Art Criticism

Edinburgh Festival 2007

Visual art once had only a walk-on part at the Edinburgh Festival.
With a fine selection of shows this year, it is now centre stage.

Picasso Amorous Minotaur with a Female Centaur (Minotaure amoureux d'une femme-centaure)
Picasso Amorous Minotaur with a Female Centaur (Minotaure amoureux d’une femme-centaure)

“The greatest artist of the 20th century” is the claim made for Picasso in the catalogue accompanying “Picasso on Paper” at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. Such statements inevitably tend towards inaccuracy and hyperbole. In this case, however, the 125 prints and drawings on display do reveal the extraordinary range of Picasso’s inventive genius. His achievements over 70 years range from a striking pastel and watercolour of a couple on a prancing horse, done when the artist was 17, to a dextrous ink drawing, made in 1971 when he was 89. For this obsessive draughtsman, printmaking was not simply a means of reproducing images from his paintings, but a creative process in its own right. He also embraced lithography, engraving and even linocuts.

Picasso Nude Woman with Necklace (Femme nue au collier) 1968
Picasso Nude Woman with Necklace (Femme nue au collier) 1968

Picasso’s skills were precocious; he could, according to his biographer Roland Penrose, draw before he could speak. “Picasso: Fired with Passion”, at the National Museum of Scotland, explores his creativity between 1947 and 1961, when he lived in the south of France. The exhibition demonstrates his creative hunger, stylistic range and diverse use of materials, concentrating on ceramics and collected memorabilia. It is rather inelegantly installed – there are far too many information boards, creating a sense of clutter – but it provides a fascinating glimpse into his family life and friendships with contemporaries such as Jean Cocteau and Georges Braque.

A few years ago, visual art at the annual Edinburgh Festival was the poor relation of theatre and comedy. Now, with the fourth Edinburgh Art Festival co-ordinating a series of exhibitions and art-related events in galleries around the city, it is taking centre stage. The two Picasso shows are running alongside several other exhibitions of contemporary work, by local artists and international names. A quick tour of the shows in the Athens of the north gives a good sense of the varying strands in modern and contemporary art, proving that the festival’s art scene has become truly international.

Richard Long A line in Scotland 1981
Richard Long A line in Scotland, 1981

At the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a major new exhibition, “Richard Long: Walking and Marking”. Since the late 1960s, Long has been investigating the relationship between the human trace and the natural world, principally by walking through landscapes and making art along the way. Working with mud, sticks and stones, he has created a visually spare, poetic language that has ancient roots as well as modern relevance. The photographs detailing journeys are not the most beautiful works here – that distinction goes to the untitled mud paintings on paper and the fingerprint drawings created on found objects such as a piece of African door or a Berber tent peg.

National Museum of Scotland
National Museum of Scotland

Back in town, the pillars of the National Gallery of Scotland have been transformed into giant cans of Campbell’s soup to mark the impending 80th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s birth and the 20th anniversary of his death. The gallery’s neoclassical pediments and dados supply an unlikely backdrop to the baroque kitsch of Warhol’s cow wallpaper and floating silver clouds. A highly skilled draughtsman and one-time shoe designer, Warhol displayed a patriotic enthusiasm for America’s rapidly growing postwar economy, which made products such as Coca-Cola, Campbell’s soup and even Brillo pads universally available. His cool, urbane sensibility was influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the found object, and marked a shift in fine art away from the existential struggles of abstract expressionism.

Consumer products, film stars and celebrities became Warhol’s endlessly repeated subjects. In 1962, however, his friend Henry Geldzahler suggested: “That’s enough affirmation of life. Maybe everything isn’t always so fabulous in America. It’s time for some death. This is what’s really happening.” The result was Warhol’s Death and Disaster series of paintings, depicting war and burning cars. Suicide (silver man jumping) (1963) shows a solitary figure leaping from a high-rise building, and feels eerie in today’s political landscape. Although Warhol remains best known for his multiple silk screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Onassis, this comprehensive exhibition exposes the darker side of his world-view. It will help dispel the idea that he was a dumb-blonde celebrity babe: this is insightful social commentary.

Where Warhol’s serial portraits essentially presented the sitter’s public persona, nakedness is, intrinsically, a more private affair. “The Naked Portrait” at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery considers the use of this ubiquitous genre over the past hundred years.

The naked human body elicits an array of intense psychological responses and, to some extent, turns us all into voyeurs. The body can be viewed as both powerful and vulnerable when stripped of the clothes that provide it with a persona and facade. The naked portrait – the phrase is taken from Lucian Freud – becomes a way of understanding not only ourselves, but questions of gender and sexuality, as well as attitudes to the imperfect body. This insightful exhibition has some fine photographs by John Coplans, investigating the process of male ageing, by Diane Arbus and by Francesca Woodman. The paintings on show are by artists as diverse as Freud, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Alice Neel.

William McTaggart Wave, 1881
William McTaggart Wave, 1881

If you want something a little more indigenous, you could do worse than visit “Beyond Appearances” at the City Art Centre. Though there is a whiff of the municipal about the gallery itself, the show cleverly investigates the stylistic qualities and pure thematic concerns that might be considered to characterise Scottish painting from the late 19th century to the present day. There are works by Callum Innes and Boyle Family; the star of the show is William McTaggart’s beautiful Wave, 1881.

Jock McFadyen Tate Moss
Jock McFadyen Tate Moss

The Paisley-born painter Jock McFadyen has become an aficionado of urban desolation, fav ouring London canals and petrol stations along bleak dual carriageways as his subjects. Now he has turned a searing eye on Orkney, painting landscapes and the abandoned hulks of cargo ships that lie submerged in offshore waters, like rusting Loch Ness Monsters. His exhibition captures something of the old make-do festival spirit, appropriating the Grey Gallery, a disused warehouse on Old Broughton.

Alex Hartley, Fruitmarket Gallery
Alex Hartley, Fruitmarket Gallery

If cutting-edge is more your style, you could visit the Fruitmarket Gallery, where Alex Hartley has clad the outside of the venue in an image of itself. Hartley is a conceptual artist who likes to confront our standard responses to both built and natural environments. He incorporates his interest in climbing and photography in his practice; his most resonant works are those where hazy photographs of architectural interiors have been trapped like flies in amber within columns of glass. The images of some of his architectural climbs seem rather contrived, but those of remote terrains on to which he has constructed physical fantasy dwellings are subversive, with a touch of utopian pathos.

Doggerfish, Nathan Coley
Doggerfish, Nathan Coley

At Stills, on Cockburn Street, John Stezaker has breathed new life into photographs from forgotten film archives and obsolete magazines. He creates uncanny duos of wide-eyed children with furry cat features, and classic profiles interrupted by old postcards of landscapes. Such surreal interventions suggest the world of dream. At the trendy Doggerfisher contemporary gallery, also in the city centre, the photographer and sculptor Nathan Coley, shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, has produced a visually incoherent show. The most successful works are a series of confession boxes nearly obliterated with harsh spray enamel paint, hinting at the failure of religion. If, on the other hand, all this seems a bit heavyweight and you yearn for something playful, you could pop into the university’s Talbot Rice Gallery for the first major solo exhibition in Scotland of David Batchelor’s sculptural detritus. His multicoloured constructs, made from a forest of domestic clutter such as sieves, clothes pegs and feather dusters gleaned from pound shops, create a forest of colour that gleams like a collection of Argos jewels.

Talbot Rice Gallery, David Batchelor
Talbot Rice Gallery, David Batchelor

Edinburgh Art Festival runs until 2 September 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Image 1: Moma Collection
Image 2: Tate Collection
Image 3: © Richard Long
Image 5: Collection Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery
Image 6: © Jock McFadyen
Image 8: © Nathan Coley
Image 9: Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

Published in New Statesman


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