SCOTLAND’S ART 1540 TO NOW
Collected by the Royal Scottish Academy
4 November – 7 January 2018, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.