The melancholy of anatomy

The painter Caravaggio is his hero. In Robbie Duff Scott's own enigmatic canvases, worryingly beautiful women challenge the viewer amid objects symbolizing transience and decay. It's the darkness that pulls you into them, he tells John Walsh
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The figures in Robbie Duff Scott's paintings are racked with ambiguity. Sexy and traumatised, they seem trapped between dereliction and desire. Some of his women stare at us from the canvas, challenging and coldly appraising, not much liking what they see but strong enough not to need any sympathy. Others are preoccupied with their thoughts, their reflection in a mirror, the view through a window or the drink in their hand; and though you may, or must, admire them (for they are always worryingly beautiful), you are never going to be allowed to enter into their private world and discover what's going on.

The figures in Robbie Duff Scott's paintings are racked with ambiguity. Sexy and traumatised, they seem trapped between dereliction and desire. Some of his women stare at us from the canvas, challenging and coldly appraising, not much liking what they see but strong enough not to need any sympathy. Others are preoccupied with their thoughts, their reflection in a mirror, the view through a window or the drink in their hand; and though you may, or must, admire them (for they are always worryingly beautiful), you are never going to be allowed to enter into their private world and discover what's going on.

The woman in The Kiss sits with her back to us, naked but for an imprisoning network of straps, burying her face in some crumpled paper. But is she passionately kissing a letter, or smudging lipstick with a tissue, or weeping into a hankie or, indeed, blowing her nose? In Oil and Water, a girl with downcast eyes clutches something in her hand and drinks from a wine glass. Are we looking at a suicide attempt or a headache cure? We'll never know.

Sometimes Duff Scott offers us clues as to what is going on. His paintings are stuffed, late-Victorian style, with symbolic properties: images of fading youth, broken glass, spent matches, images of absence and restlessness, patterns in the dust where there was once a picture or a key, abandoned fruit, images of weather and forest and sea creeping into the brittle urban lives of his traumatised dames.

Memories That I'm Stealing (the title is from a Tom Waits song) features a motif of fern fronds that connect with wisps of a woman's hair and the branching veins on her skin. In The Thaw, a girl stands in shadow, head turbaned with a towel, arms defensively folded across her breasts, a pair of male Calvin Kleins swaddling her hips, and a sensuous glare on her face - while beside her, perched on a stool like a gallery exhibit, a horned sea-shell displays the shiny, pink-white folds of its interior. Everything draws your eye to that complicated, disembodied vagina while the women in the masculine undies implicitly bargains with a lover about returning, from whatever froideur currently assails them, to a resumption of normal relations.

Sometimes he likes to tease or mislead you. In Mirrors and Stairs, a girl lies languorously, Rokeby Venus-ly, on a chaise longue, and regards her reflection in a giant mirror. But both the mirror and the things reflected in it are emblems of transience and decay: a forgotten rocking-horse, peeling wallpaper, the silvered mercury. Then you see that the chaise longue is ripped and broken, and the tragic scene she's inspecting so raptly is a reflection of the room behind her; she is looking, not into an uncertain future, but back at a decayed past in which you're standing.

Realism and fakery, true and false emotion, the tropical storm and the homely radiator... You can stand before Duff Scott's absorbing canvases for ages, inventing little narratives, making connections, talking to yourself, and he won't stop you. Mr Duff Scott is far too charming to contradict. A recklessly handsome man of 41, a dandy in an S Fisher brocade waistcoat, he will talk happily about his work without providing any solutions.

Caravaggio is his hero. "Yeah, I'm a huge fan. Everyone who's read Vasari's Lives of the Artists knows that Vasari was in love with Michelangelo and thought Caravaggio wasn't quite it as an artist. He sounded like a housemaster, complaining about his gambling and brawling and drinking. But what I like is that all the gambling and brawling and drinking is in the paintings. They're set in these dark inns, there's always an edge of violence to them."

And stylistically? "People always ask me, 'Did you go to Italy for the light?' But with Caravaggio, you go there for the dark. I love the way he uses darkness to pull you into a painting. Some artists think of darkness as meaning nothing. With Caravaggio, it's crucial to the emotion of the painting."

Robbie Duff Scott went to live in Italy in 1985, not for the light but for love. He had met Lisa St Aubin de Teran, the one-time Dulwich schoolgirl who married a Venezuelan plantation-owner at 16 and became a celebrated novelist in her twenties. They met after the 23-year-old Duff Scott had a self-portrait (only his third completed oil painting) exhibited at the NPG, and de Teran's second husband saw it. "He wrote to me saying, 'Dear Duff Scott, would you consider painting my wife, the novelist Lisa St Aubin de Teran, signed George MacBeth.' I thought hang on, here's a MacBeth writing to a MacDuff, as it were, from a place called Wigginhall St Mary the Virgin... I was convinced it was a spoof by a university friend, until I saw a picture of MacBeth in a magazine."

Robbie and Lisa married in 1989, having moved around Italy, living in Venice, Siena and Umbria, "following her Byronic dream". They brought up Lisa's daughter, the half-Venezuelan Iseult, who has been, says Duff Scott, his "muse" from the age of 12. It is she who appears, mostly naked, in most of his paintings. Did the fact of his being her stepfather get in the way of presenting her, on occasion, as a depersonalised sex object?

"No, because what really depersonalises her is that's she's very beautiful," said Duff Scott cheerfully. "Beauty is very idealistic, very platonic. It frees you from having to paint with a degree of psychological truth about a particular woman. It's more impersonal. It's more about Woman."

We stood in front of a sensational work, Le Parfum de ton Sang (from Baudelaire this time: "The Bouquet of her Blood"), and while I was gradually mesmerised by the sensational textures (a naked girl, face in deep shadow, reclines on a bed drinking wine, while a suitcase and knotted winding-sheet beside her hint at some desperate flight), the artist explained how it was inspired by a Piero della Francesco Resurrection scene.

We craned forward together, I to follow the refraction of red wine on the girl's luscious body, he to admire the blush-effect on the left leg. A connoisseur of both flesh and melancholy, Mr Duff Scott is a stern professional symbolist, first and last. Unless I was being misled...

Robbie Duff Scott at Francis Kyle Gallery, 9 Maddox Street, London W1 (020-7499 6870), until 16 Nov

Comments