‘In the great majority of animals there are traces of physical qualities and attitudes, qualities more markedly differentiated in the case of human beings… so in a number of animals we observe gentleness and fierceness, mildness or cross-temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning…’ Aristotle, History of Animals.
Traditionally, a portrait seeks to do at least two things: firstly, to capture the outward appearance of a person at a single point in time; secondly, to encapsulate or evoke the longer life of that subject. While bearing both those aspects in mind Joanna Braithwaite takes the portrait genre in another direction entirely: it becomes a vehicle for playful and serious self-scrutiny, and for a discursive investigation into the many roles that animals play in art and life. While conforming to many of the expectations of the portrait genre, Braithwaite’s works are fuelled by imagination, leavened by a sharp mind and eye, and a gently ironic take on the human condition. The paintings ask questions about humanity: its self-definition, its boundaries, what makes it different from, and what makes it the same as, the rest of the animal kingdom. To thicken the plot further, Braithwaite’s paintings take us into the fields of genetic science, animal husbandry, social engineering and many layers of human society, past and present.
John Berger has pointed to ‘the truism that pets come to resemble their masters or mistresses. They are creatures of their owner’s way of life.’ Braithwaite is an animal-lover, certainly, and the paintings explore aspects of her psyche while charting broader currents of thought and feeling. They are formed out of a deep knowledge of portraiture, animal painting, history painting and scientific art, not to mention realism, surrealism and the Romantic tradition.
Her large canvases are the most public, strident of creations, yet they take us into intimate areas of human experience, hinting at loss, loneliness, anxiety and melancholy. They are studies in tenderness, wistfulness, nobility, fallibility, absurdity, and often an aching sense of vulnerability. They also have a rare capacity to be joyful, offering a plausible joy, one that is wistful but compelling.
Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien