When Frances McDonald arrives at her burnt home on the morning after the fire, she wanders through the devastation of charred furniture, scorched floorboards, and piles of glass. In her studio, cakes of paint have melted and spilled, making patterns across the floor. Artworks are singed, paper cascades from a cupboard and there's more heaped glass. The space could almost be described as a bizarre stage set, and Frances later paints a picture which she calls 'Studio with Glass Shards'. In time, she recreates some of her destroyed paintings on partly-burnt paper and displays them at an exhibition, entitled the 'Fire Series'.
But the most dramatic work to emerge from the fire comes about by chance. Frances happens to glance into a cracked mirror that is hanging on the wall. She sees a reflection of her face - haunted, gaunt - and looks about for a sheet of paper, finds a sliver of charcoal and quickly draws her face. There is ash eddying about her feet and she reaches down and scoops up some of it to create shadows beneath her cheekbones. One of her fingers has been scratched and a drop of blood is welling out of her skin. This she smears onto the background to denote flames - or perhaps a reflection of the emotional cost. Tapping the charcoal to sharpen its point, she draws the mirror's crack down her face. It is an extremely personal work, and one that she keeps hidden until she risks showing it to a collector who immediately sees its extraordinary power and significance.
"A self-portrait by English-born South African artist, Frances McDonald, rendered in charcoal, ash and blood. A unique treatment indeed," announces the auctioneer when the painting is sold at auction.
The Fire Portrait hangs in a gallery in London.
Haunting portrait hints at turmoil, headlines one newspaper.
Fractured society, says another.
An omen, says a third.
A modern classic, is the consensus.
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