Figure with Megaphone by Canadian artist Betty Goodwin is a work of remarkable intensity, traversed by mystery and tragic beauty. This is a work marked by great humanity.
The piece was included in Figuratively Speaking: Drawings by Seven Artists (1989–90), a group show presented at the Neuberger Museum, State University of New York (Purchase, New York), the Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio), and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, Missouri).
Of note among the founding series in Goodwin’s work is Swimmer, produced in the 1980s, along with an array of other series revolving around the same theme, not just of the swimmer, but also of the drowned: Secours (1983–84), Carbon (1987), Figure Losing Energy, Knotted Arms, and Figure(s) with Megaphone (1988), to mention a few. Swimmer marks an important material transition in the mid-1980s, a time when Goodwin turned toward a lighter support—semi-transparent paper, such as the geofilm (or Mylar) used in Figure with Megaphone, which lends the subject luminosity and depth. Moreover, she moved from one format to the other within the same series, as in the present case, for which several variations exist, in various formats. Of particular significance here is that Figure with Megaphone (196 cm × 140 cm) presents a non-gendered figure, standing, head-on, legs fused and arms bent and entwined at neck level, its head slightly tilted back. From this figure emanates a skin-toned wash that turns a pale, orangey yellow, then greyish, portending a metamorphosis to come. Charcoal-black smoke, diluted in water, rises from the head to reside in a megaphone sketched vertically, as if to project the voice toward the sky.
The position of the arms—an echo of the Knotted Arms (1988) series—seems to reflect a gesture at once of protection and of strangulation: the whitened hands, paler than the rest of the body, appear to be in symbiosis with the surrounding fluids. In this drawing, and in all the associated series, there is a desire to express the transition of a living being into an immaterial form, embodied by a second, or even a third, ghostlier silhouette, highlighted by just a few strokes of charcoal. From a form of flesh and bone, sanguine and sensual, a spirit emerges, a soul, a vital breath. The choice and treatment of materials, ranging from pastel to oils and including lead pencil and wash, not to mention charcoal, whether applied energetically, in thin layers, or by nervous touches, perfectly translate the drama at work, the struggle of a figure in an enclosed space, its desire for conquest and victory, its life-and-death impulses while seeking a balance between awakening the senses and a numbness of the body. “In Betty Goodwin’s work the body transforms itself into a universal principle, the body is emptied out—ecstatically and excruciatingly—so that all its remaining intensity might rise to the surface, but this is a vast, collective and tragic surface: one that simultaneously links and separates the beings that inhabit it. This surface is skin, and skin is the Substance of which Betty Goodwin’s universe is made” (Kwinter, “Drawing as Eros and Memory,” in Morin [ed.], Steel Notes, Betty Goodwin, National Gallery of Canada, 1989).
Betty Goodwin was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1923. Starting in the early 1960s, she produced a remarkable body of work—prints, installations, paintings, sculptures— that appeared in numerous exhibitions in Canada and abroad, notably at the Kunstmuseum Bern (1989), the São Paulo Biennale (1989), and the Venice Biennale (1995). Goodwin was the recipient of the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award (1981), the Paul Emile Borduas Award (1986), the Gershon Iskowitz Prize (1995), and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2003). She died in Montreal in 2008.