Revisionism and the Art of Decay

“Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting and music are destroyed or flourish” William Blake

Detail J.M. Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) Manchester Art Gallery.

In July I attended the opening of the Emil Nolde- Colour is Life exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the subject of a previous post. It’s an exhibition that has remained in my mind ever since, for the issues it raised as much as the art. When the show first opened in Dublin, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” William Cook’s article suggested that; “the big question for our times is whether you can condemn someone’s sexual conduct, and still enjoy their art. In the case of painter Emil Nolde, can we delight in his work even though he was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler?” This question has been compounded by reports of wider historical revisionism in the press throughout 2018. Some based on well-meaning curatorial or civic actions, all begging further investigation.

The renaming of a 1929 Emily Carr painting by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the removal of a 19th Century nude painting by J.M. Waterhouse at the Manchester Art Gallery, the recent controversy of boycotted music by Richard Wagner aired on Israeli radio and the removal of an “Early Days” racist colonial statue in San Francisco are all potent examples, worthy of their own article.  Each one is an act of historical revisionism that raises essential questions about who owns culture. Who has the right to alter or remove historical documents, artefacts or art objects from public view and under what circumstances, if at all? In my profession all art is political, whether consciously nailing its colours to the mast or not. The expression of ideas can certainly be dangerous, depending on the ideological intent of the maker and the lens of hindsight / historical context we use to examine it. However, reading a book, seeing a play, film, art exhibition or listening to music doesn’t mean you agree with the content or the opinions of the artist(s) who created it. You have free will (as long as you live in a place that hasn’t banned the means of expression) to make up your own mind. At what point did we need to be protected from that process and for whose benefit?

Cover of the exhibition programme from the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Germany 1937. Wikipedia Commons.

In 1937 Hitler staged an exhibition of Modern Art to “educate” the public on the “art of decay.” Masquerading as a righteous, moral crusade in the national interest, it was a visual statement of “otherness”, establishing that freedom of expression would not be tolerated by the ruling party. Artists were cast as “degenerate” in this political theatre, banned, exiled, imprisoned and killed. The removal and destruction of “impure” art from museums and Nazi book burnings are examples of the threat posed by independent, creative thinking to the art of control. Dictators understand the power of culture as a mirror of identity, an instrument of mass manipulation and conformity. It’s a fine line in any crusade between judging what is morally right and wrong and imposition of will at the expense of other human beings.  Depending on what uniform is being worn at any point in human history, judgement and revision of what is morally and socially acceptable can result in progressive freedom and equality or persecution and genocide. The history of art makes these human triumphs and horrors visible in high definition. Arguably the study and preservation of these objects helps us not to forget who we were, are and could be, for good or ill. Whether we like what we see is a different question.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler inspect the installation by Willrich and Hansen of the Degenerate art Show, 1937. The wall behind them calls attention to the works of the Dada artists with depreciatory comments. Photographer not known (“anonymous”). Retrieved from Northwestern University, Illinois, 31 December 2007.Wikipedia Commons.

The implications of branding art as dangerous, offensive or immoral are complex, far reaching and in the current reactionary climate, deeply troubling. Simply expressing outrage, assigning blame and obliterating the perceived cause without wider self-reflection and ethical debate is irresponsible. Social media gives people the ability to celebrate and condemn instantly and without responsibility, a power to brand which on its own does nothing to prevent history repeating itself. Hitler was fuelled by outrage, blame and the desire to obliterate in the name of making Germany great again, installing himself as the ultimate author of truth. State sanctioned persecution deemed morally and socially acceptable by the Third Reich is derided today in the minds of the majority of people. However, we should never forget what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil”. Branding something or someone as evil, as part of a morally black or white worldview, is a psychological trick of language, effectively containing that evil beyond ourselves. It might make us feel better and morally superior temporarily, but that labelling of otherness also enables abdication of responsibility. Calling evil out isn’t enough, because it is always closer to home than we want to believe or admit.

On one level, the post-Weinstein pariah effect, reappraising and potentially banning work by artists accused of sexual abuse feels like democratic justice gone viral. Like a boil being lanced, there’s relief at the outpouring of pain and exposure of toxic masculinity, both long overdue. Whether legal prosecution and punishment follows from the Whitehouse to Hollywood and beyond remains to be seen. Whilst the public expulsion of bad men from positions of power, authority and celebrity sends a message of zero tolerance, it falls short in addressing everyday lived experience. The #MeToo tsunami is profoundly positive on many levels, however the gap between being heard on social media and behavioural change in the real world requires further closure, moving towards greater human equality. The underlying nature of humanity and the use, or abuse, of power is what is demanding a re-trial here and now.

Art can and should confront us with uncomfortable truths about human behaviour and is equally the way we imagine alternative realities, out-create destruction and actively shape a brighter future. Though threatened with removal from the curriculum at every turn, Art History and the Humanities have never been more relevant or necessary to human survival. When I saw the Nolde show it made me deeply uncomfortable. Even in the positive light of many of his paintings, I stood there grappling with my moral and ethical compass. Rather than magnetically finding North, the arrow constantly quivered between the artist/human being, the work and the self-righteous comfort of historical hindsight. I accept that uneasy and sometimes disturbing process because critically it’s part of my job. I’ve always believed that challenging the viewer is an essential function of art, individually and collectively. An object or body of work that makes you own up to who you are, what you value, support, and more importantly why, is always invaluable.

Today many commemorative sculptures exist around the world from an age of colonisation that are a source of profound pain and distress to indigenous people. As monuments erected by oppressors over the oppressed, they represent enslavement, abuse and institutionalised racism. There have been numerous calls for such public sculptures to be torn down. Seeing a press image of the “Early Days” statue in San Francisco, the call for removal is understandable. The depiction of an indigenous ancestor positioned at the feet of colonisers describes a power differential that is abhorrent on multiple levels. However, does banning, burning or hiding such objects from public view extinguish the offensive ideologies that made them and create a more just society? That depends entirely on the world view and intent of the removalists. Reinterpret a monument, place context around it, but never forget what happened where you stand. Erasing history and acknowledging it are very different trajectories in terms of healing and reconciliation, in the individual and collective psyche.

Statue of the Duke of Sutherland, Ben Bhraggie, Golspie. Photo by John Halsam 2008. Wikipedia Commons.

In the North of Scotland, a 19th Century statue of the Duke of Sutherland stands on top of Ben Bhraggie surveying the town of Golspie below. Sutherland was a landowner responsible for clearances of local people for profit and the positioning of his monument speaks volumes. It is the kind of posturing still seen in the culture of vast Highland Estates as playgrounds for the elite and in the many phallic sculptural monuments to victory and conquest throughout the British Empire. The Sutherland monument immediately stands out against the surrounding landscape, declaring itself as unsympathetically alien. Visually and ideologically it hangs rather than glorifies itself which is why, as much as it offends me, I don’t think it should be torn down. The total removal of such a relic stops the conversation, not just in terms of the history of the area, but its contemporary relevance. Eradicating the possibility of pointing to the object, asking why it is there and who made it silences a necessary, ongoing debate. Future generations and visitors have a prompt to stop, remember and learn what happened here. In many ways the offensive statue is a rallying point, for examination of land ownership and management in Scotland. In recent times it has been ironically denoted, utilised as a flagpole during the campaign for Scottish independence. The meaning of an offensive object like this can be positively changed while remaining visible.

Fearless Girl  by Kirsten Visbal and Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica. Wikipedia Commons.

Installed near Wall St, New York on the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, sculptor Kirsten Visbal’s Fearless Girl is a good example of contemporary revisionism by proxy. This statue was positioned in relation to an existing work, Arturo Di Modica’s 11ft tall, 7100 pound Charging Bull. Di Modica wanted Visbal’s work removed, because it demonised his testosterone laden vision of positive market forces. The female child squaring up to a symbol of toxic masculinity, compounded by the financial crash and its global consequences, is a very interesting cultural face off. The sculptures are now entwined in the public imagination and a popular tourist attraction, with the proposal to move not just one but both to a different location in the financial district. The relationship between these works is contentious, but it is also an essential flashpoint in asking questions about who holds power in that location / market driven society and why. This kind of juxtaposition is perhaps what is needed in response to offensive monuments and artefacts in public places. We need to interrogate how these objects speak to us and the powers that erected them. That cannot be achieved by simply removing or destroying them, so that we can comfortably forget they existed.  Nor can it be achieved by simply renaming objects according to the political correctness of the day.

Indian Church / Church at Yuquot Village by Emily Carr 1929. Art Gallery of Ontario. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this year the Art Gallery of Ontario renamed a 1929 painting by Emily Carr from Indian Church to Church at Yuquot Village, part of a wider trend of reappraisal of colonial terminology in museum/ gallery collections around the world. I completely disagree with changing the name of a historical work named by the artist. Removing the title is merely another type of whitewash. I understand given the history of colonialism, residential schools in Canada and the negative, generic application of the word “Indian”, why it is considered hurtful and offensive. However, this language is part of the historical context Carr lived in and unfortunately the ideology that supported it isn’t dead and buried. I think it is infinitely more useful to face the title and start the conversation there. For someone coming to this painting unaware of its history calling it by the territorial place name may remove the offence, but it also removes the possibility of honest confrontation with the past. Cultural sensitivity works both ways- having read Carr’s writings and studied her work in detail I believe this work is an inappropriate target. I wrote about this painting in detail in an earlier blogpost in response to a show of Carr’s work in 2015 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/category/emily-carr/  The presentation of that show, with indigenous art juxtaposed with Carr’s, together with examples of her writing/ thinking created context around the painting that an empty wall or patronising museum label could not.

Indian Church raises important questions of language and conflict, within the individual and society as a whole. I believe it is highly questionable to alter the artist’s language in this context. The title may be politically incorrect and offensive today, but it speaks volumes, so why silence that debate for future generations who need to understand the past in order to create equality in the future? When the Art Gallery of Ontario altered the painting’s title, an adjacent information panel was installed, describing the gallery’s reasons for changing the name. In this case the catalyst for debate should be the named work itself. The viewer should be given the opportunity to grapple with the offending word and its ramifications themselves, rather than having a curator sanitise it for them. Carr can and does speak for herself as an artist and her regard for indigenous people is rather more complicated than this simplistic historical revision suggests. In my mind the painting presents the stark white reality of Carr’s colonial upbringing against the deep green undulating life of the forest.  It isn’t the rigid 19th Century Christian missionary architecture/world view she embraced, but the spiritual core of what she called her “beloved West”. For Carr this spiritual connection was exemplified by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West coast, their intimate relationship with the land and cultural practices, honouring the divine in Nature. Although in many ways corseted by her time, she was above all else trying to understand rather than conquer the world around her. Applying a revised definition of language indiscriminately to her work shuts down discussion of its complexity which is a means of contemporary reconciliation. I’d argue that being “politically correct” in this case is entirely inappropriate. The work is actually bigger and more inclusive of human experience than the contemporary curator’s appraisal of it.

Hylas and the Nymphs by J. M. Waterhouse. 1896. Manchester Art Gallery. Wikipedia Commons.

Another interesting case emerged in February, when the Manchester Art Gallery removed J.M. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) to “prompt conversation” sparking a public furore. Publicity stunt or not, this act of historical revisionism claimed to challenge female objectification and “Victorian fantasy”. It certainly generated discussion about gender equality, feminism, censorship, curatorial responsibility and the role of museums in a post #MeToo cultural landscape. As I wrote at the time;

‘I find censorship a thousand times more offensive and dangerous than a naked female body. It is how the female body has been depicted throughout history and the political, social and cultural implications of that display that should be the subject of debate. Removing artworks simply breeds ignorance. The basic principle of freedom of speech and expression is at stake. I may not agree with the viewpoint of the artist, but I would never advocate obliteration. Art History is a visual record of everything we are and are capable of as a species, the good the bad and the very ugly! That’s what makes it so valuable and instructive. May it always be visible for future generations to learn from.’

Then I saw something in the news coverage that disturbed me more than the removal of the painting. It was a comment by a teenage schoolgirl, saying that Hylas and the Nymphs made her feel ashamed. I was dismayed at this heartfelt statement. Was this historical image just another in an infinite line of images encircling her in the present? There was no awareness of context, either in her statement or in the rest of the press coverage I saw. The thematic Pre-Raphaelite “Pursuit of Beauty” in the gallery space or the underlying mythology of the painting was ignored over public outrage. Looking at Waterhouse’s image, my teenage self may also have felt shame in the way that beauty and desirability is defined in this work. However, this age old male fantasy was never destined to end well. In the very next moment, Hylas and his desire would be no more, dragged to the bottom of the pool and Waterhouse by his very nature forever defined within a school of painting, its own kind of prison. What made me feel dismay was the subservient emotion of shame, still alive in the mind of a teenage schoolgirl in 2018. The painting didn’t make her angry, ready to face off age old assumptions, but passively ashamed of this depiction of female bodies and seemingly by the proximity of her own body to it. The shame she expressed strikes me as a symptom of a greater disease. Rightly or wrongly, Waterhouse’s image exists in the world and I would hope that progressive education would equip a younger generation to square up to it, rather than feeling lesser in its outdated presence.

Too often the language of outrage, offense and victimhood indiscriminately govern responses to any point of view that does not match our own. Waterhouse’s painting, like Balthus’s highly controversial Thérèse Dreaming (1938, Metropolitan Museum, New York) is uncomfortable viewing and I agree we should be critical of the male gaze that created them. However, I am even more critical of what has been described as New Puritanism, completely hypocritical in the current climate. Waterhouse’s nymphs pale in comparison to the psychological damage inflicted on young women every day via social media, an onslaught of idealised beauty without the visual literacy to filter it.  I know the art of the past is part of that cumulative picture, however, popular culture circa 2018 plays to the dominant male gaze in ways that have become so internalised, it feels like there are no safe spaces left. The #MeToo movement has made visible the degree to which women are made to feel judged, ashamed and unsafe every day of their lives for generations. Such an environment makes art an essential tool in creating critical spaces to re-examine the nature of power, gender and equality- in our society and within ourselves. Galleries, museums, cinemas, libraries, theatres, concert halls and city streets should not be sanitised by removing what is perceived as offensive historical material. These are essential public arenas to challenge accepted ideals.

Composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1867. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this month, Israeli Classical radio station Kol HaMusica broadcast Wagner’s music, despite the country’s boycott. Complaints, public outcry and apologies immediately followed, together with a pledge by the radio station not to repeat the “error” of judgement for fear of offending Holocaust survivors. It is well documented that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer and that Wagner himself was an anti-Semite. However, attempting to shield victims with a public ban on this music amounts to patronising censorship. In the words of Jonathan Livny, head of the Israel Wagner Society, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, “Whoever doesn’t want to hear the music can always turn the radio off.”

Art in all its forms expresses the darkness and light of humanity, enables us to bear witness and remember (or wake up) who we are. In the spirit of cultural exchange, art and music have the ability to cross all borders and boundaries, exposing us to alternative ways of seeing and initiating change. In this I would deny nothing in a public museum, gallery space or broadcast. Even objects/ ideologies of hatred and violence need to be honestly examined, with attention given to their historical context and interpretation, no matter how abhorrent they may appear to contemporary eyes. Making sense of why they were made and the consequences of those actions have implications in the present and for future generations. What objects hold in terms of human experience, identity and memory should not be underestimated. It’s the reason Hitler held the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, to denounce freedom of expression in contemporary art of the time and to stamp out its practitioners as branded enemies of the state. What constituted “good art”, what would be produced, collected, publicly shown and celebrated was entirely defined by the ruling party. It’s essential to identify who the ruling parties are in the times you’re living in and not assume that human progress is linear.

Whilst I applaud revisionism that re-interprets the meaning of historical records, artefacts or art, I don’t see negationism as the answer to wrong doing. The current Zeitgeist of a “post truth” internet driven world makes distortion and denial of history so much easier to enact and publicly justify. The writing is on the gallery wall. I would rather live in a society where I am free to interpret past and present human behaviour, than one which decides what is offensive for me and only presents what the ruling party, institution or curator decides is acceptable for me to see. I have no doubt that there will be more Indian Church, Hylas and Wagnerian battles ahead and that the #MeToo watershed moment will evolve in waves of backlash and progress. I hope that progress wins and that the role the arts have to play in this war progressively realign with creative power over celebrity. The state of the arts always reveals whether we live in a fettered society or not. The question is not whether we can delight in the work of “immoral” artists, but whether we can afford not to look at it at all.

Press articles:

Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma by William Cook, The Independent, 23 February 2018.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/emile-nolde-nazi-art-artist-exhibition-germany-edinburgh-fascist-adolf-hitler-a8221926.html

Why the Art Gallery of Ontario removed ‘Indian’ from the name of this Emily Carr painting by Sheena Goodyear. As it Happens, CBC Radio 22 May 2018.

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.4672905/why-the-art-gallery-of-ontario-removed-indian-from-the-name-of-this-emily-carr-painting-1.4672934

Gallery removes naked nymphs painting to ‘prompt conversation’ by Mark Brown, The Guardian, 31 January 2018.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/31/manchester-art-gallery-removes-waterhouse-naked-nymphs-painting-prompt-conversation

Israeli public radio apologises after playing Hitler’s favourite composer Richard Wagner, The Telegraph, 3 September 2018.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/03/israeli-public-radio-apologises-playing-hitlers-favourite-composer/

San Francisco statue criticized as racist to Indigenous people removed, The Associated Press, CBC News, 14 September 2018 

 https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/san-francisco-racist-statue-removed-1.4824013

Emil Nolde – Colour is Life

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Old Man and Young Woman(Man with Feather in his Hat) (Alter Mann und junge Frau (Mann mit Feder am Hut)), c. 1930s-40s
Watercolour on paper, 16.2 x 15.4 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

14 July – 21 October 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)

“Colour is strength. Strength is life. Only strong harmonies are important.” Emil Nolde, Travels. Ostracism. Liberation. 1919–1946.

Colour is Life presents a rare opportunity to come to grips with the undeniable vibrancy and jarring contradictions in Emil Nolde’s art. This illuminating retrospective features 120 paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints from the Emil Nolde Foundation in Seebüll, Northern Germany. Nolde’s images reveal the journeys of his life; from rural villages, domestic gardens and highly charged religious subjects, to the bustling, industrial port of Hamburg, the cabarets of Berlin and indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. His extraordinary land and seascapes are among the highlights of the show, together with his controversial “unpainted pictures” incorporating elements of folklore and the grotesque.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Landscape (North Friesland), (Landschaft (Nordfriesland)),1920
Oil on canvas, 86.5 x 106.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Living on a shifting border between Germany and Denmark and with a lifetime (1867-1956) spanning two World Wars, there are inevitable conflicts in terms of how the artist saw himself and how he/his work has been perceived by successive generations. When this exhibition first opened at the National Gallery of Ireland in February 2018, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” The mistake we make too often in the age we are living in is making superior moral judgements that reinforce polarity rather than understanding, based on the assumption that the function of art is enjoyment. What I found fascinating in Colour is Life is human nature on display and how you must confront beauty and ugliness in full view of each other; in the comprehensive survey of Nolde’s work and within yourself as a viewer, or potential witness.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Martyrdom II (Martyrium II), 1921
Oil on sackcloth, 106.5 x 156.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

You can’t ignore the open declaration of antisemitism, distortion of human form and glowering colour in the central panel of Nolde’s Martyrdom triptych (1921, oil on sackcloth), nor can you deny the depth and emotional investment of colour in Nolde’s The Sea B (1930, oil on canvas). Nolde is all about dualism, stark juxtapositions and human impulses. His shield in the times he lived in, was to retreat into Nature and the primitive, forever pursued by the idea that the original garden itself was corrupt. The stupefied self-awareness on the face of Eve in Paradise Lost (1921, oil on sackcloth) comes from an artist mindful of human complicity in its own fall. One of the most affecting images in the exhibition is The Sea B, which is so darkly saturated with emotive colour that it becomes a twilight of the soul. This sunset seascape sees the purple density of cloud and light fading down into the horizon in an epic sweep of honesty. Green, orange, yellow and the white crest of waves contribute to an almost biblical churning of the waters. The sea takes on a kind of fearful solidity, what I can only describe as a conscious foreground of burnt ultramarine- though no such colour exists straight out of a tube. It lives in the complexity of human experience, a realisation that hits you when you get up close and see Nolde’s brush bristles, hitting the canvas like salt spray, stinging your eyes. It is as heartfelt an image as you are ever likely to see and regardless of the artist’s politics or beliefs, one worthy of attention on a variety of perceptive levels.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
The Sea B (Meer B), 1930
Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm
Collection: Tate, London, purchased 1966
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde was an artist seeking to build upon a golden age of German Art which he recognised in the work of Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. He was also keenly aware of what he described as the “great” French “ice breakers”; Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Signac” and the work of contemporary Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, a pioneer of Expressionism. Nolde’s brief affiliation with German Expressionist group Die Brücke (Bridge) is often cited, however his allegiances run deeper than the revolutionary world of modern art. The key to works such as his 1912 woodcut on paper Prophet, lies in a more subliminal collective of seeing. It’s is the gouge into woodgrain, the raw, fecund material of the mythic German forest and the black and white heightened truth of religion. The contradiction of human aspiration and impulse (or desire) is fervently expressed in Nolde’s individual work.


Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Prophet, 1912
Woodcut on paper, 29.8 x 22.1 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his 1912 painting Candle Dancers, the ecstatic revelry and trance like state of the dance equates to freedom. The “primitive” is a central preoccupation in his art and this is as much about eroticism as it is about the purity of ecstasy, entering a different state of perception or being. Nolde’s painting Ecstasy (oil on canvas, 1929) is an unholy alliance of a middle aged male gaze and immaculate conception. Although I find this painting profoundly ugly, I can have no argument with the incandescent heat of purple and orange, the emotional intensity of colour-which leaves even the attendant angel Gabriel surprised. The problem isn’t with the expression ecstasy (personal or religious), or even the female body openly thrust forward, but with the doll-like face, a mask which renders the body devoid of any self-awareness or possession, either in piety or pleasure.  Nolde was 62 when he made this work and a child of the Nineteenth century, so it isn’t surprising that he simply renders the female figure as a vessel. His overwhelming use of colour (and all it means in Nolde’s art) presents me with a dilemma and ultimately prevents me from dismissing the image. Although the painting repels me, the contradictions in Nolde’s Ecstacy, are worthy of further examination and debate.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Candle Dancers (Kerzenttänzerinnen), 1912
Oil on canvas, 100.5 x 86.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

There are many such vessels in Nolde’s art. His interest in indigenous people and ethnographic art is another highly charged projection of “primitive” freedom. In 1913-14 the artist and his wife Ada made the epic journey on the trans-Siberian railway to Asia and then to Papua New Guinea.  Nolde’s paintings and drawings from this trip present the idea of noble warriors, seen in the form of head and shoulder studies with gravitas and stark simplicity. They may be naïve, in the way that many white travellers view other cultures as an escape hatch to an idealised, primordial paradise, however they also represent a more open and respectful view than one might expect, given Nolde’s later membership of the National Socialist party.

What Nolde hoped for, as a man/ artist in his 60’s by the time Hitler came to power. was a golden harvest, a new age of “let’s make [Germany] great again”!  Millions of people believed that twisted promise, not knowing, or perhaps not caring, consumed by self-interested Nationalism, what the cost of that iron melded vision would be. Misappropriation of ideals is the collective lesson here, not the mistaken belief or demonisation of an individual. Seeing this exhibition, I was reminded that historical hindsight is a privileged position, founded on human survival. At base Nolde’s use of colour as strength ensured his survival. Whilst I may be able to sit back and judge his politics /morality through 21st century eyes, what I also see in this work is an important confrontation with the extreme dynamics of his art and the prevailing Zeitgeist. You can’t neatly relegate this to the pages of history, because his art is so alive today. I’m glad of the discomfort Nolde’s work brings me, cast between the sun-drenched, vivid affirmation of blooming life in Blonde Girls (1918, oil on canvas) and the tormented purple skin of Soldiers (1913, oil on sackcloth) in uniform compliance, ready for war.

Emil NOLDE (1857-1956)
Self-portrait (Selbstbild), 1917
Oil on plywood, 83.5 x 65cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his autobiography, Nolde wrote about the “key role” of “Dualism” in his paintings and prints; “Both together and in opposition: man and woman, pleasure and pain, god and the devil. Colours were also placed in opposition to each other: cold and warm, light and dark, dull and strong.”

Dualism ultimately defines his life. On the one hand as a “victim” of The Third Reich’s cultural policies; branded a” degenerate artist”, banned from exhibiting, selling or publishing his work and on the other, an avid supporter of the party.  Nolde had over 1000 works confiscated in Hitler’s purge of Modern Art from Museums and Galleries. Nolde featured prominently in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, held in Munich in 1937, which toured Germany and Austria. The aim was to ridicule and denounce Modern Art, but more than that- to clamp down on freedom of expression or any form of communication that did not further the party’s aims. The role of propaganda or controlling the visual should never be underestimated in bringing entire populations to heel. Anyone thinking that art is just entertainment are twice as primed to be duped. The head of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry, Dr Joseph Goebbels would have loved the knee jerk control of Twitter. Although speaking entirely about his own work, Nolde’s statement in a 1905 letter to Hans Fehr that “harmless pictures are seldom worth anything” is chillingly prophetic.

Essentially Nolde saw himself as a good German. The idea of “Heimat” or deep-rooted identity, which has no direct translation outside of the German language, is forever tainted by Nazi bastardisation. It becomes the rhetoric of “blood and soil”, just as the idea of “Volk”, people and lore, become contorted into cultural and biological superiority under the regime. Contemporary German artists such as Anselm Kiefer have been instrumental in unpacking these ideas, returning to raw materials of the earth and forest, to find the truth behind the lies. The idea of Volk informs works such as Nolde’s Market (1908, oil on sackcloth) with its circular huddle of farmers or Milkmaids I (1903, oil on canvas) reminiscent of Van Gogh’s many studies of labourers in the fields. Nolde’s turn of the century images speak of social cohesion and living close to the land in harmony with Nature and God. They represent the validation and virtue of honest, hard work according to the Protestant work ethic. When Nolde, born Emil Hansen, marries his Danish wife and changes his name to that of the village of Nolde in North Schleswig, it is a statement of identity, not just with place, but in terms of cultural belief.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Canal (Copenhagen) (Kanal (Kopenhagen)), 1902
Oil on sackcloth, 65.5 x 83 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

It is fascinating to witness the transformation of light and colour from Nolde’s Canal (Copenhagen) (1902, Oil on sackcloth) onwards and see the evolution of his mark.  The way that bold, beautifully observed human marks in the artist’s ink and wash drawings translate into colour is one of the highlights of the show. Tugboat (1910 Brush, ink and wash on paper) and Smoking Steamboats (1910 Oil on sackcloth) are particularly fine examples. The impact of smoke and heavy industry on the environment isn’t lost on the artist. Nature is rendered with energetic brushwork in yellow, green, blue and deep purple, fighting back to engulf the human presence on an eternally vital sea.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Tugboat (Schlepper), 1910
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 35 x 42.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Smoking Steamboats (Qualmende Dampfer), 1910
Oil on sackcloth, 57.5 x 71.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Solo Female Dancer (Solotänzerin), 1910–11
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 32.1 x 27 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde’s drawings in Berlin cafes and cabarets display his immediate responses to the parade of humanity before him in eloquent, ink shorthand. Dancing Couples (1910-11 pen and ink and wash on paper) with its smitten body language and highly animated rhythmic marks of the crowd, present a self-absorbed microcosm of urban life.  The group of 1930’s and 1940’s watercolours on paper, known as the “unpainted pictures” carry their own mythological narrative. Rendered in technicolour washes and linear drawing this is a curious group of images populated by human grotesques, giants and hobgoblins. Yet the fantastical elements are anchored. There’s hints of satire and allegory in Three Fools, Two Animals or folklore and ethnography in Dance Around the Rock. The sublime elegance of movement in the Skater is stunningly precarious humanity on a blade edge. The “unpainted pictures” are those made whilst Nolde was banned from being a professional artist. We don’t know to what extent he was monitored as a branded artist by the Gestapo, but it is sobering to consider the climate of paranoia, at a time when the mere smell of dissenting oil paint could condemn and obliterate the maker. I imagine only three options for a branded artist; defiantly continue to work and face imprisonment or death, flee the country forever or be compliant with the regime and do what you’re told. Given Nolde’s generation and strong identification with the idea of a second golden age for Germany, I’ve no doubt that the easiest path for him,  ideologically and practically, was the latter.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Skater (Schlittschuhläufer), 1938-1945
Watercolour on paper, 25.8 x 18cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

He could still immerse himself in colour as life, even if the high German culture he revered and European civilization were progressively collapsing all around him. He still had “the painter’s basic materials: colours that have a life [and soul] of their own, crying and laughing, dream and joy, hot and holy, like love songs and sex, like hymns and chorales! Colours vibrating, with the sound of silver bells and the ringing of bronze, heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death.”

I think it is too easy to judge Nolde’s work in terms of black and white morality and we do ourselves no favours as critics by dismissively waving the Nazi card, therefore distancing ourselves from the tough questions raised by his work. Demonising anything simply places it outside ourselves, abdicating responsibility and denying the possibility of change. Go and see this show, be elated and/or deeply troubled by it, whilst acknowledging that the world still needs such art. Whether it is in radiantly joyful blooms or in blackened caricatures that mirror our own prejudices, Nolde expresses what we are holistically capable of. There is no immunity. We too can get lost in the ecstasy of the dance. Nolde’s intense, contradictory work, together with the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition catalogue on display, demand that we face what beauty, ugliness and complicity truly mean, right here and now.  The question is not whether we can enjoy the art of a Nazi, but whether we can afford not to see it.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Rembrandt- Britain’s Discovery of the Master

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman in Bed, about 1645 – 1646
Oil on canvas, 81.1 x 67.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by William McEwan 1892
Photo: Antonia Reeve

7 July – 14 October

Scottish National Gallery

“Britain’s love affair with one of history’s greatest artists” is the celebratory focus of the Scottish National Gallery’s latest summer blockbuster. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master features 140 works: oil paintings, drawings and etchings by Rembrandt Van Rijin, works from his workshop and those by British artists he inspired from the 18th Century to the present day. Seeing Rembrandt’s impact on the art of William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, Thomas Duncan, Augustus John, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Jacob Epstein, Leon Kossoff, William Strang, Henryk Gotlib, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Auerbach, John Bellany, Ken Currie and Glen Brown is one of the fascinations of the show. It is also an exhibition about historical acquisition and how an artist’s legacy is enabled. Works on loan from the National Gallery, British Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Tate, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C bring together familiar images, new discoveries and reflections on why Rembrandt is so revered.

Outside the Netherlands, the UK holds the largest collection of Rembrandt works, a trend that began during the reign of Charles I and reached fever pitch in the 18th Century, when prints, drawings and paintings were highly sought after by private collectors. Cataloguing the artist’s work also began at this time, an indicator of Rembrandt as currency and a practical response to market driven climate of forgers and respectful copyists. The desirability of Rembrandt’s work among collectors in the British Isles has resulted in much wider awareness of his work and most importantly, the opportunity to experience it live, having found its way into public collections. Coming eyeball to eyeball with a Rembrandt seems to level all arguments about what good or bad art is. At base he shows us what art is, what it is for and why it matters.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Two Studies of Old Men’s Heads, c.1639
Pen and brown ink, 8.1 x 9.4 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

The appetite for Rembrandt’s work has grown exponentially over the last 400 years, however his authenticity doesn’t lie with a stamp of approval from royalty, the aristocracy, learned experts or the validation of monumental prices at auction. The claim that his “imagery” is now “ubiquitous” and he is now a “global brand” is only true in terms of all the things his art embodies that cannot be bought, sold or even put into words. However you frame Rembrandt’s work, his emotional intelligence trumps every other narrative you attempt to overlay.  Therefore, I find it doubly fascinating that he has such a following in Britain. The most essential part of this equation isn’t the Master on the manor house wall or fashion, but the level of self-awareness communicated in his work, the thing that makes us what we are. In many ways the light in Rembrandt’s art hits a nerve of the great unsaid in British culture. Above all, his work is about intimacy and connection- something human beings will always crave and what makes him an eternally contemporary artist. Long before theories of Humanism, Existentialism or the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, there is Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) Self-portrait aged 51, about 1657 Oil on canvas, 53 x 43 cm Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan Photo: Antonia Reeve.

His Self Portrait aged 51 (c.1657 oil on canvas, part of the Bridgewater Collection loan to the NGS, Edinburgh) exemplifies the artist’s timeless appeal. It isn’t the image of a Master, but that of a man, in whom we see our own anxieties, aging and mortality. Rembrandt doesn’t elevate himself above the progressive march of years. He renders himself with self-respecting care and humility, equally surrounded by shadow. To encounter such an honest soul in Art is profoundly moving and deeply comforting. I’ve returned to this work many times and experience it in waves, emotion which emanates from the lines of his brow and deep-set eyes. It’s confrontation with the ground of the painting, behind his eyes and to sorrow, which connects to your own- regardless of what century you happen to be standing in. His face emerges from the darkest earth brown umber, the fertile ground inside us,  the clay beneath our feet and the dust we will become. We all know what age will make us and there he is, facing that inevitability, sharing it with us with unflinching dignity. In psychological terms Rembrandt’s self-portraits are the personification of congruence because they aren’t just about the artist, they are about an essential exchange with the viewer. His humanity is his genius. He affirms what art is for every time we meet his gaze-and not just directly in self-portraiture, figurative or biblical works, but in his landscapes too.

The Mill (1645 -48, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, Washington D.C) was a revelation to me in that respect. I can see why it has been described as “the greatest painting in the world”.  Although the human figures in the foreground are small and largely in shadow, it is an image of absolute benevolence and empathy. This surprising painting of a mill in the landscape has the presence and authority of his portraits, rooted in how we see ourselves. It isn’t a scene of a landscape but a register of light and human consciousness. Certainly the cruciform sails of the mill read as a Christ-like guardian over Rembrandt’s homeland of Leiden, but what hit me between the eyes standing in front of this unexpected masterwork is the dawning of light- for the artist and viewer. J.M.W. Turner described how, in this particular painting, Rembrandt had “thrown that veil of matchless colour: that lucid interval of morning down and dewy light on which the eye dwells so completely enthralled.” The way that Northern Romantic artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich or the contemporary Scottish landscape artist Allan MacDonald make that connection between Nature, the Divine and human consciousness aligns with the function of light in Rembrandt’s Mill. The presence of light is the entire crux of the image; as a sensuous reality and a prism through which a myriad of metaphorical colours can be seen. It’s the way, the truth and the life of painting. It even reverberates in the unusual geometry and patinated curves of the dark frame surrounding it, rippling outwards, beyond the pictureplane. Whether you believe in a God is irrelevant- this is as close to what moves, motivates and saves us as you are ever likely to get.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt explodes expectations of historical genre by being himself. A Woman Bathing in a Stream -Calisto in the Wilderness (1654, oil on oak panel) is an absolute affirmation that art is life. There is no imitation of anything. We can see Rembrandt’s hand, not just stylistically but experientially, in the intimate shorthand of abstracted marks that form her hand. This isn’t a typical male gaze, or that of a Master, directed at a generic woman. Her shift conceals and reveals her body, but that isn’t the focus of the image either. There’s preservation of the self, seeking of the self, in this work that resides with the female subject. She’s looking down into the dark water at her reflection, which we cannot see, and about to step into it, to immerse herself. The wilderness of self-awareness and knowledge of what we are as human beings is open to her, perhaps not in the historical confines of her actual life, but here she stands as Rembrandt envisaged her, reimagined in the 21st Century. Her action in seeing is unaided and there is tenderness and honest regard in how Rembrandt models the figure. He doesn’t deny her sensuality or her capacity as a conscious being. The adjacent label suggests life imitating art in an image of the artist’s lover, exiled in real life by bearing him a child.  The mythological subtitle is something Rembrandt is well versed in, but he’s not playing a literary card here. In fact, he’s not playing at anything in this painting. What I love about this work and so many others by him, is the peerless, heightened privacy of the moment, fixed for all time. I’ve seen people gasp in admiration, incline their heads in contemplation, breathe out in relief and smile in recognition, each in their own way understanding what this image holds. Their body language and emotional responses tell me why Rembrandt’s art is a universal touchstone, rather than a “ubiquitous” “brand” described by PR speak.  For me the joy of this exhibition isn’t simply as a survey of the taste for Rembrandt, which is what art is often reduced to as part of an enduring British class system. It is the way that Rembrandt’s work speaks for itself across all borders, boundaries and time- and very particularly to the British psyche, adverse to intimacy. I can say this because I’m from one of its colonies.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Drawing after Rembrandt’s ‘A Woman Bathing in a Stream’, 1988
Felt-tip pen on paper, 38.9 x 29.4 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London
© Frank Auerbach

As much as Rembrandt is a publicly acclaimed, popular artist, he has always been an artist’s artist too. It’s interesting that he appeals particularly to male artists- or at least that’s the message delivered by the final room in the exhibition. I think this has to do with the holy grail of creative immortality, the “Master” validation, consciously or unconsciously sought. Alignment with that vision of greatness can be driven by ego, or the homage can be to the inner nature of Rembrandt’s work. He communicates very powerfully what it is to be human and that self-awareness is synonymous with making, casting him the patron saint of artists. In the history of Art Rembrandt has wholly succeeded in transcending himself.

Frank Auerbach (b.1931)
Tree at Tretire, 1975
Chalk, charcoal and gouache on two sheets of paper, 77 x 72.5 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by Miss Dorothy Claire Weicker, 1984
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Photo: John McKenzie

Henryk Gotlib’s Rembrandt in Heaven (c1948-58, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery) made me smile in it’s reverent homage to the ruddy faced, aged man, flanked by angels and being presented to a melancholy Christ, with Mary standing supportively behind her troubled child. The earthy palette and gaze of the angel on the far left, which meets our own, tips its hat to the substance of Rembrandt’s art. The hand of the angel gestures simultaneously towards the Master and his Master, pointing toward heaven. The high esteem of the artist is clear, but so is his naked, everyman appearance. The interest in Rembrandt by artists during the post WWII period is a natural gravitational pull. Post collapse of civilization, it is a time when the world is trying to rebuild itself, when individuals are grappling with the rubble they are, or are standing in. Rembrandt’s essential humanity is a focus of light in that darkness. That innate sensitivity, manifests in Frank Auerbach’s abstract work, Tree at Tretire (1975, chalk, charcoal and gouache, NGS, Edinburgh) in direct response to Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643, Etching, drypoint and engraving, British Museum, London)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
The Three Trees, 1643
Etching, drypoint and engraving, 21.3 x 27.9 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

Rembrandt’s arboreal trinity has a figurative presence, tempered by the delicacy of drypoint. He is as close to the etching plate as he is to the soul of the subject, a quality to be found in contemporary master printmaker Ian Westacott’s etchings of trees, which are essentially figurative.  This is also the energy Auerbach taps into with the velvety boldness of charcoal in his Tree at Tretire. It has nothing to do with being influenced by Rembrandt the Master and is much more about human connection beneath the subject. The force of Auerbach’s conviction, applied to his chosen media on paper, creates a visceral sense of disintegration, coupled with restoration. Auerbach translates the figurative power of Rembrandt’s The Three Trees into an abstract vision, rooted in the human need of his own time. Rembrandt is primarily known as a painter, however his work as a printmaker equally sees him at the height of his powers. One of my favourite works in the show is only slightly larger than a postage stamp, the exquisite etching Self-portrait in a Heavy Fur Cap; Bust, 1631 (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.) The hand-held size, direct gaze and vulnerability of finely etched marks create an image of the artist grounded in intimacy and his lifelong commitment to understand.

Rembrandt Van Rijn- Self Portrait in a heavy fur cap: Bust, 1631. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018

Ken Currie Rembrandt’s Carcass (1991, etching, NGS, Edinburgh) after the painting Slaughtered Ox, portrays the artist as a flayed bag of flesh, richly illuminated in black and white. Laced with Currie’s characteristic brand of irony, it is a memorial, a homage, and as with so many of his works, a hymn to human consciousness and mortality. As Currie has stated, “being haunted by paintings” is the mark of Great Art.

For me, the image that best sums up the exhibition is An Old Woman Reading, 1655 (Oil on canvas, Buccleuch Collection), believed to be an image of the artist’s mother. It is the presence of light, emanating from the open book, concentrated on her face and chest in warm russet and golden hues that equally fills the heart and mind of the viewer. Her face is bent in concentration beneath the black hood, her mouth slightly open, completely absorbed in self-determination, seeking enlightenment. Perhaps it’s the bible she’s contemplating, but standing here in front of this painting the chapter and verse does not seem to matter. What is communicated is compassion, love and empathy; Rembrandt’s shining, inextinguishable legacy and the ultimate value of art.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Special thanks to Harris Brine, The National Galleries of Scotland Press Office, The Bridgewater Collection and Graham Nisbet at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow for their assistance with images.

NOW

JENNYSAVILLE, SARA BARKER,CHRISTINE BORLAND, ROBIN RHODE, MARKUS SCHINWALD and CATHERINE STREET. 

JENNY SAVILLE
Rosetta II, 2005 – 2006
Oil on watercolour paper, mounted on board, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

March until 16 September 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh.

It’s hard to believe that the latest instalment of NOW, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s contemporary art programme, is the first major showing of Jenny Saville’s work in Scotland and only her third exhibition in a UK museum. It seems that for many of our finest artists, international acclaim is a pre-requisite for national acknowledgement. The Scottish National Gallery’s newly acquired Study for Branded (1992, Oil on paper, 100.3 x 74.4 cm) is amazingly the only example of Saville’s work currently in a UK public collection, made possible by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund.  Whilst the curatorial aim of the three year NOW exhibition programme is very much about placing contemporary Scottish Art in an international context, it also illuminates the national context of how we regard art and artists in the 21st century.

The purchase of multiple works from Saville’s Glasgow School of Art graduating show by collector Charles Saatchi, her participation in the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists III exhibition (1994) and the Royal Academy’s exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists (1997), effectively launched Saville’s career in terms currency on the international art market. However, that’s not what gives her work its immense power, universality, or ultimate value. As five rooms of her work spanning 26 years powerfully testify, she achieves that integrity entirely on her own terms. The scale of this artist’s emotional intelligence, discipline and command of painting is truly extraordinary, crossing multiple boundaries in how we perceive the female body, art and humanity.

In the history of Western Art and the Scottish figurative tradition Saville’s work radically transforms perception of the female nude with its unflinching honesty. Presenting completely “un-idealised”, “uncompromising” images of the human body, Saville confronts us with the timeless and sometimes overwhelming truth of human vulnerability. It’s a truth which ideal Beauty has cloaked for centuries, then effectively obliterated in popular culture of the 21st Century. At base we are all flesh, magnified in Saville’s adept handling of oils, pastel and charcoal, with all the discomfort and fragility which attends mortality.

Propped (1992, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. To be shown with mirror opposite) looks the male dominated figurative tradition in Art, society and within the Glasgow School of Art right in the eye. Perched atop a stool, a naked female figure with huge, foreshortened thighs and knees closest to the viewer, gazes down, sizing us up with a sneer, her raw hands clawed in tension. The model’s white shoed feet are crossed over, anchoring her frame to the thrust and elevation of the artist’s vision. What should feel precarious isn’t, she commands the composition and across it, written backwards, read in the mirror opposite as part of the painting, are the words of French Feminist writer Luce Irigaray;

“If we continue to speak in this sameness- speak as men have spoken for centuries, we fail each other Again words will pass through our bodies, above our heads- disappear, make us disappear…”

JENNY SAVILLE
Trace, 1993 – 1994
Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Wedged between the painting and mirrored confrontation, the immense physicality of this disappearance becomes present in the room as idea and experience, written on one’s own body in everyday life. It is only in looking by default at ourselves that the words become visible. Behind this mirror, at the entrance to this first room, is Trace (1993 – 1994, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian), a sobering acknowledgement from neck to buttocks, viewed from behind. Although the palms are flat they feel psychologically twisted, facing the viewer like those of a prisoner in a lineup. The exposure of pale skin, nuanced with greys, ochre, blue, umber and crimson, is painfully incised with the marks of underwear, imprinted on the skin. The cool, serene flesh-toned palette fills the canvas and the mind like a question. We’re faced with where we stand in this branding, then we step behind the painting to the Propped mirror and see. The way the exhibition is hung, cleverly places the viewer in direct relation to the work in this room. The space between Propped and the self-reflexive surface of the mirror is relatively neat, so you can’t stand back to distance yourself from either. Initially the human figure, expression and attitude, led by Saville’s paint handling draws you in, then you turn a perceptive corner and come face to face with the mirror, your own body and yourself. It’s a powerful mechanism of interrogation that perceptively creeps up on you before you know it, like all great art should.

Witness (2009, Oil on canvas, 270 × 219.4 × 6.4 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA) places a magnified young face, with the mouth exploded in a vertical position, so that the viewer becomes witness. Saville commented: “It was tough going to push beyond the surface horror into the paint.” Unlike a crime scene/ forensic photograph of documentation, the statement here is a document of the human mark in deep cadmium, alizarin and burnt umber, the stark, peachy pale skin magnifying vulnerability. Saville goes beyond gore into the nature of flesh made human. Even in this context, she fills the viewer with wonder in every mark, as bodies disappear and emerge in relative abstraction. Muse (2012 – 2014, Charcoal on canvas. Unframed: 212 x 170.4 x 3.2cm, Private collection) is a particularly beautiful example, where the deconstruction of form and idea reconstructs the self with force, passion and determination. You gain a sense of Saville’s artistic discipline, intense curiosity and driven process in this show and it’s awe inspiring! Crucially, unlike at lot of other YBAs, her approach to her subject transcends the marketable artist/ celebrity persona- her work is simply about bigger stuff in action and vision. She is resoundingly her own muse in a way that truly inspires.

When painting on the monumental scale of Fulcrum (1998 – 1999, Oil on canvas, 261.6 x 487.7 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian) there is no option other than to use your whole self to make the marks, like the honed work of a dancer. The physicality lies not just in the three ample female figures, wound together but in the act of painting. The superb handling of this expansive palette of flesh, sliced vertically with fragments of crimson, as if the surface of the canvas were itself flesh and blood, is startlingly real. It is also deeply meditative, with each model held in their own unique world of expression. The fulcrum in this work, the movement used to move or raise something, is the artist’s whole self and contemplation of what it is to be human. How else do we enact change but creatively, imaginatively- as individuals and as a species?

JENNY SAVILLE
One out of two (symposium), 2016
Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
Photo: Mike Bruce

One of my favourite images in the exhibition is One out of two (symposium) (2016, Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2cm), a wonderfully ambiguous act of erasure and visibility. As a fluid, layered drawing the alizarin crimson graffiti-like marks, merge with the tracery of a forensic outline and the deconstructed works of old masters. The feminine in this work lies in the grace and repose of head and shoulders, the still core of facial expression, sculpted in chiaroscuro and the sensuous movement, hands clasped around backs that surrounds and absorbs the subject and viewer. Although Saville is often mentioned in the same breath as Bacon and Freud- the stated connection simply being fleshiness, there is a powerful philosophical dialogue that resides in her work, in this painting drawn from Plato’s Symposium, consistent with an ancient tradition of essential thought and debate. Although Saville treats paint as “liquid flesh” the undeniable “viscosity”, the internal tension or friction of the material, isn’t merely physical, but intellectual, psychological and emotional. To be a conscious human being, you can’t not experience internal viscosity being mind and flesh, even more so when the politics of gender or aesthetics of Beauty are applied to the body. Saville’s approach to the female body, unlike so many male artists and critics, isn’t just about masses of flesh. Saville is more holistic and therefore even more confrontational in the context of our 21st century globalised worship of appearance. To write about her work in terms of one dimensional physicality is to miss the point entirely, because to do so, as the artist suggests in “Propped” is to make ourselves disappear.

JENNY SAVILLE
Olympia, 2013 – 2014
Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Taking Art History by the throat and shaking it is Saville’s Olympia (2013 – 2014, Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm). The artist is too visually literate for this painting not to bear a link with Manet’s much celebrated reclining nude of the same title; a prostitute attended by a black servant bearing flowers- presumably from a client, with an arched backed black cat at her feet. When it was first shown in 1865 the confrontational stare of the female protagonist, provocatively commanding the composition, was considered shocking. The nude, though arranged for a male gaze, becomes self-possessed in this work and that sense becomes highly evolved in Saville’s coupling of black and white flesh, with fragments of cityscape in the background. The female figure in this work is absorbed in her own thoughts, whilst her lover’s embrace (which could be male or female, depending on audience projection) forms part of a whole series of question marks. Despite the sensuous energy of form and mark, these aren’t bodies served up for salacious gratification. Saville’s middle-aged Olympia is mindfully present and beautiful, in the same manner as the artist’s symposium paintings, here with a downturned mouth suggestive of thought rather than naked pleasure, passion or possession. Multiple realities are actively embraced by the artist and possession on all levels resisted, turning the entire history of Western Art effectively on its head and prompting a broad smile on my face as I exited this final room. What I love so much about Saville’s work is the intense care, exploration, intellect, discipline and ambition required to create it, what it gives to the viewer and to the world. Saville is more of a trailblazer than she has yet been acknowledged for and I hope that this show will begin to address that publicly. NOW could not be more vital or timely in that respect.

Whilst Saville’s work is the centrepiece of the NOW exhibition 2018, works by Markus Schinwald, Christine Borland and adjacent work from the National Galleries of Scotland collection, including photography by Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), also provided great stimulus for thought.

MARKUS SCHINWALD
Orient, 2011
HD video,9 min, loop
Camera: Sebastian Pfaffenbichler;
Production: Close up, Vienna;
Produced by Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Wien; Yvon Lambert, Paris; and Gió Marconi, Milan
© the artist.

Austrian artist Markus Schinwald’s fascinating two screen video work Orient (2011, Looped, two channel HD video 09:00 min. each, colour, sound) reminded me of Pina Bausch’s choreography with its everyday immediacy, potently considered gestures and emotional punch. It is the first time that this work, originally created for the Austrian Pavillion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, has been shown in Scotland. Set in the monumental ruins of an industrial space, the doubled intersection of images, movement and bodily gestures, together with two different voiceovers create a free associative experience for the viewer/ participant. The relationships between a group of well-dressed men and women, moving in unison, individually or paired in observance of each other are, completely compelling as performance, accented with slapstick humour and irony. There are also moments of pure poetry written with the body; tap dancing feet in a sea of colourful, discarded circuitry wires, a man awkwardly scaling a door of opaque glass with a young woman walking straight through it a subversive moment later or a man with his leg caught between two giant structures of concrete trying to wrestle himself free. How we orient ourselves in time, space and in relation to each other is part of the eternal loop and I loved the way that each time I watched Schinwald’s split screens, new combinations of sound and image stimulated different streams of association.  The way the artist splits and reassembles the collective psychology of being human provoked my curiosity and I was thoroughly taken by the mindful calculation and seeming randomness of this work.

CHRISTINE BORLAND
Positive Pattern,2016
Milling foam, Perspex, MDF, paint, five parts
Number 2 in an edition of 3
© Christine Borland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Purchased with the Ian Paul Fund 2017. Commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle.

Christine Borland’s Positive Pattern (2016. Foam, Perspex, MDF, paint. No2 edition of 3), five abstract objects modelled on the spaces within Barabara Hepworth sculptures were created using 3D scanning and CNC router technology. The intriguing combination of Science and Art, originally commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle to honour organ donors and their families, is aligned with the viewer’s own body and internal organs according to plinth height. Because I have a reviewing policy of not reading any explanatory labelling/ text before looking at visual work, what struck me initially was the ambiguity of material. Housed in Perspex boxes it had the solidity of carved limestone, but the texture was too fine, implying a more delicate substance. The forms themselves were beautiful, hovering in an imaginative space between the organic and human-made, like macquettes in a stage of becoming. The presentation and grouping of objects felt clinical, collectively poised, flowing in energy yet isolated at various levels and confined in their cases.

The problem I often find in appreciating Borland’s work, is that reading an adjacent exploratory text is made necessary by the maker. The human element in Borland’s art is predominantly the linking of ideas, rather than empathy and it tends to leave me cold, even though I find the work interesting and aesthetically beautiful in its stylistic cleanliness. The beauty here really lies in the cavity of Hepworth’s head, her humane approach and thinking as a sculptor, appropriated by Borland. This isn’t a criticism, more an observation of the skilful way Borland handles commissions, successfully negotiating the worlds of contemporary art and medicine. The specificity of commissioned / public works of art is such that she doesn’t always transcend that directive when work is shown out with its original context. My feeling is that Borland’s real talent is alignment of ideas rather than making art. Although this creates a Positive Pattern overall, it lacks soul. Visually there’s a glimmer of feeling, which if you’re keen you pursue, but the primary conduit of meaning is often written context which goes with the territory, rather than extending or exploding it- in the artist’s practice and in terms of viewer perception. Whist Borland’s cleverness can be impressive, it isn’t enduring when placed in the same exhibition as an artist like Saville.

Also included in the exhibition are four painted metal sculptures and wall-based works by Sara Barker, influenced by writers Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Jeanette Winterson. Barker combines drawing, painting, sculpture and collage rather self-consciously to “investigate the act of making”. The compartmentalisation and dreamy palette of the artist’s triptych, 3 fabric figures on the Heath changes the sky (2017, automotive paint, folded aluminium, stainless steel rod, perspex, 180 x 240 x 28 cm) is a bit too obvious in making the viewer aware of facets of seeing, with a painterly nod to the Bloomsbury group. Again, interesting ideas are in play in this work; “figuration, edges and borders of our bodies, experience and landscapes creating portals that open up a space for reflective thought” but they are essentially derivative, I don’t get a sense of Barker’s stance towards these concepts or the nature of her investigation other than quotation. It’s illustrative understanding of ideas compared to the depth of understanding of the human condition absorbed, experienced and communicated by Saville. Robin Rhodes’ homage to Muybridge had a similar impact on me and Catherine Street’s work felt underdeveloped in its exploration and execution. Admittedly when you have such a strong backbone to a show it’s hard to equal it, conversely a great show will display equal artistic muscle despite exhibiting diverse bodies of work. Saville’s new work Aleppo for example, currently on display between two Titian’s at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound, stands up all by itself in juxtaposition. Here is NOW you might say.

JENNY SAVILLE
Red Stare Head IV, 2006 – 2011
Oil on canvas, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

I would urge anyone with an interest in humanity to visit this exhibition. You’re unlikely to see all 17 Saville works, drawn from private and public collections across the globe, altogether elsewhere.  The paint handling and scale are incredible, in ways that don’t translate in reproduction and the artist’s insight is truly profound.  However, if you can’t make it to Edinburgh and live further South, Saville’s work can also be seen as part of the All Too Human show at Tate Britain until 27th August 2018, in the company of 20 figurative artists including Francis Bacon, Paula Rego, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Euan Uglow, Walter Sickert and David Bomberg. A great accompaniment to both shows is the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art broadcast interview with Saville as part of the NOW exhibition (link below). Hearing the artist speak about her work is as much of a privilege as seeing it, a rare quality both sides of the equation for a branded YBA! Figurative art and the discipline of painting are far from being dead.

Jenny Saville in conversation. National Gallery of Scotland Streamed live on 23 Mar 2018 You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2NQZ5ggYJQ

nationalgalleries.org
#ModernNOW

8th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, Bo’ness

Directed by Alison Strauss, 8th annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival was full of discoveries and exceptional performances- in my experience, the best year yet!  The convergence of international musical talent, new restorations and previously unseen films, presented under the heavenly dome of Scotland’s oldest cinema make Hippfest a highly anticipated and unique event, worth clearing your calendar for.  There is nothing quite like the live Silent era experience, bringing reinterpretation of cinema at its most ground-breaking and innovative to contemporary audiences.  The Hippfest celebration of music and movies in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is a restorative breath of fresh air. I always come away feeling connected to an expanded world of human creativity, experience and perception. This isn’t just about a film nerd finding her tribe, but the thrill of the new, the magic that happens when the right accompanist(s) align with the vision of a film and its emotional centre, responding to it in real time. You don’t need a degree in film studies to revel in it.  This is where Silent Film accompaniment comes into its own, not as a historical curio, but as a living Artform transforming how and what we see, not just inside the cinema but in the wider world. Being part of that flow of energy between the filmmaker(s), the stories projected on screen, accompanying musicians and fellow audience members is something very special that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the digital world.

Silent comedian Billie Ritchie

Among this year’s discoveries was Silent comedian Billie Ritchie. Who knew that this Glasgow born international star pre-dated Chaplin as “The man Who Makes the World Laugh”, appearing in 70 Hollywood productions from 1914 to 1920. Trevor Griffiths, author of the soon to be released Early Cinema in Scotland, delivered an intriguing introduction to Ritchie’s work in his Friday afternoon talk, prompting the question of how and what enables an artist to remain in public consciousness. With Forrester Pyke accompanying on piano, the audience were treated to tantalising snippets of surviving film, revealing Ritchie’s anarchic brand of humour. These glimpses left me wanting to see more and wondering where in the world Ritchie’s many lost works might be uncovered. There is certainly more work to be done in researching, celebrating and bringing Billie Ritchie home as an artist in the public imagination.

Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer.

The Hippfest Friday Night Gala is always buzzing, with people getting into the 1920’s party spirit. Fancy dress, pre-screening drinks, canapés and authentic live music, this year by the toe tapping Red Hot Minute Brass Band, are all part of the annual festivities. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer was accompanied by Neil Brand on piano, delivering the perfect balance of charm, romance and drama. Hugely popular on its release, the story of an inexperienced, dashing crown prince falling in love with an honest barmaid was (and clearly still is) an appealing leveller. Brand’s music sensitively conveyed this human baseline of love, loss and regret. His enthusiastic presentation of the preceding archival short and main feature heightened the sense of occasion. Brand is a consummate showman with a broad reach, a passionate advocate for Silent Film and the expressive role of music in Cinema, seen in his television series and live performances. He always brings context to Silent Film as art and entertainment, the perfect match for Lubitsch’s highly accomplished and crowd-pleasing film.

Brand provided equally sparkling accompaniment for the Saturday morning Jeely Jar Double Bill, continuing the tradition started by the Hippodrome’s original proprietor Louis Dickson of discounted cinema tickets in exchange for empty glass jars. (In 2018, 2 for 1 tickets with a clean jam jar and lid, with the jars used for local honey). At the heart of both films are feisty, irrepressible and independent young women in the making, something still rarely seen in mainstream films and popular culture in the 21st Century. Dorothy Devore stars in the 22 min comedy of errors Saving Sister Susie (1921), as a younger sister forced to dress as a child by her mother, so that her older sibling can find a fiancée. Devore plays a character who is completely forthright and a free spirit – not at all the model of demure, feminine passivity expected by her Mother’s late Nineteenth Century generation.  In The Kid Reporter (1924, 20 mins) four and a half year old Baby Peggy plays an expert stenographer, crime solving sleuth and budding editor in chief! In his introduction Neil Brand revealed that Baby Peggy, who later became a reporter and critic, is still alive, well and living in LA where he interviewed her.

Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1924)

I have a low tolerance for cuteness, especially of the saccharine, Hollywood studio system variety, but Baby Peggy is something else in this film- four and a half going on forty in terms of her sharp expressions of thought and amazing execution of comic setups. Dressing like a professional male reporter and declaring that “if you want something done there is only one woman!”, she has real presence and personality on screen, convincingly carrying the film. The Kid Reporter was unexpectedly funny, progressive and contradictory in its depiction of a child/woman very competently in charge. Although the Jeely Jar Double Bill is comedy pitched for children/ families, there’s still plenty for adults to enjoy too. Seeing Baby Peggy in a film built entirely around her reveals the shortcomings of our own “liberated” age, where it wouldn’t be enough for her to be an intelligent girl with comic timing. Ironically the field of reference in the proceeding age of technicolour has progressively shrunk, fenced in by pink or blue- tinted expectations, which is what makes Baby Peggy’s sassy self- determination so refreshing! I can’t think of an equivalent character, certainly not one that young, in film or TV today.

Striving /Fen Dou (1932)

Initiating international musical collaborations and cultural partnerships is one of Hippfest’s great strengths, something that can only be created and sustained by proactive development and continuity of funding. The European Premiere of Striving /Fen Dou (1932) a new restoration from the China Archive accompanied by Stephen Horne (Piano, flute, accordion, melody harp) and Frank Bockius (Percussion) is a brilliant example of inspired international collaboration. Supported by the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, this screening combined interpretative skill and musical transcendence, crossing multiple borders. Directed by Shi Dongshan, the story of a young woman, Swallow (played by 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) and her struggle to find happiness is a loyal work of Nationalist propaganda, humanised by musical interpretation in this live performance. Made during a time of internal political turmoil and escalating conflict with Japan, Striving was clearly intended to carry the moral message of virtue and nobility in serving the nation. The pairing at this screening of a BFI National archive short film newsreel, rallying young men in Trafalgar Square to serve their country, provided an interesting perspective on propaganda and nationalism on home soil. The Hippfest tradition of pairing archival shorts with features often provoke important questions about our relationship with history, film, collective memory and current affairs. These archival films can sometimes be just a minute long, but they provide an important pause and a lens for the feature, with the audience free to make their own connections. The perceptive distance between cultures, the time that the film was made and our own effectively shrinks, whilst the emotional field of reference expands due to the finest musical accompaniment.

Whenever I have seen Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany Silent Film I’ve been floored by their vitality, incredible musicianship, understanding of film as human expression and ability to communicate with audiences.  The energy they create in performance is pure, intuitive and totally transports the viewer, changing the way you watch, perceive and appreciate films of any period. They always enhance and elevate the films they are paired with based on respect, trust and total commitment to serving the film. Taking your cues from the film happens on many levels and both musicians dig deep. They allow the full range of their instruments, capabilities as soloists and a duo, to channel the film in such a unified way that the audience is carried away, beyond and within themselves. Seeing a film for the first time accompanied by Horne and Bockius is the best introduction you could possibly hope for in Cinema. They’re not serving their egos as performers, but the story, what is projected thematically on screen and the connective function of music, taking the art of Silent Film accompaniment to an entirely new level.  With Striving they effectively placed the audience in the emotional centre of the action.  Whilst this might sound very cerebral, there’s also a physical/ haptic aspect in performance that translates directly to the viewer. We experience the film spatially-like virtual reality, but in more dimensions than just three! It’s the difference between applying sound effects or a musical soundtrack over a film and highly skilled, unconscious interpretation through the nervous system- what we are all essentially hardwired for and what both artists resoundingly deliver.

Stephen Horne’s use of the interior workings of the piano, harnessing its expressive range, creates a sense of gravity, understanding and tension. He is able to ground the audience; physically, psychologically and emotionally. The muffled, rumbling lower register tension of a fight taking place upstairs, or the scraped wires of a slap/ fingernail scratch across the face transform the piano into physically articulate percussion. However, it’s the sonic recognition of what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart and mind of a scene, that Horne really excels at. The musical suggestion of thought, attitude, character, motivation and feeling, powerful use of sound and silence, enables the audience to inhabit the world of the film and empathically project themselves into it. You don’t achieve that depth of experience with typical thematic manipulation, simply triggering a cause and effect emotive response.

Percussion is often used with all the subtlety of a hammer to the knee reflex in mainstream Cinema scoring, seeing Frank Bockius perform it becomes something else entirely. The human body becomes the percussive, resonant instrument of awareness, not just driving the pace of the action on screen but reimagining it. Arms, elbows, palms and fingertips, brushes, rods, sticks and the most unexpectedly delicate use of cymbals, extend the reach and depth of sound. We can experience foreboding, an abstract concept, as a reality, part of the wider story arc and as an emotional space the main character is living in, before we see/ are shown the abusive relationship between adoptive father and daughter. Crucially- we feel it first, and this guides our human response to the unfolding drama, providing the perfect counterfoil to the rather didactic intertitles and time/ culturally specific political agenda. The musical improvisation aligns with the pure visual storytelling of Silent Film and the art of cinematography, which are all about show don’t tell.

In the hands of these two musicians the clash of cymbals and major key striving of the piano isn’t a nationalistic celebration, but one of life itself. With years of experience and refined technique they can capture with the lightest touch, the trembling hesitation, shifting emotion and burgeoning awareness of two young lovers, or the furious trauma of war, branded “glorious” by the intertitles, sonically subverted. In moments of intimacy the alignment of both musicians is with the painted light of cinematography, the pin point illumination in the eyes of actors, becoming the projected light of Film and the human spirit. There is no orchestra or editing, yet we experience on a symphonic scale, visceral sounds of cannon fire and reverberating bullets that blister the skin of the drums/ viewer, while the piano shudders like a conductive pool of water on the battlefield at our feet. Anyone who imagines (and many people do) that Silent Film accompaniment is simply decoratively tinkling the ivories along to aged memory would have that myth exploded here. The connection is very powerfully made between the seemingly distant world of China circa 1932 and our own. Silent Film is the original art of global communication. It’s no wonder that contemporary filmmakers are increasingly being drawn to it to hone their craft.

Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928)

Another highlight of my Hippfest weekend was John Sweeney’s rapturous interpretation of Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928), a British-Indian-German co production, recently restored by the BFI. With an entirely Indian cast, including Himansu Rai, Enkashi Rama Rao Charu Roy, Seeta Devi and shot on location using natural light, this is a beautiful film and an epic love story. The tale of how the Taj Mahal came to be built has all the drama and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy, with the purity and agony of love at the heart of the film. John Sweeney’s highly sensitive lyricism as a pianist was the perfect accompaniment, seamlessly and magically morphing the piano into a sitar. The combination of rhythms and accents from Classical Indian music with the expressive capabilities of the piano, the ultimate musical embodiment of Western Romanticism, was simply stunning. Like an alchemist, Sweeney melded pinnacles of artistic expression from both cultures into gold, responding to the film and its themes with profound empathy. It was music fallen naturally from the stars, capturing human aspiration and adoration in full alignment with the architecture.

The love triangle between Selima, a lost princess raised from childhood with her adoptive brother Shiraz and the Emperor Shah Jehan is a complex one of class, fate, sacrifice and unrequited love. Ultimately it is Shiraz’s love and humility, that builds the monument and is the foundation of the film, rather than a story of two star crossed lovers finding each other. Crucially the piano dignifies and illuminates the design so that we see the inner trajectory of the devotional as a mirror- “not stone and mortar, but faith and longing”. When Shiraz attends the palace gate, leaning against a pillar, a single hand on the piano communicates his loneliness and the weight of sorrow he’s carrying as he returns to catch glimpses of Selima’s happiness, gradually losing his sight. Musical shimmers of light communicate the selfless acceptance of Selima not being his, it’s the blindness and helplessness of unrequited love.  What Sweeney’s understated accompaniment allows us to feel is the integrity of Shiraz’s soul. Glimmers of sunshine are played with supreme gentleness on the piano, befitting the invisibly raw, vulnerable state of a character who has given his whole self to a woman who can only love him as a brother. That emotive distance between Shiraz and his beloved is achingly acute in Sweeney’s music, because like the character he doesn’t announce these moments of passion and loss, instead they emerge out of the unconscious timbre of the music and into heightened awareness. Like Shiraz handing the amulet back to Selima, Sweeney passes the sonic core of the film to the audience and what a precious, heartfelt gift it is. This performance had me in tears, because it tapped into a baseline of experience and memory in such a humane way. Although the premiere of the BFI restoration of Shiraz at the 2017 London Film Festival with a commissioned score by Anoushka Shankar was much celebrated, you could really hope for no better live accompaniment to this heartbreakingly exquisite film than John Sweeney on piano.

Saturday night’s magnificent Silent Horror double bill featured the great Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920), accompanied by a newly commissioned Hippfest score from Graeme Stephen (guitar) & Pete Harvey (cello). This was followed by the riotously bizarre Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen (Häxan), brilliantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano) and Roddy Long (violin).

I must confess that I have  (to date) a difficult relationship with newly commissioned scores for Silent Film, doubly so at a Silent festival where they are premiered alongside the work of musicians whose extensive experience and career focus is Silent accompaniment. The commissioned musicians chosen are usually fantastic in their own right and no doubt bring their existing followers to a screening, however the biggest pitfall for musicians doing Silents is this isn’t a concert or a music festival. It isn’t enough to simply get up there and do what you already know how to- the film is the thing you’re serving, not yourself or your fans. In this context it’s rare that a non-specialist musician (or musicians), however fashionable or acclaimed in their own genre, don’t fall short. To be fair, my expectations in a Hippfest context are incredibly high and I know that often, the actual time allowable for musical commissions is short. However, entering the medium of film and pushing the boat out musically are a state of mind, independent of time. Accompanying Silent film demands nothing less than imagination, if a musician isn’t engaged with theirs and with the film then the audience won’t be either. 

The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney

The Penalty is a cracking film, full of psychological twists, ambiguities and moral dilemmas, it deals with the light and dark of the soul, the nature of creation, destruction and what makes a human being. Lon Chaney is “an evil mask of a great soul” and delivers a compelling, dynamic performance as the crippled, sadistic underworld boss “Blizzard”. There’s distilled malevolence, a fallen angel, an injured child and wounded humanity in his character. He’s a man physically and mentally crippled by greed, revenge, envy and loss. The pairing of classical guitar and cello was a missed opportunity in this new commission, not due to the instrumentation but the safe, concert-like quality of it, which outside the cinema wouldn’t be a criticism. Where this film takes you visually, thematically and psychologically isn’t congruent for example, with repetitively comforting guitar strumming while a violent act is committed- unless you’re being ironic, and my guts, together with the rest of the score, tells me it wasn’t. If you’re going to score for guitar and cello, a full exploration of both instruments, like the human content, is an imperative with this film. This doesn’t mean extreme sound necessarily, but giving the underutilised cello its voice back, taking your guitar into uncharted territory and getting under the skin of your audience. Beautifully played sound just isn’t enough on a cinema stage if it fails to connect with the nature of the characters and story. We all read films differently, but there are central themes in The Penalty that are unmissable for an accompanist, aligned with what the film shows us visually about ourselves as human beings. It’s this emotional tonality and complexity of human behaviour that Graeme Stephen’s doesn’t seem to pick up on. For me that’s what makes this film so rich and fascinating, even with a cop out ending of evil explained away by science. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film and the musical performance, I wasn’t convinced by them being brought together. The scoring of guitar and cello lacked imagination and there were times when I wondered whether we were watching the same film, Stephen’s score for Nosferatu had a similar effect. Having these thoughts about the music whilst watching the film pulls you out of it to some extent, which is a shame considering such promising material, however Chaney’s marvel of twisted humanity and the visual exploration of themes kept pulling me back in. It could have been an amazing, transformative live performance, but there wasn’t a sense of the musicians becoming an essential part of the film and freeing themselves in the process.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

In contrast Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) totally embraced the vision on screen, faithfully serving the “Carry On Devil Worship crossed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Lynchian Twin Peaks spirit of the film. Starring Thelma Todd, Crighton Hale and Sheldon Lewis the story begins in familiar, late 20’s high society territory and then explodes it completely. Gardner and Long’s harmonic, rhythmic and tonal descent into escalating weirdness was genius! Together they captured the humour and dream-like chaos of bizarre characters and scenarios encountered by a society couple, abducted and imprisoned in a house belonging to the Devil. As David Cairns describes in his Hippfest film notes, the “succession of thugs, dwarfs, fiendish orientals, sinister cripples, phony gorillas, ludicrous grotesques and exotic women, all entering and exiting through secret panels, usually carrying pistols” “and uttering baffling warnings, plays like a Fu Manchu movie through an opium haze.” The transference of sound between piano and electronic keyboard heightened the sense of moving into another realm and Long’s inventive inflections on the violin conveyed an increasingly altered state of reality using all parts of the bow. The Surreal visual/ musical journey from fiery gypsy rhythms and gentile melody to sonically warped time and space was magnificently paced with the accelerating action. Seven Footprints to Satan has all the makings of a cult classic, aided by Gardner and Long who were clearly having as much fun as the audience. Their energy in performance was totally infectious and the audience buzzing from the laugh out loud, audacious and wildly entertaining marriage of sound and image. This late-night Horror was an absolute joy and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time!  It would definitely make an outstanding repeat screening in any Film House (or mansion) and would be the perfect basis for event cinema.

Underground (1928) directed by Anthony Asquith,  British Film Institute

I’m always a bit sad when Sunday night comes around at Hippfest, a feeling hapilly dispelled by the closing night gala screening. This year Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) starring Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring, accompanied by Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) positively raised the roof, closing the festival superbly.  The lives of four working class Londoners are tragically entwined in this unexpectedly gorgeous and darkly emotive film, restored by the BFI National Archive. I was especially glad to have seen it for the first time on the Hippodrome big screen with such adept accompaniment. What struck me visually was Stanley Rodwell’s cinematography, the way shadow play is used imaginatively in the film, from the illuminated bustle and ceaseless movement of the city, to projections of will and desire in the confined space of an underground stairwell. (Rodwell also shot Shooting Stars (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) with Asquith.) It’s an interesting departure from the realist tradition of British cinema and brings a more European, expressionistic sensibility to the screen, minus extreme stylistic angularity.  Emotionally it’s permissible intimacy British style, with shadows merging into a surrendering embrace. The prospective lovers are brought closer together than they are physically. We see (and hear) what is unsaid in that moment; what one character is feeling, or projecting onto another. This typically constrained passion makes the flip side of jealousy and revenge an interesting driver in the story.

Another driver is the city, synonymous with the underground itself, sensed and felt in Bockius’s handling of percussion, always moving through a tunnel of darkness towards light. In the opening scenes we see the underground as a melting pot of life, with gestures, glances and exchanges between passengers beautifully animated by sound and the musical conversation flowing just as naturally in collaboration. There’s tremendous sensitivity in the unfolding interpretation of relationships at the heart of the story. For example, Nell’s gradual discovery of Bert’s deceit expands as a musical question with suspicion circling in her mind like the turn of the brush in Bockius’s hand. This growing awareness of the vengeful web Bert has woven around Nell, Kate and Bill is mirrored in Stephen Horne’s gently tentative, pressing shift in awareness on piano. This isn’t a case of simply illustrating an actor’s expression but enables the audience to feel the thought process and emotional state behind it in anticipation. The sound element encourages the audience to drive the realisation and consequent action forward in their own minds. It’s the beauty of accompaniment which creeps up on you in unexpected ways, imaginatively tapping into the motivation and internal movement of a scene.

When Kate discovers that Bert has betrayed her and her mind starts to unravel, the accordion breathes in this emptiness and counter clockwise movement on the skin of the drum amplifies the conflict in her imaginative orbit, of what could or should be. Her responses like the sound of the xylophone become increasingly vulnerable and childlike. The scarf round her neck which she bought to impress Bert scratches at her throat like scraped piano wires. Then the depth of the piano confronts the audience with the refined cause of this primitive, reactive state. She is mad with love and lost herself entirely, a casualty of Bert’s vengeful desire and gross indifference. The sense of oppression in Bert’s hold over Kate becomes an image of modernity, conveyed in the towering silhouette of the power station with its smoking chimneys dwarfing her. As she runs in a frenzy of need to see him, the sequence of movement becomes a blur like a train going past, with the audience as passengers. Throughout the unfolding story, the musical accompaniment provided untold levels of insight, eclipsing time. Underground may not be a film at the forefront of public consciousness, but in the moment, through this performance it became universal. Being able to communicate in this way matters. It crosses all borders and boundaries in such an exciting, enlightening way that the energy within the audience changes, seeing the world with fresh eyes, in the living presence of a miraculous, 90-year-old film and two astonishing musicians. What a festival and what a finish!

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2018%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

Sweet Country

Glasgow Film Festival, 21 February – 4 March 2018

Director Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson and Delilah was described on release as “the first Australian film” and for this ex-pat living in Scotland, that’s exactly what it felt like. This was a side of Australia that many of my fellow audience members had never seen before, an intensely subtle, silently emotive film of lives blighted by racism, poverty and dispossession. It is also a compelling love story, the kind that offers the possibility of hope, regardless of whether the world within and out-with the film permits it. Unusually on screen, the depiction of life for two indigenous teenagers in “the lucky country” was one I recognised. Far from the projection of a carefree sun-drenched paradise of plenty, Thornton’s depiction of a harsh, unforgiving and increasingly unequal society, separated from the land and clinging to the very edges of it, was a welcome dose of reality. The film had an enormous impact on me when I first saw it previewed at the Inverness Film Festival in 2009. Afterwards I felt a combination of deep sadness, hope and relief, that finally an essential process of re-evaluation had begun in a country founded on the lie of “Terra Nullius”.

Like many white Australians of my generation, I grew up in middle-class suburbia, surrounded by blatant racism. It was a divisive domestic environment of hostility and paranoia, boarded with reticulated lawns. Fortunately, being drawn to Art from a very young age taught me other ways to see. The beauty and freedom of Art/ Cinema is connection-imagining and creating a different state of being and sharing that vision. No matter how oppressive the environment, we can think and project ourselves beyond circumstances, even if in the here and now, it is only in our dreams.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid 1980’s, Australia was starting to wake up. In 1992, a result of the landmark High Court Mabo vs Queensland decision, native title was recognised for the first time by the Australian government. A year later, when Prime Minister Paul Keating made an official statement denouncing the “convenient fiction” our country was founded on, it was a conceptual turning point. The idea that when our white, pioneering forefathers first arrived, Australia was uninhabited, a “land of no one” was no longer sanctioned as truth. Our untaught history of systematic exploitation and genocide has always been there, you just have to dig- and not very far beneath the skin. However, as Warwick Thornton commented after the GFF screening of his latest film Sweet Country, “most people just don’t dig.” The myth of an empty land, “Terra Nullius”, newly discovered, turns conquest into heroic entitlement with no conscience, regret or apology required.

You must lance and drain an infected wound before it will heal – that is how I have always felt about the country I was born and raised in. That excavation is essentially painful, finding out who you are and where you come from, so that self-determination becomes a possibility. Sweet Country digs right into the flesh and consciousness of the country in ways that no other director/ cinematographer could. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, the film is an incredibly powerful statement, part of a vital process of re-evaluation and creative renewal. Thornton is a director who embraces the complexity of being human head on, illuminating this on screen to kick start the national conversation and initiate perceptive change. Sweet Country is a remarkable film, as a damning indictment of racism and injustice- and one that wholly succeeds in not alienating audiences. To his credit, Thornton’s vision is big enough not to.  Although this is a deeply personal story of his people, based on true events and filmed on location in the Northern Territory, with the emotional investment of local/non-professional and professional actors, it also transcends its location.

Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

Though many people in the UK will find this hidden history shocking and confrontational in terms of outback Romanticism imploded, Thornton’s baseline is always expansively compassionate. It’s an indigenous vision of the world that denies nothing. Although packaged as a Western, this isn’t a story of reductive “black and white” morality, with good and bad cowboys, an epic chase and a conventional shootout delivering frontier justice. Instead the Western genre is meshed beautifully with a rhythm of storytelling that will be less consciously familiar to audiences, moving in and out of time. In an Aboriginal context, The Dreaming, or Dreamtime, is omnipresent, encompassing all time-past, present and future, so this is a very natural mode of storytelling. Despite the ravages of colonialism, the spiritual core of the country survives in the way the story is told visually.

Set in the 1920’s, when vast tracks of land were being claimed and worked as cattle stations, the story of an Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly, played with quiet reserve and immense dignity by Hamilton Morris, brings conditions of the past resoundingly into the present. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) live and work on a homestead owned by Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a Christian Preacher. There is a degree of safety for them in conversion and service, compared to life in the surrounding countryside, as we see in the brutal treatment of a young boy, Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) and an elderly stockman, Archie (Gibson John). Worn down by systematic abuse, both gradually succumb to a state of complicity to survive.

We see in Philomac the conflict of the next generation growing up in the shadow of a white father who shapes him into “a man” through punishment. Philomac is part of a lost generation. It’s clear he will never be accepted as part of his white father’s line, nor is he able to return to his people and ancestral land. Like Archie, he has been taken from his home as a young boy and forced to work on the station. The vulnerability of this character is felt acutely in violent outbursts of self-loathing projected onto the son by his biological father. This enforced judgement of worth becomes an inherited cycle of deprivation and dispossession, infecting every character on screen in one form or another.

Natassia Gorey Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

As the central protagonist, Sam Kelly is a complex figure of gravitas, self-possession and grace. Sam has learned to avoid conflict by turning the other cheek, until forced into an extreme position of self-defence. His relationship with his wife Lizzie is tender and trusting, revealed not so much in words, but the intuitive expressions and body language of two people at ease with each other. Sam is an everyman, who quietly absorbs the world around him, but like all the characters in the unfolding drama, he too is capable of judgement. When Lizzie reveals that she’s pregnant, the result of rape, he judges her. The underlying theme of what it is to be a man and what happens when the status quo of masculine power (black or white) is threatened comes to the fore. Sam is equally generous and compassionate, saving the life of Sargent Fletcher (Brian Brown) who relentlessly pursues him across the desert. With or without Christian influence, we feel the presence of a deeply sensitive man with a good soul. There’s gentleness and sense of underlying respect between Sam and the preacher Fred Smith, however this relationship isn’t quite friendship.

Smith is a kind man who practices the compassion he preaches, seeing everyone as “equal in the eyes of the lord” and asking Sam not to call him “boss”. However, his relationship with Sam and Lizzie is based on cultural loss and denial of existing lore, a well-meaning and subtle betrayal of identity that “saves” and obliterates with the same soft hand. Smith’s humorous out of tune rendition of “Jesus Loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so” is a moment laced with genuine belief, missionary zeal and ineptitude. Literally and metaphorically Sam is unable to have children, implying generational loss of life, culture and human potential in conversion. Even in this, the film resists black and White judgement. Human beings and the histories we weave are much more complex- this is the truth, reality and sincerity of the film and its maker.

The arrival of neighbouring landowner Harry March (Ewen Leslie), wanting to use the “black stock” on Smith’s homestead to work his own land, is an explosive catalyst revealing the true nature of racism as self-hatred, heightened by emasculation. March is a man defined by hate and brutality, having returned from WWI and survived its horrors, only to inflict a rule of violence on others. It is a moment of great sensitivity and insight when Sam identifies that March “is ashamed”, testifying at his outdoor trial just prior to the judgement which saves and condemns him. Although March is a vile character, the nature of his actions can’t be dismissed as madness or evil. Thornton places the viewer in a much more essential position, where we are unable to place the character beyond our own conscience as “other” by simply demonising him.

The insidiousness of racial abuse is a respectable uniform and a base need for power, absent in everyday life. In the lead up to a scene of sexual violence, perpetrated in the dark with only sound used to orientate the audience, we see March calmly closing all the doors and windows, barring light and any means of escape. The horror of this scene is that it isn’t in any way irrational, but highly controlled. We understand from March’s calm composure that he’s done this before and as a white man has no fear of justice. It is dispossession of multiple aspects of self, creeping into everything, twisting human behaviour into something monstrous and oppressive. The choice of this historical era, parallel to Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism, reflects forces at work in our own turbulent age, making the story culturally specific and completely universal. Very uncomfortably at times, we are unable to relegate what we see on screen to the comforting distance of history, because it is so urgently relevant today.

Warwick Thornton awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Sweet Country is a gear change for Thornton, a more viscerally direct statement which never loses its humanity, standing very confidently on a world stage. The director’s creative evolution and artistic leadership is thoroughly inspiring. Australia is a country which so often seeks cultural validation outside itself, a quality that Thornton spoke about in his post screening discussion. Media attention at international film festivals and multiple awards including Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Platform Prize at Toronto International Film Festival and Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival have enabled greater recognition on home soil. As the film is distributed more widely, my hope is that this creative and political momentum will grow, changing how and what we’re taught about ourselves. I have no doubt that Sweet Country will generate healthy scrutiny and essential debate wherever it is screened. As Thornton stated in a recent Guardian interview (Jan 2018) “Australia is ready for films like this.” Thornton’s empowering work in cinema thus far makes me incredibly hopeful, not just for Australia, but in the humane, global reach of his work.

To respond hopefully to Sweet Country might seem strange, given what we bear witness to on screen, however this is clearly framed as a man-made environment. The opening sequence in closeup of a seething, almost molasses thick concentration of boiling billy tea, with a handful of white sugar dissolving into darkness, is accompanied by the sound of racist abuse depicting the violence off screen. It is such a powerful image of confinement in a world of overheated testosterone, imminent threat and negative masculinity about to boil over. Throughout the film, tension is prophetically heightened by flashforwards, giving us glimpses of characters and their potential fates, placing the audience emotively and psychologically on the edge of their seats. The combination of sound, images and editing, with no music, delivers a knockout punch of emotional intelligence. We’re not told what to think or feel, but are free to interpret the flow between past, present and future. The story is held in imaginative spaces of light and shadow in the mind of the viewer, an ultimate form of realism aligned with ancient traditions of storytelling and the birth of Cinema.

Ned Kelly’s last stand, from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Directed by Charles Tait.

Thornton reclaims this cinematic inheritance in a brief clip from The Story of the Kelly Gang, premiered in 1906 and at the time the world’s longest feature film, seen on a makeshift screen as part of a travelling Picture Show. This isn’t just hat tipping though. The subject on screen is national legend, the Irish Bushranger and folk hero Ned Kelly, an underdog fighting against corrupt authority and instantly recognisable to most Australians with his tin helmet. Immortalised on film, in literature, song and in the iconic silhouette of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series of paintings, this mythic figure of resistance is subverted and transformed in the heat haze of a salt plain. During his Director’s Q&A, Thornton spoke about Aboriginal resistance to colonisation and massacres at the time, completely written out of history. Whilst Australians readily embrace the Irish outlaw/ bushranger as a heroic figure with the odds and justice tragically stacked against him, in stark contrast Aboriginal resistance to genocide has barely entered public consciousness.

The Western is a genre that naturally confronts audiences with the impacts of institutional racism and colonisation, right on the edge of human behaviour. There’s intense cruelty and enduring beauty in that whole landscape of memory, even more so in the Outback Western. This frontier of lawlessness is permeated with cultural references to masculine honour, fighting “for Queen and Country”, “the last post” reference to ANZAC bravery and sacrifice at Gallipoli, Sargent Fletcher’s belief in the ultimate authority of his uniform and the unhinged discipline of March’s rifle drills on the homestead porch.  There’s an absence of blame and positive alignment with accountability in understanding what drives the characters.

Sadly, the underlying nature of their predicament is as relevant today as it ever was. However, the eyes behind the camera (Thornton and his son Dylan River) bring with dark recognition a stark light which is uniquely Australian. When the question is asked at the end of the film, whether change is even possible in the country, Nature answers with an enormous rainbow. There is an overwhelming sense of ancient forces greater and more enduring than humanity in this final sequence, as the preacher turns his back and walks away towards the horizon carrying his disillusionment and doubt. Above his head the sky he cannot see speaks its truth, and what a gift it is that Thornton captures that shining, undeniable projection of hope for all the world to see.

https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival

Postcards from Glasgow Film Festival

I always look forward to February, spending hours in the dark, being transported around the world and out of time to places I never knew existed. Here are some of my postcard GFF18 Festival Highlights; Valley of Shadows/ Skyggenes dal, Good Favour, More (DaHa), Thoroughbreds, Faces Places/ Visages Villages, Hibridos The Spirits of Brazil, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Moontide,  A Fantastic Woman and Custody, with a full review of Sweet Country to follow in my next blogpost. Each of these films have important stories to tell and my hope is that they receive the widest possible distribution in the UK and internationally.

Valley of Shadows/ Skyggenes dal, Directed by Jonas Matzos Gulbrandsen.

Good Favour Directed by Rebecca Daly

More (DaHa) Directed by Onur Saylak

Thoroughbreds Directed by directed by Cory Finley

Faces Places/ Visages Villages Directed by Agnès Varda and JR.

Hibridos The Spirits of Brazil Directed by Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Directed by Alexandra Dean.

Ida Lupino and Jean Gabin in Moontide (1942).

A Fantastic Woman Directed by Sebastián Lelio

Custody Directed by Xavier Legrand.

https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival

A New Era

SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950

2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Charles PULSFORD (1912-89)
Three Angels, 1949
Painting, oil on board, 91.4 x 174 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
© The Estate of Charles Pulsford
Photo: John McKenzie

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s latest exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines how Scottish artists “responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.”  Featuring over 100 works by 51 artists, drawn from public and private collections in the UK, it’s a show that shines a light on Scottish Modernism.  The bold “New Era” of Scottish Modern Art is perhaps a time when a broader range of artists are publicly recognised, less for their relativity to European “Masters” and more for what they uniquely bring to our understanding of the period and ourselves.

There are many forces past and present in art training, collecting, curation and politics which define the “most progressive” artists of this period- or any other. Even after SNGMA’s Modern Scottish Women (2015) exhibition, the overarching cultural statement of progressiveness in this show is predominantly male. In the context of a period in Scottish Art where female artists weren’t permitted to attend life class at the ECA until after 1910, (effectively barring them from elevated professional status) the representative ratio of 7 female to 44 male Scottish Modernists isn’t surprising. As early policy towards female art college staff demonstrates, you only had an artistic profession until marriage and motherhood forced you to resign. The promising careers of some female artists were also cut short by becoming widows during WWI and WWII, being the sole breadwinner and raising children on their own. When Scottish Colourists “JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse,” their position was of relative privilege aligned with professional status and gender. Leaving the country to have contact with the European Avant- Garde was pivotal in terms of how their work developed, but what interested me most in this exhibition was grappling with the nature of that liberation.

William Watson PEPLOE (1869-1933)
Orchestral: Study in Radiation, about 1915
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990
Drawing, pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6 cm

Rapid industrialisation, the carnage of two World Wars and the collapse of Western civilization were potent catalysts for the radical art movements of the early 20th Century. Too often the canonical roll call of famous creative male geniuses, with talent delivered from on high, clouds perception of how vital an act of survival, resistance and change Art can be. It’s true that the radicalism of Scottish Modernists springs from a more conservative foundation than that found in Paris in the early 20th Century. William Watson Peploe’s Orchestral: Study in Radiation (c.1915 Pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1990) springs to mind, with its explosive waves of sound and angular shards of beautifully composed beige and black. It infused with manners, despite the obvious energy Peploe celebrates.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961)
Étude de Rhythme, 1910
Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm
Collection: The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991
The conservation of this work has been supported by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland

I’ve always found the label “Scottish Colourist” a very complex proposition. As a uniquely Scottish group, the implied expressive freedom and celebration of colour (on every level) feels muted. To these contemporary, Antipodean eyes, the self-conscious, reductive pink fleshiness of JD Fergusson’s nudes feel strangely at odds with the idea of unbridled female sexuality he is often celebrated for. He is above all true to himself, seen in the emboldened black lines and heightened abstraction of Étude Rhythm (1910, Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991). It’s an image of sex in terms of male dominance, form and light; a stained-glass convergence of masculine desire, heat and energy, receding to the edges of the frame in crimson, fragmented blue and green. The female form is the background locus of desire, with the male form literally thrust centre stage, curiously adopting abstraction for modesty in a moment of climatic immersion. Although a daring work for 1910 in subject matter and style, there is something maskingly self-referential about it, which holds the image in the time it was made, rather than transcending it.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show was gaining an appreciation of Fergusson’s strength of composition, founded on associations of his own making. What was so compelling wasn’t looking for the influence of French painting on his work, but seeing how Fergusson addresses his own radicalisation, emotionally, psychologically and technically, led by human relationships. The dominant Feminine in his life was his partner, pioneering dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris, seen in Éastre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924 (cast 1971) Brass, 41.8 x 22 x 22.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1972). It’s a symbolic and representational work- a realisation of the Saxon Goddess of Spring and a portrait bust of Morris. Highly polished, rounded brass forms, create circular bursts of radiance and refracted light. It’s an object of love, worship and renewal, as Modern as a Brancusi sculpture and as ancient as the mythology that inspired it.

In La Terrasse Café d’ Harcourt (1908, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 122cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: On loan from a Private Collection) relationships between men and women are cast with skill and intrigue, in black silhouette, between rose pink blooms and ripening, acidic green lit tables. Standing at the centre of the composition is a young woman in a large, curved hat regarding the artist/ viewer and holding her own in the scene. Aligned with the rose at her breast is the face of a man in the background, like a mirror image of the artist. We can’t see her eyes, they are characteristically in shadow, but her stance tells us that she feels his gaze and 110 years later, so do we. The serpentine sweep of line and form draws us seductively to the heart of the painting and in that moment of connection, Fergusson creates the most exquisitely balanced composition, based on the primacy of his attraction. In painterly terms it’s faultless and as our gaze expands beyond the central protagonist, relationships between the surrounding couples begin to emerge, spinning their own narratives.

In At My Art Studio Window (1910, Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 123cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991) the female model holds the frame/ canopy aloft with a burst of yellow- green rounded foliage behind her. She is rendered as part of cyclical Nature. Fergusson’s attention is drawn to the torso, the rounded breasts and belly, accented by a crimson sway of mark extending to her thighs. It’s an interesting, veilled mark, which at first feels like reluctance to go a step too far, to paint her entire body with equal definition. The effect is a strange smear, at odds with the rest of the paint handling, but accentuating womanly fertility. Like all of Fergusson’s women, attitude through body language is the primary means of communication, rather than facial expression. Here it’s the tilt of the head beholding the artist/ viewer and the way she supports the picture plain like an internal caryatid, dominating the frame. As a professional model she’s naturally at ease with the full-frontal positioning of the body, stepping into the metaphorical light of the artist’s studio. However, there’s something essentially decorative and therefore contradictory in Fergusson’s vision of the Feminine, a pink patterned accent of desire seen in so many of his paintings, drawing the masculine eye. She is Fergusson’s type of woman and muse, but she is also cast as an undeniable force of Nature.

Conflicting forces of Nature, human nature and industrialisation are the catalyst for all artistic “isms” of the 20th Century. Stephen Gilbert’s Dog, (c.1945 Oil on paper laid on board, 71 x 51cm Private Collection) an expression of pure Zeitgeist in stark, canine form, ravaged by hunger and living on instinct. It’s a painting reminiscent of the Australian artist Albert Tucker, notably his Images of Modern Evil series, painted during the WWII blackouts in Melbourne. Base human instinct comes to the fore in the darkness and psychological onslaught of an age defined by industrial scale warfare, genocide and the atomic bomb. Merlyn Evans’ Cyclops, (early 1940s Serpentine stone, 28 x 45 x 13cm Private Collection), is a modernist manifestation of Classical mythology and collective fears. This works encapsulates the true origin of horror, a monstrous hybrid of man and industrial geometry, consuming humanity.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941)
Cartwheels, c.1920
Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2007
Image: Antonia Reeve

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), an artist who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WWI, navigates his own path through the horrors of war. Shellburst (c.1919 Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 83.8cm City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Purchased 1976) has a particularly British, Vorticist aesthetic, finding beauty and dynamism, even here on the battlefield. It is a strange, stilled painting, perhaps an exercise in self-preservation with the stylised, corkscrew auditory whirl of falling bombs overhead and the geometrical trajectory of the blast. There’s a sense of placing a template of controlled design over the annihilating violence, with the curvature of soldier’s helmets and bodies leaning into the earth for protection.  Cartwheels (Cartwheels, c.1920 Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) depicts a group of young people enjoying a day out in a Scottish Mountain landscape, shafts of shifting light and the shorthand spin of legs animating the scene. Robertson’s protective aesthetics are akin to his wartime battlefield scene, albeit with an injection of peacetime Joy de vivre, in the eternally grounded presence of the mountain.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Abstract Cat, about 1922 – 1924
Sculpture, clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by Dr Margaret McCance 1992
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

Painter, printmaker and sculptor William McCance (1894-1970) together with fellow artist and partner Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980) based themselves in London during the 1920’s. McCance’s sculpture Abstract Cat (c.1922-24 Clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Presented by Dr Margaret McCance 1992) echoes Franz Marc in its claw-like curved geometry and natural feline suppleness. Using the cheapest material available and of a hand-held scale, it is an expression of potential. His series of carved lino blocks, including a study for the adjacent painting Mediterranean Hill Town, (1923, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61cm Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums) give fascinating insight into his interdisciplinary practice. McCance’s Study for a Colossal Steel Head (1926 Black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988) dehumanises the traditional portrait bust, whilst the narrative of masculine sexuality in The Awakening (1925, Oil on board, 61 x 46cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) is a more humane vision of self-discovery. The influence of Cubism via Picasso and Picabia is easily seen in McCance’s work. However, it’s the artist’s visual grappling with contradictory impulses and aspects of self, finding his line in an increasingly fragmented Modern world, that really speaks.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Study for a Colossal Steel Head, 1926
Drawing, black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1988
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

As “a pioneer of British Abstraction”, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier, (1950 Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm Courtesy of the British Council Collection) goes further, directing the Modernist gaze inside Nature in a work composed of thin washes and vibrant drawn marks. The artist’s direct experience of the Grindwald Glaciers in Switzerland is realised in shifting ice greens, blues and smoothed, interlocking forms. Barns-Graham describes the way that she was naturally led to a different way of seeing by the landscape;

“The likeness to glass transparency combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004)
Upper Glacier, 1950
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm
Collection: British Council Collection.
Purchased from the artist 1950.
© The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The total experience of art is also expressed in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Table Sculpture (Growth), (1949 Bronze, 83 x 60.5 x 39cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988). It’s the multidimensional concept of creative process, above and below everyday consciousness, pierced by thought and practical action. Hand-made tools are the legs of the table, holding the structure up and joining the unconscious layer below to what is seen or experienced above the surface. It feels like the visionary integration of traditionally separate realms of heaven and earth, transgressed by imagination in solid bronze.

Charles Pulsford’s (1912-89) Three Angels, (1949 Oil on board, 91.4 x 174cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2012) is a particularly arresting image. It feels like standing on the post-war wreckage of the earth, with a triptych of figures, wings enfolding their bodies like sarcophagi, set against an Armageddon cadmium red sky. The central figure encompasses a trinity of circular light. A clashing palette red, green and black outlines and the sequence of figures have an assaultive quality, like Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) halted in petrification. As described in the accompanying exhibition text, the poet Norman MacCaig also identified the apocalyptic quality of the painting in an unpublished poem, “Three Angels (a picture) April 1952. It begins; “Three in a row and each one mad/ looking with innocence upon/ the smiling, cruel and gaily sad/their witless eyes beam down/ on struggling song and word and stone/ each bears a blinding crown…” Pulsford creates a deeply confrontational image of hope and deliverance stripped away by the harsh reality of survival post WWII. Heaven has crashed to earth and the unnerving solidity of these winged visions communicates the collective trauma. It’s an image with no national borders around it.

Edward Baird (1904-49)
Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), 1942
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm
Collection: Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943.
© Graham Stephen

There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in Edward Baird’s (1904-49) Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), (1941-42, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943), not just in the hovering clouds or in the anticipatory, upturned gaze of the central protagonists. The church spire pointing towards the heaven and the island world of the town, connected to our foreground space by a bridge (which is also the painting) is held protectively in the mind. Bands of white and deep blue ultramarine define a moment of wilful preservation from the ongoing threat of German bombers. The unease created by the cut-off figures, decapitated and disarmed, is accentuated by a single raised hand and the head of the central figure. With the neck uncomfortably tilted back, it appears as if this were a collaged Christ from a Northern Renaissance crucifixion and simultaneously, an everyman civilian or soldier about to fall into shadow. The human subject is emotively pushed right to the edge, beneath the picture plane. This isn’t just looking up but within, a response rooted in the psychic resistance of Surrealism, not as a style, but a way of seeing and surviving. Sitting between the mouths of two rivers, the Scottish town of Montrose was targeted as a training ground for fighter pilots. However, Baird’s painting also suggests a struggle which eclipses the locality. It is the faithful, heightened reality of Surrealism that Baird employs in this image of human fear, resistance and comfort. It’s not just a scene of Montrose, but an image of the world.

William TURNBULL (1922-2012)
Untitled (aquarium), 1950
Painting, oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
Purchased from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund with help from the Art Fund, 2014
© Estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.
Photo: Antonia Reeve

From James Cowie’s sublime Evening Star, (c.1940-44 Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 133.4cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) to the monochrome abstraction of William Turnball’s Untitled (Aquarium) (1950, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland), the exhibition offers many surprises, found in the works of known artists and in new discoveries. With many Scottish artists working outside Scotland during this turbulent period, bringing them together is a crucial step in terms of reappraisal. Rather than being cast in eternal relativity, perhaps Scottish Art and artists can finally step out of the shadows and stand where they have always been, consciously and unapologetically, on a world stage.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/new-era-scottish-modern-art-1900-1950

AGES OF WONDER

SCOTLAND’S ART 1540 TO NOW

Collected by the Royal Scottish Academy

4 November – 7 January 2018, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.

Mary Bourne RSA (b 1946) Dava Targe, Kilmartin Slate, 1994., RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 2009.

“Only when we recognise that we are heirs can we truly be pioneers” Martyn Bennett, Musician and Composer (1971-2005)

The visual language of Neoclassical columns, white marble, gilt and pediments adorned with statues usually infers learned authority, or the political need to project it. Architectural revivals of Golden Ages past are always about the power of knowledge and how it is used, for good or ill.  When visitors enter many Western public art spaces a powerful statement is communicated by the built environment and the institutions that occupy them, as arbiters of collective aspiration, education and good taste. On the surface the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy buildings also display these loaded facades.  The underground link between the two is not immediately visible to the visitor, nor is the history of artist led advocacy that binds them and created a National Collection for Scotland. The 1910 accord which brought the RSA collection under the umbrella of the NGS is echoed in Ages of Wonder, an extensive exhibition occupying all seven upper galleries, sculpture court and four lower galleries in the prominent RSA building. Effectively reclaiming the whole space for Scottish Art past and present makes a powerful statement of its own.

Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844) by Thomas Duncan RSA (1807-1845)

History and tradition are richly in evidence, reflecting centuries of masculine leadership and disciplinary hierarchies, but thankfully there is significantly more on display than the pomp of the Edinburgh Arts establishment. The guts of this show are the practice of Art and the necessity of making the work of Scottish Artists visible. On entering Gallery 7 Portraiture and Presidents for example, paintings of RSA presidents and their projected status are certainly part of the display, but equally so is the human Art of portraiture. It is an immense pleasure to discover works such as James Cowie’s quietly understated portrait of Miss Barbara Graham Cowie (Oil on plywood, 1938, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1946) or the intriguing man behind the presidency in Thomas Duncan’s RSA Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844, Presented to the RSA by fifty Scottish artists, 1845, transferred and presented by the RSA to the NGS, 1910.) Emerging out of a pitch dark umber ground, channelling the introspective spirit of Rembrandt, we see the face of a man who we feel is not entirely without privilege, but also not without care. His prematurely receding hairline, high forehead and deep-set eyes are at one with the space he occupies. With his hand resting pensively below his chin, it’s an intellectual, charismatic vision of the self, dwarfed by the mysterious, ever-expanding depth of the canvas. His mouth contains the vaguest hint of a smile, concentrated in circular tension at either side of a mouth which is simultaneously straight and curvaceous. We feel there’s wit in that feint glimmer of a smile and that he might speak at any moment, having first greeted the viewer and met our gaze (and his mirrored self) with equal regard. The entire portrait suggests, independent of his white cuffs, signature ring and the century inhabited, that there is infinitely more to this man that what is illuminated by the posed three-quarter focus lighting. Being in the presence of this ageless 19th Century gentleman rendered in oils by his own hand, we see that we are not simply in the company of an office bearer, but an artist, demonstrating through his own crafted image that there is infinitely more to see. Like all great portraits Duncan’s conceals and reveals in unexpected ways.

There are many more gems in this show that bring Art practice centre stage and assert the value of making as an imperative. Curated by current Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) President Arthur Watson, RSA Collections Curator Sandy Wood and Honorary Academician Tom Normand, Ages of Wonder is a collaborative project of unprecedented scale. Arranged thematically by subject and discipline, the exhibition is also defined by live events, touring elements, a collecting symposium, an exhibition catalogue and book of essays. Created in partnership with the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Dundee, it’s an exhibition brimming with possibilities in terms of how we might perceive and celebrate Scottish Art differently. At the heart of the show is the question of how our national collections are valued, conserved, expanded, utilised and shared, locally, nationally and internationally. The question of how we value artists as a society and the nature of what we choose to build also underpin that potential.

Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) Design for the Royal High School , (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831)

The “two temples of Art” on The Mound were both designed by William Henry Playfair RSA (1789-1857) at a time when the city was reimagining itself. Between ancient “Civilization” and the progressively Modern, it’s an architectural vision of the “Athens of the North” with Edinburgh at the centre of European Enlightenment. Playfair’s contemporary, Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) also reflects this idea in his Greek Revival design for The Royal High School, Edinburgh, (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831). Hamilton’s delicate watercolour imagines a seat of learning, defined by Neoclassical sureties and a warm Mediterranean palette of forward thinking optimism. This vision of the city has its roots in the glories and mythologies of an ancient past. Taking Gallery 6 of Ages of Wonder as an example; Architecture: Hamilton, Playfair and the Making of Edinburgh certainly makes an aspirational statement about how we reimagine our collective selves within a built environment. Although firmly anchored to where the viewer stands, among the drawings, paintings, models, photographs and other archival material on display there is also a less site specific, universal and transcendent creative drive at work. In the same gallery, William H Kinnloch’s 1978 design for a house at 46 Dick Place is a fine example of a very beautifully drafted, fluidly executed watercolour, unlikely to be part of an architect’s working process today. There’s essential tension between practical, ideological and institutional elements of the show which are ripe for debate. My hope is that rather than alignment with the colonnade, the creative core of the show will be a catalyst for future collaborative events and new ways of seeing Scottish Art. There is a golden opportunity, particularly within the live elements of the exhibition, to redefine the relevance of cultural institutions, their function and the value of Art practice in the 21st Century.

Beth L Fisher RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006).

Ironically the traditional techniques, training and sensitivity found in The Life School: Drawing, Anatomy and the Figure in Gallery 1, are principles that popular culture and art colleges throughout the country have largely abandoned. In this wonderous, “connected” age of technology, you would be hard pressed to find a more moving, empathic expression of grief than the rendering of human figures in Beth L Fisher’s RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006). On the opposite wall Samuel John Peploe’s RSA Female Nude with Pitcher (Oil on canvas, 1895, RSA Life School Award Deposit 1895) is an equally illuminating realisation of the Feminine. Standing in the Life School Gallery seeing works like these, the Laing Bequest of Old Master drawings, the spirit of enquiry in Andrea Vesalius’s etched plates and a live Life Class taking place, it is easy to see why what is not being taught is in such increasing high demand. The RSA has always been a teaching institution and this live element is a very promising initiative. Selected students will be working directly from the model, under the guidance of tutors John Byrne, George Donald, Jennifer McRae and Robert Rivers, weekly for the duration of the show. Contemporary innovation, in terms of making and seeing, is dependent on deeper understanding of artistic discipline. Imaginative freedom, individually and collectively, is impossible without it.

Elements like the live Life School and Professor Dame Sue Black’s DBE, FRSE, HRSA lecture on Art and Anatomy give valuable insight into the practice of Art and Science that many visitors (unless they are practitioners themselves) will be unfamiliar with. The focus on Original Print and the Art of Etching in the Finlay Room also features live events with artists Frances Walker, Stuart Duffin, Paul Furneaux, Delia Baille, Marion Smith and Jessica Harrison creating work on “ES Lumsden’s historic star wheel printing press (the first piece of machinery to enter the Academy’s collections)”. Leading into The Art of Etching section, the supreme skill and artistry of John Martin’s (HRSA) apocalyptic mezzotints, with the hand of the artist present from conception to completion is another unexpected highlight. The printmaking and Life School elements of the exhibition will tour in 2018/19, extending the reach of the show beyond the capital. Hopefully this will also stimulate revival of the radical practice, established between 1840 -1932 when academicians, or “visitors”, taught in an RSA operated Life School. Although the idea of “an independent post graduate facility for elite art students” requires examination of the qualifiers, recognising and utilising the knowledge, skills and expertise of professional artists as a national asset is long overdue. Established in 1829, the RSA remains the longest established artist-run society in the country. In terms of political leadership, Art Education, training and investment in creative process it is a vital resource and a foundation of advocacy.

Image of RSA Ages of Wonder Exhibition ,Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice, Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Viewers may be diverted or overwhelmed by elements such as the 19th Century Academy: A Victorian Eye Salon hanging of works in Gallery 3. Stepping into this space with its sumptuous walls of deep claret and green velvet adjoining couches for cultivated conversation in the centre, there was also the very humorous touch at the press view of 21st Century dandy/ artist/ practitioner John Byrne being interviewed amidst the loaded hierarchy of Masters hung from floor to ceiling.  However, being temporarily dazzled by the sheer weight and density of tradition or artist as celebrity still doesn’t trump the grounded practice and connectivity of Art, driven by our innate curiosity as a species and our profound need to understand. In the Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice displays some of the contents of his studio gifted to the RSA, including drawings, inspirational organic objects, handmade tools, macquettes and full-scale works, giving insight into Rand’s thought process and crafting of objects. Part of this display is a leaf, an object from the natural world that is instantly relatable regardless of the viewer’s education or background. The visitor free associates between these man-made objects and those from the natural world, rather than receiving explanation via a label about a designated Art object. In this way we are brought into direct contact with creative process, the individual artist’s and our own.

Detail of Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer – “a new cabinet of curiosities”. Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer “a new cabinet of curiosities” featuring rare books, sculpture, objects, photographs and digital Turning the Pages software is a brilliant manifestation of this principle of creative connectivity and sense of ownership. The RSA library may seem like a scholarly and remote repository but here a contemporary commission transforms what we think such a collection can be. Beautifully sleek, designed to be viewed from every angle and lit for illumination of each unique piece, the alluring three-dimensional framing invites you to come closer and be curious. Exploring the contents and the imaginative connectivity of objects across time presents a less linear view of collections /collecting and for the viewer there is freedom in that fluidity. Drawing inspiration from architect Sir John Soane’s (HRSA) donation to the RSA library in 1829 and his extraordinary London home (now a museum and itself a cabinet of wonders, well worth visiting) the juxtaposition of objects is a constant source of surprise as you move around the 21st Century cabinet. Jewel-like enamels by Phoebe Anna Traquair, an elemental watercolour on parchment From the Red Cabinet (2001) by Kate Whiteford, Hew Martin Lorimer’s small bronze Our Lady of the Isles (about 1954-1972) and a printed book bound in the publisher’s original paper (1826) of William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job are just some of the treasures within and thankfully out of storage.

Sir James Guthrie PRSA Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1892) RSA Diploma Collection Deposit 1893,

Other contemporary commissions also lead into historical works on display in surprising ways. Adjacent to Kenny Hunter’s four part bust of Sir James Guthrie PRSA is the artist’s glorious celebration of light in Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1890) in bold, dappled impasto and a living palette of vivid green and purple. Seated beneath a low canopy of trees, three women are drinking tea, each inhabiting their own world despite the appearance of society. The combination of light and shadow brings unexpected emphasis on the inner world of each sitter, beyond the aesthetic comfort of an Impressionistic style. Hunter picks up Guthrie’s inner palette in the split sections of the portrait bust, suggesting various aspects of personality beyond the public persona.

Frances Walker RSA RSW DLitt. (b1930) Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980)

Strangely, Gallery 4 The 21st Century: A Contemporary Academy left me feeling rather cold and dispassionate in comparison to the works of living artists relegated to the 20th Century A Nationwide Gallery (Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, The Highlands and Northern Isles) in Gallery 5. Frances Walker’s Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980) is a fine example, a supremely balanced composition of subtle greys, accented with orange, pink and green. It’s a potent statement, 37 years ahead of its time with large boulders, lumps of concrete and smoothed pebbles, punctuated by manmade detritus. The eye is drawn to human interventions and signs of industrialisation, a plastic bottle and white traces of rope or wire. The scale of transformation along the eroding shoreline dwarfs the only visible human figure silhouette in the distance, whilst the high horizon line is populated with industrial buildings. Walker’s work is informed by the tracery of human marks upon the Northern landscape. The sea is rendered as a rhythmic pattern of white lines on mid grey, drawing the viewer into the detail of a place lived and observed. The organic erosion of wind and waves is tempered with industrial paint colours in a complex dynamic of realism. This is the very altered land and seascape of the Highlands, Islands and North East of Scotland, striking in its immediacy and contemporary relevance.

Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999)

Also featured in the same room is a work by Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999), linked to one of the most important bodies of work ever created by any Scottish or UK Artist, War Tourist. Over a decade in the making, this extraordinary body of work was exhibited at the Aberdeen Art Gallery from 10th February to 8th April 2006 and has yet to be shown elsewhere. It is a response to war that began with the artist retracing her Father’s experiences in WWII through Europe and North Africa, leading her to Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland and to the contemporary experience of televised warfare seen during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), where ethnic and religious conflicts again resulted in genocide. Her meditations on major international conflicts and experience of wartime on the home front often incorporate everyday objects of remembrance. There is no other artist in the country who paints large scale figurative compositions with such skill, power and compassion. Inspired by German artists such as Dix and Beckmann whilst still a student, equalling their precision and emotional gravitas, her work is richly expressive and dreamlike in its evocation of human memory.

In Polish Journey we see a semi-autobiographical female protagonist wearing an image of the artist’s father around her neck. Her sallow skin appears stained by the knowledge leaching out of yellow cloth printed with the Star of David, used to mark and condemn Jewish victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. This bundle of industrially printed cloth is a chilling indicator of scale and over it is a wreath of poppies “In Remembrance”. The psychological stain on the soul in seeing sites of starvation, misery and mass murder is coupled with the solemnity of her expression and a tellingly composite uniform. The stitching of HMS Ark Royal, a modern invincible class navy flagship, grey military coat with black and red trim, German belt bearing a swastika and striped skirt aligned with the material draped like a proscenium arch above the scene, brings together the human fabric of all wars. The oppressors, the oppressed and liberating forces can transform into each other during wartime with astonishing speed and righteous self-justification. There is often a sense of the Feminine protagonist or witness in Cairns’ paintings, taking on this mantle of human shame, atrocity and bravery, enabling successive generations to see and acknowledge what we are and what we are capable of. In Cairns’ work human creation and destruction are equally present. The arrangement of other objects in the composition are an interrogation of commercial and domestic complicity hidden in plain sight. Cairn’s flips the idea of the benign, traditionally feminine still life genre completely on its head by combining it with the traditionally masculine dominance and authority of History Painting. The presence of a Zyklon B Tesch & Stabenov canister, a company who produced pest control chemicals and were implicated as suppliers to Nazi Death camps at the Nuremberg trials, is a powerful reminder of how ordinary people actively participate in persecution and genocide. Around the central figure three dolls are suspended as if hung, one in striped camp uniform is labelled with a number, another with a suitcase resembling a child arriving off a train with her name “Klara Sarah Goldstein” chalked onto her luggage. Broken dolls are part of the trajectory that projects into the viewer’s foreground. We can’t comfortably relegate this image to history or as a distant memorial, because in human terms it is ever present, absorbed into the steely blue and cadmium red palette of conflicted Nature that we are as human beings. Cairn’s deconstructs this with the passionate impetus of Expressionism and the pure compositional order of Abstraction. She is yet another artist, based predominantly in the North of Scotland for much of her career, long overdue for a major national retrospective. In contrast to the exposure afforded her male contemporaries its an oversight that needs to be rectified and perhaps the collaborative nature of this exhibition will enable that to happen. The positioning of some artists in the show, or their absence from the national collection altogether, is worthy cause for further debate. From the display of a single painting to wider acknowledgement, placing the work of our greatest living artists on a global stage is entirely possible. In Cairns’ case, I can think of no better time for an international collaboration exploring her connections with the confrontational Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity of Weimar Germany and the contemporary relevance of her practice in a “Post Truth” world.

What I took away from this exhibition was excitement in seeing human “curiosity and practice” in action, a positive statement of value in relation to Scottish Art made visible and the possibility of future investment and collaboration. Although there is more work to be done before our National Collections adequately reflect important work by Scottish Artists throughout the country, this exhibition is a significant step forwards in terms of Scottish Visual Culture entering public consciousness. The decision to make the exhibition free, therefore accessible and able to be visited multiple times is exactly as it should be, both for residents and visitors. Perhaps Ages of Wonder will also pave the way for a more balanced permanent display of Scottish Art in the capital and wider circulation of works from the National Collection around the country. People cannot discover, champion, love or be inspired by what is hidden.

www.royalscottishacademy.org

www.nationalgalleries.org

#AgesofWonder

15th Inverness Film Festival

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

8-12 November, Eden Court Cinemas

“Film was born of an explosive.” Bill Morrison, Dawson City: Frozen Time

Over the last decade Inverness Film Festival has become a primary source of inspiration and discovery in the UK cultural calendar. It’s a festival that shows me the world within worlds, where the curation is exceptional and my only regret in taking time off to be there is not being able to watch all of it!  This year’s IFF Audience Award went to The Disaster Artist, directed and starring James Franco. In second place was Nicolas Vanier’s School of Life, screened in association with the French Film Festival UK, and in third place Just Charlie, one of the debut selection of films chosen by the Eden Court Young Programmer’s group. I saw none of the above, but with over 60 screenings and events over 4 days and 5 nights, tough choices had to be made! As usual I gravitated towards the more obscure, because for me that’s what film festivals are for- exposure to World Cinema of all ages that you’re unlikely see anywhere else. This year’s highlights were many and varied, but they all had their own spark of ignition in altering my perception. Each of them in their own way reminded me of what I value most in cinema as a medium for expanded awareness and potential change. I very much hope that all of these remarkable films will be picked up by other festivals and distributors, so that many more people in the UK and beyond will have the chance to see them.

Dede Directed by Mariam Khatchvani

The Scottish premiere of Director Mariam Khatchvani’s Dede brought the audience face to face with the question of cultural traditions, “those we need to carry forward and others which need to be left behind”. The story on one level is deeply personal and intimately connected to the filmmaker’s family history, but it is also universal in its themes of gender equality, personal freedom, self-determination and human rights.  The film is set in a truly breath-taking landscape of cultural and historical convergence, filmed in the UNESCO heritage site of Svaneti, Georgia, within the southern Greater Caucasus mountain range, bordering with Russia. There’s a powerful sense that the “Mother” of the translated title is present in these mountains. Images of human scale in relation to Nature suggest alternative ways of perceiving and honouring power, contrary to traditional, patriarchal structures of dominance and control. The film follows the story of Dina, a young woman who courageously resists a forced marriage and the will of her male elders to elope with the man she loves. However, her rightful pursuit of happiness comes at enormous personal cost, in a community governed by masculine pride and entitlement, played out in vengeful blood feuds.  As the audience discovered during the post-screening Q&A with Assistant Director and Casting Director Tamar Khatchvani, although bride kidnapping is no longer practised, the film is based on a true story from the not so distant past. As result there is a real sense of experience within living memory, translated in the very natural performances of the entire cast of non-actors. Everyone on screen is from the same village and as the region has opened to tourism, there have been cultural gains and losses for everyone involved.

The Scottish premiere of EXLIBRIS: New York City Public Library, provides an extensive view of this community orientated organisation and its wide-ranging activities. Directed by honorary Oscar winner and documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film highlights inequality in contemporary America and the wider world. Rather than being a repository for books, it is a network of learning centres providing after school support, free access to the internet for thousands of citizens who cannot afford it, literacy and maths classes, English classes for immigrants, public discussions with authors, music concerts and performance poetry readings. The range and scope of activity is staggering. In many ways the library is spearheading the city’s response to social problems created by people falling through the cracks of government policy, or being left behind by an ever changing technologically driven world. At 197 mins long, it is an epic by mainstream feature documentary standards, but the wider implications of the link between knowledge, power and politics justify the exploration. Exposing universal social problems and working towards solutions through educational empowerment, both the library and the film are a means advocacy for the most vulnerable in society. Within the NYCPL collections are the words, actions and images of ancestors, leaders and artists, providing inspiration for new creative work and a space for reflection, thought and connection. It is a shame that many libraries in the UK that have been closed or are threatened with closure could not be perceived and utilised in such a vital way- as invaluable, enriching and ultimately money saving community resources.

Happy End Directed by Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s new film Happy End, nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz and Toby Jones, places a self-absorbed bourgeois family under the microscope. In typical Haneke fashion there’s gallows humour, the disquieting exposure of uncomfortable truths and familial disfunction, run through with the family’s total blindness to the refugee crisis unfolding in their home city of Calais. It’s a film revealing respectable middle-class indifference to the suffering of others and the luxury of pursing a Happy End in life and death. An even more extreme vision of family life came in the form of IFF’s preview screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth 2009, Alps 2011 and The Lobster 2015) has made a career out of eviscerating the traditional family unit, middle class respectability, aspirations and patriarchal power. Lanthimos excels in cinematic immersion, creating highly critical microcosms aided by his regular collaborator, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. The opening scene in close up of open heart surgery, with its bloody exposure of flesh juxtaposed with swathes of cold blue, sets the emotional and intellectual tone of this powerful revenge thriller. The cast including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan are excellent, ably communicating the horror, absurdity and hypocrisy of a contemporary, upwardly mobile family, with its roots firmly planted in Greek tragedy. The visuals and sound design, from the classical exposition to increasingly visceral, blended sound effects, is highly effective in placing the viewer in a progressive state of unease. As we discover what lies at the heart of the characters, the veneer of the perfect family unit starts to dissolve. Notions of professional success, wealth and power are scraped at like bone until it shatters, transforming the story into a parable of the human soul. Teenage boy Martin’s (Koeghan) eye for an eye demand for justice from Farrell’s passionless, negligent surgeon gathers the momentum of a pact. True to form Lanthimos puts the morality, ethics, loyalty, family bonds of his characters and the very fabric of society to the test. In many ways Martin is a willful agent of chaos, much like the Devil himself in banal, seemingly innocuous contemporary dress. Whether you like or loathe Lanthimos’s vision, I guarantee you will be thinking about The Killing of a Sacred Deer long after you’ve seen it.

Dark River by Director Clio Bernard

The alternative opening night double bill of Dark River and Loveless (Nelyubov) delivered an incredibly strong first night. In Dark River UK director Clio Bernard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) creates a world where human emotion and the natural world are essentially entwined.  Ruth Wilson’s central performance carries the film, bringing tremendous strength, vulnerability and subtlety to a character she inhabits completely. Following a 15-year absence and the death of her Father (Sean Bean), Alice’s return to the failing family farm triggers confrontation with an undertow of memory and with her volatile brother Joe (Mark Stanley). Bernard brings a real physicality to the experience of memory, carried in the body, effectively using sound design, elements of the countryside and flashbacks to humanely lay the familial backstory bare. She submerges the viewer in Alice’s lived experience, suspended in the cold, dark water of the swimming hole, buried in the deep, layered earth of the rain cleansed Yorkshire Moors and in knife-edged moments of conflict inside the emotional rabbit warren of the family home. As a filmmaker she’s a Master of the great unsaid, handling the most insidious of emotions, guilt and shame, with empathy, skill and compassion. It’s a film about betrayal of the worst kind, the pure bond between siblings and the fragility of rural life in decline. Although the plot does become a little stretched by the end of the film, it’s an impressive addition to Bernard’s work, cementing her status as an emerging voice in British Cinema.

Loveless (Nelyubov) Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was one of my favourite films at IFF 2014, so I had very high hopes for the director’s latest release Loveless (Nelyubov). The film has won several awards on the European festival circuit already, including the 2017 Jury Prize at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival and Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival. The global scope, sheer artistry and potent relevance of this film exceeded all my expectations. Loveless is an eloquent, gut wrenching and highly observant film, examining the microcosm of a family splitting apart. It is also a reflection of increasing political, social and class divisions within Ukraine, a history of conflict and invasion from “Mother” Russia and indicative of a wider global crisis. Entrenched in the territorial battleground of a bitter divorce, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are instantly unlikeable characters, narcissistic, petty, spiteful and utterly indifferent to the child they have together. Their primary concern is injuring each other and tending their own needs. Still cohabiting while they try to sell their apartment, the tension and fighting escalate, with their 13-year-old son Alyosha caught between his parents, neither of whom want him. Despite their relatively comfortable lives and upwardly mobile status, their cruel behavior immediately calls into question the idea of advantage and their ability to nurture anything. Although they have seemingly moved on with different partners, whenever we see scenes of intimacy they are driven to negation by selfishness, insecurity, neediness and immaturity. This is visibly compounded by the reliance on self-validation through technology as part of the whole, relentless drive of getting ahead. During the film our sympathy shifts as we are shown that this isn’t because they are inherently bad people. As we see when we meet Zhenya’s annihilating Mother, generations of enforced conformity, the rigidity of church and dictatorial state control have also had a significant role to play in creating a collective state of misery, unrealised and unrecognized human potential.  The infiltration of Western capitalist values, widening economic divide between rich and poor and pitching the false dream of democracy as the freedom to buy things is just as emotionally hollow. Both Boris and Zheyna resent their life choices and blame each other for them, but having never learnt to love or be loved they remain in a childlike, reactive state, unable to grow.

However, the most urgent casualty in this disintegrating marriage is their son and the upcoming generation he represents. As his parents abdicate responsibility in earshot, loudly negating his existence as nothing but an inconvenient mistake, he seeks refuge in a woodland near their apartment block. There is a real sense in these natural images, becoming progressively colder and emotively snowbound, of Nature bearing witness to the unfolding human drama. The camera lingers in the hollows of trees and the earth like it is searching for an answer, not just to the boy’s disappearance but to the loss of self, identity and purpose in life.  Although he has little screen time, Matvey Novikov’s performance as Alyosha is heartbreaking, exemplified in his physical and mental anguish in a brief scene where his mother storms into the bathroom following an argument, not even registering that he’s been right there, the whole time, absorbing every poisonous, self-depreciating word. Although it is a bleak vision of human relationships, diminished capacity and 21st Century empathy deficit, the ambiguity of Alyosha’s disappearance and the small army of dedicated volunteers, who have no self interest in trying to find him, is a definite ray of hope. There is a sense of mobilisation in this group of people, who witnessing the all too common occurrence of children running away or going missing, step in when the police/ state fails to find them. We see compassionate, practical action as a counterfoil to the useless blind cult of “What about ME?!” in a crisis, seen in Boris’s pregnant girlfriend’s reaction to him prioritising finding his missing child above spending time with her. She’s yet another adult nowhere near being emotionally developed enough to support the child she’s carrying. We sense that seeking love and self-worth through vanity, shopping, social status and endless selfies will be what is passed on to the next generation, together with an empty hole in the heart that all those things, including having a child, are attempting to fill. I loved the honesty, tenacity and vision of this film in acknowledging what is a global/ psychological crisis of lovelessness. The film may be set in Kiev and center on a single family, but the dynamics of care and its absence are everywhere. This film is a brilliant touchstone to begin to examine and challenge the soul-destroying dominance of the latter. Loveless is a thoughtful, essential film scheduled for wider release in the UK early in 2018.

The Woman He Scorned (1929) Directed by Paul Czinner

Another festival favourite was the little known British Silent Film The Woman He Scorned (1929), also known as The Way of Lost Souls, with a live improvised score by one of the world’s finest Silent Film accompanists, Stephen Horne.  Channelling the film through piano, accordion, flute, Bereney thumb piano and imaginative silence, this was the best possible introduction to a film that I suspect none of the audience (including myself) had seen. What separates Horne from other accompanists is his emotional intelligence, understanding of film as a medium and great skill as a musician. The ability to faithfully serve the story and interpret its characters with care and sensitivity is comparably rare and the audience were treated to a unique performance of the highest calibre. Directed by Paul Czinner and starring Pola Negri, Warwick Ward and Hans Rehmann, the story of a prostitute in a small coastal town and her relationship with a lighthouse keeper was reinterpreted for a contemporary audience in beautifully nuanced and unexpected ways. Although the title and brochure description alluded to puritanical morality and high melodrama, what Horne brought to the film was infinitely subtler, resisting cliché, drawing out the inner psychology of characters and illuminating the complexity, joy and anguish of what it is to be human. At the heart of the film is Pola Negri’s central performance which defies the stereotypical Vamp/ Femme Fatale in its range, a quality amplified with depth and feeling by the accompaniment. The ballsy bravado of Dance Hall solo piano, sharp, sassy Tango on accordion and its descent into chaotic dissonance, articulated beautifully that “the Vamp” is a performance. What we discover as the story unfolds is the heroine’s real vulnerability, due in no small part to how sound informs what we see in the moment. This musical elevation of character, above the narrow moral codes and judgements of the day, enhances our perception that this is a fallible human being we can all relate to. Horne excels at this kind of musical insight, exemplified in his score / live performance of Stella Dallas (1925), commissioned by the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film in 2016.

In The Woman He Scorned we see a female protagonist trying to take control of her life and rise above dismal circumstances, triggered by a single act of kindness. At base Louise (Negri) is a working girl under the violent control of her pimp and the ever-present threat of destitution, a pariah in the eyes of society. Although John (Rehmann) first judges and rejects her, he later intervenes on her behalf and then takes her in, in an act framed in his mind as Christian charity. Louise’s attempts to navigate care and kindness she’s never been shown before and escape her past are incredibly poignant, heightened by the instrumentation. As she starts to take her place in village life, these first fragile steps of acceptance are communicated in all their delicacy by the ethereal sound of the flute. She metaphorically removes her makeup, beholds herself in the mirror and begins to see herself differently. The musical interpretation of the scene articulates how vulnerable she is in that tentative, blossoming sound, created with life’s breath. Horne’s accompaniment succeeds in portraying the character rising above societal/ biblical branding of a “whore”, which the character herself has taken on board and musically frees her soul before our eyes. This audience investment in the central character intensifies the drama and emotional impact of what follows. We are not just watching, but feeling the character’s predicament, internalised through the immediacy of sound. We want John to believe Louise because we have come to believe in her, with no persuasion through spoken dialogue at all. What we experience as a contemporary audience isn’t Silent Film as a historical relic, but as a living, breathing, universal artform that crosses all borders of culture and language. In establishing that timeless connection with such consummate skill, you really could not ask for more from a live cinema experience.

The variety of sound and pairing of instruments in Horne’s performances are always a source of surprise and discovery. Instruments are often played simultaneously, one in each hand, and in this performance the isolated use of human voice, a sampled element introduced from the original film soundtrack, brought past and present together.  Fully embracing the cut to a mesmerising sequence of suspended time in the wedding scene, the strange, percussive echo of the thumb harp created a hollow for the audience’s imagination to fill. The full sonic range of instruments from the interior strings of the piano to the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, half way between dreaming and waking have a spatial quality, together with a sense of fluidity and movement. This is both physical and psychological, from the deep undertow of ocean waves, to the intimacy of John soothing Louise by stroking her hair, the accompaniment brought the audience closer to emotional core of each scene. The beauty of the Silent Film accompanist’s Art ultimately lies in being faithful to every compositional frame experienced in real time and achieving a state altered perception in the half light of the flicker, energy which translates directly to the audience’s live experience. It’s the difference between performing music on top a film and living it, both for the artist and the audience. As John stands on the shore in the final frames, sound divides like shards, mirrored by the accompanist’s hands physically divided between the upper and lower register of the piano. In that building temple of sound and consciousness we understand what has been lost, not just in terms of the individual character, but in the context of human judgement. Like the folkloric suggestion of drowned human souls, seen in the flock of gulls hovering over the sea in the very last frame, The Way of Lost Souls is collectively ours. The level of communication achieved with music and moving images as equal partners, created something truly magical and transformative, as only a live cinema experience in the hands of a master accompanist can.

78 / 52 Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Following his illustrated talk, the Last Silent Picture Show, Geoff Brown introduced The Woman He Scorned in the context of the British film industry circa 1929, during the changeover from Silent Film to Sound. Brown’s talk also gave valuable insight into Alfred Hitchcock’s development as a director in his discussion of the Silent and early sound versions of Blackmail (1929).  As an important precursor to the director’s mature work, Brown’s talk also had relevance to the screening of Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78 / 52.  This fantastic documentary explores one of the most revolutionary scenes in cinema history on multitude of levels. Breaking down the set ups and cuts in Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho (1960) might sound like the preserve of film students and cinema nerds, but there is infinitely more at work in Hitchcock’s films than just technique. 78/ 52 honors and celebrates that genre defining richness. At the heart of it all is Hitchcock the flawed human being, shaped by Victorian values, Catholic morality and his vision of a cruelly indifferent God, becoming the hand of the director. Today we take the crafting of suspense on film totally for granted as part of mainstream Popular Culture, so much so that it has become parody. What I loved about this film were the different perspectives on this watershed moment in cinema, the profound effect it had on audiences at the time and how it still affects and inspires filmmaking today. Even more than that, it made me want to watch the original film again, igniting the hope that post Scream franchise generations will perhaps find their way back to the original “master of suspense.”

Significantly Hitchcock cut his directorial teeth in the Silent Era and who he was is expressed in interesting ways through his films. 78/52 touches on his personal obsessions, the critical and competitive nature of his work and the wider political, social and cultural landscape of 1950’s and early 60’s America. Whilst it is an analytical film and we hear from many professional filmmakers, it is also a film about the psychology of fear, which in an age of the Trump administration feels particularly ripe for exploration. Psycho is a deeply subversive film on multiple levels and this documentary is a timely reminder of the value of artistic subversion. Made “in defiance of Hollywood” and its code of censorship, Hitchcock kills off the box office gold leading lady early, invades the sanctity and safety domesticity and transforms the concept of “Mother” into something truly monstrous, reflecting that which is carried within. Psycho also represents, as Director/ Interviewee Peter Bogdonovich points out, “the first time” that the naked “female body comes under attack” likening the effect of watching the film to an act of rape. It’s debatable whether a contemporary audience, saturated with images of violence to the point of anesthesia, can really appreciate the true Horror the film engendered, lessening the revolutionary nature of that moment. At the time of release people were viscerally screaming in shock, something I have yet to see in a contemporary cinema. Like Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” analogy, we should never confuse a simple cinematic explosion wired for entertainment with the heightened anticipation of being told a bomb is going to go off, effectively placing the audience in the position of waiting for the inevitable. Hitchcock sets the audience up for confrontation with their own sense of death or punishment. His refined craft of suspense is a devilish, manipulative art and the “order and chaos” of that “magic act” is something Hitchcock understood completely. As an agent of the darker sides of human nature he is an extremely interesting director whose work will always have primal resonance. As the documentary commentary points out, he plays with audience expectation and makes us work, imagination infilling what we think we see projected on screen. The genius of the shower scene in Psycho in breaking rules, aligning natural sound, music, image and point of view remains breathtaking, affirming what a beautiful, terrible thing the human mind can be.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

Director Bill Morrison has a gift for transforming fragmentary archival material into visual poetry. In Decasia (2002) Morrison created a celebratory Memento Mori, crafting decaying film stock into a mesmerising, meditative vision of humanity attempting to outlive itself through Art. The purity of moving images and a symphonic score, with viewers free to make their own associations, was not only refreshing in its use of raw material, but created a sense of sublime beauty in physical decay. Our essential connection to highly fragile, combustible celluloid nitrate is explored on multiple levels in his extraordinarily moving latest film Dawson City: Frozen Time which had its Scottish premiere screening at IFF. Here Morrison moves into more mainstream documentary territory, with commentary delivered entirely in text form rather than voiceover. As in all great Silent storytelling, he creates connective space between the lines for the viewer’s mind to inhabit, exploring different thematic threads on their own terms. This is a film about the memory, history and dreams held in each precious frame of film as lived experience, memorial and portal. This documentary feels very timely in an age where technological progress increasingly urges us as a society to shed the old and embrace the new via the latest upgrade. The question of what we conserve, what we lose, who makes that decision (if it is even conscious) and why, in relation to the back catalogue of World Cinema, has barely been considered. The fact remains that film is still the most tangible, stable material we have, nobody has invented a means of digital storage that equals it in terms of conservation. Morrison subtly reflects that truth in a world that urgently needs to take stock of itself and reveals that film is the very stuff we are made of in the process.

The story of 533 nitrate film prints dating from the 1910s – 1920s discovered in 1978, buried as landfill beneath an ice hockey rink, encompasses forces at work in the wider world today that have never been more urgently relevant. The history of Dawson city as a Klondike Gold Rush town is about human displacement, the decimation and endurance of First Nations cultures, the rise of capitalism becoming corporate rule by the few, the destruction of the environment for profit and the perpetual lie that Film is, like everything else in 21st Century life is simply disposable, consumable entertainment. As the last stop on the distribution circuit and with distributors avoiding the expense of transporting out of date films back to their place of origin, films in Dawson were first stock piled under the administration of bankers. When storage ran out they were then destroyed, thrown into the Yukon River, burnt or buried, painfully echoing the wider estimate that of all the Silent Films ever created, Humanity has lost 75% of them. However, this isn’t a film that preaches, the intention and craft behind it is seeing the bigger picture and extracting the metal. Morrison is all about seeing the debris and the entire landscape from above, within and below the winter permafrost we’re currently living through.  As such he is an important documentarian of our age. Dawson City: Frozen Time achieves universality in the crafting of images, the spark and substance of what it means to make things, to out create destruction.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

The origins of film as an explosive material is a powerful metaphor and like the emotional aesthetic of Decasia, it is a double-edged sword as the truth often is. Significantly, film’s most profoundly moving and overwhelming moments are pure Silent sound and image. The morphing of Chief Issac’s face from that of an intensely proud, self-possessed young man, to an aged figure, eroded by exploitation expands into conscious awareness. Morrison is telling us nothing and showing us everything in that moment. In tantalising fragments of films we will never see in their entirety, countless archive photographs, faces and lives, many stories are woven together. The haunting closeup of Mary MacLaren in Bread (1918) directed by Ida May Park is a glimpse into many hidden histories. Through cinema Dawsonites saw the world, in a place that today appears as a last stop before wilderness and oblivion. The fortunes of a town which was born at the same time as the new media of photography and cinema, heralding the start of a modern age, is an excellent place to dig for what sustains and allows us to endure.

Although there were sequences when Alex Somers’ score felt repetitive and overbearing, the music connects emotionally with the imagery, evoking ghostly presences and the physicality of decay. The slowed tempo of human voices and strings operate like something holding on in the present tense of sound hitting the ear and not wanting to let go. The use of organ as an underpinning lament fading into recorded time and distant, echoing piano feel half submerged in the subconscious. There’s real pain in the ebb and flow of human fortunes and in the fate of discarded, abandoned material Culture. This is found footage filmmaking at a whole new level, over and above simple appropriation. As Writer, Editor and Director, Morrison brilliantly combines fragments of rare silent films, newsreels, archival footage, interviews and photographs, including Eric Hegg’s glass plate images which are a survival story in and of themselves. The final sequence of Dawson City: Frozen Time will be etched in my mind forever. Like “the salamander of the ancients [that] lived through fire unscathed”, everything which burns is not extinguished. We see a hand reaching out of the fluttering erasure of emulsion and a dancer, her head and eyes covered, unfurling her scarf in the flicker of free movement, hands raised, claiming and claimed by light. It’s a gesture that feels miraculous and far reaching in terms of human aspiration. It reflects the light, dreams and dust we are as human beings. Kinolorber’s description of the film as a “meditation on cinema’s past” really feels like an inadequate summation because like a lot of other Silent Film publicity it ignores the film’s universal thematic content. Like the image of Mae Marsh in Polly of the Circus (1917) in Morrison’s final sequence, this film is an awakening. Taking its cues and inspiration from original film stock, marked by human actions, neglected and resurrected in a different form, personal and collective loss is acknowledged in a film which is conclusively hopeful. I felt overwhelmed and enriched by watching it and as soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to watch it again.

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

Another film of extraordinary beauty, artistry and substance is Rainer Sarnet’s November, based on the bestselling Estonian novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk, starring Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik and Arvo Kukumägi. Films like this one are the reason I go to film festivals! I hope that this Scottish premiere at IFF will be picked up by other film festivals and distributors so that many more people will have the opportunity to see it. Dredging the collective unconscious, Pagan and Christian mythologies are entwined with Estonian Folklore in this creatively striking, thoroughly immersive film. November is possessed of its own fluid logic and this dreamlike narrative is so visually stunning that you cannot help but surrender to it. Director Rainer Sarnet has created something captivatingly strange and magical. It’s a world cast between the physical and metaphysical, where the fantastical and irrational exist side by side with the hard, everyday grind of life, the reality of political oppression and centuries of class rule. True to Eastern European cinematic traditions of escape into fiction and fairy tale, masking social criticism, political and religious dissent, November is all about the human truth in fiction. At base it is a story of human yearning and unrequited love. Laced with black humour, national pride, observance of superstition, ignorance, greed and betrayal, this is a different kind of fantasy, grounded with roots that run deep within the human psyche.  In many ways it reclaims the primal forest from which all storytelling springs- some of the richest creative soil there is! Although I’m certain that there are many specific Estonian references lost on me and UK audiences in general, there are enough archetypal elements in this black and white vision of the living and the dead, found in cultures all over the world, which translate visually. In that respect November’s Director of photography, Mart Taniel was a very worthy winner of Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Jury comment about their decision that “one film was particularly audacious and showed supreme command of its visual language” is a very accurate assessment of the film.

November depicts “an ancient land” “where spirits roam”, a world frozen in solarised light and the deepest of shadows.  Villagers create creatures called Kratts out of discarded wood, farm machinery and domestic debris, who serve them in exchange for souls. A young woman Lina is in love with village boy Hans, but he is obsessed with the baron’s beautiful daughter. In the emotional context of unrequited love Lina turning into a wolf, metaphorically consumed by her emotions, inner drives, needs and desires, isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. On the contrary, it’s a very apt manifestation of what the character is feeling and part of her journey, albeit in canine form. That felt sense, grounding what might appear at first glance as fantasy, is one of the most powerful elements of the film and there are many moments of human recognition throughout. The sequence where the cart and funeral procession cross and pass each other in the stark clarity of black and white is absolute poetry and devastation, as fate separates the living from the dead and a soul is paid for. Beneath its exquisitely crafted, labyrinthine world November suggests, “there is the soul we sell, the soul we long for and the soul we cannot live without”. The question of what human life is worth in alignment with these ideas goes beyond fantastical entertainment. Part of reclaiming our souls is reconnection with this ancient mode of storytelling and the masked wisdom the world has forgotten how to read.

Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat Directed by Fritz Lang

Aligned with the festival screening of new release biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool starring Annette Benning and Jamie Bell, IFF’s superb three film tribute to Gloria Grahame was a definite retrospective highlight. The selection featured her Academy Award winning Best Supporting Actress performance in Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), her starring role as a sharp, sincere and sassy gangster’s dame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) and with Humphrey Bogart in the tragic anti-Romance In a Lonely Place (1950). Throughout Grahame demonstrates her stage experience, range and why she deserves to be better known. Hopefully the release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool will encourage people to seek her out her early film work. There is no device on the planet that can replace or simulate the beauty of black and white restorations on a big screen. IFF, together with the Eden Court Cinema programme generally, is committed to showing as many 35mm format films as it can. In the world of 21st Century cinemas this is a rarity and an absolute pleasure.

It is always exciting to see the work of emerging filmmakers and this year’s selection of short films were incredibly strong, diverse, refreshingly original and brimming with possibility. IFF has consistently championed the work of Scottish filmmakers and this year there were six collections of Short Films including two screenings of international shorts specifically for children. Two films in particular shone as part of the Bridging the Gap showcase in association with the Scottish Documentary Institute. Thomas Hogben’s Teeth (11 mins) cleverly combines archival footage, interviews with the director’s parents, Orthodontist and Dental Anthropologist Dr. Daniel Antoine, in a humorous and revealing story of how teeth express our fears, aspirations and ideals. It also poses important questions about the lengths we go to to try and achieve ideal Beauty. It’s an absorbing and entertaining film, charting the development of child to adult and tapping into the universal human need to belong. Hogben probes insecurities shared by the audience, exposing the horrors and unexpected healing powers of dentistry, with teeth as the mirror of Self.

Directed by Sean Mullen Inhale (15 mins) is an accomplished and sensitive story of family bereavement, grief and transformation from Northern Ireland. Working with horses provides the catalyst for transforming pain and outdoor drone photography is used very eloquently to express the interior life of the subject. Poignant and confessional, this is a film about enduring the loss of those we love and having the courage to let go, knowing that life will never be the same again. Faith is an important aspect of the film, conveyed in the voice of the central protagonist and the belief that “the infinite momentum of life via an energy never destroyed, only transformed.” Whatever your spiritual identity, it is a powerful and moving film. Other Scottish Shorts highlights included Flow Country (10 mins) by Jasper Coppes, beautifully shot using black & white 35mm and winner of Best Scottish Short at the Glasgow Short Film Festival, A Tail of Two Sisters (4 mins) by Lindsay McKee, part of the Edinburgh 48hr Film Project 2017, Selina Wagner’s captivating animation Spindrift (12 mins), Alison Piper’s timely political statement Free Period (6 mins) and Gordon Napier’s 1745 (19 mins) a story which highlights the largely hidden history of Highland slavery.

1745 Directed by Gordon Napier

It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to witness the creative development of local filmmakers over successive years and to see individuals making creative leaps, honing their craft and finding their unique voice. Director Mike Webster screened two films this year Eathie (9mins) and Coire Eilde (11 mins), both following gorge scrambles by Adventure and Wildlife Photographer James Roddie in largely unknown sites in the Highlands.  In the traditionally high-octane field of masculine/ mountain adventure films and festivals, it is refreshing and enlightening to see the process and care taken in approaching each pitch. The expectation of “adventure” is often in the spirit of man conquering the landscape, rather than “venturing into the unknown”. Finding your foothold and being fully conscious of your surroundings, to experience something beyond the everyday in the presence of Nature, is more akin to the idea of Slow Adventure. The idea of Nature as Culture in relation to how we experience the environment is only starting to be explored and there are some seeds of that ethos in Robbie’s descent of the Eathie Gorge on the Black Isle and Coire Eilde (the Pass of the Hinds) in Glencoe. As Roddie and Webster navigate their way into the natural environment, the path created by experience, skill and instinct is inspiring. Drone photography is used very effectively to broaden the viewer’s experience of this territory. It would be great to see more of the interior, psychological aspect of the adventurer in future films, enriching not only the conception of the landscape, but perception of what a masculine point of view in this genre can be. As Roddie states during interview what you really want from an adventure is “obscure” and “intimidating”, heading into an environment where you’re not too sure what you will encounter, equipped with the  tools and self-awareness to find your way through.

Eathie Directed by Mike Webster

The pairing of Webster’s films with those by another local filmmaker, Katrina Brown, were very complimentary in challenging preconceptions and prejudice. It is wonderful to see such a progressive leap in the space between IFF 16 and 17 in the screening of Brown’s two most recent projects, Woman Up (3 mins) and Riding Through the Dark (23 mins). Her natural ability to tackle difficult subjects, based on the trust established with interviewees and participants is a great strength for any documentarian. Making the voice of the subject the primary focus of the film and being led by it clearly drives her vision as a filmmaker. This authenticity aligned with stories that need to be told is a very promising and valuable combination. In Woman Up the stereotype of the “sporty woman” is challenged, following Eilidh, who discovered her passion for mountain biking, together with skills and confidence she didn’t believe she had. That sense of positive empowerment is further developed in Riding Through the Dark. It’s a film that juxtaposes the experiences of two groups of women, “one held in awe” and “the other in stigma”, asking the question of just how different they (and we the audience) really are. The individual stories of a group of elite female cyclists/ athletes and women taking part in a cycling to health and wellbeing programme are woven together and they are extremely honest, courageous and moving. Although the film tackles the issue of mental health and depression head on, it is ultimately hopeful and uplifting.  In revealing the insecurities, loneliness, pain and loss we all share as human beings, Brown and her interviewees shine a light on the possibility of regaining oneself when a safe space can be created, grounded in mutual respect and shared experience. In many ways the film creates that safe space for the audience, doing what cinema does best with the road and the world opening up, gaining understanding and projecting ourselves into the frame as viewers. Riding Through the Dark is also very realistic about the concept of recovery rather than cure. I’m sure that many people seeing the film will strongly identify with it, either in relation to their own experience or that of friends and family. Depression is the absence of hope and in telling their stories these brave women are a shining example of grasping that little bit of something in acute darkness, finding the strength to get back up and to keep going. Using cycling as a coping strategy and a means of being absolutely present in the moment is hugely inspiring, as both groups of women and individuals “create impetus” and “momentum” to move out of darkness, “ignit[ing] [that] passion into everyday life.”

As IFF 2017 drew to a close and I emerged out of the dark, the world appeared a good deal brighter. Outside the cinema it was pitch black and autumn chills, but I was carrying the sparks of everything I’d seen with me. In the cross fertilisation of fiction and documentary there is fire, hope and the possibility of positive change. The world needs imagination and the voices of independent filmmakers as never before, to find the truth, set things alight and make us see the world anew.

http://2017.invernessfilmfestival.com/welcome/