Turner in January: some thoughts on the Vaughan Bequest exhibition, Edinburgh

Odd things happen artwise in Edinburgh (and I suppose in Dublin and London) in January.

Some years it’s difficult to decide whether the Vaughan bequest of 38 of Turner’s watercolours and sketches is a blessing or a curse for the National Galleries.  On the one hand, surely this is perfect, conservationist ‘Cream Egg Syndrome’: once a year, strictly exclusive to January, and for the rest of the time we’re supposedly left wanting.  On the other hand, despite its mandatory brevity, this exhibition has a perennial tendency to be repetitive and incentive to do anything interesting with it is potentially lacking.

2011’s Turner is in the exhibition space downstairs by the Scottish collection.  This soporific bunker doesn’t lend itself favourably to the appreciation of art at the best of times and the Turners are exhibited in vaguely chronological order without significant curatorial invention.  However, one of the twists of the bequest itself is that Vaughan collected the works with the intention of representing all the main periods of Turner’s artistic development, and he passed these pieces on to Edinburgh with the same thought.  What results is a coherent collection of sketches and paintings which makes sense as a set, so we may forgive the National Galleries’ staff for keeping their interpretation largely in the background.

Best known among the collection are probably the energetic, lightening-emblazoned watercolour The Piazzetta, Venice (pictured) and the endlessly absorbing, ethereal Heidelberg.  But other highlights include the study of colour relationships in Harbour View and the breathtaking little watercolour Loch Coruisk, and among his blue and grey wash sketches, Lake Albano.

You can’t help but feel for the curators having to roll these works out year upon year in January, and a certain fatigue seems evident.  But this doesn’t stop Turner in January from being one of the quirkily fabulous treats of the Edinburgh calendar.

You have until 31st January (or you’ll have to wait 11 months!)

The Lewis Chessmen Winter North

This month saw the arrival in Aberdeen Art Gallery of The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition

“Probably made in Norway…Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland”

So the British Museum’s website prosaically introduces us to the Lewis Chessmen, or Uig Chessmen, a collection of 93 chess pieces intricately carved out of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth by three Vikings between 1150 and 1200 AD.  (Yes: three!)  The BM owns 82 of the 93 pieces which form this beautiful collection.  The other eleven are normally housed in the National Museum in Edinburgh, and a selection of just over 30 pieces from both museums is currently touring Scotland as part of the Unmasked exhibition. 

Unmasked began in Edinburgh in May 2010 and will travel to Shetland in January 2011 and before completing its Scottish tour in Stornoway from April to September of that year.

I’ve been walking around Edinburgh for the last six months or so with a notebook bearing the furtive coffee- (or maybe pint-) induced note-to-self: “Write something on the Lewis Chessmen”.  It didn’t happen; the exhibition came to Edinburgh, and then went, and the devil won the day.  Fortunately, I have intermittent occasion to travel to Aberdeen (well…), and when my girlfriend’s father asked me if I’d heard about this new Chessmen exhibition I couldn’t in good conscience say no.

In my ignorance I had expected a Mona Lisa-type scenario, an unsatisfying huddle around a single glass cabinet searing the eyes out of my head from all the reflected camera flashes.  Far from it, The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is a beautifully curated experience.  In a darkened wing with standing room aplenty, visitors can move easily through the space.  The chessmen are displayed in numerous cabinets, occasionally contextualised beside other artefacts from the same period in Lewis such as broaches, swords, and tools – all grim pieces beside the curious beauty of the collection, but adding depth of visual understanding for the visitor.  There are even gaming boards where visitors can play chess, drafts and another Norse board game whose name escapes me.

The chessmen themselves are not high art by any means, but they do exhibit a mysterious gravitas and a window into the ideology of the age that clearly fascinates.  Faces stare out at their game with expressions ranging from furtive suspicion to deep contemplation, investing the offices of bishop, queen and king with unquestionable wisdom, seriousness and a degree of serenity.  Soldiers, on the other hand, tend to look cautiously out over shields, clutching their spears and swords tightly with what would be whitened knuckles of only the whole surfaces of the pieces weren’t the same tone.

The real appeal of the Lewis Chessmen seems to be their ability to civilise the past.  The soldiers’ mysterious Dark Age faces contrast with the sense of education, reason and patience which emanates from those of the civic and religious authorities.  And the function of this set (or three sets) – to entertain, pass time, socialise – contrasts with a storybook image of a dark, barbaric north.  This more civilised picture is added to by the broader context of artistry, trade and communication which the exhibition presents well.

But let’s not pretend that this is all about the Dark Age past.  For a start, a major element of the story concerns the discovery of the pieces in Lewis in the nineteenth century and their journey which ended in various museum collections.  Strikingly, the exhibition’s concern with the Lewis discovery story has resulted in the use of Gaelic throughout with English translation, including during the audio-visual presentation.  The sight of the written words, the occasional broad backdrops of the stone and green Lewis landscape on the walls, and the sound of the Gaelic language film leaves you with little doubt: this is a Gaelic, Scottish experience.

The sounds and sights of the Gaelic Western Isles are charming indeed, but their deployment here in this exhibition’s tour of Scotland does tend to make one question their purpose, particularly when it is freely admitted that Lewis at the time of the chessmen’s creation was, culturally speaking, Scandinavian.  It can’t be denied that this is viewed to a large extent as a homecoming tour and that conversely those pieces which normally reside in the British Museum are not at home there, as such.

Furthermore, the Lewis Chessmen Unmasked, supported by the Scottish Government, has a thing or two to say about contemporary Scotland.  This is a Scotland which embraces its past and its cultural diversity.  It says ‘anyone in Scotland can be Scottish’, but it also suggests positive discrimination towards the Gaelic world or an ideal of it.  It even looks north to Norway, the last-man-standing in Alex Salmond’s ‘Arc of Success’.

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is in Aberdeen until 8th January 2011.  This blog commends it to you.

Absolute Best of Absolute Beginners – not quite true but quite good

Here’s my review of Absolute Best of Absolute Beginners.  A decent bunch of Scottish stanp-up acts battling against a venue that’s more like a hot lab than a theatre, but they shine through and earn an easy three stars from me.  First published on The Skinny’s website. Lots more Edinburgh Fringe reviews available there.

These guys are really up against it. In a Fringe dominated by international acts and TV celebrities, it can be difficult for local talent to shine through. Add to this a venue that’s all flourescent lights, that familiar sweaty warmth of Fringe stages and an indundation from the heavens just before the show went up. But from the midst of adversity, Absolute Beginners brings a decent show that has audiences laughing and cringing with just about the right intensity to send you back out into the rain with a smile on your face.

Don’t be fooled by the name either: some of these locals have experience under their belts, and you can tell. You won’t find a bad act here, but look out for Matt Winning for instant laughs and Eddie Cassidy for a hilarious take on that most Scottish of comic subjects: drugs. There’s a total of eight comedians in rotation of five per night. The quality is mixed, but on the whole it’s worth the effort. A good show to see if you want to catch a glimpse into the home-grown scene.

Smoke and Duelling in Fife: it’s Edinburgh in time-lapse

It was a pleasure today to watch this stunning, award-winning time-lapse film of Edinburgh by Ewen Meldrum from a couple of years back. 

I take it the distubing smoke rising out of the landscape across the Firth of Forth is the power station in Cardenden, Fife, close to where the last duel on Scottish soil (!) apparently took place.  Exciting stuff.  You can see the waterfront and harbour in a few of the shots, which is of course VERY exciting because that makes this my first post which relates directly to Leith!! 

Created using thousands of photos taken over the course of two years, this film beatuifully captures the intensity of the atmosphere and environment of Edinburgh, without even touching on the haar.  I love the way he moves into occasional close-ups of houses and tenements during the night-time part, continuing to emphasise the link with human patterns of behaviour.  That’s you in there, sleeping, blogging, watching Shameless!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Koya Moments.

Art in Edinburgh this April: The Printmaker’s Art

Beer is for winners: Beer Street (left) and Gin Lane.

Art is good in Edinburgh this April.  At the top of my list is the Royal Scottish Academy’s New Contemporaries exhibition, showcasing the work of recent graduates from across Scotland and hand-picked directly from degree shows.  I’ve been told that one to look out for is Omar Zingaro Bhatia’s unique brand of ‘junkshop’ madness, as well as Jamie Fitzpatrick’s avant-garde taxidermy or whatever you want to call it.  More on that and on Diane Arbus in the Dean Gallery later this month.

On Saturday the Comely Banking Crisis took in The Printmaker’s Art in the National Gallery on the mound.  If you’re willing to brave the soporific, sweaty 1970s dungeon that lies beneath the gallery, you’ll find this exhibition amidst the Scottish Collection. 

Let’s be honest: prints aren’t everyone’s thing.  While the media of wood and copper plate printing have been used to produce colour or in combination with other technniques by contemporary artists and in asian printing traditions such as Japanese Ukiyo-e, the National Gallery’s exhibition is generally limited to the shadowy, black-and-white European style, epitomised by Albrecht Dürer’s engravings.

Don’t let this put you off.  This exhibition is free and well worth a visit.  There’s a great diversity of work here despite the medium and the relatively small number of pieces.  Besides, I think less is definitely more when you’re dealing with intense and detailed works such as Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Needless to say there are works by plenty of other great artists here too.  Highlights for me were Rembrandt’s Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves, the impression here being an especially dark rendering which works excellently with the contrasting light and darkness of the picture, and Goya’s A woman and a horse, let someone else master them. (Lovely!)

However, our favourite experience by far was William Hogarth’s pair of prints Beer Street and Gin Lane (pictured), extolling the virtues of beer (yes please!) against the total disaster of gin culture in 18th-century London.  Maybe they hadn’t discovered tonic at that stage, but Hogarth really has it in for gin, which is foreign, slutty and disease-ridden, but apparently great for the pawn-shop industry.  Beer, though, is thankfully very English.  Have a closer look and enjoy.

Art and Claymation pave the Road to Hell in Aberdeen

Sorry I missed you: Wallace and Gromit

Intentions, intentions, what is it they say about them?  The Comely Banking Crisis drifted north along the granite-paved road to Aberdeen for a weekend in the glimmering Silver City, taking a turn (just the one is required) about Union Street, and the same for Belmont Street.

I really won’t have a bad word said about the place.  (Well, one or two maybe, but that’s it.)  There’s plenty there to entertain, and to prove it, here are two notable things I didn’t do:

1. Frances Walker – Place Observed in Solitude,  Aberdeen Art Gallery

You’ve got to hand it to Aberdeen Art Gallery.  Even if you’re just running in for an urgent usage of their toilet or a last minute panick-bought birthday card, you can’t help but notice that this a beautiful space, well managed, with a magnificent collection.  I really like the way their contemporary collection is the main focus of the building and the first thing that greets you as you enter, despite a decent collection of older works.

The gallery is worth a visit just to look at Francis Bacon’s disturbing but brilliant portrait of some pope or other (a study after Velázquez’s Portrait of “Innocent” X – see what I did there?) or the sublime horror of Ken Currie’s Gallowgate Lard.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s well worth the day-trip to Aberdeen from Edinburgh or Glasgow just to see these two paintings.

The temporary exhibitions here also tend to be outstanding.  I was recently blown away by Ron Mueck’s giant or tiny but otherwise freakishly accurate human figures lounging around in their underwear or pajamas.  The current special exhibition is a celebration of Frances Walker’s 80th birthday and is apparently the first showing of works from all the periods of her career.  So going by this background, the Walker exhibition promised a lot.  I never made it.

2. Wallace and Gromit ‘Animated Adventures’, Satrosphere Science Centre

OK, it looks as though this one is aimed at the kids, mainly, but a couple of points should defy any reason-toting adults who may wish to claim this is anything less than great.  You get to see real hand-made sets from Curse of the Wear-Rabbit – no mean promise.  And Satrosphere also promises to provide an interactive experience which allows visitors to create and animate their own characters and a special exhibit on the process of stop motion animation.  It’s sponsored by Shell, but – hey – this is Aberdeen!  I never made it.

Excuses? I had to go to a wedding and a birthday dinner, so really, duty called and won the day over art.  But I’m not afraid to admit that I spent some time poncing about in the new-ish Peckham’s on Union Street with a notebook and a coffee and, much worse still, sauntering around a certain new shopping centre near the train station.  I wasn’t even waiting for my train while doing the latter, so shame is in the air.  Oh, mañana!

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