Art reviews: Inspired | Frank McElhinney | Sincerely, Valentines

A show inviting contemporary artists to respond to work in Scotland’s national collection has produced some inspired results, writes Susan Mansfield

Inspired, Fidra Fine Art, Gullane ****

Frank McElhinney: Flight, Glasgow, ****

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Sincerely, Valentines: From Postcards to Greetings Cards, V&A, Dundee ***

The Black Flag (after Magritte), by David Schofield
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Inspiration comes in many forms, and sometimes it’s a gallerist with a bright idea for a show. For Inspired, Gullane gallery owner Alan Rae invited an impressive array of Scottish artists to respond to a work in Scotland’s national collection after reading about a similar project in London in 2000. The enthusiasm with which the idea was received is evident on the gallery walls.

At least half the pleasure of this show lies in finding out what the artists chose – how like or unlike their own work – and how they responded: reverentially, playfully or embracing a challenge to do something new (QR codes next to each painting allow comparison with the originals). While studying the canon is a key part of an artist’s training, the show has given them permission to return to such an exercise in professional practice, with some surprising results.

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Landscape painter Matthew Draper (not very surprisingly) takes on Alexander Nasmyth with a dramatic view of Tantallon Castle, echoing the original but staging the scene by moonlight, arguably enhancing the drama. Peter Thomson produces a largely faithful version of Joan Eardley’s Sleeping Nude which highlights its calm and simplicity (neither of them easy things to do), and a superb portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid from a photograph by Jessie Ann Matthew.

Ann Oram rather bravely takes on Sargent’s Lady Agnew, challenging herself to achieve in watercolour what Sargent does in oil; the result – best seen in the flesh – gives a different kind of luminosity to Agnew’s imperious smile and gauzy dress. Phil Jupitus, currently studying at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, presents his own quirky take on the portrait, as well as a Sergeant Pepper-ish collage, Day Off at the Festival.

Mary Stuart, by Simon Laurie PIC: Alan Dimmick

Alice McMurrough picks part of a 16th-century Dutch altarpiece and re-envisions it as A Tale of Two Sisters, echoing the original in elements of her characters’ costumes. Figurative painter Graeme Wilcox takes a portrait of Alec Douglas-Home by Avigdor Arikha, in which the subject is placed at the edge of the frame, and uses a mirror image of the same composition for his female subject, deepening the mood and hinting at a narrative.

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Some artists find a stylistic meeting point with the work they’ve chosen, like Simon Laurie, making his own stark, strong portrait of Mary Stuart. Neal Greig, meanwhile, made an expedition to find the spot from which Turner painted his view of Loch Coruisk, then paints it himself in his own contemporary palette.

Octogenarian John Johnstone entered into energetic engagement with Jan Steen’s A School for Boys and Girls, not only doing his own version of the original, but also reworking the idea in the present day. Joseph Davie takes a drawing by James Cowie as inspiration to make a rare portrait, of his own daughter, Esmé.

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Some artists are clearly having fun: Georgina Brown’s monoprint which adds headphones to JD Fergusson’s sculpture, and Ronnie Fulton’s superb ceramic, which finds elements of Gauguin in a drunken hen party. Others are much more serious: David Schofield takes René Magritte’s The Black Flag and replaces Magritte’s strange flying machines with drones, as if the present day had fulfilled Magritte’s dark prophecy. It’s a rewarding show, one suspects for the artists as much as for the audience.

MacDiarmid (after Jessie Ann Matthew), by Peter Thomson

Meanwhile, a long-held interest in migration fuels artist Frank McElhinney’s solo show at Street Level Photoworks. Reflecting on his own background as an Irish-Scot, he takes a deep-dive into the history of migration between the two countries, drawing in part on a residency in Donegal where his family originated.

Of course, his research arrives, quickly, at the Great Famine of the 1840s in which a million people died and even more emigrated, a natural disaster (potato blight) exacerbated by the attitudes of the British landowners. He quotes Sir Charles Trevelyan, the minister responsible the British Government’s woefully inadequate action, describing the famine as an act of God which “must not be too much mitigated”.

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The exhibition circles back again and again to this disaster, capturing its legacy, from abandoned villages to the “relief” building projects on which the starving worked for a pittance, and the land contours outside Skibbereen which betray the presence of mass graves.

But, more than this, he is looking for a way to capture the scale of it, hence using collages of multiple images: 77 photographs of ships become a great fleet; 146 prints of whooper swans in flight, a great anonymous migration. His collage of 100 prints of the Atlantic coast of Ireland – fields, cliffs, swans on a river, peat stacks, a stone circle – become a gathering of many people’s fragmented memories.

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Malin Head, Donegal by Frank McElhinney PIC: courtesy of Street Level Photoworks

One of his most poetic images is in his prints of birch seeds in flight; a mature tree will release millions of these, though very few ever take root. Though the migrants faced mixed fortunes, many did build homes in other lands, like McElhinney’s own: he finishes the show with portraits of his two sons, the latest generation of Irish-Scots, continuing to thrive.

It’s a powerful and affecting body of work which doesn’t really need the contemporary comparisons McElhinney’s commentary makes with migration today. The Irish story has plenty of power to stand on its own, leaving other connections safely in the hands of the audience.

Sincerely, Valentines, a free exhibition at the V&A Dundee about the legacy of the city’s card company, sits somewhere between a celebration and a memorial. Valentines, which closed its doors in 1994, pioneered the rise of the picture postcard and once had a workforce of 1,000 at its Kingsway factory, with branches in Jamaica, Canada and Tangier.

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Growing from a portrait studio in Dundee in the mid-19th century to one of the city’s major employers, Valentines produced millions of postcards in the early 20th century for an audience who were discovering new places by rail and were hungry to send home a memento of their travels. Drawing on the company’s archive, which is now at the University of St Andrews, the show explains how it went from glass-plate negatives to multi-view postcards, hand-colouring cards before colour printing was possible, and removing inconvenient features of landscapes long before anyone had heard of Photoshop. The show is installed in a rather cumbersome design of giant postcards by Maeve Redmond, and includes an excellent film by Rob Kennedy which features interviews with ex-employees.

By the 1950s, production was shifting from postcards to greetings cards, the in-house art department creating hundreds of designs featuring cutesy kittens, champagne glasses and Christmassy flower arrangements. Lucy Mabel Atwell (“Please remember, don’t forget, never leave the bathroom wet”) was also a big earner. By the 1980s, an army of printers (men) and finishers (usually women) were making 250,000 cards a day.

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Having been run by six generations of the Valentine family, the company was bought by Waddington in 1963 and US-based Hallmark in 1980. It closed in 1994, after a management buy-out failed when Hallmark would not allow the managers to keep the name. The show leaves a sense of wistfulness, not just at the loss of a local company which perhaps could have been saved, but at the passing of the postcard itself, in a world where Instagram does the job more efficiently but without the same magic.

Inspired and Frank McElhinney until 30 October; Sincerely, Valentines until 8 January 2023.