NO doubt you could make an entertaining anthology of articles written like this one for the first newspaper of the new year. What glowing visions were penned in January 1929, for instance, or at the beginning of 1939?
All the prognostications suggest that an optimistic essay would be equally misplaced now with 2012 already labelled a year of crisis and general meltdown. Just as in 1929, 1939 or even 1914 when the nation was led inexorably by incompetence to disaster, so in 2012 it is pretty clear that our present leaders barely understand the problem and have even less idea of the solution. In fact they seem determined to dig an ever deeper hole and if eventually we do manage to climb out, it will be to a very different world and to a very different place in it.
Instead of making things, inventing them, or pursuing other kinds of enterprise, commercial, intellectual or educational, our national effort has become focussed on money. Money made parthenogenically from money has unhealthily become a major source of national wealth. Everything is given a money value and all other values are discounted. The image of a group of people leaping about in insane glee at some trivial offer of price reduction or other illusory financial advantage is a dismally topical trope of television advertising. They look deluded and they are. Money is an instrument, not an end.
Burns, writing at a time of similar inequality of wealth, had it right. In the Twa Dogs, he compares the lives of rich and poor through the philosophical reflections of Luath, a poor man’s collie and Caesar, a rich man’s Newfoundland. Poor folk, says Luath, are “no sae wretched’s ane wad think. Tho’ constantly on poortith’s brink…” they find their comfort in warm and social things on which money has no bearing, times when “Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth / Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.” Burns had no illusions about poverty as a route to happiness. He knew too well that a little wealth brings comfort, but he also knew that as an end in itself money is sterile.
So what chance for any higher values in 2012? Not much unless we are vigilant. It may just be neurotic anticipation, but rumbling ominously off-stage in this time of cuts and austerity is the question of museum charges. If such a proposal raises its head, it must be rejected. Free access to museums and galleries declares not just that they are common property, as they are, but that, defiantly, they represent values that have no place on a calculator. That is no doubt one reason why they are so obnoxious to the Gradgrind monetarists. There is also the more existential question of their actual survival, however. One of the saddest events anticipated in the coming year will be the closure in spring of the Collins Gallery at Strathclyde University. It is an ominous straw in the wind. If a major university does not see a place for art in the services it provides, what hope is there for art in education when we start burning the school furniture to keep warm? We have created an unhappy split separating culture from education and bundling it with sport. The original purpose of the great national collections was not entertainment, but public investment in knowledge and in the idea of quality. Inform people and show them what is best and you seed the aspiration that is vital to success. Faced with so much gloom what are we offered to divert us in the coming year? Glasgow International in the spring won’t do much to lift our spirits. Amongst other artists it offers us more Karla Black and more Richard Wright. I have had enough of both. Graham Fagan, also included on the programme, is much more interesting, except that he will be showing at Tramway, the glummest imaginable place for art. Also in Glasgow, however, Kelvingrove is putting together a major show of its Italian art, The Essence of Beauty: 500 Years of Italian Art (6 April-12 August.) Seeing these treasures properly presented will be something to celebrate.
At the National Gallery in Edinburgh, Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Landscapes of the Imagination (Scottish National Gallery, 14 July to 14 October) may also lift the spirits. Devoted to Symbolist landscape, the show will put Van Gogh alongside Gauguin, Munch, Mondrian and Kandinsky and lesser-known figures including the Dane Willem Hammershøi, the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler, the Belgian Fernand Knopff and the Finn, Akseli Gallen-Kallela. British art will be represented amongst others by Walter Crane, Lord Leighton, GF Watts and the Pre-Raphaelite, JE Millais. At the same time, Picasso and Modern British Art will be showing at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (4 August to 4 November). The show will include over 60 paintings by Picasso. Including works by Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, the home team may look a little amateur, I fear. This show comes to Edinburgh from Tate Britain and so will not be a fresh offering for those critical Festival weeks. No mention of any of the Colourists in the list, but the autumn will see Peploe, the second of the SNGMA’s monographic Colourist shows. (October 2012 – March 2013). At the end of the year, John Bellany: A Passion for Life (Royal Scottish Academy, 17 November 2012 to 27 January 2013) follows this year’s Elizabeth Blackadder exhibition. Bellany was born in 1942. The exhibition marks his 70th birthday and will be the biggest show of his work since 1986.
Already visited by a number of people equal to almost a quarter of the Scottish population, the National Museum has been the big success of the past year. Among several shows planned there, Fascinating Mummies will be the the first in the new exhibition space. Mummies are ever popular and the exhibition drawn from the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden’s world famous Egyptology collections will explore the rituals surrounding death and afterlife in Ancient Egypt.
The summer exhibition at the Museum, Catherine the Great, An Enlightened Empress, will also be a nice distraction and a reminder, too, of how in the past huge inequalities of wealth did at least produce things of beauty. It will include paintings, costumes and uniforms, and gold and silver all brought from Russia. The press release also indicates that the show will portray “strong personal stories of Catherine and her reign.” Probably not as personal or quite as strong as they might be, however. Catherine’s love life was notorious. Famously her companion, the Countess Praskovya Bruce (a Scottish name) was her “eprouveuse”. It was a bit like being the Imperial food taster, except that it was the virility of potential lovers, not the safety of the empress’s food, that she had to try out.
Then there is the absurdly titled Art Olympics which, to judge by the posters already published, will be a national series of non-events. Scotland’s offering is Forest Pitch by Craig Coulthard, a wood, cut down to create a football pitch, used for two matches and then allowed to regrow, a metaphor, at least, for the transient impact of the billions spent on the Games. Finally there is ArcelorMittal Orbit, Anish Kapoor’s vast, expensive confusion of twisted steel at the Olympic site itself. The Eiffel Tower with severe erectile dysfunction, it would not have passed Catherine’s eprouveuse. The biggest public art work in the country, it cost £19 million. Quite unintentionally Kapoor has produced a perfect metaphor for silly money, economic meltdown, the melancholy state of British industry (ironically it was largely funded steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal) and the confused leadership that has got us into the mess we are in.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
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Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
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