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"Portrait Animalia" by Rieko Woodford-Robinson

Exhibition Dates:  5th October - 22nd October 2016 View the virtual gallery of "Portrait Animalia" here Centuries ago ancient Egyptian sculptures and statues ...

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Exhibition Dates:  5th October – 22nd October 2016

View the virtual gallery of “Portrait Animalia” here

Centuries ago ancient Egyptian sculptures and statues personified animals as gods, some fully dressed with human features (eg. Sekhmet Egyptian Goddess of War statues, 1300BC). The genesis of creatures depicted with human characteristics, personalities and dress became firmly established following the publication of sophisticated fairy tales and children’s stories created by early 19th century authors such as the Grimm’s Brothers (The Frog King, 1812), Hans Christian Andersen’s (The Little Mermaid, 1837) Lewis Carroll’s (Alice in Wonderland, 1865) Beatrix Potter’s (The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1901), Kenneth Grahame’s (Wind in the Willows, 1908) and A.A. Milne’s (Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926).  Other legendary 20th century illustrated stories and anthropomorphic characters which followed were created by writers such as Walt Disney, (1925), through to Richard Adams with “Watership Down” in 1972.  A flood of book, movie and television cartoon characters too numerous to mention, have followed as this genre has become more technical, sophisticated and computer generated.

Instrumental during the transformation of these classic stories to iconic status was the illustrator and the delightful artwork which bought the stories alive in an unprecedented fashion. The artists who illustrated the Alice in Wonderland stories over time included for example such celebrated names as John Tenniel (1865), Charles Pears (1907), the New Zealander Harry Rowntree (1928) to Salvador Dali in 1969 and even Max Ernst in 1970.  Beatrix Potter’s illustrations are legendary and have endured for over 100 years with various updates sympathetic and in keeping with the originals.  These illustrators established common (or not so common) animals with endearing characterisations and dress codes which captured the imagination of not only children and adults alike but influenced illustrators and artist’s for decades to follow. Tenniel, for example, illustrated a common rabbit in a bowtie, and the not so common Dodo bird who toted a walking stick while wearing a Pith Helmet. A menagerie of animals, reptiles and rodents were included and wonderfully illustrated in Carroll’s, Potter’s, Grahame’s and Milne’s books.

Woodford-Robinson carries on this tradition of illustration and invention with her intricately detailed and meticulously painted anthropomorphic portrait’s which have been finished to the highest level.  Their portrayal is enhanced by opulent period costumes and associated adornments such as bow ties, epaulettes, bonnets, top hats and embroidered waistcoats. The artist’s love of animals and her coveted soft toys is readily apparent and the paintings provide an insight or guide into the lives of the characters the artist has created and then portrayed.  In “Portrait of a Gentleman” the waistcoated rabbit reminds us perhaps of Michael Illingworth’s waistcoated and portly “Man of Consequence”, or John Webber’s distinguished 18th century portrait of Captain Cook.  The British naval style attired huia bird references J.G. Keuleman’s illustrated birds and more latterly Bill Hammond’s anthropomorphic bird paintings. The Feline “Duke of Felineton” seems to refer directly to Goya’s famous 1812 portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Woodford-Robinson confirms “I am also influenced by 17th to 19th century portrait masters who painted with particular attention to detail and the figures were often lavishly and theatrically dressed”.  This was a feature of military uniform and formal dress during the golden but somewhat aristocratic periods of Renaissance, Georgian and Regency lifestyle. The artists continues “I must say however, my anthropomorphic animals seem quite reluctant to reveal their backstories.  They appear to exist in childhood tales that have become forgotten or lost over time”.  Close inspection of the paintings reveal the artist has taken this genre of art to another level where the fur or feathers of each animal or bird appear remarkably tactile and realistic.

This quite unique series of 10 paintings could be viewed as a nostalgic reflection of childhood innocence, dreams and fantasies sacrificed or lost to adulthood. The artist does suggest and hint however at the special relationships which often exist between animals and people of all ages.  The birds and animals which are depicted here, graced with elegant millinery and other finery, appear the very equal to their human counterparts.  In reality humans and animals do often live together, work together and play together, where inseparable bonds are formed underscored by unconditional love and respect.

Rieko Woodford Robinson was born in Japan but has lived in New Zealand since 1999 working as an illustrator and artist based in Wellington.

“Portrait Animalia” is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Auckland.

Text: © Warwick Henderson Sept 2016

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