Art reviews: The Artist’s Garden | Claire Harkess | Elisa Giardina Papa

A new exhibition at the RSA brings together work on a horticultural theme by 14 leading Scottish artists. Review by Duncan Macmillan

The Artist’s Garden, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

Claire Harkess: Season’s Song, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh *****

Elisa Giardina Papa: ‘U Scantu’: A Disorderly Tale, Collective, Edinburgh ***

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Monet was the most famous artist-gardener. No doubt there have been many others. Certainly gardens have been a constant inspiration to artists before Monet and since. In The Artist’s Garden at the RSA Academicians’ Gallery, however, in spite of the title not many of the assembled works by 14 academicians, past and present, suggest we are looking at actual gardens or even at outcomes of dedicated gardening. It is, too, more an exhibition of depictions of plants than of gardens, although many are very beautiful. We do know that Elizabeth Blackadder, for instance, was a dedicated gardener, but four prints and one watercolour by her here are of flowers without context. The prints include a screenprint of oriental poppies and another of lilies and poppies that could no doubt have come from her garden, but a watercolour and an etching are both of exotic orchids which could never grow in an Edinburgh garden, however skilled the gardener. Victoria Crowe takes a similar approach in two exquisitely delicate watercolours of what seem to be dried specimen irises. The origin of the flowers in one of the studies is located precisely to a garden in Cambridgeshire. John Houston’s dramatic lithograph, Temple Garden, although by its title a picture of a garden, is a Zen garden in Japan, and certainly not an artist’s garden. Equally exotic, but evidently imaginary is Hokusai’s Garden by Henry Kondracki. Kondracki seems closer to home, however, in Winter Garden and Spring Garden, two paintings of the seasons in what looks like a domestic Edinburgh garden.

Wendy McMurdo’s prints of flowers and plants are particularly striking while being technically mystifying. They are described as photopolymer printing, apparently a kind photographic etching. Certainly the results are stunning. Four of the prints are called Ghost Orchids and one Study for a Ghost Orchid. In two of them the flower images are blue like cyanotypes or blueprints, but with the white shadow of another flower somehow interposed. Three are in intense colour against black.

Kate Downie has painted delicate posies of flowers in vases on found wood panelling painted grey with a very decorative effect. Jane Hyslop records the beauty of winter light in delicate paintings in watercolour and gouache of flowers and leaves. Drawing by sandblasting stone does sound like a challenge, but Mary Bourne produces delicate images of flowers on polished slate by this method.

The late Willie Rodger was master of woodcut. In his Parkland and Rain, the vertical grain of the wood becomes falling rain and one of the most striking images here is his print of a line of winter trees bending in the wind. Adrian Wiszniewski has also made some remarkable woodcuts, both pictures of trees and bushes against the sea at Crail. The laser cutting that he uses gives scale to the drawing and the precisely cut blocks of colour fit into each other like beautiful jigsaw puzzles in flat, bright colours.

Detail from Ghost Orchid (Blue) II by Wendy McMurdo PIC: Courtesy of the RSADetail from Ghost Orchid (Blue) II by Wendy McMurdo PIC: Courtesy of the RSA
Detail from Ghost Orchid (Blue) II by Wendy McMurdo PIC: Courtesy of the RSA

At the Scottish Gallery, Claire Harkess paints gardens too. Her garden paintings are also full of garden birds, alone in individual studies or in their natural habitat behaving as they do, waxwings and long-tailed tits in crowds, others alone or in smaller groups. There are paintings here, both in context and alone, of other birds as well – seabirds and owls, for instance. She works in watercolour and in a style clearly inspired by classical Chinese and Japanese art. The way she makes areas of paper an active part of her composition is distinctly oriental. In Sunrise Song, a large watercolour of two chaffinches amongst green leaves and blue flowers, or in the lovely Autumn Twilight and other pictures, her beautifully graded washes of blue echo to great effect the exquisite transition from transparent dark to light in the prints of the great Japanese print maker Hiroshige. She also incorporates Japanese script into some of her paintings. Throughout her show the results of this inspiration in pictures like With Yellow Breast and Head of Solid Gold, a yellowhammer in a screen of blue and gold, or Coals in Willow, coal tits in the hanging branches of a weeping willow tree, are simply beautiful. Indeed this really is altogether a beautiful show.

If Claire Harkess’s work seems magical, in “U Scantu”: A Disorderly Tale at Collective, Sicilian artist, Elisa Giardina Papa actually deals with witches, or at least with a particular kind of witch, the “donne de fora” who were once long ago a feature of life in Sicily. The polite “donne” form – “ladies” – suggests that they were to be treated with respect, and in English they would be called roughly “outsider ladies.” The blurb for the show says they were “considered to be at once heretical and magical healers” and were “believed to embody a range of opposing qualities – feminine and masculine; human and animal; benevolent and vengeful.” Indeed, they sound a bit like the sidh (pronounced “shee”), the capricious fairies of the Highlands. In the 17th century, women who were identified as donne de fora were persecuted by the Inquisition, severely enough, but apparently not with quite the same ferocity as the unfortunate people, mostly women, who were unlucky enough to be identified as witches in the northern Protestant countries.

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That said, the show’s relationship to the stories of these women seems a little tangential. It consists principally of three short films. In the first one, young women on bicycles fitted with large and very loud hi-fi systems cycle through the extraordinary, empty environment of Gibbellina Nova in Sicily. The women with their loud music might be seen as a disruptive outsiders like the donne, but actually it is the place they are in that is most interesting. After the destruction by an earthquake of the old town of Gibbelina which lay several miles away, a visionary new utopian town was planned. The images of the unfinished and empty city that was the result suggest a crazy, modernist architect’s megalomaniac dream. It is an extraordinary paradigm of the mismatch between the ideals of Utopian architecture that blighted so many of our cities and how people actually live. Five thousand people live in a city designed for ten times as many with massive unfinished public buildings and empty urban spaces. As these modern women cycle through this bizarre environment the names and other references to the women persecuted by the Inquisition appear in texts across the screen.

The second film is enigmatic to say the least and shows a hand with a large lemon and a knee, both being bound with elastic ties. The third film is more visually arresting. It follows a goat wandering idly through a beautiful, very ornate and slightly dingy baroque palace whose date might approximate very roughly to the time of the Inquisition’s persecution of the donne. The goat stands on a table for while and there are close-ups of its face. With their strange eyes, goats can seem sinister and so have been associated with lust and things diabolical. That, I suppose, is a link to the donne. Like the goat in an empty palace, theirs was an uncanny presence. Plaited hair growing from unexpected places, ducks feet in ceramic and a long inscription including again the names of some of the women and the dates of their persecution taken from the records of the Inquisition add to the narrative, but they hardly complete it. The whole thing is very inconclusive.

The Artist’s Garden runs until 17 March; Claire Harkess until 6 April; Elisa Giardina Papa until 19 May

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