Visual art reviews: Heirlooms | The Garden of Eichstatt | In Japan: Highlights of the Academicians Projects in Comtemporary Japan





Alexander MeddoweS, EDINBURGH


IN JAPAN: Highlights of Academicians’ projects in contemporary Japan






The kilt has made a big comeback. Forty years ago it was mostly a garment for die-hard nationalists. Now no young man can consider himself properly married unless he wears a kilt. It can look great, but it’s not the real thing.

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All those hard tight pleats and sharp lines at waist and knee betray its military origin. Their visible discipline is the antithesis of the kilt, the plaid as it was once worn, loosely belted at the waist and wrapped around the shoulders. The free spirit of the Highlands has been caught and imprisoned. But the military kilt is faithful to one key feature of the belted plaid. All those pleats are to hold in check the natural baroque flamboyance of a garment made from a single piece of uncut material, several metres long.

There’s logic in that, too. If you make a beautiful piece of cloth, why cut it? Reverse the old adage, “cut your coat to suit your cloth” and don’t cut the cloth at all. Let your clothes be shaped by its natural flow. And that is a link to one of the oldest and richest traditions of textile weaving in the world, that of the Indian sub-continent, the subject of Heirlooms at Dovecot Studios. It’s a show of beautiful lengths of cloth, woven to be worn uncut. Perhaps the kilt is a link back to a common Indo-European heritage.

In the confusing mix of festivals, this exhibition and Hiroshe Sugimoto at the Dean (nominally Japanese) constitute the official Festival’s biennial visual art contribution and so reflect its eastern theme. Indeed the spectacularly beautiful textiles in Heirlooms match the visual richness of some the key events of this year’s Festival. When it works, making such a visual link is a much more satisfactory way of incorporating the visual arts into the main Festival than the dim contemporary interventions of previous years.

Heirlooms is in two parts, divided between the north and south galleries of Dovecot. The south gallery is devoted to Indian textiles. They are very beautiful, but they are documents, too, recording the world and lifestyle of which they were part. In a 19th-century sari, for instance, there is a border of people sitting in railway carriages. There is gently humorous observation in the figured embroidery of a late-19th-century cotton coverlet.

Some of these are also historically important, however. There is a sari in silk woven by a master weaver called Dubraj in the late 19th century, for example, decorated with abstract flowers, people feasting and those cones of flowers we now call Paisley pattern. (The name reflects the impact of imported Indian weaving on 19th-century British fashion and industry.) Both in overall design and in detail, this sari is a perfect balance of natural forms and geometrical abstraction. Dubraj, the weaver of this beautiful cloth, is recorded as being the last to have this skill. The Craft Council of West Bengal is listed as one of the supporters of the exhibition and another dimension here is the importance of modern intervention to perpetuate these traditions. This has been done with some success to judge by the quality of some of the contemporary work.

In co-operation with Indian partners, three Scottish weavers also went out in an exchange which brought Indian weavers to Scotland. The three Scottish artists are Deirdre Nelson, Naomi Robertson and Sarah Sumsion. They are each different and their work is earnest and sincere, but as so often when contemporary artists are shown alongside classic works like these, the comparison is not flattering.

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The north gallery is devoted to works from the John Hope collection, cloths that were either produced in India for trade to Indonesia, or were produced in Indonesia in imitation of Indian models. This exchange was part of the complex trading pattern of the early modern era when Dutch and Portuguese merchants took textiles from India to Indonesia as one leg in the spice trade that first took Europeans to south east Asia.

The works on show date from the late 16th century down to early last century. Most are batik. All are beautiful. They balance extraordinary intricacy with superb overall design. Among the most striking is an 18th-century ceremonial cloth produced in Gujarat for the Indonesian market and decorated with a tree of life design. It finds a direct echo in Matisse and so reminds us again how deeply this Indian tradition penetrated Western culture.

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And maybe that came closer to home than we might think. The patterns of these cloths had specific significance. They were worn in ceremonials, or simply to indicate rank and family. Sir Thomas Raffles, governor in Java during a brief British occupation, and the founder of Singapore, gave an account of all this in his History of Java published in 1817. The book was popular and widely influential.

Returning to where I began, it does seem very likely that the Scottish weaver William Wilson who was the first to seek to attribute tartans to particular clans was influenced in this enterprise by Raffles’s account of the codification of Indonesian textiles. Wilson did this in his Key Pattern Book, published in 1819, two years after Raffles’s History of Java.

The beauty of vegetable dyes like indigo, for instance, here providing not just blue, but a rich black, is manifest everywhere in this exhibition. Understanding their botany was vital to any attempt to emulate these textiles. There are various herbals and indeed sample roots on display, but if you go to The Garden of Eystatt 1613at Alexander Meddowes, you can see 100 plates from one of the earliest and most beautiful botanical publications, The Hortus Eystettensis by Basil Besler, printed and coloured in Nuremberg in 1613. The date of publication coincides very closely with the rise of the Dutch East India company and the trade in south Asian spices. The book, with its precisely observed and classified plants and flowers, is also a key document in the early history of taxonomy, the discipline of accurate description as the basis of classification that was one of the cornerstones of modern science.

The exhibition at the RSA, In Japan, also reflects the Festival theme of east-west exchange. Japan and Japanese art have fascinated Scottish artists for a century or more and the exhibition explores the Japanese influence on contemporaries like Elizabeth Blackadder, George Donald, Paul Furneaux, Elspeth Lamb and a number of others. The outstanding image is a large print by Helen Frankenthaler, an American, but also an honorary member of the RSA. The show also includes work by contemporary Japanese artists who specialise in Mokuhanga, the technique of woodblock printing, incidentally demonstrating how much this is a two-way exchange.

Finally, a show that does not appear in the programme of the Visual Art Festival, but which is well worth a visit is Philip Braham’s exhibition Still at the Union Gallery. Braham’s work is always interesting and these remarkable paintings of dark, mysterious woodlands are no exception. He has called the exhibition Still, he says, because the pictures “invoke the sense of a paused narrative, presenting a pivotal moment between what was and what is yet to come…” A place that was also explored by TS Eliot in his Four Quartets, in Braham’s work it seems to represent boundaries in the imagination as well as in time and space. Within the woods, beyond the boundary of consciousness lies the archetypal forest of dream and fairytale, a place we only explore in dreams.

Perhaps that is what the artist means when he says of his pictures: “These are the woodlands that marked the boundaries of the territory I was allowed to explore as a child.”

l Heirlooms runs until 4 September, The Garden of Eichstatt until 30 September, In Japan until 18 September; Still until 5 September

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