Beyond words

1 Art

Fizzers

Scottish National Portrait Gallery Edinburgh, 7 April - 2 July

Stranger Than Life

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 7 April - 9 July

A PORTRAIT MAY FLATTER OR DEMEAN ITS subject, but as the cartoonists of the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten know to their cost, a caricature is always loaded.

The word derives from the Italian verb caricare: to load. It was introduced into English with the help of the 17th-century physician Sir Thomas Browne. "When Men's faces are drawn with resemblance to some other Animals," he wrote in his famous book Christian Morals, "the Italians call it, to be drawn in Caricatura."

You won't find much resemblance to "other Animals" in Fizzers, the caricature exhibition opening this Friday at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The work of six artists from the Scottish Cartoon Art Studio, this "alternative portrait gallery" of 250 celebrity Scots throws a pretty rosy light on its subjects: Sir Sean Connery raising a quizzical eyebrow; Lulu beaming, braw and bonny; Ewan McGregor with a Hollywood gleam across his pearly-whites. Even the politicians get off relatively lightly, though Donald Dewar looks characteristically dour and Jack McConnell's been given a forehead like an Easterhouse tower block.

Gentle teasing is all very well, but many of the best caricatures are loaded with venom, as an accompanying exhibition demonstrates. Designed to complement Fizzers and place it in a historical context, Stranger Than Life draws on the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland to offer a flick-book history of 400 years of caricature. Tracing a vivid and exaggerated line from grotesque heads in the style of Leonardo da Vinci to Tony Blair by Times cartoonist Richard Wilson, Stranger Than Life celebrates the caricaturist's skill, and reveals something of its development.

"One claim made by caricaturists is that a transformed or distorted image can be truer to capturing an individual than a straightforward likeness," says Stranger Than Life curator, Nicola Kalinsky. "You can somehow get to the essence of someone by distorting them physically, and say much more about them than a realistic portrait."

This comment sheds some light on the work of the satirical cartoonist: while reporters are expected to dig up the facts of a story, and columnists to construct a reasoned argument around it, the task of newspaper cartoonists is far more demanding. They have to present recognisable figures in a visually striking composition that comments wittily and provocatively on the story. The way a person is drawn - or rather, loaded - is often at the heart of the cartoon's message.

However, the cartoonist enjoys one great advantage over the writer: cartoons are virtually impossible to edit, even in the days of digital imaging technology. Moreover, political cartoons can exert enormous influence on public opinion: think of the way that John Major's image was damaged by Steve Bell's cartoons depicting him with his underpants outside his trousers; or that grey, dull Spitting Image puppet (a three-dimensional variant on the caricature).

Although cartoons have existed in some form since ancient times, the first great flowering of the caricature was at the end of the 16th century. The eminent art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich attributed this development to the waning of superstitious or religious beliefs surrounding portraiture. Certainly the Renaissance and Reformation had paved the way for new forms of creativity.

Caricature did not really flourish in Britain until the 18th century: our first great exponent of the form was William Hogarth (1697-1764), who was famous for his scathing sequence of paintings, A Rake's Progress. Stranger Than Life includes his send-up of the legal profession, The Bench , which depicts a row of magistrates - obese, somnolent and steeped in self-satisfaction. Above their heads, a crest peeps from behind a curtain. It bears the motto of the reigning British monarch, Queen Anne, "Semper eadem", which translates as "always the same".

Perhaps the greatest British caricaturist of all time was James Gillray (1757-1815), the London-born son of a Lanark soldier. Gillray's work was even more vicious than Hogarth's: he had a penchant for lampooning George III, though he became increasingly patriotic during the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars.

His best-known work is probably The Plum Pudding in Danger (1805), which shows Napoleon and Pitt the Younger carving up the world. Stranger Than Life includes a less well-known, but equally unflattering, caricature of Bonaparte, wearing a very elaborate hat as a member of the French Consular Triumvirate. Despite Gillray's savagery, Napoleon admired him greatly: the French Emperor is said to have been much amused by The First Kiss This Ten Years!, a comment on the short-lived peace treaty of 1802, which showed him stooping to kiss a distinctly plump Britannia.

Besides, as Napoleon knew, the only thing worse than being caricatured is not being caricatured. It's unlikely that the mordant German artist George Grosz (1893-1959) received many thanks from the Toads of Property whose unwholesome likeness is included in this show; nor that John Major and the late John Smith would derive narcissistic delight from Gad Sir ... , a contribution from the Scottish-based cartoonist Harry Horse. But more than one politician became peevish when their rubber doppelgangers failed to pop up in Spitting Image, which came to be regarded as a televisual Madame Tussauds.

Cruel as they often are, caricatures are frequently affectionate - otherwise how could street caricaturists earn a living? Among the kinder pieces in this exhibition are a cheery take on Harry Lauder by the Australian-born society cartoonist HM Bateman; and portraits of Rikki Fulton and Eduardo Paolozzi by the late Scotsman cartoonist Emilio Coia.

Nicola Kalinsky says she was surprised, while assembling the show, at how funny many of these caricatures still were. But with John Leighton newly installed as director of the National Galleries of Scotland, and keen to set the tone for a new era, one question hovers awkwardly: is it any good as art? For Kalinsky, the answer is not in doubt. "A lot of it is terrific art," she says. "Many of these works are really attractive in themselves, and the fact that they also make you laugh is only to the good."

Most of the subjects of Stranger Than Life are no longer with us, but those who are (the Prince of Wales; the aforementioned Member for Sedgefield) had better take heed. These pictures are loaded.

• Fizzers and Stranger Than Life both open at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on 7 April.

2 Festival

Edinburgh International Harp Festival

Merchiston Castle School and other venues, Edinburgh, 7-12 April

THE 25th Edinburgh International Harp Festival looks set to mark its quarter-century with eclectic musical panache - with everything from folk to classical, early music to West African minstrelsy.

Friday's opening night features the formidable Cape Breton-inclined harp-fiddle-cello trio Ferintosh, plus the Breton harpist and composer Dominig Bouchaud. Saturday's silver jubilee concert will fill the splendid acoustic space of St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral with the voices of the Scots medieval ensemble Canty, alongside early music specialist Bill Taylor and contemporary-folk harpists Patsy Seddon, Corrina Hewat and Rhona McKay in a commissioned composition from the appropriately named Edward Harper. The concert also features the exuberant trad-contemporary music of the Poozies.

Also playing over the six days: the classical duo of Edward and Chris Witsenburg and the Irish-baroque crossover of Kathleen Loughnane, accompanied here by her son Cormac Cannon on uillean pipes, Martin Hughes on flute and Alec Finn (formerly of de Danaan) on guitar and bouzouki. There's Scots Gaelic tradition from Alison Kinnaird and Christine Primrose, jazz from the acclaimed New York player Park Stickney, and an intriguing double bill from young folk-jazzer Maeve Gilchrist (OK, this writer's daughter) and Chinese zheng virtuoso, Y Dong.

The festival's parent body, Comunn na Clrsaich, marks its 75th anniversary with "A Host of Harps" at Merchiston Castle, to which all comers - but with harps, please - are invited, in a bid to set a world record for largest-ever harp ensemble.

Tel: 0131 478 8446 or visit www.harpfestival.co.uk

3 Theatre

Roam

Edinburgh International Airport, 4-22 April

GRID Iron, the masters of site-specific theatre, have produced shows in a department store, a cancer hospital and a city morgue. But Edinburgh International Airport is providing their toughest challenge to date.

Roam, co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, is the first time that a theatre production has been staged in the departure lounge of an airport anywhere in the world. The audience become passengers who check-in, clear security and begin their journey.

Written and directed by Ben Harrison, it uses a cast of professionals and volunteers aged between four and 74 to muse on the nature of air travel, and on the strange world of the airport which brings together holiday-makers and executives, nomads and refugees.

Tel: 0131-228 1404

4 Music

Colin Steele's Stramash

Lochside Theatre, Castle Douglas, 4 April; Tolbooth, Stirling, 5 April; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, 6 April; Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 7 April; Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 8 April; The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 9 April

ONE of the leading lights of the burgeoning Scottish jazz scene, trumpeter Colin Steele's warm, lyrical, Celtic-inflected style has attracted glowing press plaudits and awards. Steele (pictured) hits the road, courtesy of the Scottish Arts Council's "tune up" programme, with a no-holds-barred folk-jazz outfit combining his own formidable quintet of Phil Bancroft (sax) David Milligan (piano), Aidan O'Donnell (bass) and Stu Ritchie (drums) with Mr McFall's Chamber cellist Su-a Lee and folk instrumentalists Aidan O'Rourke, Charlie McKerron and Chris Stout (fiddles) and piper Rory Campbell.

Is it jazz? Is it folk? As one of Steele's cornerstone influences, Miles Davis, once put it: "I'll play it first and tell you what it is later ..."

Tel: 01556 504506 (Castle Douglas); 01786 274000 (Stirling); 01224 619767 (Aberdeen); 0131-668 2019 (Edinburgh); 01334 475000 (St Andrews); 0141-353 8000 (Glasgow)

5 Visual art

Glasgow Art Fair

George Square, Glasgow, 6-9 April

THE tent is up in George Square, and that can only mean one thing. Soon it will be filled with the work of more than a thousand artists from 44 galleries, and every piece for sale.

The success of the Art Fair in the ten years since it was launched has challenged the notion that Scots don't buy art. Purchases are increasing year on year, but, as ever, window shoppers are welcome.

This year, competition for space was intense, so the likes of Market Gallery, Lapland and Stirling's Changing Room rub shoulders with Duncan R Miller Fine Arts (Peploe, Cadell, Hornel, MacTaggart) and the Scottish Gallery (Blackadder, Houston, Michie, Barbara Rae). Edinburgh's Richard Demarco is a newcomer this year, with works by Joseph Beuys and the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Gloucestershire-based Jonathan Poole Gallery will show work from the art estates of John Lennon and Miles Davis.

Tel: 0141-204 4400 or visit www.glasgowartfair.com

6 Film

Pierrepoint

General release from 7 April

THE story of Britain's last hangman contains so many unlikely coincidences it reads like a bad Dickens spoof.

Albert Pierrepoint was born into a family of executioners in Huddersfield in 1905. Asked by a teacher to write an essay about what he wanted to do when he grew up, he began: "When I leave school, I should like to be the Chief Executioner." After joining the family business in 1934, he soon got his wish.

He managed to preserve his anonymity, until, after the Second World War, Field Marshall Montgomery made him a celebrity, naming him as the man chosen to execute a group of 13 Nazi war criminals. In 1946, he and his wife Anne opened a pub near Oldham called The Poor Struggler. (Yes, really.) Then, in 1950, he discovered at the last minute that a man he was about to hang was a regular at the pub and a good friend, James Corbitt.

In this film, director Adrian Shergold suggests that it was this incident which caused Pierrepoint to turn against the death penalty and eventually resign from his post. Timothy Spall stars as Pierrepoint, with Juliet Stevenson as his wife, Anne.

7 Visual art

Beck's Futures

CCA off-site at 73 Trongate, 7 April until 14 May

THE text of James Joyce's Ulysses, with the words arranged alphabetically; the memorabilia of an imaginary rock band; the words of George Bush married to footage from Easy Rider; an invitation to try on shoes - all these are in the running for the Beck's Futures Prize 2006.

The 20,000 prize, for artists under the age of 35 who are yet to have a major solo exhibition at a UK public venue, aims to select the hottest emerging talent. With a judging panel of Jake & Dinos Chapman, Martin Creed, Cornelia Parker, Yinka Shonibare and Gillian Wearing, this shortlist was never going to be dull.

This year, the prize exhibition takes place simultaneously in London, Bristol and Glasgow, with works by all 13 shortlisted artists at each venue. Also new this year: a public vote (do this at the venue or online) which will carry equal weight to one of the six judges. Scots have always punched above their weight in Beck's Futures. Sue Tompkins and partnership Blood 'n' Feathers (Jo Robertson and Lucy Stein) fly the flag this year.

Tel: 0141-352 4900