Visual art reviews: From Death to Death and Other Small Tales

Frmo Death To Death and Other Small Tales. Picture: Neil Hanna
Frmo Death To Death and Other Small Tales. Picture: Neil Hanna
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There’s much to admire in this mix and match of works more or less related to the body and mortality, and the contrast between the weak and strong artists is pronounced

From Death to Death and Other Small Tales - Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the D Daskalopoulos Collection

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Star rating: * * * *

KENNETH Clark proposed the nude was the body idealised, the stuff of classical art, while the naked was just the lumpen ordinary. When he was writing, the naked was largely unseen, and so the nude seen in art books had the monopoly. That has all changed. The naked is familiar. It has elided with the nude as the airbrush has bullied the ordinary to aspire to the ideal.

At a deeper level, perhaps, the ideal represented by the nude is simply too difficult, but artists agonise about the body all the more. Their agonising is the subject of From Death to Death and Other Small Tales. The enigmatic title is a quotation from Joseph Beuys. A gloss is offered at the entrance. The subject of the exhibition, it says, is “how artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have referenced the body to address universal questions of life and death”. Reference, in my opinion, should be a noun, not a verb. Turning nouns into verbs constipates language and dulls meaning. It’s Newartspeak, a variation on Orwell’s Newspeak and a language intended to exclude. Our National Galleries should be a zero tolerance zone. Nor in fact does life and death seem to be the subject of the works on view, but rather our troubled vision of our bodies.

The exhibition was prompted by an offer of loans from the D Daskalopoulos Collection. Accepting the offer, the gallery opted to mix and match and the borrowed works are shown alongside items from the permanent collection. Dimitri Daskalopoulos is clearly very smart. Having made a fortune in his native Greece, he sold his business in 2007, just before everything went wrong. He had started collecting contemporary art some time before this, however, and his collection is now billed as one of the most important in existence. Certainly it can field names like Marcel Duchamp, Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Bruce Nauman, Mona Hatoum and Sarah Lucas. Greece is of course home of the nude, so there is a certain piquancy in using this collection to return, however obliquely, to that theme.

Magritte’s Corps humain, just those words written in a mirror, sets a scene of puzzled self-examination, except that it is not simply a mirror. It is also a bidet and so suggests a preoccupation not just with the body, but with its more private functions. There are also a few old-fashioned pictures of bodies, too, however. Le Signal de l’angoisse by Salvador Dalí, for instance, and Magritte’s Representation, a female torso in a shaped frame. The first work you see, the latter is still ideal, a nude torso of Venus, not a voyeuristic image of the naked girl next door.

Nearby you wonder if Francesca Woodman making a coy peepshow of herself is the girl next door hoping for just such attention. Opposite, Tracy Emin’s graffiti drawings look like something from the school lavatory wall. They really don’t deserve to hang near Picasso’s spectacular Nu Assis, the wife of his old age, Jacqueline Roque, as an enthusiastic personification of the Vagina Dentata. Nearby are strange paintings by Balthus of a girl languidly getting out of bed and by Otto Dix of a plump, flaxen haired girl. In the manner of the painters of the Northern Renaissance whose insistence on the naked puzzled Kenneth Clark, Dix’s girl is naked, not nude. Painted in 1932, faced by the Nazi cult of the body, Dix rejects the ideal to assert older, more humane German values.

Dada and Surrealism have been the inspiration for much recent art and the SNGMA now has a remarkable collection of works from those movements, so the show illuminates the relationship of past and present. Bruce Nauman’s ear made from a knot of rope, Knot an Ear, is a good example. It’s a double homage – or maybe it’s simply derivative – first to Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe and secondly to Duchamp, who made art works out of body parts, a single breast, Prière de toucher, and two casts of a vagina, Coin de chasteté and Feuille de vigne femelle. Taboos about nudity were so much stronger then; Duchamp was really just a naughty boy being smutty. His lavatorial humour is epitomised in Fountain, the signed urinal he exhibited in 1917. It is infantile, but he is so revered that that is usually overlooked. This overrated ready-made is on view here. Bought by Daskalopoulos at great expense, it is from an edition Duchamp made 50 years after the original. Making an expensive limited edition from a work whose whole point was its mass-produced ordinariness: was this the irony of ironies from the master of irony, or just avarice? I suspect the latter. Even Joseph Beuys reckoned that Duchamp ran out of ideas. Beuys himself comes out rather well here. His Felt Suit which is exactly what it says it is, and Untitled, seven rolls of felt pierced by a scarlet javelin, make telling art works in a way that he doesn’t usually manage.

Certainly, for all our contemporary obsession with our bodies, this show does suggest that, unlike the Greeks, we are nevertheless seriously ill at ease with our physical selves. That is the message of Sarah Lucas’s Bunny Tights Get Snookered, a pair of stuffed tights hitched over a chair, metamorphosing into two drooping phalluses. Elsewhere her lumpy bundles of tights look tame alongside Hans Arp’s suggestive shapes, or Hans Bellmer’s tortured dolls that they closely resemble. These, however, go beyond the naughty schoolboy towards real perversity.

There is work included that does not deserve to be. Paul McArthy’s ridiculous, sticky version of the Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, is a waste of space, while to call Cremaster, Matthew Barney’s five full-length films, epic is an abuse of language. Some of the moderns do match up, however. Mona Hatoum’s collapsed rubber cot speaks the same troubled language as Max Ernst in Max Ernst showing a young girl the head of his father. Robert Gober’s bisexual wax torso is a good partner for Magritte’s La Gâcheuse, a female torso with a skull for a head.

It Happens When the Body is Anatomy of Time is in an enormous installation by Ernesto Neto. Long, hanging bags of aromatic spices look like drunken Greek columns, but the work is about smell. The perfume industry is witness to its importance in any contemplation of the body. Piss-flowers by Helen Chadwick is a set of casts made from pee-holes in the snow. They are pretty, but I am not sure that they subvert male and female as the label suggests. (Subvert is also Newartspeak. Almost all contemporary art is claimed to be subverting something.) Louise Bourgeois is one modern who can hold her own anywhere. She trumps Duchamp’s Coin de chasteté with a visual aphorism, a single suspender button on a sheet of blue paper. Her prints are as economical, two eyes and a loop of hair, or a naked woman suspended by her hair from a washing line above a very prickly bush – not many options for her then. But in spite of such uncompromising images, there is a generosity about Bourgeois. It is what makes her great. She makes a phallus, for instance, and calls it Fillette, or Little Girl because, she said, it is delicate, something to be protected. Her perspective is a woman’s, but her subject is the human condition. She makes artists like Sarah Lucas or Kiki Smith seem one-sided and just a little bit shrill.

It is not clear why William Kentridge’s Ulisse: Echo Scan Bottle is here. It was originally made for a production of Monteverdi’s Ulysses, but with the twist that Kentrdige envisages Ulysses in hospital. I suppose that makes his subject the body, but only just.

• Until 8 September