Joanna Braithwaite’s finely studied portraits have long blended the real and the surreal, the mundane and the absurd. Her works are richly layered and informed by historical antecedents ranging from 17th-century Dutch masters to French romanticism.
But whereas these noble predecessors focussed on the human world, Braithwaite presents animals as protagonists, albeit animals which appear imbued with all of the human qualities and emotions that any other sitter might possess. We walk a tightrope between recognition and absurdity, a nature which imbues Braithwaite’s work with both its humour and its poignancy.
In Catch of the Day, Braithwaite’s paintings reflect heavily on a world of runaway environmental concerns, with rising seas and melting icecaps. In works such as Cold Snap and Waiting Game we see the animals which rely on the ice - penguins, polar bears - contemplating the ice-melt and the thinning glacial bridges of their homes. They are both literally and metaphorically standing on the edge of a precipice, and one not of their making. The all too human expressions on the faces of the penguins and the parental concern of the adult polar bear ramp up the pathos to a heartbreaking extent.
Each work’s sadness is balanced by the humourous mild absurdity of the composition. In Explorers’ Club the spirit of Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” is invoked, but with the shipwrecked sailors replaced by castaway seals. These castaways are semi-aquatic creatures, yet cling to the raft as if their lives depend upon it. Several of the Catch of the Day works also toy with the viewer, presenting absurdist relationships between penguins, orca, and albatrosses.
The humour in the paintings is perhaps most clearly embodied in the exhibition’s two wonderful “formal portraits”: the walrus sea-captain of Old Salt, and Fisherman’s Friend, which shows a harbourside seal - perhaps his wife - waiting by the quayside. The depictions may be poignant, but they are also filled with warmth and fun. Apart from her painting abilities, this is perhaps Braithwaite’s greatest gift: she informs, but she also entertains.