Publication: The Times
In a remarkably frank and touching introduction to the work of the painter Pat Douthwaite, Douglas Hall — former Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art — writes: “At a period when artists even of the avant-garde were planning their careers like any other ambitious professionals, always mindful of their image and place in the pecking order, Douthwaite was self-destructing as well as being the victim of some crushing misfortunes”.
This idea of wilful self-destruction and of fated ill-fortune seems central to Douthwaite’s often bleak but honest view of herself and the world she inhabits. Her portraits of femmes fatales, female icons, outcasts and goddesses — drawn with a convoluted, tortured line — are intense observations of the psyche imploding in agony. But it would be facile to suggest that these works are solely autobiographical; they are clearly more than that. Douthwaite extends her own experience to meet that of others — often flawed but nevertheless remarkable women — such as the aviator Amy Johnson or the screen siren Theda Bara.
Despite a career which has included a number of large-scale shows in prestigious venues, Douthwaite has always retained an ‘outsider’ status. Perhaps this is because of her lack of formal training; or because, for much of her life, she has lived in England detached from her Scottish roots; again, her vulnerability and femininity have also perhaps been contributory. Whatever the reasons, her vision has remained isolated, lonely — but paradoxically involved.
In its ability to disturb with the portrayal of vicious cruelty, Douthwaite’s work — at its best — approaches that of Francis Bacon. Her ‘Skeleton in a Red Dress Dress’, which dates from 1971, is a case in point. A contorted figure with blackened limbs, floats spectre-like against a background of acid yellow; a hollowed skull, with gaping darkened mouth and eye-sockets, seems transfixed in perpetual agony. Its companion piece, ‘Skeleton with Baby’ is no less disturbing — a tour-de-force in violently opposing colours and tremulous lines.
Other equally disconcerting works include ‘Vixen, Goddess of Teumnessus’ or ‘Miss Has-Been’. Their power derives from Douthwaite’s ability to convey raw, emotional states, achieved not only through colour and subject-matter, but also in the depiction of expressive, gestural components — a withered hand; large, exaggerated eyes; or a gaping mouth. Although the individual elements of these pieces can be witnessed in the work of scores of artists over the past 100 years or so, they find a particular combination here, making Douthwaite’s work instantly recognisable and unique.
Amongst all of this pain and confusion, there are lighter moments. Douthwaite seeks solace in the depiction of animals; her elephants are fun and her pastel study of a Dalmation ‘Henry Dooley’ becomes an almost abstract arrangement of spots and shapes.
This is a timely show but it should not act as a substitute for a larger, fuller retrospective at sometime in the near future.
Pat Douthwaite — Retrospective 1960-2000
The Scottish Gallery
16 Dundas Street
0131 558 1200
Until 28 June
Published in The Times, Around the Galleries, 14-06-00