Who is she?
Alison Watt has just been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) this year 2008 by the British Queen. She is the youngest artist at age 42 to be asked to do an artist-in-residency at the National Gallery which is culminating in an exhibition of her work over the past two years. People are asking whether she is an antidote to Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin who were leading artists of the wildly controversial group known as the YBA’s (Young British Artists) who achieved notoriety and fame through their shock approach to art.
After the shock of these works of art, Alison Watt’s works are quietly lusciously sensual.
What does she do?
Alison Watt does “fabric painting.” She paints on canvas but her subject matter is cloth.
Alison Watt’s two-year stint as the youngest ever associate artist at the National Gallery has culminated in a monumental collection of evocative canvases that explore new depths
So how did she get here at age 42?
She was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1965 (incidentally the same age as Damien Hirst) and graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1988. She was awarded the John Player portrait award while still a student and from that came a commission to paint the Queen Mother
Her early works were dryly painted figurative canvases, often female nudes, in light filled interiors. Gradually she become more absorbed in conveying the quality of cloth and she has said that she was very much inspired by Ingres and his painting of cloth and particularly his handling of folds as can be seen here in his painting of Madame Riviere.
An exhibition of Watt’s work entitled Fold in 1997 at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery was the first introducing fabric alongside her models.
In Year 2000 she became the youngest artist to be offered a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art with an exhibition called Shift, with 12 huge paintings featuring fabric alone. Reviewers at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh suggested that her work “edged ever more towards the abstract yet had a strange, sensual quality suggestive of a human presence [or absence].”
In 2004 Watt exhibited during the Edinburgh Festival, installing a 12ft painting “Still,” in the memorial chapel of Old St Paul’s Church and showing 6 new paintings at the Ingleby Gallery
Some of the other works that were exhibited at the same time are below.
However, it was the installation of “Still” at Old St Paul’s Church that caught the eye of the National Gallery of London. They asked her to do a residency for two years, the culmination of which is the exhibition which is going on right now. She was the youngest artist at 42 to be so honored and followed in the footsteps of others such as Paula Rego, Ken Kiff and Peter Blake.
What the residency meant was that she had the run of the galleries at any time of day, but especially after hours when she could study the paintings at her leisure without the interference of the general public. She could paint in the studio at the National Gallery and study the paintings on her breaks. Although she was very much inspired by Ingres and his treatment of fabric, after several months she came to find two other paintings really spoke to her. For the first two of her paintings in her National Gallery exhibit her starting point was the white cloth of a man’s stock worn at the neck in the portrait of “Jacobus Blauw” by his master, Jacques-Louis David. The sitter is wearing a plain blue coat with a high collar; a white stock wrapped around his neck is tied in a knot at his throat. It is that knot which was the inspiration for her paintings Pulse and Echo, the titles suggesting the life hidden behind the white cloth.
Pulse Detail, Private Collection
The other painting that inspired her was “St Francis in Meditation” by Francisco de Zubaran
St Francis in Meditation by Zurbaran
She was so taken with this painting that she has had this painting placed at the entrance of her exhibition. the depth of shadow in St Francis’ cowl and on his face is echoed in her painting named Phantom.
On a final note I would like to mention that although we just see mostly white images, those who have seen the paintings speak of many colours being used. It is also to be noted that in the days of apprentices, the drapery was mostly left by the master for them to paint. Alison achieved these large scale paintings by herself without any assistance.