NEXT year will see a nationwide showcase of Scottish art – but the independence referendum is conspicuous by its absence from the publicity. Duncan Macmillan wonders why
As the year turns, it’s the moment to reflect on what 2013 brought us that will be memorable and what treats or turkeys 2014 has in store.
This year was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Allan Ramsay. It also saw the sad death of John Bellany. An exhibition devoted to JD Fergusson established him as a major modern artist, but an exhibition devoted to Peter Doig failed altogether to do the same for him. An exhibition of Edith Tudor Hart’s photographs at the Portrait Gallery brought us a brilliant photographer, but also showed how politically potent simple observation can be. In London, Ice Age Art quietly changed some of our most fundamental assumptions about art.
Meanwhile 2014 will be the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the seventh centenary of the Battle of Bannockurn. The Commonwealth Games will be held in Glasgow, but above all else, Scotland will decide its future with the referendum in September. The biggest project for the year is Generation, an exhibition of art in Scotland over the last 25 years. Sponsored by the NGS, Glasgow Life and Creative Scotland, this is to be spread all over the country, a national event. There is, however, no mention of the referendum in the publicity.
You wouldn’t expect the National Gallery to take sides, but there is surely reason to suppose that the artistic energy the show proposes to celebrate might have something to do with changes that have made the referendum even thinkable, whatever the outcome. A nation that doesn’t know its art doesn’t know itself. Thirty years ago, Scottish art was a barely credible notion. Indeed in the south it was a risible idea that the Scots could have any visual culture at all. Now it is universally accepted. That shift marks a profound change in our national self-esteem. We now have grown-up politics and can at least contemplate being a grown-up nation again.
So will Generation reflect this? It is billed as “one of the most ambitious celebrations of contemporary art ever held by a single country, recognising the huge international acclaim that artists working in Scotland have achieved over the last generation”. I am not sure that “huge international acclaim” amounts to more than the dubious accolade of a few Turner Prize nominees, artists like Karla Black, Nathan Coley, Cathy Wilkes and a good few others whose reputation generally represents the triumph of hype over experience. Real national acclaim might have been a more interesting proposition.
There are some good artists involved in Generation, certainly. Christine Borland, Graham Fagen, Jim Lambie, Toby Paterson, Callum Innes, to name just a few, are all serious and thoughtful artists. Innes is even a painter. Curiously Steven Campbell is included although he did some of his best work in the 1980s, well outside the show’s self-imposed (and meaningless) limit of art since 1990, but Ken Currie and Adrian Wiszniewski are not, although they are Campbell’s exact contemporaries. Ken Currie’s show at the SNPG was also a high point of last year.
Another conspicuous omission is Calum Colvin. Colvin has just launched Burnsiana, a book and exhibition at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Reflecting on our national bard and his reputation and status as a national icon, Colvin’s work follows on from his earlier Ossian series and that is one of the most subtle and complex investigations of the whole question of modern Scottish identity. Maybe that puts Colvin off-limits.
It seemed to me that 2014 was the occasion to mount at last the major Scottish show for which we have been waiting since 1939, when the last one happened. The idea fell on stony ground however. Perhaps it was potentially too political, although if that was the case it does also say something about the power of art. Be that as it may, the longer view that such a show would have given does matter.
Take Allan Ramsay, for instance. His tercentenary was celebrated by an exhibition at the Hunterian which showed how his portraits were at the heart of the Enlightenment; how they reflect the irreducible importance of the individual, man or woman. It is an idea that was central to the whole development of the West as a distinctive civilisation, however imperfect. The whole notion of democracy hinges on it. The philosopher George Davie coined the phrase “the democratic intellect” to describe Scotland’s unique contribution to it. Ramsay’s art is the democratic intellect in practice. That surely has some bearing on the issues at stake in the Referendum. Ramsay was also a great draughtsmen and a small exhibition of his drawings at the NGS demonstrates his marvellous skill. Not that he was ever showy. Far from it. Drawing was for him an instrument of disciplined enquiry.
Gifted with a wonderful talent, John Bellany was a superb draughtsman too. Perhaps any notion of a tradition that might tie the two together gets pretty tenuous after 300 years. Nevertheless the skill they shared does point to something fundamental about art, what it’s for and how it works. And that takes us back to Ice Age Art at the British Museum. A truly memorable exhibition, it overturned the universal model of progress in the history of art: that it is analogous to the progress from child art to adult and moves inexorably in a process of constant renewal from the primitive to the sophisticated.
On the contrary, the exhibition demonstrated that art was fully sophisticated from the start and was born of need, not novelty. Our ancestors may have been living in caves, but they used precise, fluent and beautifully observed drawing to help them understand the world around them and the creatures in it.
Indirectly, this revelation also prompted the reflection that the modern world evolved as a result of the rediscovery in the Renaissance of that same skill of drawing based on close observation. The wonderful exhibition of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings at the Queen’s Gallery showed the extraordinary power this has. Indeed Leonardo’s drawings clearly suggested that as an instrument of observation, analysis, record and invention, skill in drawing was one of the single most important factors in the rise of the West. All our skills in science, technology, medicine, engineering and much else have depended on it, but so too have those human values that allow us to call it a civilisation. Think of Titian, Rembrandt, Ramsay, Hogarth, Raeburn, Goya and the values that they externalise.
One of the striking facts about Generation, however, is that it represents the first generation of artists who were no longer taught drawing as the key discipline of their trade. Progress in art was deemed to be such that drawing was no longer necessary. What hubris that was, and with hubris inevitably there also comes a fall. Maybe it is just coincidence, but it is ironic that just as western ascendancy is tottering, we should turn our backs on the discipline that made it possible.
Finally, to remind us just how profound visual art can be, the National Gallery of Scotland is putting on Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting. It will bring back to the NGS and to Scotland Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, but with them, too, his late great masterpiece, The Death of Actaeon. These are paintings that explore the deepest mysteries of the human condition: fate, beauty, cruelty and the paradox that the infinity of the imagination is born of the earth-bound limitations of mortality.
It is all a long way from Karla Black’s powder puffs, Cathy Wilkes’s piles of self- important rubbish, or the work of some of the other more dubious stars of Generation. But maybe it does have a bearing on the issues at stake in the referendum. It would certainly be good to think so.