Obituary: Alan Robb, painter and teacher who established School of Fine Art in Dundee
Professor Alan Robb, who has died at the age of 74, had a distinguished career as a painter and teacher.
Alan was born in Glasgow in 1946 to Aberdonian parents, to which city the family soon returned. He attended Robert Gordon’s College (from 1958 to 1964) then Gray’s School of Art (from 1964 to 1969). He was the first student from Gray’s to be accepted for the (then) three-year postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art, London (1969-1972).
The London art scene was a liberation after the undergraduate routine of figure composition, still-life and life drawing. He thrived on the exhibitions and collections now on his doorstep, on the intensity of debate among the students and the challenges posed by the tutors.
Art history (which at Gray’s, he said, had consisted of being “herded into a cupboard and shown about 400 slides without comment”) became a passion. His painting moved into a Pop Art-inspired figuration of collage-like cut-ups based on magazine imagery, which remained the basis of his work into the later 1980s.
All his paintings, earlier and later, show a strong foundation in drawing, a grasp of pictorial organisation and tonal subtlety: these were the valued legacies of his time at Gray’s.
On leaving the Royal College, Alan was appointed art master at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, where he remained for three years. In 1975, he took up a post at Crawford School of Art, Cork, becoming Head of Fine Art in 1980. In 1983, he returned to Scotland, to Dundee, as the first Head of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (as it then was).
The experience he had gained in Ireland helped him with the challenge of forming the new School of Fine Art at Dundee from the (until then autonomous) School of Painting and School of Sculpture (at his instigation, a Printmaking Department was soon added).
While another in his place might have been content with that, when circumstances changed Alan saw that that structure had to change too.
As the new millennium approached, he led the School through a radical reorganisation: the removal of departmental boundaries and the creation of a truly unified School of Fine Art.
One aim was to prepare the School for the tougher funding climate which was then unmistakeably ahead; the other to respond to developments in professional art practice by enabling students to move easily between the disciplines and media of their choice. Twenty years on, the percipience of that change has been amply demonstrated.
Alan had strong opinions and didn’t shy away from argument, preferring to confront issues rather than hide from them. But he respected contrary views and by no means always got his way. He had his blind spots: photography was one, although it is telling that it was accommodated and flourished within the innovative and wide-ranging programme at Dundee.
In 1987, Alan was appointed Professor of Fine Art and in the 1990s worked on the College’s merger with the University of Dundee and adapted Fine Art to the growing importance of research and the emergence of practice-led PhDs.
In 1993, he curated ‘The Decade Show’, an ambitious exhibition of work by 150 graduates to mark ten years of the School of Fine Art, shown in galleries across Dundee. Several of those graduates went on to teach at Duncan of Jordanstone and other art colleges.
Though he nurtured the College’s local, Scottish and UK connections, Alan was also an internationalist. He encouraged links with art schools abroad through student and staff exchanges, and created a pan-European consortium of art schools, led from Dundee.
He stepped down as Head in 2003 and spent several years back in the studios, teaching. He didn’t regret the change. The University of Dundee appointed him Emeritus in 2007.
Alan painted and exhibited steadily throughout his life despite the demands of teaching and administration. In 2012, a retrospective exhibition, ‘A Painted World’, was held at the McManus Galleries, Dundee.
Painting mattered; it was a discipline but also the zest of life. To be a painter was to be lucky enough to be part of a great tradition and to renew that tradition every day one spent in the studio.
By temperament he was a classicist. Even his early work, with its ‘hot’ subject matter, was handled with cool, formal clarity. For Alan, attention to the surface of things enabled the painter to find their essence and reveal their depths.
Though he painted still-life, landscape and figures, his major subject matter, as in his early work, was the ready-made imagery of popular culture. Later, his fascination lay in the artefacts which express popular religious fervour: the votive figurines of Candomblé in Brazil and the imagery of Hindu gods and goddesses which he encountered in India. Throughout, the same attentive eye and clarifying impulse shows itself.
The major statement of his classicist credo is perhaps the self-portrait, ‘I Live Now’. Painted in 1999-2000, it shows the artist standing in front of a copy of Poussin’s ‘Death of Phocion’, holding a model Palladian villa and with one of his own idealised landscapes to the side. He is dressed to go out, to work directly from nature. The nested complexity of its themes is not the painting’s final point, which is that art happens in the doing. It is nothing without action. You must face the great tradition squarely and do your best.
Alan was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy in 2011, which was a great happiness to him.
He is survived by his wife Cynthia, children Daniel and Annabel, and his grandchildren.
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