From the Spring 2010 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Before I met Barbara Rae RA for lunch, I knew her only through her paintings and prints – intense colour bursts that evoke dramatic landscapes but remain resolutely abstract. They distil the colour, light and forms of nature into dazzling visions. Barbara shares their vibrant qualities and has what can only be described as a colourful personality. Treating her sixties as the new forties, she energetically crosses the globe in pursuit of her art. She splits her time between homes in her native Scotland, Los Angeles and France, travels regularly to Spain and Ireland and makes art everywhere she goes.
“When I’m working on an exhibition, I shoot off to different places, and I research each one carefully,” she says. “I’m not interested in topographical detail. I need to be able to immerse myself in the culture of a place to make art.” The fruits of her recent travels are on display in two London shows this spring, as well as in a new book of her prints.
We meet for lunch at Scott’s because she loves seafood and this is one of Mayfair’s classic spots for it. Famous as the 1960s watering hole where Bond creator Ian Fleming discovered the dry martini “shaken, not stirred”, it was restored to its slick ‘60s glamour in 2005. Dominated by a glittering oval oyster bar, this glossy, well-groomed space is now the lair of financial masters of the universe and ladies who lunch, although a Bond villain wouldn’t feel out of place in its glitzy surroundings. Nor does Rae, whose championship fencing skills and dark dramatic looks could have qualified her for a role as a Bond girl in her youth. She learned to fence while teaching art in her twenties and went on to become British Junior Foil champion before giving it up to concentrate on art.
“Oysters are in order,” exclaims Barbara, as she admires the oyster bar and notes the walls lined with art by YBAs who have now become RAs – Gary Hume, Tracey Emin, Fiona Rae and Michael Landy. “I’m delighted to discover this place right around the corner from where I stay in Curzon Street. The bar is the perfect place to sit on one’s own and watch people.”
We share a dozen oysters – a mixed platter from France, West Mersea and Ireland – along with octopus carpaccio. This turns out to be one of the most original and beautiful dishes we have ever seen. “It looks like a textile design,” says Rae of the mosaic-like disc of pink and white circles, glistening with olive oil, that tastes of citrus and the sea. It pairs well with the lemony, aromatic Soave Classico, one of her favourite wines.
For mains, she opts for the grilled wild sea bass, accompanied by spinach and chips – “any excuse to have chips!” – while I choose roast John Dory on the bone, the meatiness of the fish enhanced by earthy ceps and roast Jerusalem artichokes.
Rae spots game on the menu and tells me about her student job as a grouse-beater in the Highlands: “I tried to walk quietly so I didn’t disturb the grouse.” She didn’t just take this job for the money though. “I loved being up there walking the hills, seeing the landscape, drawing it. Geography was really important to me and it still plays a huge role in my art.” Whatever landscape she is working in – whether urban or rural – she walks it and captures it in drawings and photographs, before interpreting its essence in her art. Even in LA, where she lives part of the year because her husband works there as a screenwriter, Barbara can be spotted walking up and down Lincoln Boulevard taking photos. “I am probably the only pedestrian,” she laughs, “but I’m fascinated by the signage and graffiti and I’m building up a catalogue of images to use at some point. When we’re in LA, we rent a house in Sedona, Arizona – near the Painted Desert – and visit all the Indian sites for a few months.”
A blistering three-hour drive from LA but a world away from its suburban sprawl, the Painted Desert is a wild, magical and isolated landscape named after the ancient volcanic dust that paints colourful pigments across the earth as though it were a natural canvas. “We spend a lot of time in northern Arizona and New Mexico – Navajo and Hopi Indian country – looking at the ancient rock paintings and carvings of their ancestors – these sacred symbols held spiritual meaning for them. It’s important for me to work out what these symbols mean. I incorporate them into my landscapes to get a sense of the spiritual world of these ancient peoples.” But whatever landscape inspires her, says the artist, “when I get back to the studio, it could be anything, because landscape is only the beginning, the formal structure – the drawings are the starting point for something I play around with in the studio.”
Known for her vigorous colour, Rae insists she does not come from the Scottish colourist tradition. “Being Scottish is obviously important in my relationship with the landscape and history of the west coast of Scotland, which has inspired a lot of my art, but I don’t regard myself as a Scottish artist.” Her colour comes from her technique of applying unmixed acrylic paints directly onto the canvas and then pouring lots of fluid over them, so that the pigments mix and embed themselves into the work. “I just use the pure pigments and they blend on canvas.”
As we share a bittersweet Amedei chocolate soufflé with honeycomb ice cream – a dessert as irresistible as it sounds – we discuss the importance of the Academy for her. “It’s wonderful to meet the other artists and find out what they are doing. The Academy is a great binder of all these artists and architects with totally different points of view. And I love being part of such an international community of artists,” she says. “As I told Hughie O’Donoghue, when he became an RA recently, the wonderful thing about joining the Royal Academy is that you find a whole pile of friends you never knew you had.”
Barbara Rae RA: Prints Sir Hugh Casson Room, Royal Academy of Arts, 19 March – 20 June
Barbara Rae RA: Prints (£35, Royal Academy)
Barbara Rae: New Paintings Adam Gallery, London, 020 7439 6633, 25 May – 12 June 2010
Sarah Greenberg is former Editor of RA Magazine