Kahlo’s corset, dippy the dinosaur and the cursed clothes of Hiroshima – Edinburgh Festival of Art | Art


Efrom edinburgh Collective is Britain’s best-located gallery, perched atop Calton Hill with magnificent views of Arthur’s Seat and the sea beyond Leith. Unfortunately every time I go there the art sucks. Ruth Ewan’s Marxist cartoon, The Beast meets the sloppy standards of this gallery. Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born industrialist who became one of the wealthiest philanthropists in the United States, is reprimanded by his own dinosaur “Dippy”, the famous diplodocus whose skeleton he exhibited in Pittsburgh while sending casts to museums around the world, including British’s Natural History Museum, as an ambassador for world peace.

In Ewan’s film, Dippy chastises a kilted Carnegie for hiding his ruthless capitalism behind a bounty that included founding 2,509 libraries worldwide. It’s wrong with Dippy. “Turn to dust, Andrew Carnegie!” she urges. The animation is as shitty as the argument is one-sided.

Berated … a detail from The Beast by Ruth Ewan Photography: Ruth Ewan

Yet its theme of Scottish philanthropy is shared by Edinburgh’s finest arts festival show, A taste for impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery, on the mound. This exhibition celebrates wealthy Scottish art collectors, including Alexander and Rosalind Maitland, who purchased masterpieces of modern French art and bequeathed them to the public. That might not sound like a recipe for excitement, even with its high-profile reveal of a hidden Van Gogh self-portrait on the back of a study for The Potato Eaters. But it’s an irresistible box of eye candy with a few shots of absinthe in it.

Monet’s Haystacks: Snow Effect is a dazzling dreamlike painting from 1891 in which silver and blue light reflected from snow transforms two bread-shaped haystacks into ethereal abstractions against a pink sky. Gauguin’s Paysage martiniquais equals it in the abstract intensity of its reds and greens, cooking up a tropical heat that dissolves reality. This cavalcade of perceptual revolutions also features Courbet, Millet, Pissarro and Cézanne, and a Degas bronze of a naked woman in the bath whose explicitness has no equal today, except for Tracey Emin, whose nudes are at Jupiter Artland in Edinburgh for comparison. It culminates with Matisse’s Jazz. You see with new clarity how Matisse, in these 1940s prints that identify with African-American music, expressed his hatred of Nazism and his belief in freedom: his ever-changing cut-out colors shape and reshape prints too spontaneously than a bebop solo.

Irresistible… Olive trees, 1889, by Vincent Van Gogh.
Irresistible… Olive trees, 1889, by Vincent Van Gogh. Photograph: National Galleries of Scotland

How do you track this? Platform at the French Institute is presented as a stage for ’emerging’ Scottish artists, but it leaves you wondering how they should be judged – as students or practitioners in their own right? It feels like the artists here are too comfortably spoiled, getting away with light stuff. Maybe Scotland needs more wicked art critics. I love Lynsey MacKenzie’s bedroom of windswept, purifying pink, orange and yellow abstract paintings – but it needs another dimension, more thought to make them beautiful.

Again, perhaps this loss of meaning and energy in art is a worldwide phenomenon. To Talbot rice, the kind of weirdly arbitrary space that makes you wonder why anyone thought it would make a good art gallery, an investigation by London-based Celine Condorelli raises concern if someone is imposing quality control anywhere now. Condorelli’s installations include plants and celebrate Brazil’s playgrounds and modernist architecture. I feel like I’ve seen this a hundred times already. A wave of semi-understandable utopian rhetoric mixes with collections of found objects and cocktails of colors that have no emotional resonance. It’s art that only exists for someone to write a thesis about it.

You can see the art that lives and breathes at Still images, a photography center surrounded by tourist cafes on a street running down the Royal Mile, where Japanese artist Ishiuchi Miyako presents a small but moving retrospective of her incredibly intimate photographs. Passing through the entrance to the gallery shop, you find yourself surrounded by frayed and torn but deliciously colored clothes: a blue and white suit that has been savagely torn, lace dresses that look charred and eaten away by giant moths. What makes these photographs so eerie is Ishiuchi’s perfect lighting and color, which you’d think she must have spent months getting. And then you realize what they are.

A New Perspective on Tragedy… Hashimoto, H.
A New Perspective on Tragedy… Hashimoto, H. Photo: Ishiuchi Miyako/Courtesy The Third Gallery/Stills

These are the clothes of the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It takes a serious artist to expose a truly new perspective on such a tragedy, but these eerily beautiful images make you see the horror as if for the first time – the shredded clothes in wardrobes or torn and burned bodies, their frail delicacy, the fashions still testifying to all the variety of lives that came to a standstill in an instant. Ishiuchi brings the same unsettling intimacy to photos of her late mother’s possessions and Frida Kahlo’s medical corset, apparently able to get her camera inside objects, to touch ghosts.

Down the hill at Fruit Market Gallery there is further proof that art can escape the corset of ideological conservation to express something about being alive. Daniel Silver has created a crazy world of ceramic people, mixed with a wild and hilarious carelessness, then painted in dizzying colors. Small figures are spread out on tables with huge clay human legs and an “audience” of grinning faces stare at you, while random giant legs take up a third space of their own. Silver people should be absurd, like Carnegie and his dinosaur. But the difference is empathy. Her clay faces and bodies may be ridiculous, but have you looked in the mirror lately? We are them. Each of these vulnerable and isolated beings is an expressionist representation of human existence. Silver echoes Auerbach and Baselitz, and they are among the best artists to echo.

There’s real depth to this art festival, and even the silliest stuff is, after all, an excuse to explore one of Europe’s most remarkable cities. Don’t miss Dovecote Studios, near South Bridge, where you can watch the weavers at work as well as a retrospective of the late Scottish modernist Alan Davie. At the time of his death in 2014, the nonagenarian Davie could not seem less relevant. Yet this exhibition confirms him as an artist with biting power, Scotsman Jackson Pollock, who kept the flame of abstract art burning in a Britain that had little time for it. Art either has courage and vision or it doesn’t, and Davie’s rough, splattered paintings have it in spades.


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