Discovering the power of the void
By Penny Cole
The National Gallery has provided residencies to artists for many years now, offering them a chance to study its treasures and, in turn, providing the opportunity for the public to get up close and personal with a contemporary artist. It is fascinating to see how its current Associate Artist has been inspired by her choices in the collection.
For all that Alison Watt’s works here are huge, they are neither heavy nor easy to pin down. They are still further explorations of her two abiding fascinations – with the human figure and more particularly the quality of flesh, and with the folds and flow of fabric, as a kind of analogy – flesh as fabric and fabric as flesh.
Her first choice was Ingre’s portrayal of the large and self-containedly beautiful Madame Moitessier. It made a great impression on her, when as a Scottish child; she visited the gallery for the first time with her artist father. Watt explains that it was not only Madame Moitessier’s perfect flesh that inspired her but the fabulous fabric of her dress. Whilst the skin is painted to perfection, on closer examination, the brushwork on the fabric allows roughness and imperfection, in an almost abstract or impressionistic style.
She also chose Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Jacobus Blauw. But it was not the handsome young man that fascinated her so much as his neck cloth. She says that a certain point, the light and shadow of the complex folds seemed to take on a life of their own.
It has been widely noted that at first sight the delicate pinkish folds of Watt’s large canvases do more than just hint at female genitalia, and there is some blushing and whispering when people first step in to the cool, dim room where they are hung. But on longer reflection, other dimensions emerge, though the mystery of the female is definitely one of them. Watt moves from figuration (in so far as such “zoomed in” close-ups can be said to be figurative) to a final abstraction, which has distilled the essence of flesh and fold. They have become abstract forms bursting out from the canvas, with one final and haunting element to give them greater depth and interest.
Because Watt’s final inspirational picture was a dark and thoughtful portrayal of St. Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán. The kneeling Saint’s face is deep in shadow, creating a dark but mouth-shaped hole at the centre of the picture. These voids are reproduced in the centre of Watt’s canvasses. In several they seem to continue the erotic theme but with greater depth, highlighting perhaps the mystic power of the female. We discover a dark vortex inside the painting, emanating power like a black hole. Indeed looking at it is like standing at the top of a cliff top looking down at the sea, with the sensation of being pulled downwards.
This “power of what is not there” gives the work greater movement and interest than one might expect from such giant and well-filled canvases. It takes the viewer from what is on the surface to a place beyond it. And since what lies beyond the flesh is the grave – perhaps the subject of St. Francis’ meditation – that gives these images a very serious undertow.
Alison Watt: Phantom until 29 June 2008 in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery; Admission free. A short film accompanying the exhibition includes a reading by Scottish poet Don Paterson.