By turns figurative, abstract, enchanting and poetic, this exhibition showcases works by Vivien Rothwell (1945–2015); exploring her fascination with depicting natural landscapes. Spanning over forty years of the artist’s practice, the twenty-four sketches and paintings presented in this space express the artist’s self-professed process of “analyse … simplify, reduce, rearrange.” From elfin birds gliding over water scenes or crosshatched trees, to fluid geometric shapes dividing out canvases, Echoes of Nature takes you on an allegorical journey through her creative universe.
In 2019, four years after the artist’s death, Rothwell’s family donated a collection of the artist’s paintings and sketches to the Central Saint Martins Museum & Study Collection. Shortly after, and over the course of several months, these works were photographed and analysed, and questions were posed and discussed on their pigments, materials, motifs and symbols. At this stage, a deep interest in the ephemeral quality of the artist’s work was formed, reflecting a pointed inability to situate the artist in relation to her contemporaries and to the movements from which she drew inspiration. Using digital technology, Echoes of Nature endeavours to create a legacy for Vivien Rothwell that will stand the test of time, educating viewers on her wholly individual, environmentally heartfelt and graceful pictorial language.
A Viewer’s Manual: How to Approach the Exhibition
The virtual journey begins in an esoteric garden, with the camera leading the eye through an environment inspired by the spatial compositions of the artist’s work. Here, just for a moment, the exhibition becomes a participating member in projecting the mystical character of Rothwell’s output, resisting that sometimes-stagnant effect of the gallery space in its substitution of a plain-white, cubed form for a geometrically arranged virtual environment, designed to evoke reflection. Lean into this feeling, considering as you go the points, lines, angles and figures of the landscapes that surround us.
Inside the exhibition, the camera manoeuvres between artworks showing Rothwell’s deeply introspective – and markedly disparate – practice of transfiguring nature. Though the gallery manifests a distinct separation of text and image, more about these works can be found in the catalogue, by using a colour coded system – the key on page 12 details the separation between the chapters Figurative Landscapes and Abstracted Realities. In this way, subjective reactions to the artist’s work are nurtured, highlighting the different processes engaged in Rothwell’s practice: colour, texture, scrutiny, seasonality, and, most importantly, spatiality. Though these pieces may appear to be irreconcilably different, they are all linked to these mechanisms, designed, as reverently articulated by her daughter, “to give the viewer the possibility of a journey.”
Throughout her life, Rothwell oscillated between two pictorial languages: figuration and abstraction. Figuration, referring to images depicted true to life, allowed her to construct impressionist narratives by intertwining personal experience with natural elements. These landscapes are deeply subjective, marked by the artist’s notes on breath, air and nature; in a sketchbook from 1995, she even annotated one work with the enigmatic words “strange air.” Characterised by dense and powerful lines, these many depictions of figurehead symbols of nature – such as leaves, trees and birds – demonstrate an incredible ability to convey form and texture. Importantly, they allude to a deep interest in poetry and literature, characterised by a feeling of fictive vitality in her work.
Rothwell’s career is perhaps best defined by abstraction, a term referring to images that are primarily imaginative and interpretive rather than imitative. It is an approach which held a central place in the artist’s paintings and sketches. These pieces combine the inspiration the artist took from prominent creators – among them Rothko, Reubens, Monet and the poet Wallace Stevens – with the unique painterly elegance she crafted over her lifetime. In her paintings of this nature, spatiality and poetry become leading components of her canvases, expressing a sensitivity and understanding of visual language.
The colours of these works are particularly significant, presenting primarily a spectrum of soft greens, oranges and whites. In her most famous series, Palaces (1977), she divides these colours out on separate geometric planes, separating them by thinly veiled lines. Similarly, her sketchbooks detail reductions of trees, birds and the sea, showing the artist’s course from figuration to abstraction. Though these natural elements and wider landscapes have been simplified, there remains a feeling of being taken somewhere. As in her figurative sketches, Rothwell passionately evokes immersion in the natural world.
Digital and immersive technology has become a central part of everyday life. We use it to become more informed, to share opinions, to access a wider range of information and, most recently, to exhibit. Thanks to the growing number of virtual gallery experiences, art has never been so accessible, reaching new and diverse audiences across the globe. This curatorial turn has not only changed aspects of how we approach exhibitions, but it has also completely changed the game, challenging the automatic need for physicality in museums. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic did we see behemoth galleries and museums display their works virtually.
Echoes of Nature is not only a digital project, but it is a project that was born to be virtual. This vitally has allowed the curators of the show to not only launch deep research into the possibilities and technologies of this realm, but it has also allowed the delivery of a unique space representative of the artist that may have otherwise been completely unrealisable. In this space, there has been an acute acknowledgement of the need for grounding in digital environments and this is reflected in the separation of the space into two parts: the conceptual garden and the concrete gallery. The central aim of this approach to making an exhibition is the possibility to connect Rothwell’s artworks with a broader public and offer it a long-lasting legacy.
Though available exclusively online, limiting some of the classic environmental waste generated by exhibitions, Echoes of Nature, is, like all virtual galleries, not a carbon free project. This must be acknowledged, taking into account the screen time and electronic resources used in both the creation and streaming of the digital environment.
In response to this, and in order to mildly offset the footprint of the exhibition, a £200 seed and planter donation will be made in the name of Vivien Rothwell to a forthcoming project at Central Saint Martins. These seeds will be used to cultivate sustainable pigments, which can be used in both dyes and paints from plants including, among others, echinacea, sunflowers, marigolds and plum trees.
Rothwell loved nature and regularly mentioned environmental causes that she felt deserved attention. Giving something back to a landscape that gave her such life is fitting of her legacy.
 Quoted from a 2020 interview with Hannah MacDonald, the artist’s daughter