BRAITHWAITE, Joanna

Study for Afternoon Bather

1996
Oil on canvas
300 x 550mm

Joanna Braithwaite was born at Halifax, England and came to New Zealand to live three years later. Between 1984–88 she studied at the School of Fine Arts, Canterbury University and from 1993–95 she lived and exhibited in Melbourne. She has exhibited her brand of figurative expressionism widely throughout New Zealand. In the mid 1980s her works were derived from the forms of fish, animals and birds and a concern for their slaughter and conversion to meat. Her 1989 series of the severed heads of bulls and sheep and of cuts of meat aroused media attention and also challenged viewers to overcome their natural distaste at the subject matter in order to appreciate the strength of the painting itself. Since 1994 Braithwaite has turned to more conventionally acceptable subject matter, figures by the sea, influenced by the work of American painter Eric Fischl.

She has also painted surreal works in which ships are depicted one on top of the other, some in the sea and others above it. Afternoon Bather is one of a series of paintings made from photographs of people at the beach. Braithwaite’s people do not however exhibit a trouble free sense of enjoyment in their environment. In many of these paintings old people are shown in awkward positions as they negotiate ladders into swimming pools or bend to deal with small children. A woman floating in the water on her back looks more like a victim of rigor mortis than someone simply relaxing. No more telling contrast with the cult of the beautiful promoted by the advertising industry could be imagined than these images of plain, ugly people in unfashionable costumes squinting behind their sunglasses into a sea which is usually a murky green rather than the deep Mediterranean blue of the travel poster.

The theatrical quality of character of the figure in Afternoon Bather is sharply observed. She is disdainfully disgruntled as if casting disapproving looks at noisy children nearby. Her bathing cap is painted with great care as though the artist wishes the viewer to miss none of its kitsch floral detailing. The lighting effects are glaringly bright as registered on colour print film unable to capture mid tones. Braithwaite’s virtuoso handling of paint is best seen in the much larger version of the subject (also part of the Fletcher Challenge Art Collection) for which this is a nonetheless revealing small study.