period, but it’s wallpaper with a difference – drawing on Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason’s memories of Thornfield Hall. While Rochester’s section includes intensely coloured papers in the red to purple spectrum, colours reflecting rage, passion, obsession, madness even, Bertha’s are, in turn, heartbreaking; her memories from the ‘prison on the third floor of Thornfield Hall’. The first features blackened, scorched paper with cut out palm tree fronds; the pages after are full of intensely bright tropical plants and trees, the landscape of her childhood, and a great contrast to the dark, locked room in which she’s confined at Thornfield.
Whether you’re a Jane Eyre fan or not, this is a fascinating exhibition, especially when put in the larger context of the related events going on across St Leonards. It’s a great testament to St Leonards and the particular creative environment here that such a feat, celebrating a great classic piece of English literature, and involving so many diverse groups and businesses, could occur with such joy and passion. All credit to ExploreTheArch and the Arts Forum for leading the charge.
The Jane Eyre Project runs until Sunday 5 March at Hastings Art Forum, 36 Marina, St Leonards-on-Sea TN38 0BU
See also Erica Smith’s review of The House of The Heroine
Featured image: Katherine Reekie, Trekking in the woods
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