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Scottish National Portrait Gallery unveils Alison Watt self portrait

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has unveiled a self portrait by Alison Watt.

Alison Watt (b.1965), Self-portrait, 1986-87. Oil on canvas, 30.80 x 30.80 cm. © Alison Watt

The painting, which was made while the artist was still a student, has been presented by the Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art, to celebrate the re-opening of the Gallery in December 2011.

Alison Watt was born in Greenock in 1965 and studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1983 to 1988. She first came to public attention in 1987, when she won the annual portrait award organised by the National Portrait Gallery in London, and was commissioned to paint HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In 2000, Watt became the youngest artist to be given a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and from 2006 to 2008 was Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London. She was awarded an OBE in 2008.

Although she has rarely engaged with formal portraiture since her early career, Alison Watt has said that there is an element of self-portraiture in all of her work – from the very beginning, when she would stand in front of a mirror and paint herself obsessively, to the more subtle representations of self implied in the complex and enigmatic paintings of folded drapery for which she is best known today.

Watt’s Self-portrait of 1986-7 has been acquired for the SNPG from the artist’s collection and has been exhibited only once before, at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow in 1990. Painted whilst she was ill, it shows Watt with her right hand across her forehead.

Despite the intensity of her observation, Watt treats herself objectively, giving the inanimate elements in the painting equal weight to her own depiction, in a way that anticipates much of her later work. The female figures and nudes Watt painted in the 1990s were often oblique or veiled references to herself, and in the later paintings of fabric this is even more subtly expressed. Although on first appearance these paintings have an almost abstract quality, devoid of a human presence, a powerful sense of the body is implied in the folds and creases created by the cloth.

The Scottish National Collection has a significant number of portraits of artists and a large number of self-portraits, to which this work by Alison Watt is an important addition.

Speaking of the acquision, Nicola Kalinsky, Interim Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, said: ‘The Art Fund’s gesture in presenting this exquisite self-portrait by one of the most interesting artists to emerge from Scotland in recent years was hugely generous. Marking the re-opening of the Portrait Gallery, this acquisition underlines our commitment to exploring contemporary portraiture and showcasing Scottish talent.’

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, added: ‘The re-opening of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was one of the major museum success stories of 2011 – so when its curators asked the Art Fund to support their acquisition of this mesmerizing work we were keen to help. Indeed, by way of congratulating the museum on its triumphant re-opening we exceptionally offered to cover the full purchase cost. Like the museum, Alison Watt is deeply embedded in her Scottish context yet also of international stature, and the Art Fund is pleased to be saluting them both through this grant.’

Alison Watt said: ‘I have always been fascinated by portraiture. Over the years I’ve studied extraordinary examples of it from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s collection, particularly those works by Raeburn, Ramsay and Van Dyck. These paintings transcend time and place. That’s what portraiture should do. It’s a great thrill to be part of a collection which contains such iconic works.’ –

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