Decide that it’s time to take a journey up north, and I don’t just mean Camden Town or Finchley Road, but on to Kings Cross and then train it all the way to a surprisingly sunny Scotland. Well, I was surprised, as the weathermen had forecasted gloom and doom whereas it turned out to be quite pleasantly mild and bright – at least it was for most of the time where I was in Edinburgh during the periods when it wasn’t drizzling and hailing. Anyway, at about four hours twenty minutes it’s quite a quick journey to get from one capital to another, although for most of the time the countryside is perhaps just a bit bland and boring so I ignore all the flat green stuff and just sit reading the newspaper. But then the bridges at Newcastle come into view and they’re really quite impressive, as is the nearby shiny silver carapace enclosing the Sage Gateshead concert hall, which definitely makes it stand out and look interesting. Similarly, watching the waves crash against the shore as the train follows the coastline around Berwick is also moderately diverting for a while. And what of Edinburgh itself? Well, I suppose I’d describe it as charmingly picturesque, with its wide streets, magisterial solid stone buildings, the old castle, and green parks all evidently help to make it an attractive destination for the dozens of overseas coach-party tourists that seem to be happy milling around on the streets. Slightly less appealing are all the rows of shops whose business appears to be built on extracting cash from these visitors by selling them products that delight in defining Scotland through a series of hackneyed clichés involving an awful lot of shortbread, tartan, kilts, and whisky. And then there is the scenic topography, which ranges from the snow-capped mountains in the distance that look so grand, to the high-gradient hills in the city that prove to be so exercising – something I discover on my work out walk out to my first port of call, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, situated a couple of miles away from the city centre.
The Gallery comprises two separate buildings either side of the main road, but another couple of extensions would be useful since currently there isn’t enough wall space to display all the permanent collection, competing as it does for room with the various temporary shows that they also like to stage here. But at least the decision has been made to buck the annoying Post-Modern trend that is sadly becoming more and more common and which dictates that all the art should be scrambled up together and placed randomly around the walls. Thankfully, the curators here have decided to group the work together coherently in movements and then display it in roughly chronological order. So while not completely comprehensive, there are sensible displays devoted to, for instance, Expressionism, early Abstractionism, Post-War Figuration and Pop Art which include solid works by a good number of big name artists like Kokoschka, Leger, Bacon and Duane Hanson. For those who like Op Art, a couple of rooms have currently been given over to a special mini-retrospective display surveying the dizzying pyrotechnics that Bridget Riley has been producing during the past half century. The highlight of this section, however, is probably the Cubist room which gathers together some interesting early Picasso collages, a perfect Braque still life, a Lipchitz sculpture and some typically colourful works by Leger and Delaunay. The final room in this section brings everything to a pleasant conclusion with a pretty, starry nightscape by Peter Doig entitled Milky Way. The artist has been given the privilege of picking works from the Gallery’s permanent collection to hang alongside his own painting and so the greeny-blues of his work are shown to echo similar shades from earlier landscapes by Gauguin, Hodler and Bonnard, while some of the sinuous lines he chooses to outline his forms are reminiscent of moves from the models used by Edvard Munch in some of his black and white prints, also on show here.
Back down on the ground floor, Modern Art chronology is brought right up-to-date with the display British Art Show 8, a quinquennial roundup of works that aim to show, ‘a vital overview of some of the most exciting contemporary art produced in the UK’. I’m not sure that the exhibition succeeds in its mission all that well or, if it does, then maybe levels of excitement are pretty low in the artworld at present for while the works are all mildly interesting, fairly slick and occasionally quite clever, none is what I would describe as exactly zinging with zeitgeist. It’s all very much the usual media mix of mix-media assemblages that seem to be designed to simultaneously intrigue and baffle the casual viewer…but aren’t really all that bothered if they don’t succeeds in managing to achieve either outcome. I don’t think anything here is particularly beautiful, compelling or moving but nor is any of it especially shocking, surprising or offensive. And while nothing is going to knock your socks off, on the other hand (or maybe that should be foot), neither are your pants going to be completely bored off you. I think most people will exit the display sartorially undishevelled and mentally unmoved. I suppose I quite liked Magali Reus’ magnified replicas of padlock mechanisms; Stuart Whipps’ greasy dismantled car engine parts laid out on newspaper; and Andrea Buttner’s large free-standing scrapbook displays of images, even if I didn’t recognize the Kantian references. But I did wonder what was the point of Linder’s bit of carpet twisted over a wire; Ciara Phillips’ wallpaper woman; and Jessica Warboys’ uninvolving abstract paintings.
On a marginally more serious level, this new century has seen some of the most incredible societal shifts, whether as a result of the impact of the financial crash, the calamitous growth of international terrorism or the rise of IT systems, in general, and their social media spin-offs, in particular. And I suppose I’m still continually surprised and a bit disappointed generally that, with all this going on, contemporary artists seem to react with almost a bland shrug of the shoulders as if it’s all somehow irrelevant to them and none of their business. Maybe the artists are as overwhelmed by the confusion of the past couple of decades as the rest of us, although I sort of feel that it’s part of their job to offer some kind of insight, reaction or commentary on the changes in contemporary life. Oh well, one can but hope and maybe by the time of the 9th Show in 2020 everything will become as clear as that somewhat evocative date might suggest.
In the meantime, I cross the road to the other half of the Gallery and another temporary exhibition: Modern Scottish Women Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 which, ‘uncovers and celebrates the contribution made by women artists to this fascinating chapter of Scottish art history’. Hmm. The title of the show sounds like one of those specialist subjects that competitors choose on Mastermind but, I confess, it’s not one that I’d choose since I don’t recognise a single name among the fifty or sixty artists showing here. And I suppose that maybe that’s the point of the exhibition – to give voice to the unsung heroines of Scottish art – which would, of course, be a noble sentiment but, at the risk of being trolled by my feminist art friends, it doesn’t necessarily make for a very interesting art exhibition. And the art on display here – the bulk of which consists of portraiture and a few still lifes before concluding with some very uninteresting abstracts – is generally competent but not much more. While, doubtless, there are interesting theses to be written explaining why this should be the case, as for the actual stuff on the walls, I found no hidden surprises, undiscovered superstars, or geniuses revealed, and sadly found everything about as uninteresting as the first half of a long distance train journey.
After that disappointment comes the Gallery’s grand finale, first with a nod to Eduardo Paolozzi, the greatest artist to emerge from Scotland in the past century. Well strictly speaking it’s two nods to the great Pop innovator, first in the bizarre recreation of his studio that comes complete with dozens of plastercasts of potential sculptural projects along with various other mementos and inspirational items. And then if you have a quick coffee or, like me, go native and have a Cullen skink in the café you may also literally bump into his ridiculously oversized sculpture of a tin man that occupies rather a lot of the space here.
Finally there is the room dedicated to the Gallery’s collection of Surrealist works – again there’s sadly only space to show part of the collection but what a collection it is, with really top quality works by all the big names: Dali, Ernst, Tanguy, Magritte, Delvaux, Miro and Man Ray.
After that joyful look into last century’s subconscious I make my way over to the Royal Botanic Gardens where they’re showing another chunk of the British Art Show. Frankly, I have to admit that I found the prelude of the walk through the ferns, araucarias, rhododendrons and azaleas to be a more enjoyable and stimulating experience than looking at the display of artworks in the Inverleith House exhibition space, which is just as much of a muchness as all the stuff seen earlier. Never mind, there’s more Edinburgh art to be seen but that will have to wait for the next blog. In the meantime I’m feeling a bit kaput and there are still hills ahead of me to climb to get back to the hotel room