Anne Rothenstein: Pied Piper

Work / Art

London Review of Books cover artist Anne Rothenstein on the creative freedom of growing older

Painter Anne Rothenstein comes “from a family of artists”. Growing up in the village of Great Bardfield in Essex, which she tells us was “a virtual community of artists in the 50s”, there was little doubt that her path would be a creative one. As she states: “It was simply presumed that I would become an artist of some kind”.

After a brief stint at art school in Camberwell in the 60s, Anne dropped out to pursue a career in acting. It was only during the late 70s, around the time she had her children, that Anne picked up painting again. She says that when her children started attending school, “I really got going. But it’s only in the last few years, finally having serious time to myself to concentrate, that things have really taken off.”

Anne’s elegant illustrative paintings, executed in oil colour on wood panels, merge intricate patterning and fine details with single-colour block forms to create images that hover somewhere between minimalism and decadence, their muted and restrained colour palettes interrupted by flashes of vivid colour – usually red. Speaking of her process, she tells us: “I always start with an image which has caught my imagination. Why something arrests my eye at any particular time is the most interesting question. The original image might come from a photo, a movie or another painting. What I find fascinating is what happens while I paint. The initial image will take on a life of its own and some kind of story seems to emerge. Without wanting to sound pretentious, it is quite a mysterious process – watching one’s subconscious potter around!”

Drawing much of her inspiration, she tells us, from art that participates in the conventions and techniques of outsider art – Jockum Nordström, Kerry James Marshal, Kiki Smith, Danny Fox – Anne paints scenes and figures which seem to exist at a slight remove from reality, grounded in vaguely recognisable environments, yet without any distinguishing features to link them to particular time or place. Realism is also eschewed in favour of a more intuitive, stripped-back approach to representing people and objects.


Anne Rothenstein: Red Gloves

The narratives in Anne’s work come to the viewer obliquely, via her fantastic capacity for suggestion; often an entire story or complex series of emotions will be captured within a single gesture, a subtle expression, a shrewdly placed detail or a noticeable absence. A genderless, shoeless figure in red lipstick sits in quiet contemplation, wrapped in a shawl; three women in bathing suits standing among gossamer drapes, attended by a mysterious shadowy figure; a hazy, indecipherable speech-bubble issues from the mouth of a ringmaster-like character towards a red-gloved tightrope-walker; faceless figures wander in a chain across an indistinct, rocky landscape, in a sombre parody of follow-the-leader.

In their making, Anne’s paintings usually travel through a number of different phases and iterations. She tells us: “I start with a very precise drawing which will disappear and become almost irrelevant as the work progresses. Paintings can happen fast but more often than not they take a number of weeks and go through many stages and changes.” When it comes to Anne’s approach to her medium, her use of oil paints varies from opaque, thickly-laid colour to diaphanous, diluted tones through which the grain of the wood remains visible. This variety of textures and different levels of transparency contributes to the compositional and chromatic dichotomies that make the pictures appear almost collage-like in their attention to the polarities between surfaces and objects, light and shadow.

Anne’s “day job”, as she calls it, involves making artworks for numerous covers of the London Review of Books, the implicit visual stories contained within her paintings providing the perfect front for the verbal narratives comprising the literary journal. She says: “At present, I’m just revelling in having the time to experiment with my materials and new ideas. Getting older, most particularly for women, comes with a delicious sense of freedom. One sees it in the emergence of so many older female artists from the shadows. I know it’s largely because they have been overlooked, but it’s also the freedom from the demands of ordinary – so often boring – life, from husbands and children when they have all, thankfully, left home.”


Anne Rothenstein: Two Angry People


Anne Rothenstein: Blue Dress 2


Anne Rothenstein: Changing


Anne Rothenstein: Dancers


Anne Rothenstein: Black Striped Blanket


Anne Rothenstein: Red Striped Blanket


Anne Rothenstein: Moonlight


Anne Rothenstein: Red Head


Anne Rothenstein: Red Head 2


Anne Rothenstein: Windows