Anne Rothenstein

Work

Recent Solo Exhibition: 7 March – 6 April 2019

Bio

Anne Rothenstein’s distinctive and atmospheric paintings subtly combine sophistication with innocence. Born in 1949, Rothenstein comes from a family of artists and creators – a background which has also obviously informed and influenced her work.

She grew up in the community of artists in the Essex village of Great Bardfield: her father was the late Michael Rothenstein, the print-maker, and her mother is Duffy Ayres the painter. Her grandfather was William Rothenstein who ran the Royal College of Art and served as an official British war artist. Her uncle, John was a Director of the Tate Gallery, and her brother, Julian, is a designer and founder of the Redstone Press.

After working for ten years as an actor, Rothenstein has been painting full-time since 1982 and for the last two years has regularly designed covers for the London Review of Books.

 

Solo shows

2019 Beaux Arts London

2017 Beaux Arts London

2016 Beaux Arts London

2009 England & Co London

2005 England & Co London

2003 England & Co London

2001 England & Co London

1997 Montpelier Studio London

1995 Montpelier Studio London

1993 Montpelier Studio London

1991 Montpelier Studio London

 

Group exhibitions

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Royal West of England Academy – Elected RWA

London Art Fairs BDC Islington & Royal College of Art

Cadogan Contemporary London

Six Chapel Row Contemporary Bath

Fry Gallery Saffron Walden

Fry Gallery Annual Exhibition

Rosanna Wilson Stephens London

Pushkin House joint show with Irina Zatulovskya

Essays
Anne Rothenstein, March 2019

A FEW, RATHER DISJOINTED THOUGHTS ON PAINTING

It’s a funny business, writing about painting. Critics so often complicate matters and painters rarely get to write about painting.

I can’t write much about my paintings because I don’t have a great deal to say about them: they mean something to me simply because I painted them, but I don’t paint them in order that they should have meaning.

So much is instinct and accident.

I can write about how, at 70, I’m discovering a different kind of concentration, focusing on my work in a way I haven’t ever done before. It’s become an almost entirely different activity and it’s a joy.

I can write a bit about my process, my colours and materials, paints and brushes being the most exciting for me but not, I imagine, for anyone else. Though surely it’s fascinating to learn that Lucian Freud’s painting changed significantly, to the unmistakable style we now recognise, when he swapped his sable brushes for hog hair. This may be apocryphal but it’s irresistible, illustrating perfectly how the type of brush you use defines the marks you make and each mark becomes the painting you paint.

I use sable.

I long to know more about how other artists work, their methods, their mediums. Oil or acrylic, I’m a bit snobbish about acrylic, it’s a plastic, lacking complexity, too clean.

I want to know how other painters begin, whether they use a wooden palette or disposable paper ones (my choice) or straight from big tins. Exactly what colours they choose. Which is the best, blackest, black, hugely important for me. Anish Kapoor has actually bought the very best for himself, the newly produced Vantablack; who knew you could actually own a colour?

Why aren’t we protesting about flake white having been taken off the shelves because of health and safety (show me a painter who ever cared about health and safety) and how on earth we have learnt to paint without it? Standing or sitting? At an easel (my choice) or on the floor or wall?

How other painters know when to stop and if framing, glazed or not (I’m still undecided). I read recently that, for Francis Bacon, the reflection of the viewer in the glass lent an added dimension to the image beneath. Given that he would surely have used museum glass, which is non reflective, there’s reason to doubt this, but he did glaze his work which, for oil painting, is unusual.

Glass, however, adds a layer of mystery, keeps the image ever so slightly more containedand distant. I don’t think we should try to know too much about paintings, at least, not until we have thoroughly looked.

Pierre Bonnard put it perfectly when he said “the precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing.”

 

In certain paintings of mine I’m sometimes unsure if a particular figure is a man or a woman; unless there is a reason for them to have a gender it doesn’t matter to me, the ambiguity pleases me and I like not knowing. Someone looking at the painting may well make their own assumptions or give it significance and that’s fine; there is no right or wrong way to see. I like people coming to their own conclusions, it makes more sense to me that way, other people’s thoughts and ideas open out the confines of the rather particular world in which I work.

I wish there were more places to read gossip about painting and painters. We rarely get to read about them in the broadsheets unless they are dead, have won a big prize or are very old and inevitably female as only talented women manage to have been disregarded for so long. In most other areas of the arts we read endlessly about the routines, influences, likes and dislikes of writers and other artists; musicians, performers, singers, they’re all called artists now.

When I was young, an artist was a painter, around that time we were told that painting was dead so it is extraordinary that there are still so many painters painting, so many people buying so many tickets to queue for hours for little slots of time to look at paintings. And so many people spending such vast, obscene amounts of money on paintings. They seem to have a value beyond measure.

You’d think that people might want to know a bit more about painters.

When I begin I have a vague idea of what I hope might eventually emerge. I will start from an existing image, usually a photograph, sometimes another painting, sometimes something in the corner of my mind’s eye which catches my imagination and makes me want to turn it into a painting.

It is imperative I start with a very precise drawing on the panel of wood on which I work. A drawing which takes time but is eventually disregarded, although I always take a tracing. Then I spend time mixing the colours which I imagine are the colours I will need but again may bear no relation to the end, or even half way, result. These processes are crucial, ritualistic and slightly strange given that I know they will be discarded. It’s like fitting my feet into footprints I have already made while still having no idea where they will lead.

And then I start painting. The drawing will slowly disappear, I have been completely absorbed in it while drawing and it becomes completely uninteresting and irrelevant as it is gradually obliterated.

Sometimes, magically, things go right and they go right in a way which cannot be disputed, instinct takes over and the painting happens steadily. This is the exception and undoubtedly the least interesting. Much more exciting, but dreadful and precarious, is when it so nearly goes right. But doesn’t.

I keep going for ages, days, weeks, yet still it is not quite right. (I wish I could understand this business of something… Being right…) Then there comes a moment, it’s both stomach churning and blissful, when I know for sure that it is irretrievable. I take a rag and wipe it all away. If it is dry I take my electric sander to it.

From this mess a new image will emerge. An initial thought will shimmy back to remind me of something, revealing itself like the feint outline of a treasure from an archaeological dig. It’s an extraordinary moment of rediscovery and freedom.

Everything has gone wrong so nothing matters anymore. Things mattering have been holding me back, things mattering have tied me in knots.

And then it begins all over again.

Anne Rothenstein

 

Deborah Levy, September 2017

Anne Rothenstein has mastered a technique that is in conversation with the emotional language of Francis Bacon and the unassuming spontaneity of Outsider art. Her paintings give value to the weight of thought itself, embodied as much in the space between her androgynous, brooding protagonists, as anything else – a chair, a lamp, a window, an animal, the way the light falls.

While every painting is formally resolved – after all their composition is designed with the eye of a modernist artist – at the same time there is a refreshing lack of resolution to what ever it is that bothers her stylish personae. Their appeal is that her paintings conceal more than they reveal.

It is this lack of disclosure that creates tension and provokes our interest.

At a visceral level, these are paintings that reward a great deal of looking.  If their surface is deceptively decorous – mellow colours and sculptural shapes – they are also uncanny, both familiar and strange.

We gaze like voyeurs intrigued by the tempest inside the stylish exteriors of Rothenstein’s protagonists, who seem to nearly always be the same person. This is again a similarity with Bacon, who often worked with the same subject across a series of paintings. After a while, we notice there are scratch marks on the flattened surface, the grain of the wood seeps through the paint to add another dimension; perhaps rhythm and depth, certainly turbulence. On further scrutiny we do not see Bacon’s screaming mouths, so much as a mouth (slashed with red lipstick) clenched shut.

There are any number of beguiling scenarios to contemplate, always with a hint of sardonic wit at play in expression and gesture. Two figures walk past each other, but they know they are both there –  an open window between them. We see these same figures engrossed in awkward conversation, electrified and numb, sitting, standing, reclining, getting on with the day. Rothenstein also experiments with scale, in which a man places his hands over the eyes of a shrinking woman.  It’s as if she feels smaller than he does. The message seems to be don’t look, but we do, we want to look. What we see is his hand over his own eyes and the curve of a frail lamp in the stripped grey landscape beyond them.

Virginia Woolf suggested that in her own novels, she wished to show that “modern literature must present ‘Life’ the way it really is – blurred and distorted.”  Rothenstein presents life that is distilled and distorted, sensual but stern, calm but agitated. Her painterly language is not exactly naturalism, though a reality has been created to capture mood, memory, human subjects confronted by something that baffles them.

Rothenstein’s unique skill is to capture the ways in which thought shapes the worlds she creates in the present tense of every image. She does not paint like any one else, which is how it should be, although there are echoes of her influences –  in particular, Bacon, Matisse and Braque.

We see these influences put to work in the startling triptych in which a woman is seated awkwardly, looking out towards us. It is as if her body is dissolving across the three panels, seeking a new composition.

Deborah Levy FRSL. 2017

Richard Eyre, January 2016

Tom Wolfe’s extended essay, The Painted Word, was a notorious (and timely) attack on the domination of the New York art world by critics who argued the need for painters to have “a persuasive theory” to support their work. Without a theory paintings couldn’t reveal themselves, they had to be mediated by experts. Bereft of the grammar and syntax of critical theory, an ordinary visitor to an art gallery was like a peasant locked out by the abbots, peering through the windows of a monastery at monks transcribing illuminated manuscripts in a scriptorium.

If there is less critical absolutism today, its legacy remains in the texts that are posted beside works in public galleries – the small cards and large placards that “explain” the work as if the pictures were there to illustrate the texts. The effect of this on me is to nudge me towards art that requires no information apart from the thing itself. The dancer Pavlova was asked what she meant when she was dancing: “If I could tell you,” she said, “I wouldn’t dance it.” And so it should be with the visual arts.

The point of art is to draw us into a heightened awareness of other people’s feelings and other people’s lives, to put ourselves in the minds and eyes of other human beings. When we look at an apple we’re looking at an ordinary and over-familiar object; when we see an apple in a painting by Cezanne we grasp its reality – its “apple-ness” – in an entirely novel way. That illumination of the world, whether it be objects or people or nature, is what I look for in painting. “Painterly” is an adjective often used as a pejorative, just as “theatrical” is used scornfully in the theatre, but I admire distillation of expression – the “theatre-ness” of theatre, if you like – just as I admire the “painting-ness” of paintings.

That’s why I’m so attracted by Anne Rothenstein’s work. She shows an undeniable loyalty to the power of the painted image to describe the world seen through her eyes.

It’s a world as full of the joy of painting as it is of the pleasure she takes in the people and things she portrays.

The first work I saw of Annie’s was as an actor in a short film on TV directed by her now husband, Stephen Frears. It must have been around the mid 70s. The film was called Match of the Day, a droll pun on a wedding which was the subject of the film. There was a scene in which two defectors from the wedding reception sat under a table, all flirt and banter. The two actors were Annie and the author of the film, Neville Smith. I’d never seen her before, although she’d been an actor for some time. She was beguiling: gap-toothed, open-faced, a gamine face not entirely innocent but entirely without guile. Part of the attraction of her performance – and her – was that she seemed almost outside the scene, not in a dilettantish fashion but as if she were sceptical of the world that she found herself in.

That may of course have been true, because it was not long before she left acting behind and, following her genetic destiny and her mother’s profession, became a painter. There’s a legacy of her acting years in her painting – her interest in the human figure, in people. Of all the arts, acting is a refutation of modernism: you can’t make an actor abstract, the human being stubbornly remains and it’s a paradox for an audience that while they are looking at a performance, they are also observing a person.

Because they indispensably rely on people – actors – as their means of expression, film and theatre are immune to the modernist’s claim that art-forms become either ‘wrong’ or ‘irrelevant’, I recently heard a contemporary sculptor derided for his “outdated humanism”. By that measure film and theatre will always seem outdated: it can never dissolve its reliance on the sound of the human voice, the disposition of mankind to tell each other stories and on the presence of the human figure.

That unrepentant humanism is in Annie’s paintings even if her figures are not naturalistic. They are powerfully delineated, often with curving, almost geometric, backs, and solid slabs of rich colour in the clothes set against blocks of near-matched colour in the backgrounds. The design of the paintings is formidable: all the elements are conscripted to form wonderfully satisfying shapes which never dominate or subvert their content.

The small faces above the forceful, weighty, bodies give her people an air of sometimes anxious vulnerability. They seem guarded – shy in the face of the painter – and often seem to lack confidence to assert themselves, sometimes even lacking the confidence to reveal their faces. Couples mask one another’s faces, huddling in corners to preserve their privacy. If there’s a feeling of spontaneity as well as human fragility, about Annie’s work, there’s also another characteristic that belongs to good acting: stillness. The paintings seem to have arrested time, giving them a sense of past as well as future.

We have three of Annie’s paintings – two portraits and a collage. One of the paintings is of a young man, slightly troubled, pale face capped with black hair above a pale unclothed body, bleached chalky background. Something elusive and fascinating and paradoxical about it: etiolated and yet full of life. The other painting is a beautifully composed figure of a woman, all natural terracotta, reds and brown, her large, elegant body, one arm across her body, the other supporting her chin and her small quizzical face above. It’s really quite lovely.

The collage is a hugely playful and satisfying abstract composition – a tree, a dark moon, child-like flat houses, an almost-face, and all against a marvellously graded and muted rose-red, almost pink, palette that’s gives it the warmth of the last embers of a Mediterranean sunset. It makes me happy to look at it, the kind of happiness that Elizabeth Bishop wrote about: “Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of lesser happiness are passing by.”

Richard Eyre, January 2016

Past Exhibitions
7 September – 14 October 2017
4 March - 9 April 2016
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