Art Culture

Alison Watt’s A Portrait Without Likeness

Alison Watt’s A Portrait Without Likeness is a new exhibition that feels uniquely contemporary while simultaneously drawing inspiration from Allan Ramsay’s famous eighteenth century portraits of his wives and series of sketches of women’s hands. This fusion of past and present creates a discombobulating yet intriguing experience. Although the exhibition has its weaknesses, the paintings of both Watt and Ramsay are beautiful products of masters of their craft.

Alison Watt’s tribute quickly establishes an almost interactive environment. Watt never paints the women themselves, never even revealing so much as a delicate hand. Instead, she paints objects found in Ramsay’s work – flowers, lettuce, books, a feather. Thus, the exhibition feels interactive as the viewer examines each of Watt’s objects and tries to place it in the context of the correct work of Ramsay. The viewer is granted the privilege of playing detective.

I fell in love with the emphasis on Ramsay’s work. Two portraits of Anne and Margaret, his first and second wife respectively, are presented with an air of definite importance. They are detailed and elegant, making use of soft hues of pink and blue. The women are depicted with soft skin, striking eyes, and rosy cheeks. Their proud gazes unabashedly meet the eyes of the viewer. Painted with clear affection, the paintings are a grand sight to behold.

In the centre of the room, his sketchbook and sketches are displayed in a glass case. These works are soft and beautiful, yet meticulous. They are simple, depicting graceful hands interacting with various objects. Ramsay’s work feels warmly personal; he seems a reachable being, a soul with whom viewers can connect.

However, where this heavy emphasis on Ramsay could be seen as a strength of the exhibition, this could also be its leading weakness. I found myself drawn more to Ramsay’s work than to Watt’s. Where her work felt cold, Ramsay’s felt full of life. The grey background of each of Watt’s paintings isolates the viewer from any bright emotion. The objects are beautiful and masterfully painted, with hyperrealistic shadows and texture, yet they feel utterly devoid of emotion. Alison Watt’s A Portrait Without Likeness is a room without personality. Still, despite this lack of warm character, the works of Watt are powerfully fascinating. The objects are eye-catching, with an aesthetic appeal, and very realistic. For example, her painting of a handkerchief looks almost three dimensional. More impressively, despite the lack of women in her paintings, women are implicit in every brushstroke of her work. A viewer cannot lay eyes on the flower or the feather without feeling a feminine presence. Essentially, Watt quite cleverly paints an accolade to women without ever painting their bodies. This conceptual undertaking is undoubtedly worthy of praise.

The exhibition is quite small, with an almost overwhelming emphasis on Ramsay rather than Watt, but ingeniously immersive. I enjoyed learning about Allan Ramsay and putting together the puzzle pieces of Watt’s cold yet striking deconstructionist paintings. If you ever find yourself in the undeniably beautiful Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition may be worth a visit.

Image: Alison Watt Centifolia 2019.
Image credit: Alison Watt