Published  12/01/2016

Carole Robb: ‘It was the harsh Scottish weather that shaped the internal life of my imagination’

Carole Robb: ‘It was the harsh Scottish weather that shaped the internal life of my imagination’

As a child, she drew on her bedrooms walls. As an adult, she has won the Prix de Rome and a Fulbright Scholarship. Born in Scotland, she has lived in Rome, New York and London. Here, she talks about her career, and her latest work based on the love story of Paris and Helen of Troy


Carole Robb, who was born in Scotland in 1943, started her artistic career as a student at the Glasgow School of Art, where two hours of life drawing a day was compulsory. She left Scotland for Paris, where she stayed for two years. She was invited to study for her MFA at the University of Reading with Terry Frost. While there, she won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which provided her with a studio in Rome during 1979-80. Her work has a curious grandeur, for she uses Greek and Roman mythology with a naturalness and ease that remains firmly grounded in contemporary art practice.

Her work is represented in private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum, both in London. Robb is a member of the National Academy, New York. Her recent exhibition at the Studio Arts Centers International in Florence, Carole Robb: Imagining the Antique (6 October – 3 November 2015), presented large watercolours based on the story of Paris and Helen of Troy. Robb has studios in New York, London and Rome, where she is artistic director of the Rome Art Program. We talked on a beach at St Andrews in Scotland.

Janet McKenzie: You have visited Scotland only rarely since you were a student in Glasgow, yet you maintain a strong sense of being a Scot. What are your abiding memories of growing up here and how do you feel the place has impacted on your career as an artist?

Carole Robb: I left home at the age of three carrying a handbag packed with handkerchiefs: I was pretty sure there was something beyond what I could see. My journey may have been sparked by my grandfather’s bedtime stories: I liked Achilles because he sulked. Family holidays were in the Highlands where I mostly remember the mosquitos. As a teenager growing up on the west coast, when I wasn’t dancing at the boat club I was lost in languor watching the ships from the Atlantic heading upriver to Glasgow. My bedroom overlooked the world; merchant ships, battleships and submarines all passed by. My mother was disappointed when I got into Glasgow School of Art. “Artists are scoundrels and sleep till midday,” she said, and cut me off without a cent, but it didn’t matter as I had a scholarship. In winter, I used my drawing board to sled home, down the slope outside the art school. In summer, I worked in Paris and Munich and saw the museum collections. Glasgow School of Art shaped my studio discipline; no effort without error, but it was the harsh Scottish weather that shaped the internal life of my imagination.

JMcK: A sense of place is a powerful force for an artist. How would you describe your practice in relation to the cities in which you have chosen to live?

CR: My studio practice depends on where I’m working. Being an artist is a job, and New York is the base. You have to watch out for sensory and intellectual overload there. American artists and writers have great energy, but there can be four openings a week of artists you know, and I attend poetry readings so I have to plan ahead to maximise studio time. Manhattan is about ideas moving around quickly in the artist community, it’s about optimism and risk-taking. The fast-paced activity is made possible by easy subway access, cabs everywhere and delis serving coffee in the middle of the night.

London is a vast city with galleries spread out in hard-to‐reach places. Even with the tube and taxis, you can’t do more than one outing a day, but with fewer galleries there aren’t as many openings. So I see more movies and draw from Siennese painting in the National Gallery. I get time to reflect on what’s doing in New York and to consolidate ideas I’ve had in Rome. London kicks in with the path of instinct and that’s best travelled alone. However, Rome is the first place I’ve lived in that I love. I’m not sentimental, it’s a challenging workplace but it’s where I find my image content. The beauty in central Rome is staggering. The detail is in the stones and they’re steeped in consequence, from the stones of its fledgling democracy in the Roman Forum to the barbarism of the Colosseum. It’s a city of whispering fountains where you find yourself in a courtyard with Roman figures looking down from the walls of what appear to be dimly lit offices. It’s not listed. What is this mysterious place? Don’t ask. It will become a painting.

JMcK: Being awarded the Prix de Rome is a huge honour for an artist still in her 30s. What significance did it have both in terms of your art, and also in terms of practical decisions, and priorities then and since?

CR: The evening I arrived at the British School at Rome [BSR] to take up the Rome Prize there was an airship in the sky with flashing lights, “Roma e bella per la note”. Getting this award was the best thing that happened to me as an artist. It exposed me to Roman art and bought me time to develop. I was in the right place at the right time. I found that Masaccio was murdered in Rome but Nicolas Poussin survived. I also found that the first abstract expressionist show in Europe was in Rome, and Giorgio Morandi admired just one painting in that show, Jackson Pollock’s Lavender mist.

The BSR live-in studios were large and had sleeping lofts, as wells as staff who took care of all your needs, including the nightly dinners where you could discuss your ideas with scholars and art historians. The most helpful information I had at that time was from visiting curators, Paul Williamson and Lewis Biggs. How should I live? The BSR experience was central to my thinking and I figured my future life would need to come up with a solution to finding enough studio time and financial stability. I doubted this was possible in the UK of the 1980s, so I left for America on a Fulbright Scholarship.

JMcK: Why have you not become an American citizen, even though you have lived there mostly now for 26 years?

CR: America is a truly marvellous country, so I’m not sure why. My life isn’t an open book, least of all to myself. Maybe I live with the idea of impermanence. The Emperor Hadrian called the tribes in the north of Britain the Caledonians, and built a wall to keep their warrior culture out. My father was a Highlander and I’ve nothing but Scots blood. You’d be surprised if the Spartans of Ancient Greece, were not fiercely attached to Sparta, so why not the Scots to Scotland?

JMcK: When did you first draw? How has it come to underpin your practice?

CR: A Canadian relative sent me a gift of multicoloured crayons before I was in primary school and I used them to draw all over my bedroom wall. The drift into drawing was as unconscious as crossing the doorstep of my own home. Drawing is essential to me; I use it as a means of investigation. I use it to probe. I draw when I have a structural/formal painting problem and I draw from observation to collect specific information for a painting, so I draw a lot. I don’t draw for aesthetic reasons, but I’ll discard a drawing that doesn’t work aesthetically because I can’t bear to look at it. I shred 90% of my drawings.

JMcK: The New York Studio School, where you teach, has a particular approach to drawing. Can you describe how, given your training, you came to teach there?

CR: My Glasgow School of Art training was from observation of the nude, for years and years. But Terry Frost, my MFA tutor at the University of Reading, was aggressively abstract and that’s why I went there. I saw that great figurative art depended on the artist being a great abstract artist. Later, in America, I saw this philosophy put into practice at the New York Studio School, where students worked from observation and perception.

I didn’t plan on teaching in the US. I’d taught in the London art schools when my Fulbright year ended and it was a frustrating time. The teaching paid little, and meant even less time was left for the studio. But the New York Studio School was different: the dean was a British painter, Graham Nickson, and when he invited me to teach, I figured the school was worth supporting and I went on to teach drawing and painting there. The Forum Gallery was selling my paintings by then, so I could bring my young son to New York for his school breaks. Teaching just two days a week worked fine. I recently stopped teaching there so that I could develop a summer programme in Italy, the Rome Art Program. It brings international students to work en plein air in the city, using the same principles of figuration harnessed to abstraction. I had the gift of Rome: now I’m able to give some of it back.

JMcK: You studied Greek and Latin at school, and were introduced to Greek and Roman mythology at home from a very young age. Does that explain your naturalness when creating visual narratives of the western mythological tradition, as if the dramas were all still taking place?

CR: The dramas are still taking place. A myth is a message; it gives us a clue as to who we are and how we are. The conflict between east and west resonates today, with the clash between Europe and the east. In the Iliad, Homer gives his account of the east-west battle between Greece and Troy. Now that Troy’s been excavated, evidence shows it wasn’t fiction, the conflict between east and west got going thousands of years ago.

JMcK: You make solemn, powerful iconic drawings using just charcoal – of Roman sculptures in Rome. What is it you are exploring and evoking when you build such remarkable images?

CR: We can identify with Roman sculpture heads, without knowing what exactly happened. The male heads are mostly of emperors and each is like a collective presence of the Roman Empire. Beneath even the calmest head, there’s a tension. The Empire is either going up, being sustained or it is crashing.

JMcK: Helen of Troy was considered the most beautiful woman in the world – the face that launched a thousand ships – of whom much has been written and speculated on. Was she, in your view, a heroine or a goddess oblivious to the consequences of her actions? Can you explain how you came to make your recent body of work?

CR: Christopher Smith is the director of the British School at Rome. He’s a distinguished ancient history scholar and he found me a great poetic translation in the BSR library, of the letters between Paris and Helen of Troy, written by Ovid. What a brilliant idea, a Roman poet invents, and then writes other folks’ love letters, 1,000 years later. It was startling reading. Paris is a Trojan prince. Across the dinner table, he’s facing Helen, a Greek queen. In full view of her husband, he declares his love by dipping his finger in red wine and tracing amo on the table. She is his, right from that instant, and the husband sees nothing. Their passionate collision and flight to Troy triggered an epic war between Greece and Troy. The Trojans were massacred and the hero of the battle, Achilles, is killed in action. East‐west history was for ever changed. Based on Ovid’s text, I set the scene in contemporary Rome and began a series of Passionate Collision paintings, each one like a movie frame and painted in no particular order. Part 1 showed large oil paintings in spring 2015 in New York at the Denise Bibro Fine Art Gallery. Part 2 showed large watercolours (one very long) in autumn 2015 in Florence at the Studio Arts Centers International Gallery. I concur with Ovid’s position on Paris and Helen: he took none.

JMcK: Is there a message for us in the 21st century in the story of Helen of Troy and Paris?

CR: Two thousand-plus years after this love affair, we still remember their names. It isn’t happy love affairs that are remembered. Iconic myths such as that of Paris and Helen are like clues that abolish the complexity of human acts and give them clarity and simplicity. You can’t say there’s meaning in their rapture at being in love – perhaps the best we can do is identify with them. Every generation rediscovers passion as though it has never gone away

JMcK: Today, we have witnessed exquisite natural forms, the sea, and strong wind on the sand, beautiful skies. How does nature inform your creative process?

CR: I’m part of it. I’ll make a reference to water in a painting just as readily as I’ll make a reference to a human head. Which I choose depends on what I’m trying to say in a work. Being on the beach at St Andrews in a sandstorm reminded me that, for an artist, success can be freedom, the freedom to be where you need to be when you need to be.

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