Emma Talbot reimagines the Twelve Labors of Hercules

As the winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, Emma Talbot completed a six-month residency in Reggio Emilia, collaborated with the historic Modateca Deanna archive to learn Intarsia knitting, studied permaculture at a farm on the Sicilian slopes of Mount Etna, and in Rome, researched Herculean myths and Etruscan pottery. The starting point for her project was Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting Three Ages of Woman, which hangs in Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. Her resulting exhibitions at London’s Whitechapel Gallery (June 30–September 4, 2022) and Collezione Maramotti (October 23, 2022–February 19, 2023), follow an elderly woman who successfully embarks on a series of tests fashioned after the Twelve Labors of Hercules.

I HAD BEEN LOOKING at Three Ages of Woman for some time, because the old woman has the same hair as me. I was both fascinated and horrified by it. The fact that the woman is painted in such detail, standing with her heads in her hands, as if she’s ashamed, really struck me, because it seemed like a future specter of me. It’s this notion that you become redundant as you age—that you have no purpose that really made me think, “I would like to take this figure, I would like to concentrate on her.”

Finding out that the painting was bought to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Italy’s unification really grounded my sense of the exhibition as a local project. It becomes not only about the lifespan of a woman but how a nation is viewed—or views itself—as modern. I saw the young woman and the baby as this very Christian idea of a modern nation, while the elderly woman seems like a witch or someone who might have relationships to nature or to energies perceived as outside the normative structures of the modern nation.

There’s this idea that the classics represent something fundamental about the history of Western nations, which is just a fantasy. In Britain, classical references are still part of a certain type of education, of a certain type of knowledge, which is in fact a very conservative, closed set of ideas but which are very dominant in terms of reproducing the language of power. The Twelve Trials of Hercules, which were based on initiation rites for young men, are a perfect example of stories of power and how power is exercised by patriarchy. The way Hercules resolves the trials is very expedient because he kills, he maims, he captures, he steals—everything he does is a short-term aggressive solution. I thought that the elderly woman would be more considered in looking at a problem.

View of “The Age/ L'Età,” 2022. Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photo: Damian Griffiths.

In the show, there are two 11-meter silk paintings. One is a landscape of ruins, and one is a volcanic landscape that describe the principles of permaculture. You walk around them and through them, so that they make an environment. Using recycled or local silk was important to me. I worked with Mantero, a company in Como, to source recycled silk. It’s very woolly—very much unlike the crêpe de chine I usually paint on. I painted differently on the recycled silk paintings, almost using that principle of permaculture: Instead of fighting against something and wanting it to be something else, just go with it; let it show you what it can be. The result is more abstract, but I really like this combination. It’s a new aspect of my work.

I made the figure of the freestanding elderly woman with IMAX, Max Mara Knitwear manufacturer, because I needed digital knitting machines. We talked over a long time about how to make a surface which resembled wrinkled skin. I wanted it to be sewn together in sections, like plates of armor would be. I wanted her skin—her experience, her elderliness—to be the thing that protects her. She is touching a willow net covered in handknitted fabric, importing or exporting a type of knowledge.

There’s this sense of women in the classics—Hera and Athena, for example—if they have power, it’s really dangerous. If they’re intelligent and have knowledge, they’re sitting in the background offering counsel. It’s always the male figure who assumes the role of the hero. That’s really what I want to say—we don’t need heroes, we need responsibility.

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