Anna Keen is a British artist, born on the Isle of Wight in 1968 and brought up on the remote Scottish island of Arran. She studied six years at the art school in Paris L’Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, where she obtained her diploma with distinctions. She has lived and worked as an artist in cities such as Rome, Venice, London and Amsterdam, where she has had over ten solo shows, participated in seventy collective shows, won several prizes and is represented in important private collections.
Anna Keen has now returned to the UK and is currently painting the Babylonian-type London skyline, which mutates constantly.
Usually I live a rather quiet life. I get up stroll to the studio drink lots of tea and read the paper. Occasionally I even do a little work. After a number of hours of this frantic activity its time to get a few things for my dinner watch a little TV and then amble off to bed. Occasionally I do some travelling. On my initial trip to Rome when I had my first show with Il Polittico I knew no one in the city. I was introduced to a charming funny young British artist who seemed to be enjoying all the pleasuresof the Eternal City. She took me on a whistle stop cycling tour of her favourite places and we stopped for tea in the rooms where she lived and worked in the shadow of the Vatican. I thought then as I do now that Anna Keen lived the sort of life every artist should. A spirit free of ties and ready to embark on the latest big adventure. In her company I have rowed across the Lagoon in Venice to the Island of Infections Diseases wandered round Naples on a completely unplanned trip that included sliding down the deserted corridors of the Capo di Monte Museum to stand in awe in front of Caravaggio’s magnificent flagellation of Christ. At her insistence I have been photographed being crucified on the beach at Salerno one Palm Sunday in my underpants to the amusement of the baffled onlookers. Once we got hopelessly lost on a trip to the dismal midlands town of Wolverhampton but the trip was enlivened by laughter and an infectious sense of adventure. It never surprises me when after not hearing from her for a whileI get a phone call to say she is living on a boat in an industrial wilderness or that she has moved on a whim to Amsterdam. Everywhere she goes is for her an inspiration for new and exciting work. It would be easy to imagine that such a restless spirit would get little work done but Anna is a prolific painter who is totally involved in her art. You might suppose that she belongs in another more romantic age except that the golden light that suffuses her work is just as likely to fall on the concrete bleakness of an inner city wasteland as a decorative and beautiful Roman ruin. I notice that in her latest work this light has a tendency to dissolve the details and that there is an urgent feverishness in her technique which belies her mastery of the art of painting forms and the ambiguous spaces that surround them. Underlying is her ability to draw and the cool eye that can register and reinterpret her surroundings. As an artist myself i have as great a respect for these masterly skills as I do for her ability to embark on her next big move -always ready to leave her comfort zone and experience something new. She is for me a great friend and inspiration. The consummate artist.
Consolations and Desolations of Rome – 10 Nov – 8 Dec 2007
Gallery Il Polittico Rome (Text published in catalogue)
The British have painted Venice almost as often as the Italians, to whom Venice belongs. Turner made some sparkling little masterpieces, as did Bonington. What can any British painter have to add, at the beginning of a new millennium? Anna Keen is a remarkable individual. Brought up on a remote Scottish island, she studied in Paris (simply because she had heard it was the place to go), lived and worked in Rome, and then decided it would be a good thing to spend some time in Venice. The present exhibition is the result of the period she spent there.What Anna learned in Rome was how to be a painter of architecture. The great buildings of Rome were her teachers, and she learned how to present them in a new way, how to suffuse their massive forms with atmosphere, and how to keep a balance between the old and the new. This is the exploration she has continued in an entirely different sort of urban environment. Many of her subjects are completely original. She must be the first painter for example, who has chosen to portray the massive multi-storey car-park at Piazzale Roma-a building as typical of our own epoch as Ca' Rezzonico is of the eighteenth century. She finds something interesting in its massive rectangular lines, not to Canaletto, but to another sonof Venice, G.B. Piranesi. She has also made a painting of the melancholy isolation hospital at Sacca Sessola, one of the few areas of Venice where no tourist ever sets foot, however she has not been frightened to tackle more traditional themes as well. There is a painting here of one of the most famous of all Venetian churches, Longhena's Salute. It is shown obliquely, its portico towering over the Grand Canal. "Oblique" is perhaps a key adjective when one is trying the define the particular qualities of this exhibition. This is not the festive Venice of Canaletto and Guardi, nor the dramatically stormy city of Turner, nor the glittering, light-speckled environment we see in a few paintings by Claude Monet. It is melancholic, deserted, seen in fading light. Even where figures are incorporated, as they are in a view of the Zattere, they seem isolated from one another, wrapped up in their own thoughts. Recently Venice has been made the setting for two very popular series of detective stories, both written in English, one by Michael Dibdin and the other by Donna Leon. Both writers are good enough to transcend the limitations of those chosen genre, and it is the picture they give of present-day Venice, inward-looking an occasion slightly sinister which seems to be reflected here.Many painters have visited Venice, comparatively few have actually participated in its daily life. One feels that these pictures are the product, not simply of choosing a particular scene and then making an image of it, but of many hoursspent loitering and looking. It is as if Anna has had to wait for moments when she caught the city off guard, when it was not offering her the smiling face, which it shows to so many visitors.If one leaves Venice and pushes further north and east, eventually one comes to another city whose history is almost as complicated. Trieste is Italy's gateway not only to Central Europe, but to the Balkans, and there one feels the presence of many influences which are not Italian. Venice herself used, of course, to possess an empire which had scattered outposts and colonies throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. It is some of these influences which now seemed to have permeated Anna's work. The low tones and generally brooding atmosphere of these paintings remind me ofthe landscape paintings made in the earlier years of the Vienna Secession, notably those of Gustav Klimt. They also-and this is a much more obvious comparison-remind me of the work done in Venice by Whistler.
After winning his libel case against Ruskin, but bankrupting himself in the process, since he received only contemptuous damages, and on contribution to his costs, Whistler moved to Venice in 1879, and lived there for fourteenth months.He did almost no painting but produced a large number of etchings, which show the city in its most informal aspect. Sickert, leader of the Camden Town School, which was the step before full Modernism in Britain, began his career as Whistler's pupil. He, too, spent a lot of time in Venice in the closing years of the nineteenth century. His tenebrous Venetian views also have something in common with what Anna Keen is doing now.What I am saying, I think, is that her depictions of Venice are vehicles for a sensibility which one might describe as Symbolist.. Nevertheless, she is a Symbolist with her feet rooted firmly in the realities of everyday life. If there is one writer whose reactions to her work I would like to have, it is not a professional art critic, nor even Thomas Mann, but the great Anglo-American novelist Henry James. James set part of one of his great novels, The Wings of the Dove, in Venice, and it also provides the setting for his masterly novella, The Aspern Papers. James consciously uses the beauty of Venice, but also its melancholy, to reinforce his complexanalysis of human nature. I like to think that he had met Anna, and seen her work, he would have found a place for her in one of his fictions. Certainly, since he celebrated independence of spirit in women, he would have been fascinated by what this remarkable nomad has achieved.
Your images open some access port in my head to all the time I spent in your studios, one way and another, and to time spent abroad, where of course the light seems to model stuff more vividly, things project a bit more sharply into the world, and what medieval theologians called the sensorium is a little bit more richly stocked. (Newton, who owed a lot to medieval theology, I suspect, called the world the sensorium of God, if I remember). In particular I'm looking at the one of you dipingendo massimo, and behind you there are some steps up into the sunlight, and there's a stool and some plants on a little terrace affair. In East Anglia the light is flat and the skies undifferentiated. Looking at that photo I have a proustianly vivid recollection of my early years in Rome. It's like my Paris of the 1920s. Massimo is great. But of course, it's not really about massimo, it's about you, with your great mausoleum looming over his head, as if he only exists in relation to it, or to the bigger contexts which you provide for him -Doge, Hadrian, whatever. It's a privilege for him.
The extraordinary life of Anna Keen began in 1968 near the high chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight, by 3yrs old she had no doubt that she would be an artist, at 6, she read Great Expectations. Her father’s sudden death in 1976 propelled the family to the black granite cliffs of the Isle of Arran, where for the next seven years they lived in isolation, without electricity or running water, next to the sea in a tiny caravan.
They clung on beneath tumultuous skies and roaring seas, happy and grateful as they read from a huge Bible illustrated by Gustav Doré, singing hymns as their mother played the church organ that she had bought for £10.
From that tiny wild island, in 1986, Anna was accepted into The Beaux-Arts in Paris (the French equivalent of the Royal College of Art). She studied under the last remaining traditional Painting Master, Pierre Carron, who was ‘An Immortal’ French Academicien. She learnt French in the streets and cafés, and spent hours each day sketching in the Louvre on her way to and from the École.
After obtaining her diploma from the École Nationale Supèrieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris (E.N.S.B.A.) with distinctions, Anna left for Rome, where for the next six years she worked as an artist, learning Italian and spending part of each day in a museum or church studying the Old Masters. Taken up by the Gallery ‘Il Politticco’, her paintings were bought by collectors such as Bulgari and Francesco Ruttelli, then mayor of Rome. After Rome she lived in Venice, where she dashed about sketching in a tiny boat with a 2hp engine, painting in her studio and studying the great artworks of the city.
In 2000 Anna moved to London and worked from a studio in Docklands, at Trinity Buoy Wharf, where London’s only lighthouse is situated. With a more powerful boat to cope with the currents of the tidal Thames, she drew the bridges and tower blocks, the docks and wharfs, the lightermen and the workings of the great river.
Six years later Anna moved to Amsterdam and learnt all about aerial perspective in the surrounding landscape of The Polders, exactly where Rembrandt would draw. Endless flat horizons, where colour and sharp focus are drained and smudged by distance, crisscrossed with canals stretching into infinity, low bridges and church spires.
Another Seismic Event, took Anna from those flatlands to the heights of the French Alps, where, for 5 years, with her young son, she lived and painted at 1500m altitude, in St Dalmas le Selvage, in the heart of a vast Natural Park called Le Mercantour, where wild wolves roam hunting wild mountain goats. Skis and snow-chains were everyday norms.
Anna relocated back to the U.K in 2016, with her half-French son. She chose to return to her native Isle of Wight, beside the water which ebbs and flows between here and the shores of the great cities of her European homelands.
"Rome... is splendid these past few days: the four-square immobility of the heat is just what it takes to debase its trophies a little, to strip it bare and consequently show it in its most rarified forms". P.P. Pasolini, da Una lettera a Silvana Mauri, estate 1952."
Many years before all this, before this vision of a "hell encircled by suburbs", an unheard of city smelling like "a great swamp scorched in the sun, sheet-metal layers of rags soaked and dried in the heat, of scrap-iron dealers, embankments branded with impurities"; before, in short, the muscle-bound violence of Rome would reflect the fury and the pride of the young Pasolini, another great Italian poet, one given to promiscuous displays of pathos, Ungaretti, was as if struck or gripped by fear, arriving in Rome along the via Flaminia by the Porta del Popolo, "where Montaigne had entered the city".Confronted by the overwhelming power of a season associated with a colour or an excessive, exaggerated sentiment, he bethought himself of Gericault, flying in at a gallop, attracted and overcome as he himself had been; he saw then for the first time "the cardinal reds and the reds of the shade, the red of the wound and the red of the passion, the red of glory, each of the reds enfolded in the red which the old travertine marble and the sluggish water of the Tiber gulped down beneath the sunsets of a Roman summer".Little by little he got used to the city. Autumn with the plane trees shedding their leaves in the gusts of wind over the Lungotevere, brought him understanding.Is it necessary to "enter" Rome to be truly subjugated by it? A city which, having belonged to someone, now belongs to no-one, shines more brightly in the eyes of those who pass through, who make no part of it. Like wayfarers, hardy "Grand-Tourists" unused to the splendour and not yet exhausted or emptied by it: perenially blinded, intoxicated by uncertainty, disposed to the Visionary. Anna Keen is among their ranks. She hangs on the margins of Rome, if margins there ever were. She traces their profile following the walls and continuously testing the gates —thanks to Popes and Emperors no longer closed or open, benevolent guardians of an invisible city punctuating the circuit of a watch long since suspended. Anna never chooses or selects according to preference; rather she imposes the sequence on herself, so to speak, as a plan, a route she must follow, convinced that after a little resistance ever the least eloquent might somehow reveal itself in a gigantic surrender to the exercise of attention, to a gaze of singular patience. And so Anna stands in front of the gates as though in front of an irrevocable STOP. She knows they represent the turning point of a genuine vertigo, so many antennae, each set to pick up calls and signals immeasurably broad, intense, the presentiment of a sort of looming fatality. As though in surrounding and besieging the city she is, paradoxically, all the more invaded by it. For as much as we are trapped in a miserable world where insignificance and mediocrity triumph, this young pain ter has re-established contact with the monumental, with Excess and the Magnificent: something only seen, today in certain great stage designers, rarely now amongst painters.Exhausted by the over-abundance of energy, by the force which they themselves emanate, it might be said that these urban landscapes are Caprices on fire, or rather actually consigned to the flames by some Baroque lost to our memory and now regenerated, oddities which fantastically mix the most eminent constructions, ruins breathing of an immemoriable past, with life as it is.And yet everything is of a striking truth; for through I know not what obstinacy or simplicity of gaze, Anna, this confidante of immoderation, accumulates data from every tiny detail, even the least significant; and there is no shadow, no texture of a flag-stone, no tram-wire or turn of a corner which does not demand to be represented with extreme devotion and absolute fidelity.I am also touched by the transfiguring physicality of all this unglossed Roman magnificence lying next to dross, with a smell of humidity and the superb decomposition of everything; an intuition of the corruption and sometimes of the darkness of beauty, without splendour. It is almost as if it were no longer a question of an architecture created by man, but rather a sort of lavic sedimentation, of insensate geological constructions traversed by silent rolls of thunder, reverberations of the earth and dust, echoes from beaten stone roads; what returns again and again in Keens pictures and in returning defines and stabilises their style, is the agonizing spacial perception of a contemporary scene; and between its glories and its failings and its menace, the cars, the road-signs and the sickly artificial street-lights are called to bear witness to the undeniable actuality of it all. And in this way the city finds its licit forms: because, as the great Anna Maria Ortese writes, only "to re-evoke landscapes of the past is not possible; you could say God forbids it, for there is in them something of that Eden granted to man one time only... and which he can never re-enter". Looking at some of her drawings, her sketch-books, and her visual notes, you understand that Anna works with an infallibly sure touch, which captures in a stroke a cornice, perhaps, or a coupling-hook, or the pivot around which the foreshortenings multiply, dragging the eye along diagonals and pulling it into the distances.Higher up Anna captures unquiet and stormy skies; in her own words, there is something seething there - and you don't know why, but they're beautiful. Roman skies are difficult skies for a northern painter with a luminosity of uncertain definition. And yet the eyes are filled, lost in the grip of the current they can go anywhere without rupture. Anna confesses that she cannot stand being closed in by her subject no matter how impressive, and for this reason, whenever possible, reaches out into the distance. If this is true, as Cioran has said, that we are all followed by our origins, Anna contemplates this limitless Rome as if she were still looking at the open sea beyond the rocks of her British Isles.
Marco Di Capua
L'artiste qui, papier et crayon à la main, est toujours prêt à s'emparer de tout paysage, personne ou objet qui lui passe sous les yeux, peut apparaître, sans aucun doute, à bien des interprètes de l'art contemporain comme quelqu'un hors de son temps. Cependant "l’emmagasinement" des idées a été, au fur et à mesure du temps mais pas seulement, l'instrument indispensable à la focalisation de tout élément nécessaire à la narration des vicissitudes, qui se sont succédées lors des années les plus difficiles et décisives de l'art pictural sans jamais cesser de défendre la noblesse de ses raisons.Comme tout et chacun sait, la critique d'art, qui se fait l'interprète des mouvements d'avant-garde, a privilégié les "méthodes" expressives alternatives qui ont évidemment prévalu sur les "principes" de l'art pictural. Mais l'art, et aujourd'hui plus que jamais, sans cesse en quête du "nouveau", s'engage de plus en plus dans une voie purement et exclusivement "évolutionniste" comme s'il n'y avait d'autres voies portant à la créativité. Il s'agit là d'un art qui a perdu tout contact avec la visualisation des lieux et qui, n'évoluant plus au même rythme que l'homme et son temps, se consacre entièrement à une fiction parfois mal interprétée. Fiction qui, assujettissant tout à cette nouvelle idée rarement présentée souvent sous sa forme la plus opportune, s'avère être un véritable piège pour la créativité.A propos de cette exposition de dessins au crayon d'Anna Keen, représentant les images de ses voyages en train et des vues de Paris ainsi que de Rome et de Milan, il est à mon avis de rigueur de citer ici Maurizio Calvesi, critique d'art éminent, qui, lors de la réapparition en Italie, durant les années quatre-vingt, d'une volonté créative et cultivée dictée par l'art pictural, a forgé le terme d'Anachronisme en se référant aux artistes qui voulaient se réapproprier du métier et des techniques de la haute tradition picturale.Cet art, contrecarré par les partisans des formes froides, a fait preuve jusqu'à présent d'une imagination surprenante, même s'il a parfois été obligé pour se défendre de se retrancher dans une attitude "aristocratique" considérée par bien des gens comme contraire à l'histoire. Une bonne lecture "oblique" de l'histoire de l'art pourrait amener à comprendre "la qualité de la qualité" lorsqu'elle s'exprime, ne fût-ce que par le seul fait de s'exprimer; et cela bien au delà des clivages d'une idéologie influencée par les intentions évolutionnistes.Anna Keen est très jeune et, comme biendes jeunes d'aujourd'hui, elle-même mène une vie libre et un peu nomade; se déplaçant d'un bout à l'autre de l'Europe, elle tombe souvent amoureuse d'un lieu ou d'un autre et c'est au gré de son amour qu'elle choisie l'endroit où s'installer. Ecossaise, née sur l'île de Wight, elle a fait ces études à Paris et habite Rome depuis trois ans. Je me demande comment une jeune fille écossaise, et si jeune, ait su à ce point se nourrir des images des grands artistes du XXe siècle. (Mario Sironi, par exemple, me vient à l'esprit pour ce qui est de l'agencement des images, d'une certaine atmosphère qui flotte dans les dessins consacrés à Milan; et je pense aux peintres de "l'Ecole Romaine", inconnus sans doute du public international, pour ce qui est des paysages romains). Mais il est certain que le charme troublant qui émane de ces dessins, même lorsqu'ils ne sont que des ébauches, est dû aussi à la contradiction apparente entre l'origine de cette jeune artiste et la solidité évidente propre au XXe siècle.Les dessins au crayon choisis pour cette exposition autour du thème du voyage, cher à Anna Keen, témoignent de son style de vie et de la ténacité créative de cette artiste —l'œil vigilant et la main toujours prête à l'esquisse —même lors de ces déplacements.Dans ces dessins, les paysages qui défilent au delà des fenêtres, les attitudes des voyageurs et leurs reflets sur les vitres, les mouvements dans les couchettes pendant la nuit et les jambes-mêmes de l'artiste, remplissent la feuille quadrillée (papier pauvre prêt à l'emploi) produisant un effet de photo instantanée et semblent prendre forme par un trait de crayon rapide mais précis, nous révélant ainsi la détermination avec laquelle le regards'approprie des choses, des lieux et des personnes.Anna Keen aimemieux raconter les lieux inusuels et moins connus que ceux des clichés touristiques. En effet, de Paris elle nous montre ses rues, ses voies de raccordement aux aéroports et aux gares, avec leur va-et-vient de trains; elle nous montre la Milan aux immeubles rationnels construits sous le fascisme et au cours des années cinquante. Alors que pour Rome c'est un peu différent.Le fait est qu'à Rome, l'œil d'Anna Keen est sous le charme d'une ville qui, malgré ses nombreux clichés photographiques et autres, offre toujours la possibilité d'être racontée différemment à tous ceux qui savent saisir les secrets imprévus et imprévisibles gardés par ses monuments, et révélés au premier changement de lumière, au premier mouvement de foule dans les rues.De Rome à Milan, de Milan à Paris, Anna Keen ne se soumet jamais à la routine du voyage et sait toujours saisir la diversité des nuances, des lumières et des lignes. Peintre aux couleurs transparentes et aux vibrations fortes, Anna Keen sait, dans ses dessins au crayon, évoquer la couleur que la rigueur du noir et blanc pourrait contester.
Arnaldo Romani Brizzi