“Once paintings leave the studio they take on their own life…” Alison Watt

Visitors to Abbot Hall Art Gallery have found spiritual and calming qualities in works by Alison Watt.  Her painting exhibition A Shadow on The Blind has wowed art critics and visitors alike.

With one month to go before the exhibition closes, Alison took time out to speak about the show, the relationship she has with her paintings, the importance of light and shadow and how there is never enough time…

We have had some beautiful autumn and winter days when the light streams in from outside into your exhibition. Is there ever an ideal time to see A Shadow on The Blind?

Natural light is always changing and it is beautiful to witness those changes. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to uncover the windows at Abbot Hall. Depending on the light, the physicality of the paintings becomes more evident, they almost seem to vibrate. My studio in Edinburgh is flooded with light and this has an affect on my paintings as they appear to take on their own life as I work on them. Depending on the light in the room, their character can change and I love that; the fact that they can’t be controlled. I am fascinated by light and by how it is determined by darkness. A painting lives out its life in the light but without light, there is no shadow and without shadow there is no form. Light is part of a painting’s very substance.

Your paintings have been on show at Abbot Hall since October. Does your relationship with the works change over time?

One’s relationship with a painting is constantly changing. When you create a body of work in the studio, the paintings will form relationships with each other. It’s a strange experience to be surrounded by the physical manifestations of your ideas. Once they leave the studio, they begin to take on their own life. A life that is quite separate from you. There is a sadness in that because part of you exists within the paintings, so you lose something of yourself when they go. I always feel bereft when my paintings leave the studio. But then the idea that someone, often someone you have never met, might engage with something you have made is an extraordinary thing. I am always amazed by that.

Have you had any interaction with visitors on gallery, what reactions have you had to the works?

I have visited Abbot Hall several times since my work was installed and each time I’ve been approached by visitors to the exhibition. The wonderful thing about painting is that every painting has a different meaning to the person who looks at it. I think we all have something within us – an urge to search for recognition within art and then follow that up with our own interpretation. It’s part of the human condition I think. I’ve had some fascinating conversations. Conversations which start off being about my paintings, but become conversations about us. I think we love looking at paintings because we love looking at ourselves.

Alison Watt in her studio
Alison Watt in her Studio. Courtesy of the artist and Parafin, London. Photo by John McKenzie.

One visitor wrote that the paintings have a ‘calming, spiritual quality’. Do you feel that way when you paint them?

Making a painting has both conscious and unconscious elements to it. You become lost in the process itself, with your conscious thinking surrounding that. You often make a painting in order to understand why you wanted to make it. I can look at a painting I made 30-years-ago and still wonder about it. Making (and looking at) a painting is like having a conversation. It’s something that passes back and forth. It doesn’t settle. My paintings come from inside. Part of me doesn’t want to describe that feeling, and part of me doesn’t know how to. I feel very strongly that painting is unique as a medium. It appeals directly to the senses, possessing an irresistible quality that can’t be replicated by any other means. And that is what gives it its power.

Do you get ever feel sad towards the end of a show. Or is it on to the next exhibition…

Yes I do feel sad because a body of work encapsulates a particular time. I had a retrospective a few years ago. I saw paintings that I hadn’t seen for decades and the experience was not dissimilar to listening to a piece of music you haven’t heard for a long time: you are taken back to a particular time and a particular place and you remember how you felt. Increasingly, as I get older, I feel there is never enough time- there’s always a sense of urgency about making work. I’m always pushing on to the next thing. I feel I am always seeking something that is just out of my reach. That is the driver, to make better work.

Alison Watt: A Shadow on the Blind is on at Abbot Hall Art Gallery until 2 February 2019.

alison-watt-abbot-hall-01

 

Rodin and Scotland: A Love Affair

Abbot Hall Art Gallery is currently showing one of Auguste Rodin’s best-known works – The Thinker is on show until 27 October. The iconic piece is on loan from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Pippa Stephenson, Curator of European Art, Glasgow Museums, explains how Scotland swooned for sculptures by the French artist:

Pippa

Auguste Rodin is a well-known and widely-appreciated artist, with exhibitions springing up worldwide, particularly in the wake of last year’s centenary since his death. However, it wasn’t always that way.

It took France, in particular, a surprisingly long time to appreciate the artist’s naturalistic and unorthodox approach to sculpture. The first public monument to the ‘Father of Modern Sculpture’ was not erected in France until 1904, indicative of the country’s reluctance to embrace his art.

Scotland, however, developed a somewhat earlier appreciation for Rodin. Examples of the artist’s work were shown at the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition, a time when public opinion of Rodin’s reputation was still out to jury (by 1900, with the artist’s seminal exhibition in Paris, his worldwide reputation was firmly established).

In 1906, the artist received an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University. He gifted a bust, Saint George’ to Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery in return, a token of his affection for the city. Recently, letters between Rodin and Francis Newbury, the visionary founder of the internationally-famous Glasgow School of Art, have been unearthed in the archives of the GSA. These few letters confirm that the pair were in dialogue around 1901, with Rodin asking Newbury to report on how his sculptures were being received in the Glasgow International exhibition of that year.

Recognising Rodin’s importance, Glasgow Museums bought two works from that exhibition, a plaster cast of ‘Saint John the Baptist’, and a cast of the ‘Burghers of Calais’.

It was the actions of William Burrell, however, which gave Glasgow its particularly special relationship with Rodin. Burrell was the owner of a successful shipping business, and took a keen interest in art, amassing an internationally-significant collection of over 9000 objects.

The collection opened to the public in 1983, and is currently undergoing extensive renovation, due to reopen in 2020. In the course of his lifetime, Burrell bought at least 14 bronzes by the artist, all of which are in the collection today. This gives Glasgow the second largest collection of Rodin’s in the UK (after the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the recipient of 17 sculptures gifted by Rodin himself in 1914), and one of the largest worldwide in a public collection.

Burrell’s first purchase, probably ‘Fleeting Love’, was made before 1901, which he lent to the aforementioned Glasgow International Exhibition. Photographs of Sir William’s Glasgow townhouse at 8 Great Western Terrace show Rodin bronzes on display alongside medieval tapestries and Northern European Renaissance paintings.

He bought these sculptures from local dealers including Alexander Reid, as well as directly through the Musee Rodin, Paris. He collected sculptures by Rodin up until 1937, including important pieces such as ‘The Thinker’, which is part of the British Museum spotlight tour, on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal until 27 October.

More on the exhibition at http://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodin

Rodin and the intriguing logics of the fragment

by Barbara Vujanović

Abbot Hall is the first gallery in the country to host an amazing Spotlight Loan exploring how Auguste Rodin took inspiration from the fragments of ancient Greek and Roman statues. Barbara Vujanović, who conceived the loan, explains how it came about:  

Sometimes things in life (and work) fall into place so flawlessly and easily, like pieces of a well adjusted mosaic.

The story behind my involvement with the British Museum, and working on the exhibition Rodin: rethinking the fragment seems to be one of those examples.

In 2015, I had the pleasure to co-author the retrospective of Auguste Rodin in Zagreb. Working with my colleagues from the Musée Rodin, namely with Véronique Mattiussi, enabled me to expand my knowledge on one of the greatest modernisers of sculpture.

I am dealing with the art of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, an artist who was marked by Rodin’s art and his friendship, and I became more and more interested in their mutual passion for antique and classical art. In fact, this is the subject of my PhD research, so I was very happy to meet Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator at the British Museum and an expert on Ancient Greek sculpture, in 2015 in Zagreb, just a few months after seeing his marvellous exhibition at The British Museum, Defining beauty – the body in ancient Greek art.

At the time he was preparing the project of the exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, and our interests on antique and modern sculpture overlapped, Ian Jenkins kindly proposed me for the British Museum’s International Training Programme. The six weeks I have spent in London and in Manchester in 2016 were an incredible experience.

Working with Ian Jenkins and his colleague Celeste Farge, co-author of the aforementioned exhibition on Rodin and antique art, turned me towards a challenging subject of the antique fragmentary sculpture influence on modern artist, mostly on Auguste Rodin.

Therefore, when I was invited to conceive a Spotlight Loan exhibition, with the help of my dear mentors, Ian and Celeste, I was naturally driven to the question of fragments.

Not only was it one of the themes of the Rodin exhibition at The British Museum, but also the very nature of the Spotlight Loan programme, which is based on the selection of just a small number of objects, turned me toward the intriguing logics of the fragment.

How one part or an object invokes another one, how one fragment can change our perception of the whole? I was thrilled to make the selection for this exhibition, but what excites me even more, is the anticipation of other fragments, pieces of the mosaic which will be added at Abbot Hall Art Gallery.

Barbara Vujanović by Rodin's The Thinker
Barbara Vujanović by Rodin’s The Thinker

I am very keen to learn about Rodin’s influences on Elisabeth Frink’s art. I believe that we, the curators, can provide the best projects once we understand we are all part of this large mosaic of knowledge, passion for art, culture and history.

I am looking forward to seeing those other pieces of the mosaic in Kendal, and I am hoping they will lead us towards some new experiences and discoveries.

Barbara Vujanović, Senior Curator, The Ivan Meštrović Museums – Meštrović Atelier, Zagreb.

Auguste Rodin: rethinking the Fragment, is now open until 27 October. https://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodin

Elisabeth Frink Fragility and Power, runs until 29 September. https://www.abbothall.org.uk/elisabethfrink

Barbara Vujanović will visit Abbot Hall on 27 September and give a talk: Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker: revolutionising modern art. To book https://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodinandhisinfluences.

Image: Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1880-81, The Burrell Collection © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.