To put it simply, Anna Roberts is the go-to surrealist of the 21 st century. Mind you, her art isn’t only surreal, but then, that might be all for the better, for surrealism is more difficult to understand for the average viewer, so a wise artist will create works for a broader audience as well as something more esoteric, such as surrealism. I confess that I do have an affinity for Roberts’ type of art, for whether she’s delving into surrealism or into more naturalism, the image of trees is a common motif in her paintings, and that is something that strongly appeals to me as an art lover largely because I love outdoor scenes, but also because my maternal grandmother’s aunt was—in her day—a famous artist known as “the painter of trees,” Eleanor Douglas (1872-1914). Oh, her work has now fallen into obscurity, and, while rare, if you find one of her works at auction, well, let’s just say that you’ll likely be able to afford a second painting in addition to hers. But I still have this prejudice.
I say all of this only to explain part of why I am so strongly drawn to the work of Anna Roberts, but, stepping away from my own keenness and focusing (for this article) solely on her surrealism, the reasons to find her work so endearing are many, which is why I call her the go-to surrealist of this century.
Before I begin to discuss Roberts’ surreal art, please let me discuss, for those who are novices, what exactly surrealism is in order to ensure a common frame of reference. Surrealism is a movement in all the arts that began in Paris, France in the 1920's with an artist named André Breton. He was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s book, Interpretation of Dreams. So in a round-about way, surrealist art became a method of representing the unconscious mind on canvas. In general, then, the surrealist painter, in order to suggest the unconscious, will juxtapose two or more objects that are normally not associated with each other in order to suggest how ideas in dreams mutate organically from one to another. Surrealists use this technique in order to, first, amuse the viewer, so surrealist artists often present ideas or objects morphing from one into another as they might in a dream: the apple appearing to also be a butterfly as in Vladimir Kush’s painting, waves morphing into unicorns as in Jim Warren’s piece or just two faces forming a chalice as in the black-and- white image below. It is not enough for the surrealist artist to paint a cloud in which the viewer can see a bunny, for example. Rather, the artist must create a single image that is at once a cloud and a bunny, even as the ocean waves are also unicorns, and the apple is also a butterfly.
It is this very “morphing” of images in surrealism that led to the visual pun and to the art of the optical illusion in which there is a deliberate jumbling of multiple images. M. C. Escher is one pioneer of this style of art, but even Norman Rockwell was able to delve into it a bit on occasion. But this style, while closely related to surrealism—almost a spin-off movement more than an evolution of a style, still emphasizes the whimsy of the surrealist movement, but not the whole of it. True, surreal art is made to pique humour and confusion and evoke smiles and, if you will, frustrated pleasure, by the effort of the viewer unsuccessfully trying to resolve two images into one, but amusing and tickling the viewer’s fancy isn’t enough either, because dreams don’t just amuse, they also disturb, so surrealist art must also disturb. While a bunny in a cloud might be amusing, it will not necessarily be troubling to a viewer. But for the viewer to see a dying person or an act of violence or a frightening creature in the cloud, that would be imagery more in keeping with surrealism.
In fact, so important to surrealism is the intention of disturbing the viewer that often the surrealist will eliminate the amusing component altogether, seeking solely to agitate by using haunting images wrought with dark colours or distinct contrasts of colour. In a sense, then, this is a simpler form of surrealism and so seems a fine place to begin discussing Anna Roberts’ work specifically.
Consider for a moment her painting “Let the Light In.” It’s an intensely simple painting that almost evokes that typical viewer response of, “Anyone could do that.” And now that we’ve all seen someone else’s execution of it, perhaps it’s true that anyone could. The question is, though, whether we could originate a work of such simplicity that evokes the troubling sense that this work does. The door that is just off centre, left-to- right, is actually troubling enough in the realm of art, but consider also the mood: We are placed, against our wills, in a dark, apparently empty room—a foreboding setting already. But then we see the open door, and initially we are drawn to it, but, as there is no indication of what lies beyond, we are given what psychology calls an approach-avoidance situation: we want to leave the darkness and enter the light but are simultaneously hesitant of leaving the darkness for fear of the unknown on the other side of that door. Add to all of this the title, “Let the Light In,” and we are told, indirectly, that we are not ever leaving the darkness, but are, for whatever reason, trapped in the darkness.
The fact that the painting is so very simple in its construction only serves to heighten the agitation. Like a prison cell, the walls are bare, and there is no indication of comfort on the visible floor; it’s as barren and lifeless as the walls, as is the area outside the door. The only real concentration of detail in the entire painting, in fact, is on the door itself, though, as for that, there’s still very little, but that it’s on the door is part of what draws us; the door is the thing that both allows us to leave and yet doesn’t. Indeed, its presence serves more to taunt the viewer than to offer any genuine relief from the darkness. It is the very dream-like simplicity of this painting that is the power behind its troubling effect.
Another painting of Roberts’ that captures my attention immediately is “Blue Skies.” It calls instantly to my mind a painting by René Magritte called “Le Blanc Seing” (“Signature in Blank”) because of its shared theme of a woodland forest and its similar jumbling of depth cues, and, for me, the Magritte painting is another reason I am drawn to “Blue Skies.” Roberts seems to take the familiar feeling of Magritte’s work and magnifies it. In “Blue Skies” we are simultaneously indoors looking out a window, and outdoors gazing at an apparition floating before us. Initially, we are in an autumn forest, judging by the absence of leaves on the trees and the earth-tone palate for the majority of the canvas. The stark shadows of the trees suggest—even demand—a nighttime setting that is utterly denied by the source of light that creates those shadows. Even while the viewers expect to see a moon in the upper-centre of the canvas, they are greeted instead by an apparent window situated where the moon should be. The window’s presence is validated by a horizontal division of the tan background forcing on the viewer’s mind the concept of a wall and floor. It would be entirely possible to interpret the trees as decorations on wallpaper were it not for the fact that, while some of them are placed entirely on what one expects to be the wall, others stem from the floor, which, again, denies the possibility of the wall and floor in the first place. And finally, the nighttime setting is also denied by the scene outside the apparitional window, through which we see blue, sunny skies. It is necessarily the light source for the shadows of the trees given the angles, but the colour palate of the rest of the canvas denies the possibility of it being the source; it is the wrong kind of light to create that tone. Ultimately, the painting places the viewer at once in a room looking out a window at a sunny sky and in a forest at night, looking at the moon. The viewer is led to wonder if this is a painting of a sunny day indoors or a clear night outside. There is no way to answer with absolute certainty.
A final surreal motif Roberts frequents is the mingling of the human female form with trees. Let’s first note the linguistic and biological connections to which Roberts alludes with this motif. In forest scenes, we are in nature, for one idea that comes readily to mind when we imagine a definition of nature is a woodland scene. The word, “nature,” is also the root of “nativity” or birth. Therefore, in Roberts’ forest scenes, the viewer is made a “native of nature.” One of her more recent of such scenes is “Women in the Wind.” As one might expect in a surreal image, Roberts gives us a dark, brooding palate with mostly shades of gray, brown and perhaps blue, although the blue could be considered a shade of the gray.
The painting divides the canvas into thirds horizontally with the sky being composed of the upper two thirds. The higher area of the sky suggests an intense storm with clouds the colour of gun metal. While there are no bolts of lightning presented, they would most certainly not be out of place, and perhaps their absence adds to the surreal aspect, for a storm without lightning is as oddly dreamlike as lighting without thunder would be. Adding to the storm effect, however, is the very simplified ground that is composed of what may be interpreted as long stalks of wild grass. They are apparently etched into the dark lower third of the painting in four horizontal rows of curved lines, which suggest that they represent grass that is blown over in the forceful wind. The lower area of sky in the middle third of the canvas seems to suggest fog in stark contrast with the rain that one might expect, given the upper area of sky and the wind blown grass. And, ironically, the fog seems to serve as a means to temper the wrath of the storm. Within the foreground of the painting are several trees, again apparently in fall given the distinct lack of leaves, but each tree is depicted also as a woman with her arms stretched upwards. The arms double as branches that travel all the way up the canvas, cutting across the storm cloud covered sky. The trunks of the trees double as dresses near the ground. Up higher, the women’s breasts and navels are visible, albeit, with modesty. And each woman/tree has a head and face with serene a expression; they are all clearly undaunted by the storm.
Now, here’s where things get really interesting about this painting. While I can say with a clear conscious that I have not lied to you, nothing I have said need necessarily be true, and that is precisely what is so captivating. The grass doesn’t have to be grass, it could also be interpreted as carefully tilled top soil on a field of large cultivated plants. The storm clouds don’t need to be interpreted as storm clouds, but could be seen as full, healthy leaves for all of the trees, in which case, the entire area depicted in the painting could be dark because of the shade from the trees rather than storm. The lady/trees might just be tempering a roasting hot sun rather than an angry weather system. But, then again, the arms of the ladies or the branches of the trees may not be branches at all, but may be understood as bolts of lightning striking the trees from above. There is nothing vague in this painting, but it is wonderfully ingeniously and certainly deliberately ambiguous. It is a painting to be dearly reckoned with.
Anna Roberts’ work carries with it an important movement, but also the striking style of surrealism. Her paintings are bold, strong and entirely independent of the surrealists who came and went before her, but yet offer the deference that is appropriate for her predecessors. There is no reason for the name Anna Roberts to not be remembered among the names of those from years gone by: Salvador Dali, René Magritte, Frida Kahlo, André Breton, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Surrealism is a style that is powerful and, unlike many of its coeval created styles of art, is still a vital, viable trend that yet has many facets to be explored, that can yet be made new, that can yet push art in new directions. And Anna Roberts is likely the artist who will do it all.
1. Many people confuse the words ‘vague’ and ‘ambiguous,’ but it is important to understand that they are remarkably distinct from each other. ‘Vague’ means ‘unclear.’ That is, it is hard to get a clear understanding at all from something that is vague. ‘Ambiguous’ means ‘open to more than one interpretation.’ The important distinction is that, with vague, there is no decipherable meaning at all, whereas with ‘ambiguous,’ there are multiple, valid meanings, all of which are clear.
About the Writer of this Story
A. J. Mittendorf is a poet, playwright, short fiction and non-fiction writer who is working also on his first novel. He will be releasing his second collection of poetry in summer, 2016. He is also a musician and an actor, frequently performing both of these arts on stage before live studio audiences. As an art lover, A. J. has studied history, interpretation and appreciation all of his adult life with more than 20 years of undying love of painting and sculpture under his belt.