WHILE the Edinburgh Art Festival will officially open its doors this Thursday, a number of major exhibitions are already under way.
It’s always tempting to try to discern some shape and theme to the festival, but unlike the EAF’s own commissions, the partnership programme is driven by individual organisations and dozens of different perspectives.
Thus, three very different exhibitions this week. Inverleith House is once more showing the works of an American heavyweight. Last year’s Rauschenberg exhibition was the fading of the light of a great artist, inventive but excessive. This year’s Philip Guston Late Paintings show is raging, comic, bleak and brilliant.
With most other artists an exhibition of nine paintings would be slight to say the least. With Guston’s late work, such a slim hang also belies the furious pitch and pace the artist worked at in his last dozen years when he turned his back on abstract expressionism and embraced figuration in 1969. But goodness, a good Guston does more than fill a room, it fills the space inside of your head too, and I would travel some distance to see even just one of the best of these works, The Line, say, or The Studio. Eight of them have travelled from New York and one, Black Sea, is on loan from The Tate. All are hung in natural light.
In Guston’s late work the world is the colour of meat and ash, a curious high-toned pink, black and gray, the occasional gangrenous green. When the shift of gear in his painting came, Guston said he was trying to paint “the thickness of things, the grain of wood, the feel of stone, the corruption of the world, the violence”.
Everything in these paintings is thick, the uneven brushwork, which is usually pronounced but never dripped or congealed, pushed around but never artfully rhythmic or tricksy. Even the sausage-fingered, varicose hand of god that descends from a lumpy blue cloud to draw a line in the sand. Guston’s god is vengeful rather than merciful, but the artist hardly needs him; at times his own self-scrutiny is almost unbearable.
The show begins with the moments of Guston’s transformation: a painting of the city, part brick-built Hudson warehouse, part renaissance fantasy on one wall, and on the opposite, The Meeting, the earliest known appearance of the hooded figures that dominated his late art.
These are modern bogeymen, white spectres in the guise of the Ku Klux Klan. Guston’s family were Jewish émigrés who escaped the pogroms, his father committed suicide, his brother was the victim of a horrible accident. The hooded men are the ghosts of his LA childhood, totems of America’s self-lacerating violence, but they are also horrible parodies of the self.
In the best and most important painting here, The Studio from 1969, a hooded figure paints a self-portrait under a bare bulb. The artist is unknowable even to himself. The clock has hands but no numerals. Guston, famously, painted by night, but the lightbulb speaks of torture and interrogation as much as illumination. Brush in one hand, cigarette in the other. There is no real day or night, just an eternal existential drag.
If all this sounds like unremitting misery, Guston was also hugely comic and always aware of the humorous potentials of the weakness of the flesh. In Smoking I (1973) he lies in bed, a fat Cyclops, fag in hand. In The Canvas, painted the same year, the linen stretched and painfully pinned might be his own flesh, pink and strained. But a single eye watches you back, balefully aware of his own self-mortification.
It is much harder to read into the pleasant paintings of the untrained Scottish artist Leslie Hunter a life that was at times tempestuous and obsessive to the point of self-neglect. But Hunter died in 1931 at only 54, never fully recovering from an apparently accidental swig of turpentine from a wine bottle in his studio.
He was chased at times by bad luck, losing all his work for a major solo show in the fires that erupted following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but he was driven. Sometimes his art seemed to go against the grain, sometimes it went with it. He gained recognition internationally but at one stage left Glasgow in despair when the conservative art world struggled to follow his interest in Matisse and the Fauves.
Even as a young painter in Paris, contemporaries report he was thin, haunted and obsessive. One of the four Scottish artists who are now known as the Scottish Colourists, but rarely shown together in their own lifetime, Hunter was born in Bute and brought up in California.
He was a restless artist who lived and worked in San Francisco, New York, Paris, London and Fife. He painted in Provence and painted houseboats in Balloch as though they were bobbing on the Seine. At the City Art Centre, Leslie Hunter: A Life In Colour is steady and thorough, moving from Hunter’s early drawings of the San Francisco quayside through the commercial illustration that paid his bills. In Fife, at Lower Largo and Ceres, he seemed to find his voice, painting the Fife landscapes as though it were incandescent. On the Riviera in the late 1920s he rediscovered light and line, sensuality in the lounging bathers on the beach at Juan–les-Pins. Though his health problems were relatively longstanding, he died abruptly, failing to seek medical help when he should have. You sense a life unfinished, a thirst not quite assuaged.
At one point, the Dovecot Studios, founded as a private workshop in 1912 by the Bute family to create tapestry hangings for their collection, also looked like they might be terminal. But rescued by the determination of David Weir, and the financial support of the Salvesen family, the world-famous tapestry workshop has been revived and – since the opening of its new home in Infirmary Street – has flourished.
Marking the centenary, the exhibition Weaving The Century demonstrates just why artists of the calibre of Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland worked with their master weavers.
There’s a fine line in such endeavour. There are times when those works that merely seem to be paintings translated on the loom have no real life of their own. Conversely, those tapestries which try to be too clever can fail. A Tapestry Made From A Painting, Made From A Painting Of A Tapestry, Made From A Painting (Play Within A Play) is David Hockney’s play on artifice and painted surface but you could probably guess that from the title alone.
There are many lovely works, from beautiful traditional pieces by Alfred Priest to British Modernists like Edward Wadsworth’s Marine Life. Don Pottinger’s woven Tiger Rug is a one-liner, but a funny one none the less, and there’s a beautiful John Maxwell, Phases Of The Moon, borrowed from Aberdeen.
The brilliant graphic designer Peter Saville’s version of Landseer’s Monarch Of The Glen reinvents the hunting scene by way of Peter Blake. Blake himself has created a dinky little series of colourful pop art squares. The future will lie in artists who are willing to experiment. If Claire Barclay’s fantastic Quick Slow (which leaves the threads hanging and then mounts the tapestry work on a loom-like frame) is anything to go by, the future is bright.
Philip Guston: Late Painting is at Inverleith House until 7 October. Leslie Hunter: A Life In Colour is at the City Art Centre until 14 October. Weaving The Century: Tapestry From The Dovecot Studios 1912 - 2012 is at Dovecot until 7 October. www.edinburghartfestival.com
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