Alison Watt's Alabaster

It is impossible to think about Alison Watt without picturing images of white heavy cloths in sensuous folds in ways that seem almost three-dimensional. Alabaster is an exquisitely perfect example of Watt’s distinctive signature style. The swathes of white fabric fall in carefully constructed layers and become the dominating energy of this large composition.

The importance of Alabaster comes from the fact that, painted in 1998, it is one of the very first pictures that saw a turning point in Watt’s painting career. Until that moment her long life interest in the figurative subject had been expressed through dryly painted figures and self-portraits in bright decorative interiors, often adopting mysterious poses. Then progressively the drapes enveloping her personages became part of the narrative in a manner that is much inspired by the 19th century painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Fascinated by the French artist’s sumptuous materials, Watt started looking at fabric as a more sensuous and powerful way to represent the human figure. The series Fold presented at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 1997 marked a first step towards this transition, although the figurative subject was not yet fully abandoned.

In Alabaster, however, the human figure does not appear at all. In its place, painted folds occupy the entire canvas. The painting carries such a significant value that it was included in Watt’s major exhibition Shift at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in 2000 that celebrated the artist’s ‘shift’ towards abstraction. Not a single subject appears in these canvases, and yet it would be partly incorrect to talk about abstraction when describing Watt’s work. If anything, the physical presence is stronger than ever. The elegantly draped heavy folds certainly seem to hide something, someone, perhaps the naked female figure of the early works. The viewer has a glimpse of her through the sensuous movement of shadows and dark spots, through the ‘fulls’ and voids and the erotic allusions of the alabaster-skin tone. Watt’s large canvas seduces the viewer into a journey of discovery of the enigma behind the curtain, but more importantly of one’s own senses and emotions that such presence/absence activates.

In the past decades Alison Watt has become one of Scotland’s most distinguished contemporary artists. Her recognition goes far back as 1987 when she was commissioned for a portrait of the Queen Mother. Her work has been widely exhibited in Great Britain and abroad, in museums as well as other venues such as the overwhelming Still, in Old Saint Paul’s church in Edinburgh, 2004.


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