Among the Polar Ice, The McManus, Dundee *****
Ade Adesina: Aurora, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****
Robbie Bushe and Jeanne Cannizzo: Neoneanderthals, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****
Dundee has a long association with the poles, north and south. This was mostly because of the brutal business of whaling, but as the exploration ship Discovery bears witness, it also has links to voyages of exploration of the most inaccessible places on Earth. Imaginatively, the McManus has built on this heritage, collecting art and photographs from some of the pioneering voyages, but also from more recent visits. The exhibition Among the Polar Ice brings these things together. The earliest work is a watercolour by John Gowland of ships trapped in the Arctic ice in 1837. Gowland was an amateur, but William Burn Murdoch was a professional who accompanied the Dundee Antarctic Whaling expedition in 1892-3 to search for new whaling grounds. A big painting by him shows the expedition’s ships dwarfed by towering walls of ice.
Edward Wilson was the surgeon on Scott’s two expeditions to the Antarctic and he died with Scott. A beautiful watercolour of McMurdo Sound shows he was a gifted artist. There are also several examples of the work of photographer Herbert Ponting. Walter Livingstone Learmonth’s pictures, printed from his glass slides of the Arctic which he visited in 1889, are also very striking.
The main point of this exhibition, however, is to bring together a remarkable group of paintings acquired by the McManus of the Arctic and Antarctic by two of our finest contemporary artists, James Morrison and Frances Walker. Morrison visited the Arctic in 1992 where he both painted on the spot and did the preliminary work for a remarkable series of Arctic paintings completed in the studio. The hazards of painting on the spot are illustrated by a photo of Morrison at his easel while his companion raises his rifle to cover a marauding polar bear.
Because of the conditions, Morrison was limited in the size of his canvas. He also worked more quickly than was his custom. Three canvasses here, for instance, were each painted in a single day – 25 July 1992 – in Otto Fiord. The speed with which he painted gives them the spontaneity and transparency of watercolour, capturing the wide horizon and the luminous whites and vivid blues of the icy landscape. The fourth painting, Berg, Otto Fiord, was painted in the studio with more time for thought and so is more carefully composed and grander in effect. The white berg stands out against a range of hills, deep blue and almost black beneath low cloud. The foreground is simply the sheer edge of the ice sheet with beyond, in steep perspective, the ice and water between us and the iceberg. Though he is painting more formally, Morrison still uses free flowing paint, tipping the canvas so that run paint suggests shadows and reflections in the face of the ice sheet.
Frances Walker has always been a northern painter, scarcely ever venturing south until, in her late seventies, she went all the way south to Antarctica. The remarkable paintings, prints and drawings from this voyage were exhibited in Aberdeen to mark her 80th birthday. She gifted six of the paintings, called the Antarctic Suite, to the McManus. A seventh picture has been borrowed to complete the group. The largest picture, Andvord Bay, is a triptych. The high horizon is closed by a mountain of brilliant white snow and black rock. Most of the picture, however, is the surface of the water and it reflects more of this backdrop than we can see. Across two panels, the mountain makes an inverted curve, first against blue water and then blue-grey reflected clouds. Black reflected rocks punctuate the surface scattered with tiny white ice floes. Whistler would have called the picture “Symphony in Blue in Three Movements,” or some such title, for although it represents a real landscape, it works as pure painting. The same is true of Glacier Edge, Antarctic Waters, or Dawn Approach, Elephant Island. They all have the same thrilling balance of deep space and active surface. Frances Walker is a wonderful draughtsman. That is apparent in the sense of structure in the ice that she manages to convey in Late Summer Antarctica and of course in her beautiful prints, especially here Petrel, a rusting whaler, half-sunk, its harpoon gun pointing uselessly to the sky.
According to conventional wisdom, however, there is no room for fine drawing in modern art and because these pictures, and indeed James Morrison’s too, are representational, they cannot be truly contemporary. Conventional wisdom is just that, however, conventional, bound by convention, not observation. Wander further through the McManus and see William Johnstone’s great abstract Northern Gothic, Joan Eardley’s Green and Blue Boats, or even William McTaggart’s And All the Choral Waters Sang, and you see how Scottish landscape painters have always been modern, indeed pioneering, and yet have kept in touch with the poetry of the perceived.
In Aurora at the RSA, the remarkable linocuts of Ade Adesina are also concerned with the fragility of the world, though the pictorial language he uses is highly symbolic. In some of his dystopian visions, the world is literally upside-down with fish swimming in the sky. A baobab tree is a frequent motif. It seems to be the tree of life struggling against adversity as it is in the apocalyptic submarine cityscape, The View After the Questions. Symbolism apart, technically too these are remarkable prints. The artist achieves extraordinary subtlety and variety, often on a very large scale, with linocut, a medium more generally associated with bold and simple effects. The title piece, Aurora, for instance, a vision of nature preserved in a bell jar, is exquisitely executed.
In the adjacent gallery, Neoneanderthals is a collaboration between Robbie Bushe and Jeanne Cannizzo. It poses the question, if homo sapiens have made such a mess of things, maybe cloned neanderthals, neoneanderthals after “de-extinction,” might do better. Bushe’s crowded canvasses follow the de-extinction process through a phantasmagoria of DNA extraction machinery and the like till finally the neoneandethals take over and everything gets better. Canizzo’s work is a series of bizarre and surreal assemblages whose themes of neoneanderthal life run in weird counterpoint to Bushe’s paintings. Duncan Macmillan
Among the Polar Ice until 8 March 2020; Ade Adesina until 25 October; Robbie Bushe and Jeanne Cannizzo until 20 October