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Carol Robertson
Colour Stream 2012

Ut Pictura Poesis
by Chris Yetton
Flowers, New York
6 September - 14 October 2012

The visual caress of Carol Robertson’s hedonistic paintings, so appealing to our sensual natures, almost masks her deep concerns with the ancient opposition of art and life, beauty and truth, and the intellectual rigour of her procedures. She deliberately contrasts the ideal geometry of the circle, symbolic of the purest human thought, with gently transforming grounds, symbolic of the flux of nature.

Everything, though, is in flux. The arcs pick up and develop the slow rhythms of the grounds as they swing across each other from centres that move to and fro across the central axes, horizontal or vertical, of the paintings. The variation from wide band to sharp line in the arcs themselves implies slow and fast orbits. The arcs also change colour in quick flashes as they cross each other. In this way she employs the full range of compositional form, from the all-over indeterminate nature of the grounds through the principal form of the arcs to the detail of the crossings.

W. B. Yeats’s agonised cry “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life or of the work” makes us aware that, despite his conclusion, the dream is of perfection in both. These new paintings address that issue and the systematic process of their making underlines that opposition of art and life. The grounds in these paintings are worked on slowly over a considerable period, both adding and removing paint until they are finished, as though they were themselves complete paintings. The geometric arcs are then painted over this indeterminacy. The colours of some arcs, though, are closely related to colours in the grounds, raising the possibility of unity between these opposites.

This desired unity is brought closer by pairing vertical grounds with vertical arcs and horizontal with horizontal. Nevertheless the opposition is maintained. The final act of the painting process is the colour of the intersections, like flashes of thought. The nature of the thought involved becomes clearer if we look at her earlier work. Her 1996 painting, A Poet’s House, brought together two of her fundamental interests: poetry and architecture. The house in question was the poet Horace’s in the hills outside Rome. The painting is an idealised version of its ground plan in which the opposition of figure and ground, proposition and world, has a defining clarity. Horace in his treatise on poetry famously declared “ut pictura poesis” - as in painting, so in poetry - which became a fundamental precept of art theory from the 16th to the 18th centuries, although it was mostly read the other way round - as in poetry, so in painting. Whichever way round, painting and poetry are sister arts and one can inspire or illuminate the other.

Horace celebrated parties and Robertson’s 1999 Dalliance in the Garden could well be a Horatian painting except that it derives from an Indian miniature showing girls drinking sherbet and enjoying music in an elaborate garden. The form however is Roman with its concentric symmetrically placed circles deriving from her experience of Roman architecture when living and working there as a Rome scholar. The architecture of the work is humanistic and Vitruvian. Its emblem would be the famous Leonardo drawing of the man inscribed inside a square inside a circle. Figure and ground are painted as equals. The ideal form of these works asserts Keats’s proposition that beauty is truth, truth beauty.

Vincent van Gogh Rain - Auvers 1890 Carol Robertson For Vincent Van Gogh: Rain-Auvers 1 2003
Vincent van Gogh Rain - Auvers 1890 / Carol Robertson For Vincent Van Gogh: Rain-Auvers 1 2003

Change came when Robertson proposed an intervention into the celebrated Davies sisters’ Post-Impressionist collection in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. She surprisingly and riskily hung a single work of her own next to Van Gogh’s Rain - Auvers 1890 and in the further company of Monet and Cezanne. She had been haunted by the Van Gogh, so apparently different in nature from her own work, ever since seeing it in the mid 70s as an art student in Cardiff. Robertson says she experienced Van Gogh’s rain “like the cuts of a knife”. She felt he attacked his own work slashing his beautiful landscape, truth erasing beauty, in a moment of despair just before his death. She was astonished that his radical act only increased the power and beauty of the work. Robertson was strongly attracted to a painter who so lacked the stability expressed in her own work and whose sadness and desperate loneliness seemed so unlike her own nature. The critique that Rain-Auvers made to her work resulted in three paintings directly related to it, using Van Gogh’s colours of green, yellow and blue. In For Vincent Van Gogh: Rain-Auvers #1, 2003 the pale blue ‘rain’, made of pairs of intersecting diagonals, crossed the horizontal painting from top to bottom. It was as though she were crossing out her work, now seen as an ideal landscape. In the third work, hung concurrently in a retrospective exhibition at Cardiff School of Art and Design, the blue ‘rain’ crosses some of the circles and changes tone from dark to light at the point of intersection of the constructing diagonals. This change also happens almost as it moves from the dark circle to the inner light ones.

Carol Robertson Weather Catcher 2009-10
Weather Catcher 2009-10

This confrontation with Van Gogh in 2003 brought about both a great change and a new subtlety in her work. The ‘rain’ introduced the formal device of linear forms intersecting and changing colour as they do so. It also made her think of the rest of the painting as some form of landscape. She had chosen the rectangle, square and circle for their ideal power, beauty and meaning but also to allow her, as she said, “the freedom to channel sensory and poetic material through their refined parameters”. She did this through her passionate and declaratory colour. In her new work she did not totally abandon the circle but instead used arcs, portions of much larger circular orbits. The change was from Vitruvian to astronomical architecture.

Weather Catcher 2009/10 (page 41) is a transitional work. Two sets of arcs mirror each other and enclose and hold, as though in her arms, an intense central pale yellow light-filled space. This central space has an intensity of feeling even greater than the centres of the earlier works with concentric circles. It is a new, more complex and more powerful development of the feeling of Dalliance in the Garden. The colours of the arcs are as the notes of different perfumes, which shimmer and vibrate as they gently cup the bright yellow space. There is an uncertainty as to whether the grey-green outside these arcs, and which also appears partially within them, is a ground colour with equal weight to the others. This uncertainty is resolved in Lightfall 2009 (page 31) in a way that is adopted for her subsequent work. Here the varied orange and white ground extends over the whole painting and the arcs of colour are clearly painted across it. Van Gogh’s rain has been transmuted into these generous shallow arcs that hold and release the central portion of the ground, a gentle female optimism as opposed to the male despair of Rain-Auvers.

Carol Robertson Homage to Rainer Maria Rilke 2010
Homage to Rainer Maria Rilke 2010

The Indian miniature of Dalliance in the Garden, owned by Carol Robertson, is a night painting. The colours in her 1999 Dalliance in the Garden were inspired by its pair, a day painting, which she came across in the Chicago Art Institute. Her new paintings are clearly either night or day paintings. Robertson sees her work of the last three years as forming a Ragamala. In medieval India a Ragamala or garland of Ragas was a group of paintings each of which was associated with the poetry and music appropriate to a particular time of day in a particular season. Robertson did not plan this in advance but recognised it while making these works. Lamentation 2010 (page 37) and Night Lines 2011 (page 19) are both night paintings. She has said that Night Lines draws its title from the experience of lying on her back observing the sky whilst on a residency in the south of France. The arcs in these paintings clearly refer to orbits on the scale of the solar system and the flashes of colour as they intersect are not unlike the flashes of meteorites burning up in the upper atmosphere.

Homage to Rainer Maria Rilke 2010 (page 4) is another night painting. Its diptych form suggests the possibility of mentally rearranging the two canvases. If the right hand canvas were rotated 180° the work would have a cupped, containing form, like the Weather Catcher series. This rejected possibility emphasises that the effect of Robertson’s composition is to throw the mind far out to the right of the work to the unknown centres and origins of the arcs. Rilke has been Robertson’s favourite poet in the last few years and she keeps collections of his work to read at her studio. Rilke’s imagery of the vast night, stars, and the human being somehow raised to that scale, has made a deep impact on her. The experience of reading Rilke is of being thrown out of the everyday world into worlds unknown. One is never sure of one’s interpretation; the meaning seems to change constantly and elude one’s grasp. In Robertson’s new paintings the symmetry which centred her earlier paintings has become equally elusive. The eye searches for symmetrically placed arcs without being absolutely certain of finding them.

Carol Robertson Colour Stream 2011
Colour Stream 2011

There is also a considerable difference in feeling between those new works that have vertical grounds and arcs and those that have horizontal ones. The vertical works, with their fall of light, seem to refer to spiritual issues; the paintings with horizontal grounds and arcs, while still celestial in scale, seem connected in feeling to more earthly pleasures. The grounds are like vast landscapes spread out before one, often of sea and sky and the arcs have a gentle rocking motion, swaying to and fro as might a boat, or a hammock in which one lies to look at the sky.

Recently Robertson has been reading the late poems Rilke wrote in French and in particular the two collections The Roses and The Windows. The poems in French are lighter, more joyous and more playful than those in German. The windows in the poems often frame the figure of a woman, an ideal love and The Roses, by virtue of their subject matter, have a gentle Eros. Robertson’s Colour Stream, Colour Field and Tide Lines series have this delicate erotic nature. In Colour Stream #2 (page 9), Tide Lines #1 & #2 (page 42) and Colour Field #5 (page 11) the rules she has constructed are sometimes broken. Some arcs are not continuous and when they reappear they can be a different colour and width. This may be the result of repainting but since they have been left like that then it is clearly intentional. The breaking of her newly-established rules has the same effect of waking up the viewer as the abandonment or modification of strict metre in a line of poetry.

She has returned to complete circles in Starstream, Starcross and the Restless Circles series. The centres of the circles in these works move around the centres of the paintings and again one searches for those circles which are symmetrically placed and concentric. Although these exist they constantly appear to shift. The titles Starstream 2010 (page 29) and Starcross 2011 (page 27) emphasise the cosmic reference in all these works although Starcross got its name in memory of Robertson’s aunt, Stella. The title Starcross made me think of Romeo and Juliet. But as with one’s ever shifting interpretations of Rilke, Auntie, cosmos and star-crossed lovers all can inhabit this work.

Carol Robertson Starstream 2010
Starstream 2010

I have spent some time discussing the compositional features of these paintings of the last three years and their conceptual bases, and this has largely ignored a major concern of Robertson’s work: colour. In the new works she has explored families of colour consisting of groups of closely related colours that seem to shift in and out of each other, combined with sharply contrasting colours. Robertson feels a very strong relationship to individual colours, considering they have powerful emotional and magical properties. Each arc or circle is a single colour which has been pondered and worked on for some time. This also means that the change in colour when they intersect has a highly dramatic quality. The emotional content of each painting gradually builds up with the addition of each long-considered colour.

In many ways Horace remains an interesting comparison to Robertson. They are both lyric artists who are technically and intellectually scrupulous. Horace created the lyric in Latin poetry, developing lyric metric strophes from the earlier Greek poets Asclepiades, Sappho, and Alcaeus. The Horatian music with its delicate intertwining alliterations, assonances and internal rhyming is comparable to the rhythm of the swinging, crossing arcs, the closely related colours and the sharp flashes of the radiant crossings of Robertson’s painting. Horace declared himself a “poet of parties” celebrating the pleasures of sex, music and wine, all consonant with the feelings expressed in Robertson’s work. In terms of the opposition of art and life, Horace, despite his autobiographical subject matter and delight in human frailties, is on the side of art and beauty. In the very first lyric in his collection of odes he declares his ultimate allegiance to poetry. It was for this reason that Wilfred Owen mounted his coruscating attack on him for his lines “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori” (‘It is sweet and right to die for your fatherland’). Owen wrote his harrowing description of death from poison gas under this Horatian title, out of his experience of the First World War and in the foreword to his book said that he was “not concerned with poetry…the poetry is in the pity…true poets must be truthful”. Owen stands in the opposite corner to Horace; he is on the side of life and truth. It is difficult now to gainsay Owen but Horace fought on the losing republican side at Philippi in 42BC where he too faced death and would have seen terrible things. Luckily for him he was on the winning side in the later civil war between Octavian and Antony which set him up in Augustan society. Robertson, like Horace, fills her painting with elements from her experience of life, but ultimately is on the side of art and beauty. She connects the development in her work to changes that come with age. She no longer has the certainties of youth when she could paint firmly symmetrical forms where truth and beauty had equal weight. The whirligig of time has done its work, some of the deeply loved have died and the body deteriorates. The expression of flux and impermanence in the new work reflects her changing response to the world. Art and beauty however much they arise out of life are now the defence against its ravages. As Nietzsche said “We have art that we may not perish from truth”.

I do not know, in Robertson’s case, whether the reading of poetry inspired the painting of paintings or the act of painting inspired the reading of poetry, whether in her case, it is the Renaissance ‘as in poetry so in painting’ or the Roman ‘as in painting so in poetry’. I doubt if she herself ultimately knows.

Text © Chris Yetton May 2012
Images © Carol Robertson 2012

French Paintings
Colour Stream
Life Lines 1
Life Lines 2
Life Lines 3
Life Lines 4
Life Lines 5
Life Lines 6
Life Lines 7
Life Lines 8
Life Lines 9
Life Lines 10
Abstract Realities Part 1
A Breed of Life
Dark City Light City
This City 1
This City 2
This City 3
This City 4
This City 5
This City 6
This City 7
This City 8
This City 9
This City 10
Year 2005
January 22, 2004
February 6, 2004
March 11, 2004
April 21, 2004
May 12, 2004
June 30, 2004
July 28, 2004
August 11, 2004
September 13, 2004
October 21, 2004
November 4, 2004
December 2, 2004
New Paintings 2000
Recent Paintings 1996
© 2017 Carol Robertson