Katie Baker —
Studies for Raeburn
Katie Baker —
Studies for Raeburn
On first viewing, Studies For Raeburn, Briony Anderson's latest work, would appear to be a collection of sensitively observed paintings of land and sea. Natural elements in all their tumultuous glory have been dramatically evoked in oil on paper and the result is an affecting, impressive series of grand skies, somber stretches of land and darkly ominous water. In actuality, the places these paintings refer to don't exist. Though they suggest an encounter with some remote and lonely space, Anderson has composed them from the landscape aspects of the paintings of eighteenth century artist Henry Raeburn, specifically the backdrops of three of his full-length portraits. Far from being paintings of a place in time, these are works that hovers disconcertingly between past and present, absence and presence.
Raeburn's reputation was built on his skill as a portraitist. Working in the midst of the Scottish Enlightenment, he played his own significant part in the radically shifting intellectual life of the time. His legacy was a visual documentation of the leading figures of Enlightenment society – a society driven by ideals of intellect rather than inheritance. No longer was portraiture merely a tool of the aristocracy, but instead formed a new imagery of those people whose ideas and philosophies were shaping their world. Anderson's omission of Raeburn's figures from their landscape backdrops, seems, then, like a fitting twenty-first century appropriation of the portraits of an age that glowed with confidence in humanity- an optimism that today has never seemed more remote. The erasure is a kind of iconoclasm of the secularly sacred, an emptying out, that leaves the viewer as disturbed and unsettled as the backdrops it has displaced.
The landscape backgrounds of Raeburn's portraits were constructed with the intention of lighting his subjects to best effect and were rarely true to any exact topographical extent. Likewise, in Anderson's reworkings of them, the original landscape has become unrecognisable. Identifying features have been removed and the result is an expressive series of paintings detached and unidentifiable from their source. Yet these are not abstract paintings- somewhere, however indistinct, is brought into gradual being and a sense of location is anchored by details that slowly reveal themselves upon looking. Loose, hurried brushwork and dark, muted colours suggest rather than depict places. A horizon here, the sweep of a hill there- a notion of place, brooding and dramatic, is slowly evoked. The sense of absence that echoes across the work does not come from an incoherence of form, but from their relationship to Raeburn's portraits.
The removal of the figure leaves the work riven with a sense of loss. Without any easily identifiable features in the painting the work is destabilized, throwing the viewer into uncertainty. Knowing that there has been a portrait removed, we cannot view these pieces without feeling a deprivation. The paintings reverberate with a pervasive melancholy, becoming defined by what is not there as much as what is. Just as the strokes of Rauschenberg's eraser on de Kooning's drawing performed a self-contradictory act of negation and affirmation, so too does the removal of the figure here act as both a deletion and assertion of their presence. Viewing the paintings we are profoundly aware of what is lacking. The landscapes are a place of unease and uncertainty, left indistinct and troubled by this lacuna.
The large volume of Anderson's paintings become a series of potentially neverending permutations. There is a feeling of fragmentation to them, a breaking down of what was apparently bounded, as Raeburn's portraits splinter off into endless variations. The empty expanses of Studies For Raeburn, brings to mind the later artistic and literary re-imaginings of the Scottish landscape with it's 'sublimely romantic' vision. The romantic emptiness they found in the land formed part of a new and persisting identity of the Highlands as an aristocratic pleasure ground and tourist destination. Landscape's darker side – the propriety relations between land and landowner and the landscape as a symbol of wealth and status – is lost in this highly sentimentalized view which disavows its own mechanisms of myth making. Of course landscape is no more neutral than the white cube of modern art galleries and Anderson's work is a potent reminder of this. It was Claude Lorrain's pictures of the land that introduced viewers to the idea of the land as 'picturesque'. Anderson's landscapes explore their own existence as a set, a theatrical device, through the very process of their creation. To view this extensive series of paintings, fragments of landscape annexed from other paintings, is to be made uncomfortably aware of ourselves as viewers. There is a moving beauty to these pictures but their deliberately self-conscious relationship with another work refuses to allow an uncomplicated encounter with that experience. Any attachment to Turner-esque romantic myths of art, a desire for strapped-to-the-mast 'painting from nature', is exposed and refused. These are not paintings about the act of observation, but the act of looking, in which the viewer is firmly implicated.
History is never static and these are paintings that refer to a past forever in flux. The necessary impossibility of looking at them without reference to Raeburn may be a condition of the work, but the reverse is also true. To view Raeburn's paintings after Studies For Raeburn is to see them in relation to Anderson's work and any notion of the original is lost in this unbounded relationship between past and present.
Earlier pieces by Anderson have included Dances to Landseer (2006), a performative response to the work of the Victorian painter and a collaborative intervention in the art gallery of Aberdeen (2008), which rehung some of the gallery's collection and archive. Studies For Raeburn continues this response to art history and re- examination of our cultural heritage. Raeburn thought the landscape in the background of his portraits 'ought to be nothing more than a shadow'. Studies For Raeburn takes as its inspiration these very shadows of the landscape, both literal and metaphorical. What emerges from this penumbra is a complex and disquieting engagement with history and ourselves as viewers, caught in the act of looking.
Text copyright, Katie Baker 2009.
Studies for Raeburn, Royal Society of Edinburgh / Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh, 5 – 7 August 2009