Facing the World

Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei

19 July – 16 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. 

AWW_Illumination_HIRES

Ai Weiwei Illumination,2014. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio ©  Ai Weiwei

In the words of T.S. Eliot; we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet”. Beholding oneself is a complex act of intentionality and judgement, whether it is standing before the bathroom mirror in the morning preparing to face the world or standing between a mirror and an easel creating an image to face the world with. In both cases the instrument of self-appraisal is a doubled edged sword of truth and deception. Unravelling intentionality is one of the great pleasures of this show, because ultimately my appreciation of any human image, portrait or self-portrait, hinges on the ability of the artist to transcend the sitter, their own time and themselves. The visualised self must connect in some way to something greater than the “me” of that moment and I have to feel it that it does, otherwise I cannot believe in it as Art. Although that might seem like a critically limiting statement, it’s simply meant as an expansion in terms of seeing the Arts as Humanities.  Humanity is most certainly the foundation of self-portraiture for the artist/maker and the viewer; the perception or identification with universal human traits, characteristics or frailties collectively shared, coupled with the profound need to understand who we are in an existential sense.

Facing the World, Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei is an inspired collaboration between the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and the National Galleries of Scotland features over 150 works by over 100 artists, spanning six centuries. The exhibition juxtaposes artist’s self-portraits from different eras through the media of painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, sculpture and video, arranged in thematic sections; Up Close and Personal, The Artist at Work, Friends and Family, Role Playing and The Body of the Artist. The range of attitudes towards the Self contrast and interweave in fascinating ways, with the lack of chronology creating new connections between artists not usually seen beside each other. It is particularly exciting to see work from different European collections and pieces held by private collectors brought together and there are many works that UK audiences will not have had the opportunity to see before. A diverse range of artists including; Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sarah Lucas,  Marina Abramović, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Ai Weiwei, James Ensor, Paul Klee, Gustav Courbet, Antione Watteau, Allan Ramsay, Lee Miller, John Bellany, Douglas Gordon, Henry Raeburn, Ken Currie, Alison Watt, John Byrne, Ulrike Rosenbach, Helen Chadwick, Imogen Cunningham, Jan Fabre, Henri Fantin Latour, Lovis Corinth, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchener, Max Klinger, Angela Palmer, Cecile Walton, Georg Scholz and Simon Vouet, Palma Vecchio (Jacopo Negretti), Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita and Ludwig Meidner, provide significant opportunities for discovery and rediscovery.

NGL 072.46

Rembrandt Self-Portrait, Aged 51 (c.1657, Oil on canvas: 53.00 x 43.00 cm, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, Bridgewater Loan, 1945)

Among the many exhibition highlights is Rembrandt Van Rijn’s Self-Portrait (c.1657, Oil on canvas, 53 x 43cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.) In relation to self-portraiture Rembrandt feels like the visual embodiment Socrates’ credo; “know thyself” and in this respect he remains unequalled in the history of Art. Rembrandt‘s extraordinary realness in facing himself never fails to move me every time I am confronted by it. The trajectory of his 80+ surviving paintings, etchings and drawings in the genre resoundingly depict a man, rather than a Romantic projection of the artist/ genius. This is the source of his timeless appeal, in being one of us; warts and all, transcending his artistic identity to speak to any human being who meets his gaze, regardless of the century they’re standing in. In this Self-Portrait of 165[5?], we see the artist clothed in a modest brown velvet cap. His eyes absorb and contain the entire depth of the background. In the ground of all his works is that defining  search, undertaken by all enduring artists; grappling with their chosen medium and with themselves. Lines of age, experience and the concentration of his furrowed brow are rendered out of darkness, brought into the yellowed light of illumination and decay. He looks within himself and the viewer simultaneously, careworn and intensely human; the layered paintwork of his skin and the fragility of individual hairs catching the light conveying the vulnerability of mortal flesh, magnified with age. He is as we all are, marching towards an inevitable fate. This sense of a real life lived rather than the artifice of a painted surface; skin deep, is one of the most compelling elements of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Self-delusional vanity simply isn’t part of his grammar. It is impossible for me not to feel reverence in the presence of such honesty, especially in the context of contemporary Western culture which denies age, human frailty and death. There is something achingly beautiful in the dignity, awareness and knowing within this self-portrait, something which reaches powerfully across time to acknowledge the eternal human condition. This is Rembrandt wrestling with the unknown, trying to see into the dark, to find out who he is ithrough a lifetime’s work and who we are as a conscious species in the process. What makes his self-portraiture “Great”, in the fullest sense of that word, is not the prolific outpouring of images or the canonised label of “Master”, but the psychological depth of exploration and the artist’s emotional intelligence. This isn’t a singular emoji of expression but a myriad of hopes, knowing and sorrows, everything the artist has experienced to that point brought to bear in a single image of brilliant complexity and poignancy. Rather than returning to his own image for self-gratification, we are faced with Rembrandt’s essential humanity which shines through even his darkest paintings, acknowledging forces greater than himself.

Nearby Sir David Wilkie’s Self-Portrait (About 1804-5, Oil on canvas, 76.5 x 63.5cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.), painted when he was only twenty years old, walks a knife edge between self-doubt and self-assurance. Superbly modelled in an economic, loose handling of paint, his pensive features are half lit and half in shadow. The warmth of his lips, cheeks and locks of tousled red hair are contrasted with the crisp line of his white shirt, vibrant yellow waistcoat and the porte crayon poised in his elegantly refined hand.  There is Romanticism and sophistication in the modelling certainly, but there is also a young man finding his way in the world. It isn’t Wilkie the handsome, the fashionable or the rising star that dominates, but the tension between human aspiration and fallibility- or is it the fact that the face of Rembrandt is so close by? In this self-portrait Wilkie reveals himself as an appealing presence of highly focused mind and action, grappling with his Art and who he is, presenting a strong statement about his artistic intent and creative process. Another Self- Portrait by Louis Janmot (1832, Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.1, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.) extends this idea further, with the eighteen year old artist holding his brush like a surgeon, the white tip like the piercing light in his eyes, unwaveringly focused and ready to attack the canvas. The full frontal positioning of the artist places the viewer in an intriguing position- as if we are both the canvas and the mirror in a shared moment of introspection.  It is a supremely balanced composition, with opposing forces of red and green cutting a swathe of energy and shadow through the image. Janmot’s squared collar belonging to a distant age mirrors the form of his forehead as he protectively cradles his palette. It is an arresting portrait of youthful Romantic energy but with a devout sense of purpose; sculpted in paint like a living neoclassical marble of artistic ideals, about to reach dynamically beyond the foreground and into the viewer’s space.

2010.3.1

Louise Janmot, Self-Portrait, (1832, Oil on canvas. Image © Lyon MBA – Photo Alain Basset)

Reaching directly into the viewer’s space in examination of self is one of the definitive qualities of the Up Close and Personal section of the exhibition, beginning with a slide show of Selfies by Ai Weiwei,and an adjacent series of three selfie photographic prints taken during and in the aftermath of his violent arrest on 12th August 2009 in Chengdu, China:

(Cats 143-5, https://media2.wnyc.org/i/620/465/I/80/1/Ai_Weiwi.jpg, accessed 11 August 2015, http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/WeiWeiHospital-CourtesyFreizeBlog.png, accessed 11 August 2015, http://blog.art21.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/aiww-hospital-01.jpg, accessed 11 August 2015).

In the context of what James Hall describes in his Facing the World catalogue essay Why Self Portraits? as our contemporary “selfie pandemic”, Ai Weiwei’s use of technology and the internet as an agent for awareness, political activism and social change is in stark contrast to the habitual daily use of smartphones and selfies that dominate popular culture. The disposability of these images; buried in memory cards, Facebook posts or in endlessly scrolling tweets, chasing viral popularity and demanding instant attention / response, significantly differs from the intentionality of the artist. In using his mobile phone to capture moments in his own life and share them online, Ai Weiwei documents many lifetimes of intimidation and brutality at the hands of a repressive regime. What he shares with the world is arguably greater than himself, his individual identity, feelings or predicament in any given moment. This means of connection and communication is also a mode of survival. The irony is that in the relative freedom of the West, where the vast majority of people have freedom of access to technology and the internet, these privileges are used primarily to say nothing other than look at me! Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame in the age of the Polaroid has shrunk to mere seconds of rapidly passing interest in the era of the Smartphone. In our celebrity obsessed age it would be easy to confuse Ai Weiwei’s fame with his Art, but it is the depth of exploration in his work and its essentially critical nature which ultimately define it. His declaration that; “I want people to see their own power” doesn’t hinge on our ability to purchase the latest upgrade, but on how we use that technology –either to expand the world or to shrink it.

The first image of the photographic selfie sequence (Cat 143), (Ai Weiwei Illumination,2014. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio ©  Ai Weiwei) posted on Twitter following his 2009 arrest, reimagines everyday technology and the self within the selfie. The artist is seen standing in a lift, capturing his own image, flanked by police and the rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou in an intensely ironic self-reflective triptych of surfaces. Holding his phone aloft to take the shot, dressed in a torn red t-shirt, he is an everyman in the sense of Jesus. The light and illumination of the camera, its connection to global networks and the presence of the image in the gallery space makes this a dangerous moment framed for timely contemplation. The third image of the series (Cat 145); of Ai Weiwei in a hospital bed in Munich, recovering from the cerebral haemorrhage caused by his arrest, is grounded in a similar way. Here the artist utilises the blood bag tube as a looped frame around his eye. Curiously the photograph doesn’t feel self-consciously posed, but immediately confronts the viewer with the connectivity of the human eye; experiencing (directly for the artist and empathically for the viewer) suffering, vulnerability and the question of justice in the viewer’s role as witness. In many ways it’s an anti-selfie in the popular sense, because it’s an act of defiance and survival, rather than vanity or conformity. Getting people to like him or fitting in clearly isn’t the artist’s intention.

In the hands of Ai Weiwei the concept of self-image, social networking and having “followers” represents political will and the universal Human right to freedom of expression; not merely the product of having  a phone in the hand, but possessing the presence of mind to compose the critical shot in the midst of life threatening circumstances. At the dawn of instant messaging Ai Weiwei understood what the rest of the world is still slow to grasp; that understanding the grammar of visual language is more influential and ultimately valuable in human terms than simply reinventing the alphabet. The artist’s selfies constitute more than the classification of self-portraiture might initially suggest to a Western audience, groomed in the Romantic myth of the artist/ genius and collective worship of celebrity. For most of us these images are acts of activism that we can scarcely imagine the necessity of. In his Facing the World catalogue essay; The Global Language of Selfies, Wolfgang Ullrich makes reference to the myth of Narcissus and Alberti’s question in On Painting (1435/6); “What is painting but the act of embracing by means of Art the surface of the pool?” In an increasingly globalised, digital age one might well substitute the words; “instant messaging” in place of “painting” and “digital technology” in the place of “Art”.

The self-referential /autobiographical also provides far reaching illuminations in the work of Symbolist Edvard Munch. In his Self-Portrait (1895, Lithograph, 3rd state, (about 1915) 73.2 x 52.6, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, on loan from the The Brochs of Ciogach Art Collection) the artist himself is a Memento Mori, his head isolated, stark white in an encircling black ground. The puritanical, austere collar contrasts with the fluidly delicate sweep of his hair and the skull-like contours of his cheekbones. Subtler still is his expression- one eyebrow raised, the other downturned, like a fused mask of Greek Comedy and Tragedy; his eyes rendered with the barest suggestion of marks, but endlessly questioning the viewer.  Nearby is his Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle (1930, Lithograph, 42 x 51.5cm, Statliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe), which drew me first due to its relative unfamiliarity, then to the rediscovery of his singular Self Portrait . Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle is an image of loneliness, desolate isolation and the disease of alcoholism. However as in many of the artist’s paintings and prints where stages or cycles of human life, desire, decay and death are invoked, Munch bears the torments of his individual soul together with a baseline of human experience.  The intimately attendant figures in the far distant tunnel of background suggest the ghostly presence of a featureless, bald old man looking on and the silhouetted figures of a man and woman turned away from each other, seemingly growing out of Munch’s shoulder and his unconscious. There is a wider frame of reference than self-consciousness or wallowing in the bottle here, but the universal suggestion of aging, rejection and separation that we all feel at different points in our lives, establishing an intimate emotional connection with the isolated spirit of the artist. Seeing this work, where Munch face is being engulfed by twilight shadow after a long day into darkness, made me re-examine the more familiar Self-Portrait (1895) more closely, not for its immediate starkness but for Munch’s innate sensitivity – a quality often underappreciated in the heightened anxiety of his iconic works.

2340_Kirchner 001

Ernst Ludwig KirchnerThe Painter (Self-Portrait), (1920Three-block linocut in grey-blue, yellow and red. © bpk / Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe).

I was elated to find works by German artists such as; Ludwig Meidner, Alexander Kandoldt, Wilhelm Scharrenberger, Karl Hubbach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and a set of exquisitely sharp and insightful woodcut and drypoint etchings by Max Beckmann included in the show. Beckmann’s compression of an entire society into the frame is masterful and the artist depicts himself both as a complicit protagonist and a witness. The power of his mask-like 1922 Self-Portrait (Woodcut, 22.2 x 15.5cm, Statliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe) achieved with the psychologically and physically gouging marks of the print method and the inference of primitive, instinctual drives, is contrasted with the palpable sense of vulnerability and loss in the ironically civilized attire of his 1921 Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat (Drypoint etching 32.2 x 24.2cm, Statliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe).

One of the most delightful inclusions in the show are three etchings on Chine-collé from a series of ten by the Austrian Symbolist Max Klinger : A Glove Sheet 1: Place, Sheet 2: Action and Sheet 7: Fears. (Fantasies on a Found Glove, Dedicated to the Lady who Lost it.1881, 4th edition, 1898, Statliche Kunsthall ). Based on an autobiographical experience of unrequited love and desire, the frozen moment of Action where figures teeter on an unstable brink of awakening emotion, gliding elegantly across the skating rink, reveal elongated shadow selves of the unconscious. The fallen glove is picked up by the artist, who loses his hat in the process in a symbolic precursor to Surrealism. The emotional centre of gravity in this richly expressive work is instantly relatable and as a stream of consciousness projection of “fantasies” by the artist, an intriguingly fascinating variant of the self-portrait. Fears is the most revealing of the three in the fantastic revelry of horror and dreams, sex and death. Marooned and drowning, natural sources of light are eclipsed in the radically upturned, box-like composition, a turgid unconscious world where the slit of the open glove dwarfs the sleeping artist, who is contracted against a wall, whilst reaching into the frame on the far left a pair of ghostly gloved hands ominously reach across the emotionally conductive element of water. The artist is depicted beset by his own fears and desires, in a way that transforms the heightened imagination of the scene into tangibly real feelings.  The strikingly elongated horizontal composition of unconscious sleep reveals painful truths and Freudian dreams, states of human denial and desire. It’s a doorway into Klinger’s mind which the viewer can wander into and the ultimate self-portrait; tantalisingly still as an object of contemplation and self-reflexivity.

One of the most extraordinary, mesmerising and multi-layered works in the show is Ulrike Rosenbach’s Don’t Believe I’m an Amazon (1975, Black and white video, soundtrack, 15mins, PAL, made during a live video action. On loan from the ZKM, Karlsruhe.) In this recording of a live performance, Rosenbach uses two closed circuit cameras; the first focused on a circular enlargement of Stefan Lochner’s Madonna of the Rose Bower (1440-2, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne) and the second set within a square opening at the centre of the painting. What we see on screen are these two views combined, superimposed over each other as the artist takes aim to shoot fifteen arrows into the image / mythology of the Madonna, the Amazon and herself. At points in the performance Rosenbach’s eyes become those of the Madonna, shifting uneasily between iconic reverence, platitude and violence. The artist shooting arrows into her own face and that of the ultimate Mother is an incredibly potent act with the tension of each arrow, strained then released as part of the aural and visceral tension of the work. The concentration as she takes aim, the focus of her art, charged with serenity, rage, faith and intellectually sharpened emotion is stunning. The view of the action and the penetrative result are seen powerfully in what feels like a living/ live feed of resonant imagery. There is a feeling throughout of realness in the performance, rather than staging. In the video Rosenbach beholds the reproduced painting of the Madonna, herself and the viewer. During this trajectory of thought and action she has tears in her eyes, bites her lip; the action is mindful, considered and emotionally fraught. The conflict is in Femininity regarding itself and the intense complexity of this artist’s performance is wonderfully unexpected and incredibly beautiful. A student of the much venerated Joseph Beuys, it would be wonderful to see the full scope of Rosenbach’s work exhibited here in Scotland. One of the first artists in Germany to embrace the possibilities of video and electronic images, “not burdened with art history like painting”, Rosenbach’s choice of media is aligns superbly with her intentionality, examining the traditional roles of women from a Feminist perspective.

Art Must Be Beautiful

Marina Abramović. Art must be Beautiful, Artist must be Beautiful, (1975, ZKM | Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015.)

It is extremely interesting to see the work of Marina Abramović Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful , (1975, Black and White video, soundtrack, 23 mins 38 seconds, PAL SD Performance 1 hour, Charlottenburg Art Festival, Copenhagen, 1975. On loan from ZKM, Karlsruhe and the archives of Marina Abramović. Courtesy of Marina Abramović and LiMA.), Helen Chadwick’s ; Self-Portrait, ( 1991, Photographic transparency, glass, aluminium frame and electric lights, 50.9 x 44.6 x 11.8cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) and Angela Palmer’s Brain of the Artist (2012, Edition two from an edition of five, engraved on sixteen sheets of glass, 34.7 x 29.2 x13.9cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.) side by side in The Body of the Artist section, each raising important questions about self, artist identity and gender in the reduction of self  to an act of self-mutilation in performance  or to cerebrally isolated body parts. In some ways both Chadwick and Palmer’s visions of self are liberated from the Feminine by being distinctly human and on the other hand this reductive choice, insisting on being seen as a brain, completely disconnected from potential projections onto the face and body, still feels like a troubling necessity. Chadwick’s photograph of a disembodied brain is reads as a universal self-portrait in that it could belong to anyone and Palmer combines the scientific/ diagnostic techniques of MRI scanning with the fragility of glass in displaying the physical and associative workings of her inner self. Unless one is a neurosurgeon and then only in part, the self does not surrender its mysteries and is completely divorced from the face/ identity of the individual. We only read this as Brain of the Artist because the label tells us to believe that it is a precisely mapped rendering of Palmer herself, it’s a beautiful construct in three dimensions. Marina Abramović’s performance assaults the notion of Beauty with “the static video camera serv[ing] as a mirror” and the mantra she recites; “Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful” provides the rhythmic impetus of belief behind tearing open her skin and the hair from her head. The statement feels like a cross between religious doctrine, an advertising slogan and self-help psychology. Self-mutilation is part of the acknowledgement of what Beauty has become and also what it is not in Feminist terms. Although  Abramović’s performance lacks the subtlety of  Rosenbach’s , her uncompromising vision of self in the process of injury and deconstruction also presents the possibility of reimagining the self and it is this aspect of the work that I find most compelling, existing beyond the shock of the moment.

My experience of the original work made the interactive elements of the Facing the World exhibition redundant in terms of feeling the need or the desire to add my own selfie to the mix. However the exhibition extends beyond the gallery space into its dedicated website and into the classroom. Education teams at the National Galleries of Scotland, the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon have been working with young people to explore self-portraiture and the touring exhibition’s interactive elements including FLICK-EU and FLICK-EU Mirror, capturing images of visitors in its various locations and broadcasting them within the exhibition and online. Post Brexit I wonder if collaborations like this, enabled by the European Commission’s Creative Europe funding programme, will continue to be possible. Being able to bring together works from European collections is a vital position which encourages connection, understanding and reflection; seeing ourselves in a new light, doubly so in the wider thematic context of Facing the World. In the words of Max Beckmann;” Since we still do not know what this self really is … we must peer deeper and deeper into its discovery. For the self is the great veiled mystery of the world.

Dedicated website for the Facing the World exhibition: www.i-am-here.eu

Scottish National Portrait Gallery: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-portrait-gallery-23553

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous

SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART (SNGMA), Edinburgh.              4th JUNE − 11th SEPTEMBER 2016.

T07346

Dorothea TANNING (1910-2012) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik [A Little Night Music], 1943. Oil on canvas, 40.7 x 61cm. Collection: Tate (formerly collection of R. Penrose) Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1997.

Having just completed a review of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition for the TLS, I want to focus more specifically here on the Feminine elements of the show. One of the most satisfying aspects of this exhibition is the way that it reconnects the viewer with the underlying passions, obsessions and political activism of Dada and Surrealist Art; expanding what Surrealism can be in the popular imagination and challenging what collecting Art has become in the 21st century. Drawn from four extraordinary private collections; those of Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Edward James (1907-1984), Gabrielle Keiller (1908-1995) and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, the range and quality of work, including key female Surrealists, is stunningly immersive.  Jointly organised by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Hamburger Kunsthalle and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the unique juxtaposition of paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings, photographs, original prints, rare artist books, objects, design and ephemera, presents a golden opportunity for reappraisal of the movement and its masters. There are over 190 works on show by artists including; Salvador Dali, Reneé Magritte,  Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Mark Rothko, Man Ray, Henry Moore, André Masson, YvesTanguy, Eduardo Paolozzi , Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Hannah Höch, Eileen Agar, Valentine Penrose (nee  Boué), Paul Delvaux, Francis Picabia, George Grosz, Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer, Hans Arp, Balthus (Bathazar Klossowski de Rota), Roland Penrose and Georges Hugnet.

I could easily devote an entire blog post to individual collectors, the content of their collections or individual artists who provided some of the highlights of the exhibition; the exquisite work of Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Eileen Agar or Max Ernst’s paintings, collages and rarely seen collage novels. This exhibition presents the opportunity for greater public awareness of lesser known work,  part of a wider struggle for equality. Although recent scholarship continues to shed light on the work of female artists traditionally outside great male creator canon, I’m not convinced that this level of consciousness has really entered the cultural mainstream. The world of Art History is something of an academic bubble and people are too familiar in an age of celebrity with the artist as a marketable brand, rather than a creative force of intention or aspiration.  The objectification of Art in an age of mass consumption (and an Art Market driven by ad men and oligarchs investing in their own shares) makes it hard to imagine that the value of Art can be anything other than the highest price paid at auction-until alternative ways of seeing are made publicly visible.

For me the beauty of Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is the way that it does exactly that. We see by example that collecting Art isn’t necessarily driven by investment and status, but by love, collaboration and a desire for the common good. There is also a collective sense within the movement of qualities beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion, rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings. With Dada as it’s critically savage precursor, unlocking the imaginative, collective unconscious becomes a cultural imperative and a matter of survival. Although we equate Surrealism today with a penchant for bizarre, absurd juxtapositions of images and ideas, what is often forgotten is the outrage of its outrageousness; of striving to be anything but the respectable, compliant, banal mediocrity that enabled extreme militarism to thrive.  Hitler’s regime, like all extremist ideologies past and present, understood extremely well what liberal, democratic governments too often forget:  the value of culture, the capacity of the visual to focus intentionality and human aspiration for good or ill. It is not surprising that subversive, so called “degenerate art”, was identified as a serious ideological threat that had to be eradicated by the Nazis.  The Surrealists were visibly defiant advocates of free love, thought and expression, qualities which remain radical even today. Crucially that radicalism encompasses how we see and define ourselves.

La Représentation [Representation], 1937

René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La Représentation [Representation], 1937 Oil on canvas laid on plywood, 48.8 x 44.5 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990 © DACS & The Estate of René Magritte.

René Magritte’s La Représentation /Representation (1937, Oil on canvas laid on plywood SNGMA, Edinburgh, formerly collections of R.Penrose and G.Keiller, purchased 1990) reminds us of the ambiguous truth of seeing and attributing meaning. The Feminine is narrowly edited; “Woman” defined by her sex with the visual focus on the child rearing hips, abdomen and vulva which become an object framed in isolation. Minus the head (intellect), torso (heart) and active limbs, the female body is coolly divorced from its own consciousness; the frame hugging the sensuous contours of the amputated abdomen. However there is always more to a Magritte painting than meets the eye. Here he seemingly reflects the focus of a male gaze, but also suggests the artificiality of the man-made object in its two dimensional representation. The self-conscious framing device is alluring, but equally cerebral in terms of what it suggests about the feminine “other”. The confinement of the frame draws attention to the lie of the canvas and the seduction of idealised Beauty. In juxtaposing these ideas in a single image Magritte playfully questions what we assume we’re looking at- one of his greatest strengths as an artist. It would be easy to appropriate this image as the calling card of one of the Surrealist Boys- but it is more than that. Gender is an aspect of the painting’s multi-layered meanings, not the sum total of them. What it says to me as a woman and as an art historian in 2016 is not to be complicit in the lie- that “representation” is precisely that- with all its attendant dynamics of power. In the context of his oeuvre, Magritte is fundamentally (and very consciously) about how we see and create meaning. To dismiss him as a painter of dreams is to miss the point of his work entirely. There is a sense in which La Représentation enshrines a faceless, voiceless, Classical Feminine ideal in a gilt frame, but it also focuses our attention on the crafting of the image and the idea of received meaning, actively grappling with those perceived truths. Part of the SNGMA permanent collection, it’s a work I’ve returned to many times because it is such a contentious, brilliantly confrontational image that the viewer is forced to negotiate, rather than simply look at, admire or desire.

Being looked at by men is the traditional role assigned to women throughout the Western figurative tradition and the female muse is also a well-established trope in Art. However this passive companion to male engendered Creativity is challenged by the latitude of exploration Surrealism allows- made visible in the scope of this exhibition. Unlocking the unconscious through free association, automatic writing, assemblage and collage techniques creates a heightened sense of alternate reality. The free form craft of placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute asserts the political right to freedom of expression. The beauty of Surrealism is that in its purest form, it brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively. It is possible to perceive the world within and without in new ways. There are many sublime examples of this kind of confrontation in the show, presenting alternatives to received ideas, passive Femininity and the supremacy of the Great (male) Artist. In Picasso’s drawing La fin d’un monster / Death of a Monster (1937, Pencil on paper, Formerly collection of Roland Penrose, SNGMA, Edinburgh)  the Minotaur is confronted by his monstrous reflection, revealed to him by Athene, the Goddess of wisdom, holding a mirror to his face in one hand and a phallic spear in the other. It’s an image of male ego, a wildly virile masculine persona confronted by his fallibility and by an alternative state of being. Athene appears as a balancing force of grace, intellect, action and conscious awareness within the composition. In Jungian terms she is a projection of Feminine anima within the male psyche that in Picasso’s case is screaming to be assimilated, rather than being exploded into Cubist fragments as a potential threat. Argentine artist Leonor Fini’s (1907-1996) foreground vision of Feminine self-possession; The Alcove (1939, Oil on canvas, West dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) is another magnificent example of foreground creative Femininity (in this case within and in front of the canvas. ) On painting Fini remarked: “I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms something I like.” This intuitive, instinctual approach to making Art, acknowledging the artist as a conduit, is balanced by her undeniable mastery of the medium. As in so many Surrealist works, contradictory ideas dynamically co-exist and new ways of seeing emerge. In The Alcove Fini skilfully sets the historical stage of expectation and then subverts it completely, creating tension and the need for imaginative resolution in the mind of the viewer. In Dadaist Art that tension is a knife edge, much more overtly critical of the powers that be-the inclusion of work by George Grosz in the exhibition gives the viewer a potent taste of this quality.

Aus der Sammlung Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection From an ethnographical museum], 1929

Hannah HOCH (1889-1978) Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection: From an ethnographical museum], 1929. Mixed media, collage and gouache on paper. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995 © DACS 2016.

Also created during the inter-war /Weimar period, Hannah Höch’s collage Aus einem ethnographischen Museum / From the Collection: From an Ethnographical Museum (1929, collage, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a fascinating visualisation of Feminine and Ethnological “otherness”.  Höch’s striking image combines an indigenous carved mask like the head of a deity with a female eye cut from a contemporary magazine. Colonised into Modern Art the human figure looks startled, looking over her shoulder with a quizzical, alarmed expression, also confronting the viewer in that moment with their own act of seeing and attributing meaning. There is a distinct feeling of violation conveyed by this disembodied eye set at a distressed angle, recalling the often painted Biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders; the self-consciousness anxiety of being seen as an object to be conquered and being subjected to a gaze which essentially frames you as subordinate. The body which is androgynous and child-like is combined with a bestial foot and tiny stool-like plinth beneath; a hybrid of ancient knowing, innocence, naivety and instinct. Höch positions the figure on an abstract, cage –like ground of geometric forms, juxtaposing Western ideas about Primitivism with collectively inherited values of a dominant “civilized” tribe. She calls into question Western attitudes towards “the other”, presenting the statuette object, “From the Collection: From the Ethnographical Museum” as a conscious human presence. It’s the emotional impact of Höch’s collage that hits you viscerally, the museum type categorisation turned on its head by Feminine resistance.

Resistance to the dominant gaze takes many unexpected forms in the exhibition. Salvador Dali ‘s The City of Drawers (Study for The Anthropomorphic Cabinet , 1936, Pen and Indian ink on paper , Private Collection, Formerly collection of Edward James) is a surprisingly insightful image of modernity. The female nude in the foreground extends her decaying arm and palm as if to ward off persistent assault. Her torso is a construction of drawers, drawer knobs and a key hole becoming erogenous, her face buried in the top drawer as if bowed in sorrowful resignation. Only a tattered rag can be seen coming out of the seemingly empty inner structure. The eye of the viewer is led by her hand into the mid ground of curvaceous discarded drawers, then into the distance where two seated women are similarly composed, one of them searching for herself in the open top drawer of her chest. Beyond we see gentile silhouettes moving through a cityscape, the reality of the foreground more vivid and arresting than the receding world of urban familiarity. This image of Dali’s Anthropomorphic Cabinet; a reclining Venus transformed by Freud’s theories, embodying an inner world of unconscious drives, is also an image of society. In the painted version a well to do woman in silhouette walks away into the background as if in denial of the open drawers of psychic revelation revealed by her other (or collective) self in the foreground. The element of display here is more complex than a reclining Venus arranged for seduction and the result more unsettling; a personification of civilization in decay.

La poupée, 19361965 by Hans BELLMER

Hans BELLMER (1902-1975) La poupée [The Doll], 1936/1965.Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 50 x 27 x 25cm. Collection: Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection.

It would be impossible to talk about the feminine aspects of this show and not address the elephant in the room; i.e. the male surrealist preoccupation with the Feminine as object(s) of desire. The most disturbing manifestation of this tendency towards sexual objectification is undoubtedly the work of Hans Bellmer.  In La poupée / The Doll (Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 1936/1965 Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection) he utilises the seductive high shine patina of a lustrous, reflective metal sculpture, elevating the repulsive hybridised  twin form of a pubescent girl/ doll onto a plinth. Engineered to satisfy his own gaze, Bellmer confronts the viewer with the framing devices of high art, introducing in the context of the gallery space an image of dominance, power and sexual objectification.  The girl hinges in upon herself as a contorted, inverted object, dehumanised and mechanistic, beyond Nature but subject to the artist’s nature and will. More disturbing still is the placement of Bellmer’s sculpted dolls in different settings, recorded photographically by the artist like sociopathic trophies. La poupée / The Doll (1935, Gelatin and silver print, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin.) is an example of Surrealism in its darkest form; projected fantasies realised in an assemblage of objects, arranged for gratification of the artist but also by implication, the viewer in the act of looking. Even if we turn away in disgust, the feeling is still of complicity in that white columned Art space. What Bellmer brings the 2016 viewer face to face with is a culture of consumption and sexualisation that is aesthetically and socially accepted. His crafting of objects and images when coupled with his underlying subject matter calls Art itself into question. Although I find his work deeply abhorrent, it is also a good example of work which makes the viewer confront the darkest corners of the human psyche, manifested today in the Surreality of cyberspace or the dark web where any desire can be made real. The work of Hans Bellmer reminds us that freedom of expression, now so prevalent in the visual/ textual bombardment of our digital age, also comes with responsibility to something greater than the gratification of our own desires. Presented as objects of beauty Bellmer’s creations are incredibly sinister, but they are also windows into the human mind and what we are capable of as a species.  Most of us would prefer not to look, to label the work and its maker, filing both away and thereby placing the internal threat outside ourselves. Perhaps in this way Bellmer is a Surrealist artist par excellence in making the unthinkable visible.

Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 1963

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Marcel Duchamp’s Coin de chasteté/ Wedge of Chastity (1954/63, Bronze and dental plastic, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is also an object of implied violence with hard bronze cleft into pink, glistening dental plastic. There is the suggestion of possession in the Wedge of Chastity; of female sexuality effectively plugged by the more permanent and more highly valued material of ancient bronze, over and above the disposability of plastic. Feuille de vigne femelle / Female Fig Leaf (1950/61, Bronze, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a more dualistic object; on the one hand enshrining a cast of female genitalia in bronze but also suggesting modesty, even shame in the fig leaf, recalling the Garden of Eden and by implication the Fall from grace initiated (according to the Old Testament) by Eve. Apparently the only way to keep female desire in check is to dam it. The dichotomy of Duchamp’s fig leaf as a representation of the Feminine lies in its disempowerment, functioning rather like a drain cover, whilst being an object cast in a permanently exposed, tactile state .  Although I’m sure Duchamp would have viewed this object as an expression of eroticism, it feels like a medieval door nailed shut rather than blissfully opened in the spirit of free love.

Feuille de vigne femelle [Female Fig Leaf], 1950 1961

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Max Ernst’s painting Gala, Max and Paul 1923, oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) is a fascinating image; a depiction of the ménage a trois between Ernst, Gala (Elena Ivanovna Diakonova), and her first husband, the poet Paul Éluard, representing the Feminine in an unexpectedly powerful light. Charged between the cool blues and rich ochre of Ernst’s palette, the female protagonist retains her mystery. She is an immediately foreground presence and remarkably underexposed. Her face is turning away from the viewer, half in shadow, becoming the ground of the painting. Anchored to a plinth like a Modernist sculpture, she also creates a sense of anticipation, movement and tension in the sheet that she holds by a thread which spills into the viewer’s space. At face value it’s a gesture of coquettish puppetry, Ernst visualising the human experience of having the world pulled out from under you by desire. But it is also an earthily sensual and grounded image, tangibly real in its abstraction. Ernst and Eluard appear as doll-like figures in the background, leaning into each other in intimate contemplation of Gala.  Her svelte figure in a backless gown, appears like a mermaid, split and tapered down to the sensuous curve of her hand, which like her hollowed eye, draws the viewer deeper into the abyss of the background. She is resoundingly present, part of the depth of the painting and aware of her own power- there’s a sense of what is withheld as well as what is on display. The male figures appear school boyish and immature in relation to the world of the painting, which is her. The viewer is caught off balance by these dynamics and by the unexpected acknowledgement of Gala as an independent being. We are made aware of a mind, connected to her body – a presence which we never see in vacant portraits of Gala by her second husband Salvador Dali, who binds her erotically in his own pictorial technique.

Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik /A Little Night Music (1943, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London) is a beautiful example of revealing that which is hidden and bringing it into conscious awareness. It is a vision flawlessly executed by a truly masterful artist. On an otherworldly, red carpeted landing and stair case a decaying sunflower, petals strewn with creeping green stems aligns with the fourth in a series of numbered doors, left ajar and sunlit from within. Two doll-like girls, their hair suspended in mid-air as if submerged underwater stand adjacent to each other. One leans half undressed, slumbering in a doorway, a fallen petal in her hand. Acidic green walls contrast with the opposing warmth of her red jacket. The tattered clothing of the girl not facing us mirrors the forms of creeping stems, broken and beginning the process of decay. It is a subterranean image of burgeoning awareness, awakening in dreams. Tanning reflects the altered, transitional state of female adolescence, rendered in painterly hyper reality more perceptively real than life. Unlike Bellmer’s depictions, these pubescent girls inhabit their own interior world, un-beholden to the viewer and aligned with natural cycles of human growth. Tanning’s painting Voltage (1942, Oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) also depicts a transformative process of becoming in female form. In the absence of the head, a coiled plait of blonde hair attached to the nipple exposes an internal circuitry of self-possession. The pale torso is contrasted with an oceanic background of turquoise green in the birth of a new kind of Venus. She beholds herself, disembodied blue eyes held in repose by an elegant, manicured hand. Like a headless Classical goddess of antiquity, the serpentine curves of drapery and hair adorn and animate the female body in a process of deconstruction. She is her own muse.

Leonora Carrington’s beautifully ethereal, Bosch-like vision The House Opposite (1945, Tempera on board, West Dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) displays her delicate command of tempera. The house appears as a labyrinth of the mind rendered with the devotional detail and palette of an illuminated manuscript. Carrington’s conservative English upbringing informs Ladies Run There is a Man in the Rose Garden (1948, Tempera on wood, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin), a delightfully humorous but incredibly grounded image, which has comic kinship with the work of illustrator and designer Edward Gorey (1925-2000). Carrington’s juxtaposition of the walled garden inhabited by Edwardian ladies, invaded by a Green Man is an intricate, playful and extraordinary work, etched in ghostly negative, seemingly scratched out of a richly fecund, umber ground of timeless earth. The sky precipitates dawn and groups of associative figures animate narratives intertwined in non-linear time. A heron, cat and monkey with their attendant meanings sitting on the chest / stomach of an outstretched figure in bed and the positive silhouettes of birds and animals receding into the background create a natural sense of archetypal. This image is all the ancient knowing invested in prehistoric Rock Art colliding with the genteel restraint of illustrative storytelling. One of the escaping veiled ladies points with her umbrella to a fishing hook suspended like a noose, while making an exit out of the frame on the far right, a woman in a broad skirt wearing a tribal headdress disappears into negative space. There’s an imprint here, like the ancient Aboriginal technique of blowing paint over the hand to recreate the imaginative space left by the Dreaming of our ancestors. Carrington was and is a Surrealist master who was dismayed at being described as a “Female Artist”. Unfortunately things have not yet progressed sufficiently in the Art World to make the term completely irrelevant in terms of acquisition, display and public awareness.

I loved this show for its richness and expanded frame of reference, the archival material bringing context to the work and the imperative of collecting Art in an attempt to understand.  As dreamlike as many of these images might be, they are built on strong, resistant foundations that still have the power to make us question everything we think we know about the world and ourselves. One of the dynamics that makes this exhibition so strong is engagement with the Feminine on the part of private collectors, curators and within the creative process of individual artists, both male and female. Spend time in this exhibition, allow your perceptions to shift and bring that heightened awareness into your life.

.9Ê

René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced) ,1937.Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © Beeldrecht Amsterdam 2007. Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.

The Scottish National Galleries website has a series of introductory online videos on each of the four collectors/ collections in the  the Surreal Encounters ; Collecting the Marvellous exhibition:

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/surreal-encounters/about-the-exhibition-23687

Reflections on An Linne

Jon Schueler Centenary Symposium and Exhibition

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Isle of Skye. 27-29 May.

72_Jon_Schueler-in_his studio_1973_Mallaig_Scotland

1973, Jon Schueler in his studio in Mallaig, Scotland. Photo: Magda Salvesen

How refreshing it is to have Art spoken or written about as a living thing! It is a rare convergence when an artist’s work finds its way back to the land and seascape that gave birth to it, accompanied by a circle of intimate reflections from family, friends and colleagues. The An Linne: Echoes, Reflections and Transfigurations symposium held at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, on the Isle of Skye was a unique event; the opportunity to focus exclusively upon the life, work and impact of an artist who turned his back on the New York art world, moving to Mallaig on the Northwest coast of Scotland from 1957-58 and 1970-75. Overlooking the Sound of Sleat Schueler immersed himself in the elusive, fluid spaces between land, sea and sky overlooking, grappling with the true North within.  The confrontational Art of painting and the ultimate joy and terror of life expressed in his paintings, transcend their time and place. At the heart of Schueler’s work is “the search” and the struggle of acknowledging what we are as human beings and being authentically who we are as individuals.

Having spent way too many hours of my life listening to academics kill the meaning and joy of Art by drowning it in their own vocabulary, it was a real delight to see such a multi-faceted and heartfelt celebration of an artist’s work. Hearing the perspectives of those who knew, loved and worked with John Schueler, combined with those exploring “the deepening North” he was vitally drawn to was a real privilege. The core of his work was expressed and explored in many different ways; in words, music, through Gaelic language, painting, film, photography and at times, overwhelmingly, beyond them all in silence. The symposium offered a wide range of speakers from different backgrounds; Magda Salvesen, Jon Schueler’s widow and curator of his estate; Professor Meg Bateman, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Dr Lindsay Blair, UHI; Mary Ann Caws, Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature, City University of New York; Richard Demarco, CBE; Kenneth Dingwall, artist; Marian Leven RSA, artist; Will Maclean RSA; Dr Anne MacLeod; Professor Duncan Macmillan; Angus Martin, poet and historian; Dr John Purser, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Marissa Roth,  photographer, writer and curator; Carl Schmitz, Visual Resources & Art Research Librarian, The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation; Dr Joanna Soden HRSA; Finlay Finlayson who chaired a discussion with members of the Mallaig fishing community; Rob Fairley, Hamish Smith and Will Maclean; Professor Jim Mooney, artist and writer; Helmut Lemke ,sound artist, Jon Schueler Scholarship Artist 2014 and Oliver Mezger ,film artist, Jon Schueler Scholarship Artist 2015.

This gathering and the exhibition of selected oils, water colours and drawings from Schueler’s Mallaig years, together with the work of Jon Schueler Scholarship recipients 2013 – 2015, Takeshi Shikama, Helmut Lemke & Oliver Mezger, are part of a wider programme of events in the US and the UK celebrating the centenary of the artist’s birth. Seeing Schueler’s work exhibited at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig provides a unique opportunity to view his paintings juxtaposed with the natural environment outside, looking directly across the Sound of Sleat to Mallaig. It was a pleasure to see his paintings inhabiting this space; of shifting light, time and weather and being able inhabit them in such an immediate way as a viewer. There are many painters inspired by the landscape of the Highlands and Islands, but what separates the good from the great is arguably the capacity not just to “paint Nature” in a pictorial sense, but to “paint about Nature”, interpreting and expressing what it is to be truly present in the face of it. As Schueler expressed it; “the mystery is Nature and we are part of Nature.” Confronted with Nature’s elements and raw pigment, there’s nowhere for the artist to hide.

There is nothing Romantic about the process of making Art. In reality creative genius is always tethered to flesh and blood, human vulnerability and frailty. Equally vision and aspiration; striving to know the unknowable, unceasingly desiring what is just beyond reach, grappling with what we sense and see in fleeting moments of recognition are essential qualities for artists whose work resoundingly survives them . It is in the act of making that human beings find their divinity, closest to the truth of what we are and what we’re capable of, poised somewhere between heaven and hell.  The Art of painting is founded in a struggle with the medium and with oneself. It’s that essential creative drive to make sense of ourselves, the world within and without, coupled with our capacity for destruction and annihilation that defines us as a species. From his experiences during WWII to the confrontation of the studio, Schueler was intimately and intensely familiar with both tendencies. As a navigator, flying directly towards enemy fighters and gunfire, Schueler was confronted by imminent death and what he called the “failure” of his survival on a daily basis. This aerial vantage point, right on a psychic edge of consciousness, between the immediate possibilities of life or death, is relived over and over in his paintings.

On the first evening of the conference Richard Demarco highlighted the profound and lasting effect of WWII on an entire generation; an observance normally referenced as a generationally distanced footnote in the discussion of an artist’s work. He spoke passionately about the physical and psychological effects of the war and about his own experience during a bombing raid at Portobello Beach, Edinburgh, as a child; waving to the fighter crews and picking up still warm shell casings from the sand, innocently taking them home. Much later in the early 1980’s at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, Demarco brought together lived wartime experience from opposite sides of the conflict in a meeting between Joseph Beuys and Jon Schueler. Within this gesture is the ethical imperative of Art and Art practice as the most powerful means of understanding and transformation that we possess; an ancient, Celtic idea which Beuys identified strongly with. Demarco’s perspective on Schueler’s work, like his reference to Martel’s “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice” was very much about individual “ego dissolved into something bigger”. It is in the cosmic scale and unfathomable presence of Nature, that Schueler came face to face with his own. All of life’s questions were projected into the concept and physicality of his Northern skies; all of his joy, passion and rage, the unknowable Mother lost to him soon after birth and the Goddess Nature, mirrored in his own soul, cloaked by male desire. As Jim Mooney described, the “primacy of touch”, the innate sensitivity in Schueler’s Art, makes us aware of the duality of light within and without, which obscures as much as it illuminates. In Schueler’s own words; “rending veils of self-deception in the sky”, part of an eternal process of human creation and longing.

43_1970_Jon_Schueler_in_studio

1970, Jon Schueler in his studio, Romasaig, Mallaig. Photo: Magda Salvesen.

Schueler’s painting is immediate and gestural, grounded in loneliness, the guilt of survival and his parallel journeys into the psychological, interior worlds of Abstract Expressionism and his own true North. As Mary Ann Caw eloquently described; “The North is wanting”. In a painting such as Grey Sky Shadow, III (1974, oil on canvas) there is a palpable sense of a warm blush of orange, elusively hovering and emerging through the opaque subtlety of mauve-greys.  The colour drawing the eye is pushed to the edge of the composition as if in another passing second it will vanish beyond reach again. Broad brush marks rendered with a delicate touch reveal the artist’s sensibility in that moment. Seeking a connection with something greater and more enduring than ourselves is not a matter of cerebral indulgence but a holistic act of survival.

There is a long artistic tradition of Romantic engagement with Nature – or to be more accurate, the human eye and mind perceiving it and this is certainly one of many pathways into Schueler’s Art.  Jim Moodie made the connection between the artist’s work and one of my favourite texts as an undergraduate; Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko.  The pure inspiration and the great void of Friederich’s Monk by the Sea (painted between 1808 and 1810) has much in common with the human presence, emotional gravitas and intellectual trajectory of a Rothko or a Schueler painting.

Carl Smitz’s wonderful discussion of American Abstract Expressionism revealed another ethical dimension to Schueler’s practice; in Robert Motherwell’s insistence on sheer presence, invention and resolution through painting and in Ad Reinhardt’s witty cartoon; asserting that painting “is alive if you are!”Reinhardt challenges the viewer, like the artist, to define the ground upon which they stand. As Mary Ann Caw commented, Schueler’s “presentness” in his painting, his “creative anger” and “refusal of passivity” can be felt in the “residue” of his paintings. The confrontation of what we stand for collectively and culturally was also explored in Meg Bateman’s paper; “A Gaelic Way of Seeing? on language determinism, part of a much wider ongoing debate and reappraisal of the Visual in Gaelic Culture.

The question mark within the title originates from the evolution of modern Gaelic; becoming progressively more aligned with English translation and therefore describing rather than attributing values and meanings to the naming of colour as part of an indigenous world view.  Scales of colour were once understood “as part of a process” and in more holistic terms; in “varying scales of saturation, shininess and hue”, rather than being narrowly defined, or labelled. Connected with the natural world and its cycles, the historical Gaelic colour terms “appear to have been based on several different axes- on the degree of saturation, ranging between rich and pale, on the degree of reflectivity, between matt and shiny, on temperature and on the degree of patterning, between multi-coloured and plain. Domain further defined hue.”  In older Gaelic word usage, shininess and saturation of colour reflect cultural aspiration; attributing “praiseworthy” qualities or conversely, “contemptible” dullness. This sophisticated, multi-layered understanding of colour goes beyond simple translations of “green” or “brown” in English, revealing a different mindscape within the land and seascape of the Gaidhealtachd.

This innate connectivity of old Gaelic as a visual language arguably finds its closest translation today in the work of visual artists (regardless of their native tongue), whose chosen mode of expression is far less susceptible to language determinism. Drawing on an ancient vocabulary of understanding that existed in previous centuries highlights another level of loss and appropriation of language.  What we see in Schueler’s nuanced palette/ paint handling or in that of contemporary Scottish Artist Marian Leven is a close affinity with subtle scales of colour found in Nature and uniquely in the North of Scotland, defining ways of seeing and cultural values that fundamentally differ from dominant Western consumer culture. Leven’s observation about the “remoteness” of sky/ eye line of Manhattan compared to the North of Scotland, where the eye is level with the coastal horizon, a line “that embraces you like a mother” and the sense of continuity this imbues is extremely insightful in this respect. Bateman’s paper caused me to reflect a great deal upon what it means to be an artist and what our use of language; verbal, written or visual, says about collective cultural values and aspirations, our propensity for creative renewal and our capacity for survival.

The Highlands and Islands are often defined in terms of parochial remoteness, occupying a place in the global imagination right on “the edge of Europe” , however as Marian Leven rightly pointed out, this depends entirely on where your starting point is. Although Schueler chose to live and work in relative geographical isolation in the Northwest of Scotland, the scope of his work is a potent reminder that “the whole point of looking into is looking beyond”.

51_Jon_Schueler_door_of_Romasaig_Mallaig_Dec70

December 1970, Jon Schueler at the door of Romasaig. Photo: Magda Salvesen.

http://www.jonschueler.com

http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/en/ealain-is-cultar/jon-schueler-centenary-symposium/

The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film 16 – 20 March, Bo’ness

HippFest Stella DallasStella Dallas (1925) Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film.

“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.”

“The silent pictures were the purest forms of Cinema.”

Alfred Hitchcock.

There is nothing quite like the live experience of Silent Film to reconnect us to the power of pure visual storytelling. Coupled with the immediacy of sound every performance is unique, appealing to our basic human need for connection and illumination. From the earliest flickers of light on cave walls to projected images on the cinema screen, it’s here in the dark that we make sense of ourselves, individually and collectively. The Silent era is a wellspring of creative innovation and imaginative possibilities, testing the boundaries of the new medium in visionary ways. If you wanted effects in the early days of film you had to hands on invent them, grappling and redefining your Craft in the process. For contemporary artists/ musicians and audiences, stripping the medium back to the clarity of black and white with musical accompaniment, experienced directly by the audience, is a creatively liberating experience.  In the hands of the right accompanist(s) an entirely different relationship between moving images and sound emerges. It isn’t about lazy emotional button pushing, providing sound effects, an overlaid decorative soundtrack or the ego of the musician(s) on stage. At its best Silent Film accompaniment is the Art of placing the film centre stage- taking your cues directly from what the film projects into your own soul, mirrored in the hearts and minds of the audience. At its highest level it’s an Art of interpretation rather than illustration, integrating sound and image to such a degree that as a viewer it becomes impossible to consciously separate them.

HippFest generic 1

The Hippodrome Cinema, Bo’ness. Image Courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

Now in its 6th year, The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is an annual event unlike any other, bringing the best Silent Film accompanists in the world to Bo’ness every March. Held in Scotland’s oldest purpose built picture house (opened in March 1912) and other sites in the town, it’s the perfect place to rediscover Film. The atmosphere of the Hippodrome is intimately spacious, combining a sense of community with a celestial high domed ceiling of deep indigo peppered with stars and a rising sun above the screen, decoratively restored circa 1926. Night and day are perceptively under one roof and enfolded in the circular embrace of the architecture, you feel part of the seemingly infinite space above, ready to be transported beyond the everyday. The building is reminiscent of an astronomical observatory or a pre-Deco temple of dreams and illuminations. Heightened perception and the collective experience of Cinema is part of the architectural design and also central to the appeal of a festival “where Movies and Music come alive” through palpable energy of live performance.

Musical improvisation in direct response to film is a particularly skilled Art of being absolutely present in the moment, aurally serving the story/ vision on screen and communicating human experience sonically with the audience. Over the years I’ve watched many orchestras, ensembles and soloists accompany Silent Film, but I have seldom seen a more complete union of Craft, musicianship, artistry, intuition and expression than in the extraordinary duo of Stephen Horne (piano, flute, accordion) and Frank Bockius (percussion).  Their interpretation of Ewald André Dupont’s Variety (1925), harnessed the raw emotion and human complexity beneath the story of love, lust, moral corruption and redemption. Set in the circus carnival world of Hamburg and the theatre that was Weimar Berlin, it is the ill-fated tale of an unknown orphaned female immigrant, named after the cursed ship Berte Marie which brings her to port and into the life of a married carnival owner. Leading the audience deeper into the light and shade of the human psyche Horne and Bockius are perfectly matched. Although the duo has played at film festivals internationally, this was the first UK performance by Bockius, a collaboration made possible by the support of the Goethe –Institut, Glasgow. The level of applause from the audience clearly demonstrated that I wasn’t alone in being transfixed and elated by their satisfyingly layered interpretation. With no fixed score, the singular energy and intensity of their performance produced an unforgettable cinematic experience, one that simply cannot be replicated by any form of technology that currently exists or has yet to be invented. Between celluloid and sound the human connection was absolute.

HippFest Variety

Actor Emil Jannings in Variety (1925) Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

Being in the service of cinematic storytelling is a quality shared by both artists and from the first note to the last the result was totally immersive. Variety is a film which like the paintings of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann portrays humanity’s base instincts, the sharp off kilter rhythms of a society wrestling with its own demise, lost in sensual distractions of the dance hall, cabaret and brothel, poised on a knife edge of human passion and obsession. Introduced by a drumroll of spectacle and channelling the spirit of Kurt Weill with entertaining unease, Horne and Bockius established in their opening sequence the moral compass of this work which is a good deal more complex than David Cairns’s accompanying film notes would suggest.  The aural stage is set in alignment with tone and inner conflicts of the film, like the self-reflexive irony of the “Parisian Beauty Pageant”, a parade of dishevelled and dispossessed humanity placed on an inverted side show pedestal.

The beauty of this performance was the way that the internal motivations and impulses of the characters (which we share regardless of what age we live in) are revealed. Sound becoming integral to how we read film might seem like an obvious observation, were it not for the lack of this skill in much mainstream filmmaking and the consequent dulling of our collective senses. In the hands of Horne and Bockius accompaniment is more than a soundtrack, it’s integral to film’s internal architecture- emotionally, intuitively and intellectually, which is what made this performance so satisfying. Drums were used as a potent undercurrent of unconscious drives rather than an obvious illustrative driver. It’s achieving a deeper level of musical dialogue which makes this subtle duo such distinctive and consummate performers. The anticipatory combination of snare drums, coupled with the snake-like deception of the flute when ambiguous Femme Fatale Berte Marie transforms desire into persuasion is masterful. There was a musical knife edge lived in this performance that captured beautifully the moral dilemmas of the characters and the prevailing Zietgeist; transitional moments of complicity when a dutiful husband abandons his wife and becomes a murderer, surrendering to his passions and abandoning reason. This sense of teetering on the brink of moral collapse was communicated magnificently in sound and image, enhancing our experience of a largely unknown film and bringing its themes vividly to life through direct engagement with our internal and external senses.

This quality, like the world on screen has an immediate physicality; it’s in the blood beat raw energy of unbridled, exuberant Jazz, the plucked interior strings of the piano resonating in the nervous system, the heavy breath bellows of the accordion and in the melodic shame that twists like Carnival owner “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings) fingers through his belt when the awkward truth of his adultery is exposed.  The way we experience the film as a live performance is simultaneously visceral and cerebral, triggered by inner projections of sound that enable us to discern more than just black and white morality or simplistic Melodrama. The precarious trapeze movement of Karl Freund’s “unchained camera” is coupled with the concentrated power of the close up, enabling audience identification with the human face and emotional trajectory of the film. The escalation of tension throughout this performance wasn’t loudly announced but crept in like the emotive power of jealousy itself. In the ticking suspense of night a Tibetan singing bowl scrapes and chimes with Huller’s inner torment; realising that the woman he has abandoned his wife and child for is sleeping with his acrobatic partner. In a café scene where he sees cartoon confirmation of this deceit, tension and Drama build in the scraped lower register of piano and crescendo of cymbals, a vibration of trembling emotion, surfacing in anger and causing the room to spin.  Back in the dressing room preparing for the show, applying ghostly grease paint like a sad clown, we hear Huller’s resolve in the plodding rhythm of the piano adding emotional gravitas to the resignation we see contained in his desolate eyes. This isn’t cause and effect sound tracking but something far more nuanced, psychologically real and inwardly complex. The tone and human step of the piano conveys the loss of all happiness we see in Huller’s face and posture, in unison with the drum and skull motifs on the acrobat’s costumes which portend the entwined fates of the three unhappy lovers. I feel certain that if the author of the accompanying film notes had experienced this particular performance with its inner depth and insightful range of sound, his perception of Variety would be significantly expanded- because that’s exactly what great live accompaniment does. Over five days Hipp Fest provides opportunities to experience something spectacularly unique in cinematic terms and to reappraise how we watch, enjoy, appreciate and make films. It’s an experience that can’t be replicated at home watching a DVD, a posting on You Tube or seeing film on any reductively small screen.

The crowd pleasing Laurel and Hardy 1928 triple bill; From Soup to Nuts, We Faw Down, and Liberty accompanied by John Sweeney (piano) and Frank Bockius (percussion) was pure unadulterated enjoyment where the musical and comic timing resoundingly equalled each other. I can’t begin to explain why having a crab in your pants up a skyscraper scaffold or poking someone’s throat so they stick out their tongue is so damn funny! It’s a brand of physical comedy never goes out of style; universally timeless human foibles and outlandish scenarios stacked one on top of the other until all you can do is collapse in a heap with laughter, wiping the tears and cream pie out of your eyes. I haven’t had that much fun in a cinema for a long time, the accelerated pace and set up of visual gags brilliantly enhanced by the sheer quality of musicianship. Laughter really is the best medicine, especially when it’s shared.

Betty Bronson - Peter Pan Pub Photo 1924

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

Harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry’s interpretation of Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan (1924) was a moving, magical experience of childhood wonderment and adult recognition.  True to the spirit of J.M.Barrie, who encouraged his audience regardless of age to see again through the eyes of a child, Baldry’s musical alignment with the film’s themes; loss of childhood innocence, the nature of motherhood and unconditional love, made this more than a whimsical fantasy for children. An early work by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, the film’s luminous, enchanting imagery, beautifully crafted special effects of fairies and flights of imagination are tempered with human fragility. The direct appeal to the audience; “do you believe” in fairies? to save Tinkerbell could easily have felt like pantomime, but Baldry’s musical interpretation of this film created the environment for a deeper level of perception. This moment of communal applause and engagement from the audience felt more about the magic of cinema and the collective function of storytelling, linked to the ancient bardic tradition of the harp, than just an amusing theatrical device. The direct appeal to camera presents the viewer with a mirror. How do we know who we are and what tribe we belong to? Art, Poetry, Music and in the case of Cinema, all three combined. In her introduction to the film Elizabeth-Jane Baldry highlighted the near loss of this explosively volatile silver nitrate film and the truly miraculous rediscovery/ restoration of the only surviving print in the world. Her performance naturally invoked childhood memory and I think for adults in the audience this was not without the acknowledgement and poignancy of loss. The harp is the perfect instrument to express this delicate vulnerability, the joyful state of eternal youth and the imaginative space that is Neverland. Exploring the timbre of the instrument through tactile sound; hands and metal on strings and the harp’s sound board, Baldry created a sense of the essential, ephemeral nature of human life; the loss and resistance we feel at different stages of maturation and the imaginative wonder that sets us free.

Early Chinese Cinema was brought into focus at this year’s Hipp Fest with a series of screenings and events in collaboration with the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. John Sweeney’s sensitive accompaniment to Sun Yu’s Daybreak (1933), starring Li Lili was a captivating study of society, politics and gender in a time of rapid industrial modernisation. The film encodes natural/rural and urban environments with the morality of good and evil, virtue and corruption, yet the human element of the drama is fascinatingly harder to define. The dynamics of the central female character; an innocent country girl sold into prostitution who becomes a strong willed, defiant, self-sacrificing woman, embodies the conflicted ambiguities of violence, revolution and the human cost of an emerging nation, driven by production. Daybreak also reflected the emphasis on silent women at Hipp Fest 2016, celebrating the work of (now lesser known) stars of the era such as Pola Negri, Beatrice Lillie, Anita Garvin and Marion Byron.

Hipp Fest has established a tradition of commissioning and touring new scores for Silent Film including this year’s world premiere of Hans Walter Kornblum’s Wunder der Schöpfung (Wonder of Creation 1925) with accompaniment composed and performed by Jazz duo Hershel 36. The stars being in alignment in terms of the band’s name, interest in space and a strong family connection with astronomy would have made this film an obvious choice, however gravitating towards what you know is not always the most creative or ultimately satisfying option for the artist(s) or the audience. Although the early animation and perceptions of space are of technical /historical interest, this episodic fusion of science, religion and fiction in seven parts has the overwhelming tone of an educational lecture, begging the accompanist to delve into its documentary subtext. I got the feeling that engagement with Silent Film was primarily a vehicle for Hershel 36 the band, rather than an opportunity to significantly push the creative boat out. There were hints of exploration in terms of the spatial qualities of sound which could have been developed further, but too often this promise gave way to snippets of synth soundtrack reminiscent of Blade Runner or The Clangers. For such expansive subject matter the accompaniment felt frustratingly narrow, although to be fair experimentation and experience in working with Silent Film are necessary for a deeper level of interpretation which the timescale of a single commission doesn’t usually permit. With the calibre of accompaniment at the festival so outstandingly high, I found this new score disappointingly obvious and hope that if Hershel 36 choose to accompany Silent Film again, they challenge themselves and the audience, dig deeper into their primary source material and really come to grips cross-disciplinary practice. Enthusiasm for your own music isn’t enough when it comes to accompanying Silent Film, you’ve got to examine your intent (it’s not about you it’s about the film) and refine your Craft as an artist (or group)in response to what’s on screen- doubly so in a professional arena where the bar is set so comparably high. Anything less than that looks and sounds painfully superficial and artistically self-indulgent, whatever the musical style. The finest performances at the festival were those that altered or enhanced perception of what was projected on screen. I am still thinking about them and I know I’ll remember them months and years from now.

With over 25 years’ experience in the Art of Silent Film accompaniment, musician and composer Stephen Horne is an artist who consistently raises the bar. The world premiere of his newly commissioned score for Henry King’s Stella Dallas (1925), written for piano, flute, accordion and harp and performed with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry was a highlight of the festival. The story of a mother’s love and sacrifice for her daughter is the story of parents the world over who want their children to have a better life than the one they were born into. In Stella Dallas the cost of the American dream; of bettering yourself, rising above poverty and circumstance, comes at enormous personal cost. Francis Marion’s screenplay presents complex portrayals of Motherhood, the Mother/ Daughter relationship, class, social mobility and the modern familial realities of separation, divorce and re-marriage. From the opening sequence in Springtime there’s the dappled light of Romance in the score but also the presence of underlying shadows; no love without loss.  The main melodic theme introduced by the piano is naturally fluid, open and humanely fragile; a sweet melodic line that fades out with passing time and first love lost. Refreshingly Horne knows how and when to use silence and his sensitive orchestration informs our perception of the inner state of the characters. In many insightful ways the contradictions between what Stella appears to be in the eyes of the world and polite society and who she is are explored musically.

From the beginning the score enables the viewer to feel the dignity of the main character; a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, who does her best to adopt the right clothes and manners but remains who she is. There is something unreservedly compassionate about the musical/ cinematic frame through which we see Stella that is intuitively empathic, mirrored in the audience’s investment in the character because she is, like all of us, a flawed individual. Stella isn’t an idealised or demonised stereotype of a woman, but a person; instinctively brash, refreshingly direct, gaudy, gauche, “a disaster” of a mother (as she describes herself) but equally governed by innate integrity; a depth of unconditional love for her daughter that seemingly only her rival, her husband’s new wife Mrs Morrison, can understand. The “other woman”/ stepmother isn’t defined stereotypically either and the two women are brought together, united in mutual concern for the wellbeing of Stella’s daughter Laurel. Stella’s sacrifice in exiting her daughter’s life so that Laurel can move in respectable, educated circles and marry the man she loves is grounded in the sad truth, acknowledged by both mothers, that who Stella is isn’t compatible with securing her daughter’s happiness. The dialogue between harp and piano in this scene sets this tone of understanding between the two characters, their civilised acknowledgement of each other played against type and their selfless love for Laurel.

The emotional range of Belle Bennett’s performance as Stella and Stephen Horne’s music bring the viewer to powerful moments of recognition where we physically and emotionally project ourselves into the frame. A sequence where Stella is standing outside in the rain seeing her daughter’s wedding through a window is a particularly fine example. Initially the wedding march is announced grandly on the piano, then hushes as the viewer aurally stands in Stella’s shoes outside. We hear what character hears with all the intimacy and tenderness of the attendant piano. The brightly fluid theme is irrevocably changed; it heightens in tone to a moment of surrender and transformation we see on Stella’s face. We feel acutely in that in this moment, she is happy to die, fulfilled in witnessing her daughter’s happiness, in transcendence of her own destitution. The music acts like a conduit between inner and outer worlds, like the reflections on the window in this scene- the falling rain reflected on Laurel’s face shadowing a loss that has not been fully brought into her conscious awareness, yet there it is emerging in our own.  There is great beauty and impressive restraint in paring down the musical palette, especially in relation to a film dealing with emotive subject matter. We are so used to being emotionally manipulated by mainstream movie soundtracks that to experience the subtleties of what image and sound can be is revelatory.

When Stella reads her daughter’s diary and decides that Laurel would be better off without her, she retreats from the room where her daughter is sleeping into sound, the dark night of her soul through the window is central to the composition within the frame and in the score, the lone flute turning to the isolation of one hand on the piano. We feel Stella turn in on herself in that moment of real time and awakening consciousness, realising what she must do and what she has to lose. It takes humility, artistry and understanding of the human condition to score a film like that, to create a space that feels true to the vision on screen and one that the audience is free to project themselves into without heavy handed, prescriptive musical prompts. Horne and Baldry performed their accompaniment with tremendous skill and understanding, absolutely in the service of the film and there could be no better introduction or experience of Stella Dallas than this performance of Horne’s new score. At its best Cinema humanely connects us all and that shared experience between filmmakers, accompanists and the audience is taken to a whole new level at Hipp Fest. Though I only managed to attend the final two days of the festival the experience was so rich, rewarding and entertaining I would recommend it to anyone, whether you are a film buff or not. It puts the world of talking photographs into perspective and in the hands of the best Silent Film accompanists in the world, the experience of what live Cinema can be is thrilling, inspirational and totally immersive.

www.hippfest.co.uk

www.frankbockius.de

www.stephenhorne.co.uk

www.elizabethjanebaldry.com

 

Fiaradh gu’n Iar: Veering Westerly

WILL MACLEAN 27 February – 26 March 2016, IMAG.

WM-Stormbird Harbinger

Storm-Bird Harbinger by Will Maclean, No7 in a series of 12 collages and poems;  A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

With due attention, everything is song. John Burnside, Song of a Storm-wave.

I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Will Maclean recently, coinciding with the opening of his latest touring exhibition; Fiaradh gu’n Iar: Veering Westerly at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (IMAG). Developed in association with Art First, London and An Lanntair, Stornoway, the show contains striking new work including his collaboration with poet John Burnside; A Catechism of the Laws of Storms and wonderful examples of retrospective works drawn from public and private collections.

There is something seamless and powerfully evocative in Will Maclean’s work that seems to emerge from the collective unconscious, deep below the Plimsoll line. Objects dredged from a vast ocean of human consciousness are potent triggers of memory and narratives, woven in the mind of the artist and the imagination of the viewer. Maclean’s Art is as grounded as it is profound; borne of a Craft of making, a tactile tradition integral to life on and by the sea, part of the artist’s bloodline and inheritance. Described as “artist laureate” of the Highlands and Islands, Maclean’s work has always grappled with the poetics of visual language; sensed and felt in the natural environment he grew up in and woven into the rhythm of sailor’s knots, binding organic and man-made materials together in his work. The skills of an artist, visual poet, engineer and mariner are finely honed in his box constructions, drawings, collages, screen prints, sculptural installations and monumental land based works. His assemblages of objects cast ashore on eternal tides of human history feel strangely comforting; part of an archetypal inheritance of mythologies collectively shared. It’s this transcendental quality of the specifically local and deeply personal, expanded to the universal which distinguishes and elevates MacLean’s work. Having left a life at sea and “swallowed the anchor”, his practice is indigenous in the fullest sense of the word; bringing a deep, reverent understanding of the history, folklore and mythologies of the tribe, together with an intimate knowledge of the physical environment to all his visual and sculptural work. Maclean’s practice of assemblage and collage creates its own particular Surrealism; a heightened awareness in bringing objects together across time, melding two and three dimensional techniques in a fluid exploration of individual identity and our collective selves.

Maclean Inst w Memory Board + North Atlantic

Left to right: Memory Board (Mixed media and found materials) and Winter, North Atlantic (2014, Painted wood and resin, 124 x 105 x 5cm) by Will Maclean. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

Winter, North Atlantic (2014, Painted wood and resin, 124 x 105 x 5cm) is an intensely powerful example, rendered with all the artist’s understanding and “due attention”. The surface itself is exquisite, a fine gradient horizon of steel hue and an inlaid, mouth like tomb, striated and metallic as the taste of blood. The core depth of this sculpted surface has an aerial, God-like perspective, like that of a receding cargo hold; part reliquary, part refuge for the unconscious self. The oxidization of natural processes and flow of crimson are framed and held within what feels like a monumental expanse of richly textured, dark ground. The bend of wood warped by ocean waves and floating text surface and subside in a fluid interplay between two and three dimensions. This is how mind and memory work and one of the joys of experiencing Maclean’s Art is identification with what it is to be human; the mystery of what is known and what can be sensed in the inky depths or brilliant white illumination of his carefully layered grounds.  Often drawn marks are part of this framed foundation into which Maclean places assembled and hallowed objects. Like an ancient explorer of unchartered waters, the artist casts his nets deep; divining, navigating, visualising pathways of meaning and narratives, drawing the viewer compellingly into the work.

One of Maclean’s mixed media box constructions Fladday Reliquary, part of the IMAG collection, is a particularly beautiful example. The bone white delicacy of a bird skull is framed and held by charcoal fired wood, rusted hooks and lineages disappearing into the base of the construction. The stark tonality of found materials and layered recesses lead the viewer further into the work with each successive viewing. It is a shame that this work and others in the IMAG collection are not on permanent display as part of the visual culture of the region. Like Maclean’s creative excavation of our collective archeology – if you want to come into contact with the visual traditions of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd then even in 2016 the viewer/ audience still needs to go digging. This work ought to be part of a permanent display, a publicly visible cultural statement which exists in other cities the world over. Go to Spain for example and you won’t find Picasso, Goya or Miro permanently hidden in storage, visible only when a touring exhibition illuminates their significance. In cities like Barcelona, Madrid or Amsterdam, Art as a reflection of Culture is resoundingly present, part of how the city, region and country sees itself, acknowledged internationally. The quality of this exhibition and the nature of its content present a compelling argument for celebration of the continuity of Scottish Visual Culture, confronting difficult but essential questions about historical precedents of cultural ownership in the process.

Maclean’s work has always engaged with this visual tradition directly through the Craft of making. Memory Board (Mixed media and found materials) is a poignant example, the fragment of a life boat both literally and metaphorically. In a progression of thought, materials and tonal submersion this piece feels like an anchor of the soul, with memories of men and fishing boats flanking either side of its triangulated apex. The movement from dark to light feels both grounded and aspirational, a monumental fragment, worn by time and the elements; weathered driftwood, riveted copper oxide metal and fragile human handwriting articulating the work. There is a sense of cultural artefacts of loss and resilience created from the combination of hand crafted and organic materials. MacLean’s handling of found materials, instinctive care and devotional reverence convey very powerfully emotional loss but also the strength of a timeless living tradition, reimagining the world. This is also invoked in Maclean’s Rudder Guardians (1999, Mixed Media), totemic figures in a progression of black, red, blue/green and white, guardians of the soul’s journey through and beyond this life, figures of protection aligned with the steerage of self-awareness and determination. These starkly linear, elongated sculptures and the shadows they cast on the gallery wall are Aboriginal and universal in their immediate, visceral presence. They are powerfully, symbolically present, spear-like in their inner trajectory and equally mysterious in the long shadows they cast, suggesting human drives of creative need, protection and social cohesion which universally define us as a species. At base we will always need Art and stories to make sense of ourselves; the skill of the artist is in initiating those connections so that we can remember. This shifting perception is part of the fabric of MacLean’s Art in terms of his creative process and in the act of seeing.

WM-Nomad installed2016

Nomad Trace by Will Maclean (2011, mixed media construction, two panels, each 122 x 244 x 5cm.) Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

The artist’s imperative to explore this territory of mind can be seen and felt in Nomad Trace (2011, mixed media construction, two panels, each 122 x 244 x 5cm.) which creates a sense of an entire artic landscape in the shimmering Northern light of layered pigment and beeswax, icy blue emerging from the monumental white expanse of the diptych. The panels linked by a drawn circumference feel like interior maps. The tracery of form, drawn marks and inner framed recesses of the panels containing totemic vertebrae which emerge, dissolve and recede like melting ice into infinite white; a synthesis of Nature and a human eye and mind perceiving it. How you’re drawn into this work and the mythology of the Northern landscape creates a place of stillness within, an imaginative territory that the viewer is free to explore, led by ancient symbols of journeying between conscious and unconscious states of awareness.

WM-Atlantic Messenger Hirta

Atlantic Messengers-Hirta (1998, mixed media, 158 x 52 x 31cm) by Will Maclean. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

One of my favourite works is the sculptural installation Atlantic Messengers- Sula Sgeir, Hirta and Fulmarus (1998, mixed media, each 158 x 52 x 31cm) which have a figurative human presence, like Classical Feminine Graces, the three Moirai  or a chorus bearing witness to the tragedy of evacuation. Containing enshrined objects of cultural acknowledgement and remembrance, cast and recast in resin, darkly framed and elevated on plinths, Maclean’s “St Kilda Ladies” contain personal memories and collective associations with life, death and renewal. The cast guillemot eggs and boat forms are historically laden with narratives, a penny for the mail boat and a coin for the boatman on the final journey. To me they have always felt like guardians of an underworld of burgeoning awareness, like Inuksuk; Inuit cairns in Northern Canada- human symbols reassuring the traveler through that vast, frozen  expanse that they are on the right path. The distinctly Feminine egg forms are both solid and fluid, like weighted tears, combined with geometry of form, like buoyant instruments of navigation, enduringly upright on ever changing seas. Although the white of the central plinth creates a Christian tryptic focus, the base construction of wooden pegs, like that of an ancient bardic instrument without its strings, suggests a much older connection to the mythology of the sea and our human origins.

WM-Towards Voice Sept

Towards the Voice of the Night – by Will Maclean, No4 of a series of 12 collages and poems;  A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

Another highlight of the exhibition is MacLean’s collaboration with the poet John Burnside, A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, which has also been published by Art First, London, in book form.  Displayed here as a series of 12 screen prints in three colours accompanied by each poem, the union of images and poetry is completely symbiotic. The starting point was a found London Times of 1880, engravings which were the raw materials for MacLean’s beautifully Surreal collages. These images were then interpreted by the poet, inspiring and creating a series of works beyond text and illustration. Song of a Storm Wave, Storm-Bird Harbinger, Towards the Voice of Night and Apparition of the Re-drowned are especially fine examples of what feels like an intimately epic song cycle. At the heart of Song of a Storm Wave there is an illuminated human presence, a palette forms the body of an instrument within a ghostly moonlit silhouette; human form composed of found text and image, meaning as fluid as the collage process, the movement of a surfacing porpoise and the rhythm of waves. The flow of creative process from image to text feels absolutely right; it’s a sublime marriage of Art and Poetry.

WM-Song of a Stormwave

Song of a Storm Wave by Will Maclean, No1 of a series of 12 collages and poems;  A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

www.artfirst.co.uk

https://www.highlifehighland.com/inverness-museum-and-art-gallery/

Glasgow Film Festival

17-28 February 2016

Evolution

Évolution directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović.

Every February I look forward to time spent in Glasgow, sitting in illuminated darkness rediscovering the collective joys of Cinema. There’s something unique about Glaswegian audiences and the Glasgow Film Theatre experience that always gives me a positive lift. Warm, friendly and irrepressibly vocal, Glasgow audiences are up for anything! It’s the ripple of audible excitement through the audience as the opening credits reveal the surprise of the sell-out Mystery Film, the enthusiastic, spontaneous applause after the fabulous Dream Team free morning screenings, the hum of conversation in the GFT lobby or CCA bar as people unpack what they’ve just watched with curiosity, humour and insight, which add significantly to the whole experience.  And of course there’s the consistently wonderful baseline selection of films year on year, exposure to new world releases and heightened appreciation of old favourites in excellent company. The city marketing board slogan of “People Make Glasgow” is actually, resoundingly true and it is equally true of how we collectively experience film.

bigs2

It fills me with joy that daytime screenings of timeless classics like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep can fill a cinema like GFT1 – proof that the appetite for seeing such films on a big screen is encouragingly healthy -perhaps because, or in spite of, the many ways we can now watch films; mostly at home, in isolation, in a reductive hand held / small screen capacity or ironically as part of a wider, unseen global community of fellow niche enthusiasts. With debates about the Hollywood gender pay divide and race prejudice currently ranging, it’s heartening to see the diversity that Independent Cinema has always offered , celebrated in a city historically aligned with the Socialist belief that Culture rightly, belongs to everyone. GFF has a markedly different feel to other festivals in that respect. It embraces being cinematically and artistically curious, not just in terms of programming, but also in the context of how the city sees itself.

Double-Indemnity-2

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)

Festival Co-Director Alan Hunter’s introductions to retrospective screenings always provide interesting pathways into film- another human element which like Director’s Q&As and the conversations you have standing in line about what you’ve watched so far, are part of a film festival’s value added appeal. That Barbara Stanwyck was paid the same sum as her male co-stars for Double Indemnity and was in 1944, the year of its release,  the highest paid woman in America made me meditate on just how backward mainstream popular culture has become. We think of gender equality as being a recent development and seem to be under the comforting Western illusion that it has already been achieved, with temporary Twitter outrage ensuing when we find high profile evidence to the contrary. But this isn’t just about conditions or pay, it is also about content; how we see or don’t see ourselves on screen and how power relationships are projected and enacted.

I can think of very few contemporary Hollywood films where equality of dialogue, presence and screen time is comparable to Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep- certainly a reflection of their personalities and undeniable chemistry on and off screen, but also significantly, the product of a well-crafted piece of storytelling where the male and female lead characters are resoundingly written as equals. Part of the delight in watching this film time and again is seeing that this is possible, especially in a Hollywood studio film from a so-called bygone era. It’s a source of inspiration that doesn’t date and the Dream Teams strand of this year’s festival celebrated not just winning on screen partnerships, but why they continue to be both inspirational and aspirational.maxresdefault

Isabelle Huppert in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs

Storytelling in the dark is as old as cave dwelling and on a deep, human level, fulfils a timeless need; to entertain certainly, but more essentially to make sense of ourselves. GFF 2016 gave me plenty to chew on in that respect; from the absurd projections of male ego in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier to Joachim Trier’s brilliantly complex examination of grief and human perception in Louder Than Bombs starring Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, Devin Druid and Jesse Eisenberg. There were many highlights including Santiago Mitre’s uncompromisingly challenging drama Paulina, César Acevedo’s beautifully subtle, accomplished first feature Land and Shade, Thomas Bidegain’s  strikingly unexpected play on theme in Cowboys , the theatrically measured craft of Simon Stone’s The Daughter starring Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neill, Julien Duvivier’s wonderful 1946 thriller Panique and the delightfully bonkers  Love and Peace by Japanese director Sion Sono.  But perhaps the film that captured my imagination most for its stunning visuals, painterly sense of composition, colourful symbolism, psychological depth and persistent ambiguity was Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Évolution.

The opening sequence sets the scene with light seen through water- are we above or below? It’s impossible to tell- just go with it. We see the curve of the world and hear the distant sound of the sea; the effect is immediately immersive, like a dive and in that filtered light with fiery orange seaweed wafting against blue, peaceful movement and more sinister auditory undercurrents; the natural and unnatural seamlessly entwine. We are introduced to the film’s main character Nicolas via his shadow; adrift, then diving and surfacing in awareness, dead boy and dead self, sunk at the bottom of the ocean. Accents of red and danger punctuate these scenes- attraction and repulsion within the same frame, chiming perfectly with the body horror of puberty and gestation.

The sensuous underwater world of fluid light as a primordial source of life is contrasted beautifully with the black volcanic beach and stark white geometry of spartan dwellings, which feel as though they have been reclaimed from natural disaster and human abandonment. The island is populated entirely by young sons and their “Mothers”, whose dark unfathomable eyes and culinary habits suggest an intriguing range of possibilities; perhaps evolution borne out of necessity in response to the natural environment, a Utopian society off kilter, an island lab experiment, an alien race or a Dystopian nightmare. The extreme beauty of this film is that the audience is left to fill the gap between the final scene and the previous 79 minutes on their own imaginative terms- exactly the kind of film that I love to watch and that stays with you.

Hadžihalilović skillfully presents the viewer with twisted familiarity, a community of women seemingly evolving as a single organism with propagation of their species aligned to biological determinism rather than the emotive qualities of Motherhood so revered in human society. Moments of ritualised behaviour, such as the washing of their children in the sea or the beach birth feel instinctively rooted in deep memory and strangely conflicting bloodlines. This dredging of the unconscious, submerging the viewer in ancient fears and human insecurities is all the more striking for its focus on male vulnerability. In contrast with his guardians Nicolas’s humanity is his memory and creativity. The drawings he makes of his Mother, are greeted with curiosity by his nurse- one species/ gender / generation beholding another. Her response is evolutionary in an emotional sense and is also a means and trajectory of survival. This is a fascinating film with little dialogue to disturb the visual storytelling and an exciting stylistic calling card from an emerging director. The co-writer of Gaspar Noé’s superb 2009 film Enter the Void , Hadžihalilović’s previous feature Innocence (2004) starring Marion Cotillard is definitely one I’ll be seeking to watch, along with her future productions.Definitely one of this year’s GFF discoveries, together with Manuel Dacosse’s exquisite cinematography.

www.glasgowfilm.org/festival

 

Modern Scottish Women / Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

7 November 2015 – 26 June 2016

Modern Two -Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Anne Finlay, 1920. Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 100.5. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections: Purchased with the assistance of the National Fund for Acquisitions 1983.

“…there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist-bad and good.” Ethel Walker, 1938.

I headed to Edinburgh recently to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition and to attend a study day organised by the Scottish Society of Art Historians (SSAH), examining the lives and work of artists included in the show and exploring some of the issues raised by this ground breaking exhibition.

I began with the show itself and found many brilliant, inspiring examples of self-possessed creativity: women whose paintings, drawings and sculptures resoundingly announced their undeniable status as professional artists in their own right. Out of an original shortlist of over 200 artists, this survey of 45 female painters and sculptors (1885-1965) with Scottish connections curated by Alice Strang, is an exciting expose of largely unknown work. Framed in terms of developments in Art Education (primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the impact of gender on how female artists were trained, perceived and received by the art establishment as mediators of taste for the general public, this is a challenging show in its continuing relevance. Often named as symbolically and politically subordinate to husbands or male relatives, gender has relegated many of these artists to obscurity, with acquisition of their work largely in the private domain and contemporary writing about their work often patronising or derogatory. Commentary from male critics, such as the criticism of Joan Eardley’s male Sleeping Nude (1955, Oil on canvas), dismissed as the work of a “girl artist” and an affront to the Western figurative tradition, is treatment that we sadly cannot just relegate to history. In an era of Twitter, where uninformed populist opinion is king, women being taken seriously in any profession remains a lifelong struggle.

All too often “women’s” work is written about in terms of its aesthetic appeal –adjectives like “charming”, “pretty”, or the surprise of accomplishment accompanies so-called critiques of female artist’s work. This trend persists in the media today in the discussion of female contemporary artists defined by good or bad girl status, their  sexuality, capacity for child bearing/ childlessness or the appraisal of their physical appeal and dress, rather like the limited reportage on female politicians over and above what they actually stand for. Female creativity has had to overcome significant obstacles to even begin to be seen on the same playing field as male colleagues of the same generation. It was interesting to hear the shocked amazement of visitors, discovering some of the historical obstacles to female creativity found in the battleground of the life class; an essential foundation for the practice of painting or sculpture which was deemed unsuitable for ladies or the marriage bar that prevented married women from taking up or keeping fulltime teaching positions. There is always a danger when we narrow the historical lens, of thinking ourselves to be so much more progressive than previous generations. Hierarchies of gender, culture, genre and region still prevent female artists from being shown and acknowledged more widely, even in more recent times.

Compare art writing and media coverage of the nationally celebrated GSA New Glasgow Boys of the 1980’s: Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell with commentary on Joyce W Cairns, one of the finest living artists in the UK today, whose large scale figurative compositions surpass them all. Major solo exhibitions held outside the central belt at the Aberdeen Art Gallery such as Joyce W. Cairns War Tourist (2006) and Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude (2010) are contemporary examples of artists defined by the strength of their work, rather than their gender, which is why a second and even third exhibition of Modern Scottish Women is an imperative in terms of Scotland’s capital art institutions. As part of the SSAH study day, Matthew Jarron’s talk “Placed Under no disqualification”- Women Artists in She-Town, highlighted the work of women artists championed through art education, industry and politics in Dundee, revealing alternative histories of Art outside recognised centres of cultural gravity. This “first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland” is an important first step in recognising the contribution of women to Visual Culture, their rightful place in Art History and in the popular imagination. Perhaps it is my impatience for equality speaking when I say that in some ways the exhibition scratches the surface with a pin, but it is also immensely valuable in generating the impetus and momentum for further study and deeper consideration of this work, based on individual merit and the equality between ideas and technique.

Although I found the contextual framing of this exhibition problematic, I must also acknowledge it as a necessity: after all, to appreciate the qualities of anything you first have to know it exists, or in the case of Art be given the opportunity to see/experience it first-hand. I am sure that the general public and art historians alike will find works in this exhibition revelatory on many different levels. That a segregated show highlighting the achievements of women artist’s remains necessary in 2015/16 filled me initially with sad resignation- is this really the only means we have of shedding light on this work- to frame it in the inequality that it grew in spite of? But as I moved through the exhibition, new voices made themselves known and the framing of the show in relation to dominant institutions seemed less important that the fact that here they were- finally being discovered. Acknowledged in a National Gallery space, these works declared themselves in their own language, revealing strength, boundless talent and human insight.

Margaret Campbell Macpherson (1860-1931) was one of a number of female artists who in the latter 19th century moved to Paris for a more progressive art education at the Académie Colarossi. Working in relative freedom en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest and in Brittany, the artist’s palette and paint handling evolved in response to the natural environment and as part of the Concarneau artist colony. Head of a Breton Girl (c 1894. Oil on canvas) is an arresting work, rather more profound emotionally and symbolically than suggested by a contemporary critic in 1895 who praised the “admirable tint” and “sweet simplicity” of the face.  The 2015 catalogue entry describing the sunlit scene and the girl in costume, “lost in idle contemplation” misses the mark for me as well. What struck me immediately was the conscious presence of both the artist and sitter. The girl, on the cusp of adulthood completely inhabits her own thoughts, her eyes linked to the deep blue palette of foliage and to Nature. Her white cap, accented with cool tones of blue and green seems caught in winds of change, through the dappled sunlight. She holds a staff which points inwards towards her abdomen, accents of striped cadmium red in her skirt flowing downward into the foreground of the painting. In her left eye is the watery mark of a tear and she stares fixedly downwards, perhaps in contemplation of burgeoning maturity. This doesn’t strike me as an idle girl with a sweet face, but something more consciously heightened by Margaret Campbell Macpherson’s palette and composition; a sense of illumination- in light used not in the service of impressionistic prettiness or optical distraction, but to say something; about feminine experience, adolescence and the sadness that always accompanies the loss of one stage of life in exchange for growth in another. It is a painting as strong and as subtle as its cobalt and emerald shadows, conscious of Nature and demanding to be written about officially in less decorative terms.

Sleeping Mother and Child (1903-05. Bronze) by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) reveals the gaunt, high cheek boned figure of woman and her baby emerging from a hewn block of raw material and biblical association. The woman’s hands are clasped before her, around the child in a protectively unconscious state and the child’s mouth turns downward in an expression of uncertainty and consternation rather than peaceful, contented sleep. This exhausted and impoverished Parisian Madonna, a sitter who the artist paid with food and shelter, feels akin to the work of Käthe Kollewitz (1867-1945), although without the gravitas of human brutality and war. It is the protective bond of motherhood that the artist explores here and the recognition of one human being by another, tangibly in three dimensions. It is a work of great sensitivity, vulnerability, intimacy and one of the most emotionally affecting works in the show. Studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art and in Paris 1901-05, including the Académie Colarossi, the artist’s modelling of the figure in this and her painted plaster macquette for the Paisley War Memorial: The Spirit of the Crusaders (c 1922), was no doubt influenced by a progressive education and her scholarship abroad. The subject of a wonderful talk by Phyllida Shaw, who is bringing William’s work to light after discovering her extensive wartime correspondence, there is much more to be discovered about this remarkable sculptor.

Self-portrait (Mrs Grahame Johstone), c.1929

Doris Zinkeisen Self -Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone), c 1929, Oil on canvas, 107.2 x 86.6. National Portrait Gallery, London: Purchased 1999.

Another trailblazing artist represented in the show is Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991) who’s Self Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone) (c1929, Oil on canvas) is one of several resiliently present statements of femininity and power in the genre of portraiture, characteristic of this exhibition. Trained at the Harrow School of Art and the RA School in London, Zinkeisen’s work as a theatrical and film designer finds expression in her dramatic image of Self. Draped in a Chinese shawl, her pale white shoulders, red lips and rouged cheeks take on a symbolic rather than a seductive stance. The artist’s gaze extends above and beyond the viewer, her hand on a white curtain, about to step into the dark space beyond the set. Like Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay (1920), the contentious poster image for the show, it is an image that resists feminine display for a predominantly male gaze. Zinkeisen is resoundingly sure of herself in beholding who she is- her sexuality is part of that certainly, but it isn’t the only aspect being acknowledged by the image.  In Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay, the sitter meets the artist’s gaze as an equal, finding expression for the strength and dynamism of her personality, beheld and captured by another woman/ artist.

Belsen April 1945, 1945

Doris Zinkeisen Belsen: April 1945: 1945. Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 69.8cm. IWM (Imperial War Museums): War Artists Advisory Committee commission 1947 .

Although much admired in the press as a well-groomed socialite and model of femininity, Doris Zinkeisen’s tenacity extends well beyond her self-portrait to documenting the horrors of World War II. Tasked with documenting the St John Ambulance Brigade’s work in war torn Europe and therefore slipping under the radar of official war Art, Zinkeisen was one of the first to enter the Belsen concentration camp with the ambulance service post liberation. In her painting Belsen. April 1945 (Oil on canvas) she depicts a suspended, otherworldly, hellish space; blackened by death and smoke, with the glimmer of a furnace and unnatural clouds compressed into the high left of the composition. The splayed limbs of ghostly pale, emaciated bodies piled up in the centre of the painting align with the feeling in the floored pit of the viewer’s stomach – the foreground tonally falling away as if the ground beneath the viewer’s feet is collapsing. Zinkeisen’s direct response as a witness is an important, emotionally centred document of inhumanity and humanity perceiving it. Everything else including the gender of the artist is stripped away the scene before her, (and before us) heightened in shadow and universal in meaning.

Another memorable discovery was Margot Sandeman’s (1922-2009) painting 3 Bathers, one of the most beautiful and richly contemplative in the exhibition. From left to right we see three stages of life; childhood/ innocence, adulthood/ knowledge gained, and old age/death aligned with cycles of Nature. Sandeman’s symbolic treatment of her subject is reminiscent of Munch and Redon, with a dappled progression of luminous colour underpinned by a timeless progression of ages. In the figure of the child the torso is illuminated in sunlit yellow and orange, the head of the girl contrasted in cool blue, becoming one with the sky. The middle bather is in a crouched position, her face hidden sorrowfully in a towel and in the final section of the triptych-like composition we see the body of a woman, lain in a grave of deep ultramarine. Sandeman’s palette links the girl with natural cycles of life, death, decay and renewal with dominant blue defining the realm of her intellect and the flowing spring at her feet. The child’s steadfast gaze doesn’t portray a carefree state of youth but knowledge of what will come to pass, naturally in time to us all. There is a strong sense of the Feminine in Nature in Sandeman’s work which transcends her identification as a female artist.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson’s (1871-1918) The Grange, Rottingdean (1912, Oil on canvas) contains a different kind of knowing in her complex interior double portrait of her children Nancy and Kit. Her daughter is seated in profile in the foreground, staring fixedly through a window we cannot see but which illuminates both her and her brother, who we see through an open doorway to another room. Framing the space the girl occupies, and also the male child like a proscenium arch, is a wall dividing the domestic space; decorated with a series of six 18th century military costume engravings on the wall. On top of a rounded corner cupboard to the left, a statue of a blue and red coated gentleman with a cane seems to mirror the attitude of Kit, the artist’s son, looking directly at us through the open door. Wearing a Glengarry cap, his hands are steadfast in his pockets, feet apart in an assured, rightful stance. It is a Vermeer –like space in terms of its intimacy and perspective, but intensely psychological in the accents of colour and mark, drawing the viewer’s attention to status and gender, the relativity of one child to another, established in the light hitting them both. This sense of illumination invites interpretation; in the display of masculinity in the home and in the foreground space occupied by the female child, pensive, self-contained and absorbed in her own thoughts. One feels looking at this image that the boy’s experience of life has an established historical precedent of position, of the man he will become and the traditional space he will occupy within the family home. His sister’s foreground position within the composition brings her closer to the artist’s own space, feminine experience and in relation to her male sibling. Curiously in spite of the boy’s age, size and  distant position, his presence is expanded within the painting by masculine objects to the point where the artist renders him and his older sister equal human presences in the work. It is of course a mother beholding her children and one could argue an interior life/ figurative study, but the tension in this work suggests more than that; a more potent sense of psychology and a subtle, powerful comment on gender.

Born in Canada and resident in Scotland from 1928 until her death, Margaret Watkins (1884- 1969) is has been acknowledged far more widely in the New World. A pioneer Fine Art photographer working in the world of advertising, Watkins exquisite monochrome compositions are beautifully poised, her juxtaposition of objects full of associative narratives. Domestic Symphony is a photographic statement of tonal rhythm using everyday objects; eggs and the scroll of a bathtub, elegant as any treble clef. Seemingly mundane objects become elevated through Watkins’ eye and lens and in the arrangement of her still life compositions. Head and Hand (1925, Palladium print) is an elegant, though sharply ironic, image of the hand of dancer/ author Marguerite Agniel holding a carved, stylised head- a portrait of herself by the American artist Jo Davidson. It’s an image of idealised Beauty, display and possession, with the woman holding an appropriated image of Self in three dimensions, there in the palm of her hand where the gaze of others assumes its proper proportion. The hand itself adopts a pose of attention, a powerful positive surrounded by negative space.

I was delighted to see the work of Hannah Frank (1908-2008) included in the Modern Scottish Women exhibition. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing her, a few years before her centenary. She was, and still is through her Art, an irrepressible spirit and I think her sculpture Woman with Bird (1955, Bronze) sums up my thoughts about this exhibition. A female figure sits cross legged, holding aloft a bird with care and aspiration, about to extend its wings to fly. Frank renders the figure with characteristic delicacy and strength of spirit. It’s an image of freedom, imagination and Hope- a work which only she could have created.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War

Imperial War Museum, London, until 24 April, 2016.

leemiller-largeLee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy,      Unknown Photographer, 1944. Images © Lee Miller Archives.

After the Lee Miller & Picasso Exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery last year, which left me angry and wanting, I had been looking forward to a more comprehensive and insightful presentation of Miller’s work in her own right at the Imperial War Museum. The unique context of this museum I thought, would perhaps allow greater latitude, exploring the complexities of a woman cast between Beauty and her own mastery through the medium of photography.

I left this exhibition feeling inspired by Miller’s Art of seeing; in the many superb examples of her work before, during and in the aftermath of World War II, but felt equally conflicted by her projected image. Not in what was present by virtue of her images, but in what was notably absent; for example Miller’s confrontational, documentary photographs of piles of bodies or of captured prison guards taken during the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. The curatorial choice in this section, covering the liberation of the Nazi death camps is a more modest collection of images; of balletic feet in prison uniform, a doctor and her patient in Dachau hospital and a room of women forced to work as camp prostitutes awaiting transportation as a summation of her “feminine” experience. Nearby Miller’s photograph of Regina Lisso ( daughter of Dr Kurt Lisso, city treasurer of Leipzig, after committing suicide with her parents in the town hall on 18 April 1945)is a disarming image of youth, cowardice and perfected beauty of a different kind in the context of Nazism. Lisso appears as if asleep, a less confrontational image than others Miller took of Nazis, who took their own lives rather than face defeat and capture. These curatorial choices don’t adequately represent the outrage of Miller’s words or the scope of her images, which bring the viewer face to face with humanity’s suffering and with the banality and complicity of evil. The testimonial of her dispatches, communicating her direct response to world and life changing events demanded a space of its own. If you can’t display the Horror of what Miller saw, wanted the world to see and “believe”, in the context of the IWM then where or when will it ever be publicly shown?

Whilst there is truth in the Feminine narrative presented in Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, there is also an enduring persistence of limitation present. This is perhaps best expressed in former British Vogue editor Audrey Withers’ observation that Miller: “was reluctant to abandon the adventurous life which she found her true vocation and sensed rightly that she would never again have the opportunities it had given her”. I felt in viewing this show that similar lines of experience had been drawn around the chosen images- in accordance with the overarching theme of the exhibition and with Miller’s sensitivity in relation to the experiences of women in wartime certainly –but limiting exposure to an Artist in her own right. The selection and release of only four press images from the Lee Miller Archive also present glamour and beauty over experience, a tendency which is also reflected in the gift shop. “A Woman’s War” is fought on many fronts and although Miller’s images give active voice to this complexity within the exhibition, this feels in spite of the thematic trajectory rather than because of it.

The trappings of exhibition framing and accompanying texts aside, this is a wonderful show and an opportunity for reappraisal of Miller’s remarkable work in terms of who she was and what she represents on multiple levels. Like George Hoyningen-Huene’s photograph; Lee Miller with Crystal Ball, Paris, France, 1932 where the model’s face and hands emerge from darkness, illuminated from below, Miller’s head and hands/ intellect and actions are resoundingly present in the composition and guts of her photographs. As a metaphorical overview there is self -determination in this God/ Creator-like pose, with Miller grasping either side of the glass sphere or prism containing Vogue model Agneta Fischer in miniature. It is a surreal image of poised high fashion reflecting Miller’s own designated role of model and muse- beautiful, idealised and goddess-like, a desirable object trapped in a fishbowl.  However it is the powerful portrait of Miller that dominates the image, looming over the confinement of Feminine beauty, gazing into the crystal ball, into how others would perceive her.

Because how others- often leading male artists or photographers of the day, saw and projected Miller and because those images are such an influential part of how we are exposed to her work, I’m going to deal with them early! There are telling examples of how Miller was perceived and defined throughout the exhibition, that when stacked up against her own oeuvre, make her toweringly enduring images all the more remarkable in resistance. Photography behind the lens freed her, from the past and from how her own image/sense of self was appropriated by those around her. From early childhood Miller was subjected to invasive photographs taken by her father Theodore. The Stereoscopic nude study of Lee Miller by her father, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA 1928 visually and sexually holds her prisoner in a disturbing display; daughter as subject/object and the father behind the lens. Her arms are folded behind her back, her full frontal torso displayed in a format used at the time for pornography. Her head is turned away in an emotionally detached, downcast gaze, there’s nothing liberated or liberating about this image of the female body or the implied relationship between subject /object and photographer. Man Ray’s Shadow patterns cast by a net curtain on Lee Millers torso, Paris, France, c.1930 which crops off her head entirely has a similar effect, artfully draped in avant-garde eroticism typical of the well documented male Surrealist movement. Similarly her husband Roland Penrose’s portrait of Miller; Good Shooting (Bien visé), London, England 1939, positions her with hands raised above her head in the repose of a classical nude, headless, chained to a bullet marked wall and clad waist down in metal, another example of appropriated, idealised Beauty .

However Miller’s insistence and circumstance carved out a different path than that of a passive victim, muse or an object of obsessively held desire. War transformed her, giving her the opportunity, like many women during the 1940’s, to step outside and beyond what was expected of them in everyday life. Miller seized her opportunity as a war photographer and correspondent with both hands. The contrast between pre-war photographs of Miller the model and David E.Sherman’s image of Lee Miller at the entrance to the fortress of St Malo, Brittany, France, August 1944, starkly convey how fully she embraced life with the troops, finding purpose and meaning through the lens.

When the war ended and expectation of women’s roles assumed pre-war expectations, it is not surprising that Miller lost her vitality and sense of purpose, spiralling into depression and alcoholism in later life. Much of who she was and what she had experienced remained unseen until the discovery of Miller’s work by her son, Anthony Penrose, following her death in 1977. Miller kept the best of herself compartmentalised in an attic; 60,000 negatives, 20,000 prints, contact sheets and thousands of documents and manuscripts. The inspiration throughout this exhibition resides in knowing what she overcame to be who she truly was as a photographer. The evidence is in her images.

9f1e0de41c3cf289d449919c8a8121ec

Lee Miller self portrait with Sphinxes, London, England 1940 by Lee Miller (2995-5) Images © Lee Miller Archives.

 To see Miller’s development in the exhibition; from early studio self-portraiture, high fashion shoots, her observations of the relationships between men and women as part of an inner circle of artists in pre-war Paris, folk customs in Romania, studies of people, architecture and landscape in Egypt, to her work documenting the lives of soldiers, Resistance fighters, prisoners, evacuees and civilians; many women and children, during and after WWII is a breath-taking journey through “many lives”.

Prior to WWII we can see Miller evolving as an artist in her own right; in her supremely dignified portrait of Eva Jessye, Choir Mistress, New York, NY, USA, 1933 (the first black American woman to receive international recognition as a choral director and conductor) which speaks of equality way ahead of its time. Her portrait of Mafy Miller, sister -in-law of Lee Miller in the Bazaar district, Cairo, Egypt, 1937, displays her mastery of lighting and composition. Her portraits of Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, Lambe Creek, Cornwall, England 1937 and Ady Fidelin and Man Ray, Mougins, France, 1937 capture Miller’s understanding of the psychology and dynamics of power in male /female relationships.  Her Portrait of a local woman, possibly in Siwa, Egypt, c. 1938 and her portrait of Argentinian artist Leonor Fini, Saint- Martin- d’Ardéche near Avignon, France, 1939, are also particularly fine examples of Miller’s ability, insight and technique which applied equally to named, famous or unknown subjects during this pre-war period.  Miller rightfully identified early in her career that a photographer’s “approach” rather than their “technical genius” was paramount.

Miller’s mastery of photographic technique and intent prior to WWII finds heightened expression in her wartime photographs of American Nurses 2nd US Army taken in Oxfordshire, January 1943 and female ATS Searchlight Operators, London, England, March 1943; perfect compositions of tone and form, bringing a sense of radiant illumination to the work of women as part of the war effort.  Lesser known images of found objects taken during the Blitz including Remington Silent and Piano by Broadwood seen in the publication Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire by Ernestine Carter and Lee Miller (1941), reflect civilization in surreal, molten destruction.  Miller’s intellect and humour can be seen in her images of Vogue models wearing protective masks at the entrance to the photographer’s air raid shelter in Hampstead, London (May 1941) and in the defiant image of a model wearing a Digby Morton suit posed in front of a bombsite (June 1941). The framing of the archway is still intact, the model’s head turned in acknowledgement of the destruction immediately behind her but adopting an upright stance, one foot turned- the other pointing toward the viewer as though she could turn and stride forward into our foreground. Miller’s photographs of ATA pilot Anne Douglas, Flight Lieutenant Anna Leska, Life magazine photo journalist Margaret Bourke-White, Director Jill Craigie and unnamed women in uniform working in factories, as radio mechanics and technicians, darkroom assistants, nurses, ambulance drivers, interpreters, land girls, women filling in trenches and clearing rubble in human chains, provide a window on the trailblazing expansion of women’s many and varied roles in wartime, beyond domesticity and simply keeping “the home fires burning”.  I hope that many young women will have the opportunity to see this exhibition and be inspired by it, due to Miller’s undeniable sensitivity and audacity behind the lens rather than her undeniable beauty in front of the camera.  Can she not be both? Apparently not yet, would be my answer, as A Woman’s War is sadly still being fought in the way that female artists continue to be described and defined in terms of their gender, their clothes , physical appearance or their relationships with men, rather than their talents.

Anna%20Leska,%20Air%20Transport%20Auxilliary,%20Polish%20pilot%20flying%20a%20spitfire,%20England%201942%20by%20Lee%20Miller%20(4327-45)_jpg

Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, England, 1942 by Lee Miller (4327-45) Images © Lee Miller Archives.

Miller’s images of women in war torn Europe are among her most arresting and moving in the way that they transcend time and place to express universal human behaviour and emotions. Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, Brittany, France 1944 is a scene bisected by light and darkness from left to right; the woman being interrogated in foreground close up, her head shaven in retribution. Rather than the spectacle of public shaming or the judgment of the interrogator who is out of shot, she depicts an inward moment of recognition in the face of a young woman with her head pensively bowed, another woman in a dark cardigan standing behind her in shadow like another self or an unholy guardian angel. She could be anyone and any one of us. In a photograph taken during the liberation of St Malo, Brittany, France in August 1944, we see the French family of a German soldier hiding their faces in a huddled group, painfully aware of being seen, hair hung limp masking their faces. Only the face of a frightened child grasped tightly by its mother turns to face the viewer/ photographer, aligned with the lighter wall in contrast with the dark clothing and foreground, horizontally bisecting the photograph. This tonality has moral resonance in terms of the shaming consciousness of the three young women in the family group and the eye behind the lens. It is a powerful image of a standard unit of society and of collaboration with the enemy. However it is not without empathy. The body language of everyone in the shot, especially the young child, renders them vulnerable in capture and therefore judgement hangs in suspension in the open lit space above them.

Miller’s image of liberation on multiple levels, of Ghislane Schlesser, a French ambulance driver, with her father, Brigadier General Guy Schlesser, commander of a French armoured division taken in Alsace, February 1945, is one of the most beautiful in the show. Ghislane stands in the viewer’s foreground as if we are party to the conversation. The positioning of the young woman is at the forefront of the composition and on the same level as her father who stands behind her, hand on her shoulder, smiling and smoking a cigarette in a moment of pride, victory and relief. The sense of equality and camaraderie in uniform, shared resistance and the bond between father and daughter makes this such a beautiful image. Miller’s wartime photographs contain darkness, dispossession and despair, but also moments of profound beauty and hope.

Another example is Miller’s image of homeless girls on a Budapest Street, taken in January 1946. They stand together, bare footed- one gazing directly at the woman behind the lens, the other smiling at something or someone out of shot to the left. Behind them is a poster of an elderly woman’s face and beside it a Soviet-style poster of a woman, her fist raised triumphantly. It is an image of poverty, deprivation and displacement certainly, but it is also an image of resilience and trust between the two young girls and photographer. To capture such a moment amongst the rubble and chaos of post –war Europe speaks of Miller’s compassion and intent. She spent the first winter after the war in Hungary and Romania and like millions who were displaced by the conflict, faced the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding their lives. Listening to the painfully scripted interview with Ona Munson on CBS Radio’s Town Tonight show in 1946 and seeing the final image of Miller in her kitchen at Farely Farm, Sussex, part of a feature in House and Garden in 1973, it is easy to feel her discomfort and unease with civilian life. There are so many images in the Lee Miller archive, yet to be seen, with many more stories to tell.

One of the most famous images of Miller taken by David Sherman during the allied advance through Germany is Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, Munich, Bavaria, Germany, April 1945, showing Miller caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Beside the tub are her combat boots, caked with the mud of Dachau; on one side is a portrait of Hitler – use of personal space within his apartment, a symbol of allied victory. On the right is a female nude statue, an example of idealised Neo Classical beauty; an aesthetic of racial purity actively utilised in Nazi propaganda. Many of Miller’s friends were branded “Degenerate” artists and fled persecution by the Nazis. Between the defeated Fascist leader and the statue of idealised feminine Beauty sits Miller, washing the dirt and stench of Dachau from her naked body. For me the positioning of the female statue at the side of the tub has always held a sense of irony specific to Miller’s personal story. Like many women actively in service during WWII she was part of the fight against Fascism, but also caught between this new found freedom of duty and the restrictions re- imposed by victory. Projections of Beauty have continued to plague reception and access to Miller’s work – the statue by the tub is a powerful reminder, together with her life experiences, which she could never wash away.

“What is liberty? It is the little things, added up to equal freedom instead of despair. It is the columns of evacuees leaving the front, sad to leave their land, but willing; it’s the cinema for no purpose; it’s the group in the street, laughing; It’s trusting your friends and your family; or a newcomer because he has an honest face; it’s the opportunity to offer or refuse yourself for something you understand.” Lee Miller.

www.iwm.org.uk

http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/lee-miller-a-woman-s-war

www.leemiller.co.uk

13th Inverness Film Festival

4 – 8 November, Eden Court Cinemas

For the 13th year of our festival I decided we would take a look at people who are brave enough to move away from their comfort zones and embark on an adventure, whether that be by choice or circumstance.

Paul MacDonald-Taylor, IFF Festival Director.

Victoria110515-616x440

The Inverness Film Festival is always an invitation for adventure and discovery and this year’s programme had both in abundance.

Opening night the Scottish premiere of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria delivered an unexpectedly moving journey through the streets of Berlin, seen through the eyes of its female protagonist. Filmed in a single take of 138mins, the absence of editing and immediacy of real time effectively places the viewer amidst the unfolding narrative. The heart and soul of this film is Catalan actress Laia Costa’s remarkable performance, captured in all its expressive subtlety by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography. From the immersive opening sequence in a Berlin nightclub, the viewer is drawn into Victoria’s world through intimate close up and roving camera, taking the viewer along for the ride. Victoria’s chance encounter with Sonne (Frederick Lau), who just might be the love of her life, begins a chain of events that moves the story fluidly between heist movie, thriller and love story. The improvisation of the cast and faithfulness of the camera to the central character give the film a raw, visceral quality and an emotional density one might not expect from the synopsis.

Throughout the film Nils Frahm’s music tempers our reading of the accelerating action. Right from the start there is an underlying suggestion of melancholy in spite of the delight and excitement of Victoria’s first meeting. The film unfolds as real life unfolds, unpredictably, full of change and loss, testing our mettle and defining who we are. It is incredibly refreshing to see a film lead by a female character given the latitude to reveal multiple aspects of herself. By the end of the film we see Victoria emerge into daylight and isolation, a contradictory resolution in some ways but one that feels truthful and plausibly real. Winner of 11 international film awards including the Silver Bear Outstanding Artistic Contribution Berlinale 2015, Victoria is an audacious piece of filmmaking that never allows the potential gimmick of a single take to overshadow the unfolding drama or undermine the emotional journey the audience shares with its characters.

still22 Corn Island, Directed by George Ovashvili

My pick of this year’s festival must also include George Ovashvili’s Corn Island, a beautiful and simply profound film about a young girl on the cusp of adulthood and her grandfather, tending their crop on a tiny island amidst the unstoppable flow of the Enguri River. It is an incredibly gentle film of multiple boundaries that unfolds according to nature’s laws, rather than the potential drama of human conflict we might expect. Although the sounds of an uneasy ceasefire between Georgia and Abkhazia are never far away, the story focuses upon eternal cycles of life, growth, harvest and inevitable decay. It felt restorative to become so absorbed in a film of such hushed stillness. Corn Island leads the viewer into that unique meditative state, found in Nature and in the case of this particular film, in Art. The water, sunlight and changeable weather (for good or ill) are tangible presences in the film, together with the main characters who are, as we all are, just passing through this life. The age old question of who owns the land is represented here as a state of being, rather than being defined by personal possession or the maintenance of geographic, authoritarian borders.

The skills of cultivating this precarious but fertile soil are passed from 70 year old Abga to his granddaughter Asida, creating a seemingly idyllic territory that can only be inhabited in a passing season and can at any moment be entirely swept away. The river brings life, change and patrolling soldiers- it also brings a stranger and the glimmer of a burgeoning relationship between the young man and Asida. As the island becomes a field it evolves as a place to explore human states of youth and age, innocence and experience. The film’s imagery is exquisitely composed, totally captivating and richly associative in meaning. We see Asida framed in relation to the golden, ripening corn or the girl and her grandfather lying on the ground and gazing into the sky, divided by a generational line of shadow. As the timber frame of their hut is constructed it creates an abstract frame against the sky which is also Abga’s window on the world. The peace and simplicity of living entirely as nature dictates could be romanticised but it isn’t. We are left in no doubt that the threat of poverty and potential starvation is what motivates staking a claim on such perilous territory.

The tentative, sometimes fearful vulnerability of adolescence is conveyed by Mariam Buturishvili’s strong, virtually silent performance, perfectly matched by Ilyas Salman as her grandfather Abga. Few words pass between them, yet the sense of connection and communication is effortless. Like building barricades against the rising tide, Abga tries to protect his granddaughter from the encroaching forces around them. Sound is used beautifully to convey Asida’s growing awareness of herself and the gaze of others, manifested in the recurrent cry of a bird. Her awareness of being seen, by the soldiers on the shore and the stranger in the boat is also the call of something within, an awakening or longing which we see transfixed by moonlight. There is a pervasive, comforting sense of natural order throughout the film which finds its resolution when Abga becomes one with the river, signifying an end but also a beginning. As we see an older man return to stake his claim in the final scenes, we are left to wonder; is he the young stranger? Has he married Asida and will they tend this island together? Satisfyingly the film leaves the human denouncement to the viewer’s imagination.

IFF has a strong tradition of showcasing emerging directors, both in its feature and short film programming and some of this year’s debuts proved to be highlights of the festival: Robert Egger’s The Witch, The Lesson directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s wonderfully offbeat comedy/drama Qüeros (winner of Best First Feature Berlin International Film Festival, a well-deserved award for Best Cinamatography at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and winner of 5 Mexican Ariel Awards including Best Director and Best Film) and László Nemes’ harrowing but intensely powerful debut Son of Saul, awarded the Grand Prix prize at Cannes earlier this year.

75The Witch, Directed by Robert Eggers.

Robert Eggers’ The WitchA New England Folk Tale is a thoroughly intriguing film of unnatural forces and the man-made horrors of religious fanaticism.  It is the ambiguities of what is seen and perceived by the central characters which make this film so psychologically interesting. Set in a 17th Century New England pioneering community, a devout family leave the relative protection of a colonial plantation to live in exile on the edge of a vast, unknown wilderness. The attendant spirits they bring with them are guilt, shame and the mantle of original sin, which define their relationships with the environment, each other and with themselves.  Like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which explores the otherness of a threatening landscape in the context of colonialism and white European “civilization”, The Witch establishes in its opening scenes a palpable sense of mystery, menace and fear in the fecund imaginative ground of the forest. It is a place that even in the light of day provides a focus for the founding community’s subconscious fears and desires- a place which heightens the sense of alienation from the country of origin, from the body and the self. Belief in humankind’s “corrupt nature dwelling within” and the declaration that; “we will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us”, chart the demise of familial love and loyalty.

The adolescent central character Thomasin played by Anya Taylor-Joy becomes a scapegoat for the family’s ill fortunes, residing in the forest. Accused of witchcraft by her younger siblings, the family turns in on itself with devastating consequences. As supernatural elements suggestively and progressively infiltrate the film, hysteria collectively follows. The real horror of The Witch is a cauldron of grief, exile and puritanical self-loathing. There is an added element of alienation -the experience of loss through immigration, felt in Kate Dickie’s performance as wife and mother Katherine. Although packaged rather clumsily by its trailer as a Horror film, like Jenifer Kent’s The Babadook – which is about grief made manifest, The Witch is a film about the power and psychology of the human mind in response to extreme circumstances and beliefs. Those points of transition between belief, perception and reality provide all of the films high points, both literally and metaphorically. Belief is always extraordinarily real to the believer and The Witch successfully plays with this idea, with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography moving beautifully between the illuminated darkness of Old Master candlelit interiors and the haunted natural light of farm and forest.

The lessonThe Lesson, Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi.

The Lesson directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanovi is a story which feels immediately relevant in light of European social and economic crises. Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) is a respectable teacher contained in a straightjacket of morality, estranged from her father and his trophy wife, distant from her selfish husband, who plunges them into debt and the threat of repossession and living beneath the ever present portrait of her dead mother. As debt and desperation take hold, her powerlessness is projected into the classroom as hard-line control. Authority is progressively eroded but scrupulously maintained by deadpan appearances. Nadezhda’s story feels like that of a nation. The rules keep changing, interest keeps getting added to the loan and the moral deficit just keeps growing. Forced to turn to loan sharks and crime to stay afloat, we see flickers of panic and anxiety in her eyes beneath an immovable mask of middle class respectability.  Every encounter with public authority; the bank, police and the bailiffs reveals indifference to her plight as she fights to maintain her dignity, pride and righteous indignation. Interestingly her character isn’t entirely sympathetic, oscillating between adult responsibility and childlike jealousy; defacing her stepmother’s photograph with a black marker in protest at the displacement of her father’s affections. Wielding her powerlessness the only way she can, in the end the audience is left with a black screen/ board and the brittle, chalky sound of her continuing lesson.

14e64fd09afbd270d7f4064ff53501daHe Named Me Malala, Directed by Davis Guggenheim.

Some of this year’s short and feature documentaries also had a significant impact on me. Among them Davis Guggenheim’s feature He Named Me Malala, a portrait of the activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai. Shot by the Taliban in 2012 for promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan, she has since co-founded the Malala Fund, assisting girls around the world to access education. The public face of this exceptional young woman is inexorably bound to her cause. Who could forget her inspiring speech to the UN on her 16th birthday, campaigning for the right to education for every child? This documentary shows different facets to her character; her life in exile, at home and at school, her strong relationship with her father and her experience as one of millions of refugees fleeing extremist ideology. The film takes up Malala’s own statement that she is many and that her story is not unique. In having to flee the Swat Valley where she grew up, unable to return on threat of death, we are introduced not to her fame as a confident advocate of positive change, but to a schoolgirl -worried about fitting in, acutely aware of what has been forfeited in being in a foreign land and fighting for equality. When we see her standing on the border of Syria and Jordan asking the question of who is looking after the interests of child refugees, she asks one of the central questions of our age. Although the film is ultimately uplifting, it also made me incredibly angry. Angry that this young woman will probably never be able to return to her home, that equality has still not been achieved, that access to education is so taken for granted in the developed world and that all we appear to be teaching our children is rabid consumption. “Education gives you the power to question things, to challenge things” it seems that in the UK we don’t use it nearly enough for this purpose. When asked who shot Malala her father replies; “It was not a person, it was an ideology”. At the heart of Malala Yousafzai’s story is forgiveness and an entirely different vision of Islam to what we see nightly on the 6’oclock news. See this film if you can- it will probably make you angry as well, but it will also give you hope.

I always look forward to short film screenings. I am constantly amazed by the ingenuity and creativity sparked by little or no budget and that human experience humorous, dramatic or life changing can be communicated in an economy of minutes. It’s a direct platform for spotting emerging filmmakers which is always exciting, especially watching them hone their craft in consecutive years and seeing shorts in cinemas is such a rare pleasure. This year short documentaries Mining Poems and Odes and The Third Dad were definite highlights, together with David Lumsden’s post-apocalyptic vision of Scotland Boat (UK, 16mins, 2015), the visual pop-inspired assault of Rob Kennedy’s  What are you driving at? (2013, HD video file, colour, stereo, ratio 16:9, 4m 13s), the mesmerising bias-cut of Duncan Marquiss’s Late Cinema (2013, 16mm transferred to SD digital, colour, ratio: 4:3, 4m 18s), both part of the CABAC/ LUX Scotland showcase and the work of local filmmakers; Scott Willis’s wittily accurate animation Guide to Fetal Development (UK, 1 min, 2015) and the innocent delight of Katrina Brown’s First Ascent (UK, 16 mins, 2015).

From the opening sequence of glowing sparks cascading in slow movement Callum Rice’s Mining Poems or Odes (UK,10mins, 2015) I was visually hooked. Immediately the viewer is immersed in an otherworldly state where poetic images, words and ideas are brought into focus. Robert, a poet and ex-shipyard worker addresses the camera / audience directly, aggressively punctuating the visual narrative in a way that mirrors the raw, energy and creative impetus of parallel trades; the “solitary” and “silent” worlds of welder and writer. Although “the helmet’s off now” and “words are the tools”, Robert’s life experiences and memories are inexorably entwined with his emerging craft and that of the filmmaker. He describes the fabrication yard as “the perfect thinking laboratory”, “looking into the darkness and seeing “your own eyes” in “the reflected glass”.

The clarity of this 10 minute documentary and its central protagonist are bracingly articulate and perfectly aligned with the creative process of “mining”; “going into the dirt to find the right word and elevate it to poetry”.  What this short film conveys so powerfully is “the job of working on yourself” and “the production of the human spirit”, nurtured by others. The most poignant realisation is in Robert’s account of a subterranean great unsaid of male friendship and paternal influence; an almighty arm and an” alright son”, gentler and truer than the love shown in any other facet of his life. There is a strong sense in this film of human creativity in its broadest sense and of masculinity; a natural ability and societal tendency through brute force to do harm, coupled with the conscious unwillingness not to. In the living example of his mentor Archie, Robert sees and perhaps more importantly feels the authenticity of becoming his core self – the writer he needs to be.

Theresa Moerman Ib’s journey to find her father in The Third Dad (UK, 10mins, 2015) was at times unbearably poignant and confessional.  Beginning with the words; “A man isn’t dead because you put him underground” from Graeme Green’s The Third Man, the act of filmmaking becomes an expression of grief, loss and self-awareness. Haunted by the decision not to have contact with her father until he stopped drinking, Moerman Ib’s film is a lament, a memorial and a creative act of redemption. She asks a question which resonates throughout the film; “How do you go to someone in their darkest hour when they haven’t chosen you?”  It is a sorrowful echo of the absent father that permeates this film; “poet and photographer who abandoned his dreams” and “who gave [her] life but couldn’t survive his own.” The need to find him is as much a search for herself as for a lost parent, shifting through archival footage/ home movies of emotionally scarred celluloid, editing memories and feeling- the filmmaking process an act of self- preservation. Moments where the voiceover and images converge transcend the personal, we see “a shadow- an outline” that can never be “coloured back in”, a shadow which is also that of the director standing over her father’s grave. Perhaps it was my own Father’s death a few weeks before that prompted such a strong reaction to this film, coupled with the need to concrete over my feelings in order to keep watching- even in the womb-like protection of the cinema. I understood in that moment that for the director to project that intimate relationship on screen, shaped by guilt and loss, was no small act of bravery.

Carnival-of-Souls

The most unusual cinematic experience at the festival this year was Carnival of Souls a stripped back sound adaptation of Herk Harvey’s 1962 obscure B/horror film in a production “inspired by adventure radio serials and sensory deprivation methods.” Donning a sleep mask and headphones the near dark experience was fuel for the imagination, with binaural audio giving a virtual sense of spatial depth, placing the viewer within the story. What excited me most about seeing this cinematic soundscape in my mind’s eye wasn’t necessarily the choice of film adaptation, but the heightened possibilities of sensory experience that removal of one sense could bring to the others. Having watched films back to back for consecutive days there was something very satisfying in closing my eyes and going down whatever imaginative pathways the soundtrack prompted. In some ways it was a safe choice of adaptation; the wonky, surreal amusement park music, larger than life accents and the familiarity of the breakdown arrival at an almost empty boarding house, placing the audience in relative safety of expectation. An opening projection taking the audience down to the end of the pier combined memories of the British seaside, carousels of spooky wide eyed, open mouthed horses and the faded paint of travelling sideshows with my outdoor Drive –in B film experience in Australia, all mixed in with Cocteau and Bergman inspired mid-west American horror! Like tabernacle organist Mary Hervy’s journey in limbo between life and death, this cinematic sound experience also felt like a kind of heightened bodily suspension in time. Commissioned by Film Hub North West Central with an advisory group of blind and partially sighted audience members and directed by Bren O’Callaghan, Carnival of Souls heightened my awareness of how the body reacts to sensory deprivation, the pleasantly weird state of being part of an audience but physically in your own auditory bubble and the exciting possibilities of sound design. Hopefully more of these productions will follow, exploring different aspects of the sound craft of cinema and making us see film differently.

Another special event screening Made in My Tounwww.madeinmytoun.com, part of the BFI Britain on Film tour curated by Shona Thomson, featured films from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive and a post screening discussion with panellists Shona Thomson, the Highland Council’s Stuart Black and Film Officer and Lawrence Sutcliffe, Highlands of Scotland Film Commission and Film Historian. My favourite short was Glasgow Trams c.1902, a silent, black and white, 2 min 50 second film attributed to Mitchell & Kenyon, an aged fragment of mechanised movement drifting through time. It was interesting to explore the context of each short film with the panellists and audience. Hopefully thematic tours of archive film screening in cinemas will become more frequent here. Although archival film content is becoming more digitalised and available online, there is no substitution for seeing it on a big screen and exploring different ways into film through face to face discussion.

day1-1Our Little Sister, Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda.

The winner of this year’s IFF Audience Award, designed by Isle of Harris Based artist Steve Dilworth, was crowd pleaser Brooklyn by Irish Director John Crowley, starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Zegen and Julie Walters. My own crowd pleasing pick of IFF 2015 would have to be Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our little Sister, although it was a shame that the director did not apply his characteristic understatement to the soundtrack. However it was an absolute breath of fresh air to see such a warm and optimistic film about broken families. Our Little Sister is a lovely, charming and intimate film about family bonds and feminine independence.  Based on the graphic novel Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, Koreeda gives cinematic voice to a story which revolves around three sisters and their half-sibling, who they take in following the death of their father. To a Western audience there is also a largely unappreciated aspect of Japanese culture at work in this story; the dominance of female Manga writers, who we don’t often see adapted for the screen, certainly not  in terms of a realist family drama.

Having toured the world in the confines of a darkened room for four days and five nights I emerged from IFF 2015 exhausted, but significantly enriched.

www.invernessfilmfestival.com

Ai Weiwei

Royal Academy of Arts, London. 19 September – 13 December 2015.

aiweiwei-large

Ai Weiwei in his studio in Caochangdi, Beijing, April 2015.

My first real contact with Ai Weiwei’s work was his vast expanse of Sunflower Seeds (2010) in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, a work which reverberated in ever expanding ways. The sheer scale of the installation was deftly articulated by the handcrafting of each porcelain seed, challenging the idea of mass production and accepted ways of seeing millions. Every seed was rendered resoundingly human, each one felt like a voice and the potential germ of an idea to change the world. On a global stage, Sunflower Seeds spoke of cultural nourishment, taking an everyday object and multiplying its value in a labour intensive process of recreation. The relationship of the individual to the many, the state and to the self was explored and amplified by each unique seed, combined in an undeniably aspirational mass of potential growth. It made me feel deeply humble and it also made me inwardly smile. There was an intensely powerful sense of human connection that commanded the whole space. Experiencing that field of fertile imagination made you feel part of something greater, whatever experience you brought to it, it was inspirational in being aspirational- a rarity in Contemporary Art . When I heard there was to be a major survey of the artist’s work at the RA this autumn, I made a beeline for it.

I arrived in the Annenberg Courtyard early and was confronted by a massive grove of rearticulated trees, salvaged from the hillsides of Southern China and visibly bolted together. Financed by a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign this man-made mini forest was, in and of itself, a work of many voices. Among the trees sat a marble faux leather armchair, an invitation for contemplation coupled with the contradiction of a “useless” object; cold, clad in raindrops and of little comfort to the sitter/viewer. There was a flurry of noise and movement as a scrum of photographers (who unbeknown to me had also come early for a photo call with the artist) spilled into the courtyard. Suddenly there he was, walking towards us in silent dignity, extremely present but equally unassuming. Each photographer was vying for the perfect shot; “Here Sir!”, “put your arms out”, “to me” “just one more”, “to me”, “to me!” “Here Sir!” The artist calmly addressed each request in turn with a kindly, obliging attitude and a certain degree of world weariness. The heaviness of dead wood towered above him and I saw the same tonality mirrored in the surrounding architecture. I wondered at that moment what he was feeling and longed to ask, on a day when after five years and a hundred shows, he had finally been able to be present at his own exhibition. Freedom is relative when you still have family, friends and colleagues living in in your home country. Potential exile would not be without consequence, nor is the daily fight for freedom of speech demanded by choosing to remain.

L1080878 L1080879

Ai Weiwei in the Annenberg Courtyard, Royal Academy of Arts, London. 15/09/15.GC.

The crowd of lenses swarmed closer- too close in fact and another public figure might have pushed them away in annoyance, but the intrusion on personal space was simply met with a beautifully timed diffusion of humour. Ai Weiwei came closer still to face the cameras in their own space; hands transformed into the claws of a tiger, playful and childlike, a smiling, open handed gesture that provided the perfect front page shot. Satisfied and sensing the end of the moment the photographers respectfully retreated. The artist moved inside and then emerged once more for a photographer who got the wrong time for the call; obligingly posing for this lone individual, then disappearing into the building. He was not at the press viewing that followed. “He wants the work to speak” said co-curator Tim Marlow and it most certainly does.

There were many times in this exhibition where I found myself reflecting upon the responsibility of the artist, the attribution of value to objects and the cost in human terms. To me Ai Weiwei is to China what Anselm Kiefer is to Germany- digesting the entire history of his own country, coming to terms with its raw human material and the universal weight of human history in the process. He’s an artist whose Ethics are his Aesthetics. Every destructive, violent or silencing act by the government provides material to be transformed in awareness, creating a new perception of reality and a wealth of possibility. When his Shanghai studio was razed to the ground by the authorities, he transformed the rubble into a visual statement of resilient protest, Souvenir From Shanghai (2012) with an ornately carved traditional bedframe at its core. It’s a work that echoes ancient cultural traditions, revolutions and obliterations, transcending the personal. The power of Ai Weiwei’s work lies in its essentially empowering nature. He makes the audience realise their own power and the strength of ideas whose time has come.

Whilst a lot of contemporary Western Artists and their followers are artfully use the privilege of freedom to say nothing, Ai Weiwei actively uses the internet and the substance of his work to expand our idea of what human expression can be. Being inexhaustibly subversive, eternally optimistic and actively creative is part of his inheritance and integrity as an artist. Conformity and protest are in constant dialogue, amplified via the tools of our technological age. While our increasingly global consumerist culture celebrates the cult of Me; my opinion, my expression, my Twitter outrage, my right to say whatever I want in cyberspace without responsibility or consequence, Ai Weiwei’s work is infinitely more generous to his fellow human beings. Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, he makes the viewer acutely aware of freedoms taken entirely for granted and underutilised or misappropriated in the service of “I”. There is a different concept of the individual to be found in his work, relative to others, always questioning, part of striving towards a more expansive way of perceiving the world.

The aerodynamic free form of Grapes (2010), a bountiful composition of 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), feels very much like a portrait of the artist and of Creativity made concrete. The acrobatic movement of these orbital pieces of furniture defy their humble functionality and gravity, the entire weight of the sculpture balanced on a single stool, supporting all the rest as they take flight. The energy of this work is immediately arresting, the fluid realisation of discarded material reimagined and re-appraised in terms of its social and cultural value. It is a richly figurative work to the power of 1 x 27 ad infinitum, the force magnified by overlapping connections between each piece of furniture as part of a larger movement. These individual elements fused together create a beautiful, dynamic and undeniably hopeful presence. Ai Weiwei’s “useless” furniture harks back to the crafting of beautiful objects as part of Chinese funerary rites, often in prized materials such as jade, marble or now extinct timbers. In much of his work there is an insistence on craftsmanship, continuity of technique and ancient tradition, radically altered to present the original object and the very fabric of its material in a new light.

ja0udvvmzsod5d3se7y9

Ai Weiwei, Table and Pillar (2002) Table and pillar from dismantled temple of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). 460 x 90 x 90 cm. Tate, London.  Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Remembering the tactile is a cultural imperative in his work. Created by hand without nails or glue Table and Pillar (2002), combines a reclaimed architectural element from a dismantled Qing Dynasty temple with a piece of domestic furniture. The hybridised object challenges received images of China as an economic powerhouse of faceless mass production, rendering form with consummate skill and clarity of expression. Table With Three Legs (2011) is another beautiful example, one object exquisitely transformed into another, turned on its side to reveal the inner vessel we sense it always was or could be. It is an object of quality, consciously made.

The conscious act of making also finds expression in Ai Weiwei’s Chandelier (2015) made of crystal and Forever bicycles, materials drawn from the living memories of ordinary people and ironically reflecting the opulence of the Great Hall in Tiananmen Square. Weighing two and a half tonnes and hung beneath the hallowed /domed architectural space of the RA’s Wohl Central Hall, it is light that is all pervasive in this work; “both the object that gives off light, but also the form the light creates by itself, in the illumination that it creates and how illumination alters the surrounding environment.” Activism is ultimately a creative act, for Ai Weiwei; “Everything is Art” and “Everything is politics.”

ictrrkfyuyzvqiehe5pl

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars. 600 x 1200 cm. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei.

One of the most moving works in the exhibition is also one of the most politically charged, borne out of a citizen’s investigation initiated by the artist following the Sichuan Earthquake disaster in 2008. Comprised of 18 tonnes of rebar, pulled from the wreckage, purchased by the artist as salvage and straightened by hand, Straight (2008-12) acknowledges the thousands who died in an act of naming. Seismic waves of rusted metal on the gallery floor are flanked on either side by the names and birthdays of more than 5000 dead schoolchildren. The installation is a lament, a memorial and a document of information suppressed by the authorities. The “straight” truth of exposing the corruption that allowed schools to be erected without proper reinforcement is entwined with a sense of natural forces of change which cannot be halted. The central sculptural work feels like a section of the earth’s crust, a ripple of aftershocks that we are not permitted to abstract in our minds. The presence of documentary photographs and the 15 minute film Straight (2015), revealing the devastation in terms of human grief and loss doesn’t allow the viewer the luxury of abstraction. The “biased effect in the building” signifies an entire country and this work responds very directly to corruption, abuses of power and media silence.

The artist’s own experience of violence, arrest and detention is remembered and psychologically purged in his S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-13) Dioramas; “Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entrophy and Doubt”. (Fibreglass, iron, oxidised metal, wood, polystyrene, sticky tape, each 377 x 198 x 153cm.)Detained in a secret location for 81 days with two guards constantly monitoring him at a distance of 80cms; eating, showering, sleeping, going to the toilet, being interrogated, with the dominant hum of air fans replicated in the boxed confines of each room/ the gallery space, Ai Weiwei’s life becomes Art. The viewer voyeuristically steps up to look down into each reconstruction, or bends awkwardly to peer into each theatrical space, smaller than life size. As you touch the metal to balance on each step, you are conscious of the act of looking, the complicity of it in a room surrounded with golden wallpaper in a decorative pattern of surveillance cameras, handcuffs and the artist’s face reflected in the body of a Twitter logo. Originally exhibited at the Venice Biennale 2013 in Chiesa di Sant’ Antonin, here the attendant architecture heightens the sense of passively looking at scenes of the artist’s incarceration and sharing, in some minute way, an all pervasive feeling of powerlessness. This work aligns with Ai Weiwei’s family history; of his Father, the late poet Ai Qing, persecuted by the Maoist regime, interred in a work camp in north-western China and exiled. It is a narrative echoed many times over in Remains (2015), the porcelain reconstruction of bones from people who did not survive the labour camps. The struggle for freedom is ever present; across generations, in the artist’s own story and in the stories of countless others. Out of these visual narratives an alternative image of China emerges; of the humanity, dignity and resistance of individuals, human remains rendered with care in a precious, fragile material that challenges mass identity of victims and mass mentality of the viewer/audience. The value of human life is central in this work, bound to the artist’s choice of material.

agfta8porsi0ni8lsbb2

Remains (2015) Porcelain. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

The question of cultural value and authenticity is potently explored in Ai Weiwei’s use of ceramics, inexorably entwined with China’s history. In many ways the central image of his photographic triptych; Dropping of a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), the moment of suspension where the vase hovers above its own destruction, is replicated throughout the exhibition in complex and deeply unsettling ways. How do we decide what is valuable and what leads us to make such conclusions in life/ Art? In the wake of Mao’s 1966 Cultural Revolution or in recent waves of redevelopment which have destroyed architecture and artefacts in the service of modernisation and economic “progress”, how do we decide what we value, morally, socially and culturally? Ai Weiwei’s work actively embraces these essential questions. The artist’s painted urns raise the pertinent 21st Century question of which object is more valuable; the original artefact or the work of a world renowned contemporary artist/ activist/celebrity? At every turn the audience is brought face to face with their own complicity in making judgements and attributions of value, individually and collectively.

qtpceet71x8twk5d1u4t

Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases (2006) Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) with industrial paint. Dimensions variable. Representative image, courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei

The minimalist language of Ai Weiwei’s cubic metre forms such as Ton of Tea (2008) reduces a culturally loaded material to its quantitative value, literally and metaphorically compressing the physical material and thousands of years of human history within it. The abstract of the cube in Western Art History also comes into play in this room, together with the playfulness, ingenuity and craftsmanship of an ancient curio box, the experimental containment of molten glass and the personal/family history of Cube of Ebony (2009) reminiscent of a box given to Ai Weiwei by his Father. Reassembling his inheritance with wit, knowing and pathos, the artist constantly questions how and why events, objects and people are celebrated or obliterated from history. The display of the English and Chinese versions of Phaidon’s The Art Book (2014) where we see the artist’s own obliteration from the historical record is a deeply personal case in point. Rather like the UK government’s visa restriction on the artist, freedom is a fragile and entirely relative state.

flba0ckbfloyxgvnmcxu

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010).Marble. 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm.Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei’s intent to; “Transform your feelings into clear language” can be felt throughout the exhibition and it is one of his great strengths. Although this is often viewed through the lens of a Western concept of the individual, his work and intentions are greater than the preoccupations of our Age might suggest. Moving freely through the installation Fragments (2005) is an uneasy experience, knowing that the assemblage of reclaimed materials; Iron wood (Tieli wood), table, chairs, parts of beams and pillars from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) form a map of China which can only be seen from above. This small kernel of knowledge grows as you follow your own imaginative path through the space, burgeoning awareness of how lack of borders, restrictions and censorship are so entirely taken for granted where the viewer stands, in a city such as London. How do human cultures encourage us to thrive or to wither and how do we decide what we value most? The ideal of grass in Cao (2014) sculpted in white marble, presenting an image of nature eternally renewing itself, aligns with the human element of an empty pushchair and the rude slap of internet slang. This is an exhibition of simplicity, complexity, humour and above all else, Hope. Like the image of a sunflower seed, used as a visual symbol of the artist by his followers to avoid online government censorship; he is one, he is many and so too is the viewer.

www.royalacademy.org.uk