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Watt, Alison - VM - Kevin Burns

Alison Watt: Still

An Absent Presence

by Kevin Burns

Alison Watt’s quadriptych (work in four parts) hangs in the Memorial Chapel of Old St. Paul’s, Edinburgh, Scotland, fully inhabiting the space with its four, six-foot square panels. It immediately draws your attention and, whether or not you are aware of its title, fosters quiet, creating a space for its viewer to ‘be still and know.’

Watt’s depiction of white pleated fabric, however, is not rendered stagnantly, bereft of any sign of life. Similar to her series Shift where fabrics suggest a recently present human body, here too we get a sense of movement. The cloth hangs perhaps on the verge of revealing something behind it. Watt says of her fabric paintings, ‘Although the body is not explicitly represented, it’s still echoed in the landscape of the cloth. The paintings are about an absent presence.’ Still gives us an intimation of something or someone beyond what our eyes behold.

On the wall adjacent to Watt’s painting are affixed the words from the poem ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon: ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old’ along with John 15:13: ‘Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Still is a remembrance of loss, honoring soldiers killed in war. Yet it does not fail to convey hope. With the cross naturally formed by its four panels, the painting evokes the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. The cloth itself recalls Christ’s burial shroud gloriously draped over many crosses in this Easter season. In viewing Still, we think on the sacrifice of soldiers and the final sacrifice of Christ. And we yearn for the day when he will pull away the cloths of death and we will all be changed ‘in the twinkling of an eye.’


Alison Watt: Still, 2004, 365 x 365 cm, oil on canvas. Memorial Chapel of Old St. Paul’s, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Alison Watt OBE (b. 1965) is a Scottish painter best known for her depictions of drapery. She is the youngest artist to have had a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2000) and to serve as an Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London (2006-8). For Still, Watt won the ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry) award for a Commissioned Artwork in Ecclesiastical Space in 2005.

Kevin Burns is currently studying for his Masters in the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation April 12, 2015