Sometimes a particular place galvinises an artist, opening up a new seam of exploration in their work from which riches pour forth. Since 2015, Barbara Rae has made three voyages to the Northwest Passage – the oceanic route between Greenland and Alaska – and the results currently on show at the RSA (which will tour to the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney and Canada House in London) are riches indeed.
Barbara Rae: The Northwest Passage, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****
Jacob’s Ladder, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh ****
Liberty Art Fabrics & Fashion, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh ****
Rae is one of Scotland’s most important painters who has worked steadily for more than 40 years in a practice inspired and informed by landscape, but leaning towards abstraction. Often, her work has been informed by colours and forms of desert landscapes in the south of Spain, and Arizona. Heading for the frozen wastes on the cusp of her seventies is a brave act of opening
up new areas of inspiration.
Rae has long been fascinated by this most inaccessible of routes, still closed for much of the year due to ice (though this is beginning to change with global warming). It is also rich in stories, in particular the failed expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1843 in which he and his crew perished.
In reading about this, Rae discovered a namesake, John Rae, an Orkney-born doctor with the Hudson Bay Company, who was one of those to report back on the failed expedition, and who became embroiled in the controversy in its wake. Rae’s journals, letters and sketchbooks became her way in to this landscape.
Rae is a master of colour, and the Arctic has opened up a new palette of blues, greys and silver, illuminated by flashes of pink, orange or green, often at dawn or dusk. Her third voyage, taking place later in the year than the other two, afforded particularly dramatic light. While the forms in her paintings are often sculptural, here great walls of icebergs and glaciers or the alien vistas of ice floes seem to invest the paintings with a powerful energy. Traces of human habitation – a derelict Hudson Bay Company hut at Beechey Island, or the graves of three of Franklin’s men on a remote beach – are immediately dwarfed by the landscape around them.
This outpouring of work is dazzling to the eye. Smaller paintings and prints (largely monotypes) are hung four deep, leaving the viewer wondering, at times, whether the show might benefit either from a greater degree of selection or from more space. But there is no disputing the power of her large paintings, layered and textured and often majestic, responding to the power of the landscape she is encountering. One feels that the seam is far from exhausted, and it will be interesting to see what else emerges as the material percolates in the artist’s imagination.
If the Northwest Passage is one of Earth’s last frontiers, it’s the final frontier of space which has inspired Jacob’s Ladder, the group show for Edinburgh Art Festival at the Ingleby Gallery. Bringing together a wide range of artists working in different media, it is also an interesting test of the new gallery space – one which it passes with flying colours.
Running in parallel with an exhibition at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research Collections, it draws in certain historic elements: photographs which model the surface of the moon by James Nasmyth, son of the painter Alexander; plates from Johann Bayer’s 17th century Star Atlas; and photographs of the earth from space by NASA astronauts, including William Anders’ seminal image Earthrise, taken exactly 50 years ago.
These works form the historic basis for an exhibition which explores the ways in which modern and contemporary artists relate to space, its impossible-to-grasp distances and superhuman scale. Katie Paterson does this in various ways: a photograph of the milky way which is coloured with the shades of Los Angeles at night; a meteor which she has melted down and cast in its original shape; and, most imaginatively, a scented candle which, as it burns down, takes the viewer on an olefactory journey from earth to the edge of the universe.
Cornelia Parker takes the blackboard drawings done by Einstein when he explained his theories of relativity in a lecture at Oxford (the blackboards are now in a museum), enlarging the chalk marks till they look like galaxies. Richard Forster makes detailed drawings of constellations represented as Christmas tree lights.
Alicja Kwade’s Stellar Day is a stone which slowly rotates at the same speed as the Earth, but in the opposite direction. It takes time to notice it is moving at all, and perhaps, in real terms, it is not moving – it is the one thing on Earth which is standing still. Peter Liversidge makes a proposal for a tape measure to spool out over the course of 1,000 years, measuring the distance the earth has moved away from the moon. These artists and more use ingenuity and imagination to grasp the unfathomable distances of the universe, not to reduce our wonder at them, but to make them a little more fathomable here on Earth.
Meanwhile, more than 100 years in the world of fashion is chronicled in Liberty Art Fabrics and Fashion at Dovecot Studios. Adapted from an exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London, it is both a dazzling collection of dresses down the years and a social history of how clothing has changed, responding to a shifting cultural and political landscape.
It’s now 140 years since Arthur Lazenby Liberty opened his emporium on Regent Street, principally to sell luxury fabrics imported from the Far East. But he quickly realised there was a market for more affordable fabrics inspired by the same designs but printed in the UK. In the early years of the 20th century, as corsets gradually gave way to more comfortable, loose-fitting women’s clothes, he realised he needed a dress-making department too.
One can trace the history of the 20th century in Liberty’s fabrics. The inter-war period demanded floral, feminine prints, reassurance in difficult economic times; the 1950s and 1960s required something much bolder, so designers reworked art nouveau designs for curtains and upholstery in psychedelic colours, which were beloved of the likes of Mary Quant; in the 1970s, there was a return to nostalgia, soft florals and floaty peasant dresses.
The show has been reworked to emphasise the Scottish elements, notably Jean Muir (whose first job was in the stock room at Liberty’s) and Marion Donaldson, whose successful Glasgow-based business making high-end clothes using Liberty fabrics continued into the 1990s. The dress she made for her wedding in the 1960s is a delight to behold. Bringing the story right up to date with contemporary designer Richard Quinn’s postmodern take on Liberty, this show is a treat for anyone who loves clothes, and a fascinating socio-cultural window on the history of the last century. - Susan Mansfield
Barbara Rae until 9 September; Jacob’s Ladder until 26 October; Liberty Art Fabric & Fashion until 12 January.