- Alison Watt
- Odalisque; Fragment I
- oil and pencil on canvas; diptych
- each: 153 by 183cm.; 60 by 72in.
- Executed in 1996.
With a soft, delicate palette Watt increasingly developed an interest in the texture and material nature of her portrait paintings, and the objects, props and fabrics contained within them. As Watt later wrote ‘what I came to realise was that the paintings of fabric were more sensual than the paintings of the body’ (The Artist, quoted in Alison Watt (exh. cat.), Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 2004, unpaginated). This intense interest in texture led to a reassessment of the work of her long term inspiration Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, both in his society portraiture and his elegant reclining nudes. Her rediscovery prompted an important series of diptychs, including the present work, which released the female figure from the confines of her earlier cluttered, domestic space and paired them with a panel of matching size devoted to a close-up reinterpretation of the fabrics. Each relating to specific works, in the present composition Watt looked towards La Grande Odalisque (1814, Musée du Louvre, Paris), with the truncated form employing the formalist device Ingres favoured – known as The Line of Beauty – to shape his figure around an elongated ‘s’ form. Watt captures the delicacy of the sitter’s skin in a manner at once reminiscent of Stanley Spencer’s incredibly astute technique, but with a porcelain softness that is immediately recognisable as her own. In the bottom left of the composition, the white rectangle refers to the section of drapery in Ingres’ composition that in turn provides the compositional arrangement of the left hand panel of the diptych.
Included in her seminal exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, in 1997, the present work is crucial in demonstrating the interplay between figuration and abstraction that has become a defining feature of Watt’s oeuvre. The highly figurative nude references her earlier more representational style, whilst the abstracted contours of the softly folding fabrics are prophetic of her more recent work, including her 2000 exhibition Shift at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which featured twelve large-scale paintings, taking materials as their sole subject matter.