I blinked before she did

I’m not ashamed to admit that The Modern Portrait, the current display at the Scottish National Portrait gallery, had me in tears at lunchtime today.

To explain the effect on me, I could write about each portrait one by one but that would be a long and tedious read. Instead. I’ll write about self-portraits tomorrow, but first, here are a few portraits that stood out for me.

Annie Lennox’s portrait, ‘Annie Lennox OBE (born 1954)’ by Annie Lennox and Allan Martin, is hung at head height. She stares straight ahead, directly at the viewer, with her face nearly filling the frame, white with chalk or clay. The only colour comes from the tartan choker that she wears. For at least five minutes, we were in the unlikely position of staring directly into each other’s eyes with the intense intimacy of mesmerised new lovers.  Of course, I blinked and looked away before she did. It was an unnerving experience. What did she see in me?

‘David Millar (born 1977)’ by Nadar Kandar, is a close-up of a huge face, far larger than life-size, almost confrontational in its proximity to my personal space. Millar was a professional cyclist, banned from cycling after his arrest for the possession of illegal drugs. He lost his world title, but later won medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and is now a cycling journalist. Light glistens on the sweat all over his face, emphasising the stubble on his chin and the pores on his cheeks. There is a grim determination to succeed, not just against competing cyclists but against setbacks and the challenges of public opinion.

Some portraits raise doubts and questions in the viewer, for example the portrait of ‘HM Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926)’ by Julian Calder. The Queen stands beside a stream on a Balmoral hillside, draped in full regalia with trailing gown, and, perhaps not surprisingly, an odd expression on her face. Is this a Photoshopped misadventure in transposition, instantly switching her from the interior of Buckingham Palace to the Scottish hills? The accompanying notes talk of echoing great portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, but is this admiration, social commentary or political satire?

‘Three Oncologists’ by Ken Currie has been on display in this gallery before, and indeed, may be on permanent display here.  It portrays three surgeons in front of parted curtains with complete darkness beyond. The accompanying notes discuss the surgeons describing their role as “retrieving people from the darkness”, which is a positive description of their pioneering work against cancer and it was this phrase that was the key to adopting this viewpoint. That phrase suggests that the curtains are the moment of death, yet with death in the air, the blurred appearance of the surgeons and the blood on their hands gives the impression of spectral ghouls.

But it was the individual photographs of related people by Taryn Simon that moved me to tears. Carefully sited in the centre of the exhibition, so you pass many others before you arrive at the emotional time-bomb, there are fifty-four identically sized photographs of individual people all seated against the same plain, empty background. These are ordinary people, in everyday clothes, often slouching and looking unhealthy, probably unaware of the poor first impression they make on this first meeting. The natural, unassuming poses are not as stiff as those in formal portraits or as self-conscious as those in self-portraits. Unlike traditional portraits, with their carefully positioned clues in the background, there is no information about these lives. We must take them on face value, but we should remember that their stories are no less profound. The accompanying notes explain that three of these people are triplets, the only known case of triplets affected by Thalidomide.

The name ‘Thalidomide’ still haunts a generation. According to the accompanying notes, there were 10,000 cases world-wide.  The drug was removed from the market in 1961, the year that I was born, so there was still a chance that my mother might have taken it too with similar effects on my body.

Some portraits are almost anonymous, which seems to contradict the fundamental purpose of a portrait. ‘Hope Montagu Douglas Scott’ by William Johnstone has no facial features, just blank flesh inside the clothes, but even more intriguing is ‘Susie Wolff: Portrait of a racing driver’ by Angela Palmer with its mysterious hints that there might be a head, anybody’s head, inside the blue crystal racing helmet, like a person’s identity inhabiting a fragile skull, a ghost in the machine.

My conclusion as I leave the display, is that portraits where the sitter’s eyes aren’t looking straight ahead at the viewer give the impression of shiftiness and unease, perhaps even dishonesty in their refusal to meet my gaze.

The display continues until 21 March 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to get there and see for yourself.

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019 art, Exhibitions No Comments

conjunctions of time and space

I was in Edinburgh recently, where I watched a fascinating, if overlong, television documentary on the life and work of David Hockney. The location of such viewing would normally be unimportant, but I mention it because the following day (i.e. yesterday), I went to an display of Roy Lichtenstein’s later work in the Artists Rooms strand at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.

While I was growing up in Edinburgh, I would frequent the gallery in the Royal Botanic Gardens now known as Inverleith House which is where I first encountered many of the works now on permanent display in the Gallery of Modern Art. My visit yesterday felt like a chance encounter with familiar faces or past loves from long ago (literally in the case of some portraits), and the realisation of recognition, like Nicholas Jenkins encountering Jean Duport in an art gallery in the final volume of ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, was an overwhelming wave of memory like Proust’s famous taste of madeleine cakes described in ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’.

But that was’t the only connection occurring across time. Lichtenstein was developing his iconic and distinctive style at the time Hockney was painting in California, and the latter’s ‘Rocky Mountains with Tired Indians‘ was on display yesterday. The documentary had discussed Hockney’s efforts and explorations to depict water, so it was interesting that the exhibition explicitly covered Lichtenstein’s explorations to depict reflections on glass. In both cases it was important for the artist to consider the role of the light effects on the finished work, distorting or obscuring what lay behind. Some of Lichtenstein’s reflections were highly stylised bands using large versions of the brightly coloured Benday dots of his trademark style, which contrasted with his use, in ‘In The Car‘, of relatively simple lines to indicate glass and possibly movement. The faces in that painting were also very familiar to me because, as a student, I had a large poster of it which I bought in The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow. That poster dominated every flat I rented for many years and I would ponder it for hours.

In a more distant personal connection, the exhibition also contains a flattened but solid explosion like the one in ‘WHAAM‘. That painting was my first encounter with Lichtenstein’s work and it quickly became a favourite. It was my introduction to Pop Art long before I encountered Warhol’s soup cans or Monroe prints. The solid explosion in the exhibition, appropriately high up on the wall like the jet fighter being destroyed mid air by a missile, has at least three flat layers arranged to give it a remarkable appearance of volume.

But that wasn’t the only reference in the exhibition to earlier art works . One was a direct development of  Lichtenstein’s ‘Art’, with the word alone inside a border and half-hidden by ‘reflections’ on glass, while another, of a yelling baby, referred to Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream‘ which I saw in the same gallery a couple of years ago. Stylised lilies floating on polished metal referred to Monet’s series of lily paintings. I was unaware of Lichtenstein’s nudes painted in the 1990s in his trademark style, but I like them a lot because they unexpectedly tap into the rich tradition of the human form in art.

This morning, being on good time for my train south, I called into The City Art Centre near Waverley Station but the current exhibition was temporarily closed so I had a coffee in the gallery’s cafe where they were playing my personal favourite ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’ by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra over the sound system. That piece always makes me smile.

Afterwards  I went to The Fruitmarket Gallery across the road where there was an exhibition of Brazilian sculpture  called ‘Possibilities of the Object.’ I found it all very obscure, and indeed the accompanying leaflet tellingly described one work as, “…neither painting nor sculpture, but an object that resists immediate comprehension.” Another work there, however, at least had some meaning for me. It was an open attache case with rows of nails filling one half and pointing straight up, rendering the case unusable, and hinting darkly at the nastier side of business . This seemed a direct reference to Man Ray’s ‘Gift‘, an iron with nails soldered perpendicular to the otherwise flat base plate. That famously unusable iron was my personal introduction to Surrealism, so seeing it referenced in an exhibition that I had only chanced to visit, seemed like another happy conjunction across time and space.

And the moral of this long, rambling story is that interesting documentaries on television are all very well, but it’s still important to get out the door and let them inform and expand a personal encounter with art in galleries.

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Monday, March 16th, 2015 art No Comments

silent (and absent) partners

Silent Partners, the exhibition at The Fitzwilliam Museum about mannequins, is simultaneously fascinating and disturbing, the latter effect hinted at by the exhibition’s subtitle: from function to fetish. The exhibition is certainly wide-ranging in content, starting with the changing role of mannequins from implicit and unacknowledged artists’ models to arty jokes acknowledging their use to criticisms of the formality and rigidity they lead to. In the third and final room, the exhibition covers the introduction of children’s dolls and the development of shop window dummies, which leads neatly into their portrayal in surrealist art and finally in contemporary work by The Chapman Brothers. Given the inclusion of such recent activities, I expected to see mention of other recent uses of mannequins, such as Dr Who storylines from the 1970’s where shop window dummies came to life. That could link to the repeated appearance  of Showroom Dummies and robots in the music and visual imagery of Kraftwerk, and from there to animatronics in entertainment, and then the use of armatures in stop motion animation. The creations of Mackinnon and Saunders for films such as Corpse Bride are fascinating in their miniature mechanical precision, with eye movements adjusted by controls inside the ears.  Lest you think this last point too far removed from the theme of the exhibition, I draw your attention to the large images projected onto the wall of the stairwell leading to the gallery. They include one of these armatures but I saw no reference to it in the exhibition.

Monday, October 27th, 2014 art, Exhibitions No Comments

not so much a glass ceiling but glass walls…

I’ve negotiated hedge mazes, maize mazes, mirror mazes, turf mazes and brick mazes, but never one made from glass. But that’s exactly what sculptor, Robert Morris has made: the-glass-labyrinth-by-robert-morris-at-the-donald-j-hall-sculpture-park-1 It’s in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park in Kansas City, whose website seems to suggest that they use the term ‘interactive’ to mean that you can get up close and personal with it rather than a pathway that changes in response to your actions like the game Labyrinth. The park is part of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, whose website also lists, in its modern and contemporary collection, work by an amazing list of artists, including Sol LeWitt, who featured in Week 1 of the Creative Coding course I wrote about yesterday. I like Twisted Sifter‘s analysis:

“In spirit, Glass Labyrinth acknowledges similar prehistoric markings on stones and cave walls, ancient Greek myths, and Christian metaphors for pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. Thus, it transcends time and space to remind us of the power of deeply felt archetypes. In form and material, however, this labyrinth is a departure from the more familiar circular and rectangular labyrinths of old. Triangulated and constructed of glass plate walls capped with bronze, it speaks to this moment in the language of modern architecture and design–streamlined, dynamic, transparent, and elegant.”

The whole sculpture park  looks a wonderful place, but, for me, the labyrinth is the jewel in the crown, so I shall:

  • add a visit there to my (unwritten) bucket list
  • resume my visits to mazes and photographing them
  • recreate (with improvements) my very first website for which I bought the domain

(Hat tip to Twisted Sifter.)


Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 art No Comments

“like cities built on hills…”

Brian Eno has again proved his status as a Renaissance Man. He and Karl Hyde have  created, with a little help from Holo Decks,  a free interactive Augmented Reality App for iOS, to accompany their new album Someday World. If you point your camera phone at the vinyl version of the album or at the online version you see abstract graphics described as outsider architecture that you interact with by double tapping the screen. It seems more specific than his generative app Bloom. If you point the camera elsewhere, you merely see the camera view with no graphics.


Wednesday, May 21st, 2014 art, generative art No Comments

monomania at cambridge junction

I’m looking forward to Saturday’s Monomania Festival at Cambridge Junction, though that’s almost despite the advance publicity, which describes the festival as “a one-day international festival of solitary and obsessive creativity…” making it sound unfortunately like unhealthy teenage bedroom practices. The publicity goes on to add:

“…from meticulousness, self-sufficiency and DIY enthusiasm to all-consuming compulsions, rituals and isolation, solo artists across live art, live music, installations and sound explore the ways our personal obsessions and fixations pervade art and everyday life.”

which isn’t necessarily much better. But then it lists:

“See robots, balancing rocks, listen to pins drop, house music on Casio keyboards, indoor bamboo, Super 8 films, light controlled speakers, a telescope, crafted folk, experimental noise, and everything in between…”

So all in all, I’m still glad I’ve already bought my ticket.  I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this after the event.

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 art, digital art, event, Exhibitions, Uncategorized No Comments

blasts from the past and into the future

There was an interesting combination of programmes on BBC2 on Monday, firstly ‘Horizon: Man on Mars – Mission to the Red Planet’, followed by ‘The Culture Show: Lego – the Building Blocks of Architecture’.  Catch them on iPlayer while you can!

Horizon discussed the difficulties in transporting people to Mars, in terms of logistics (fuel, water, and recycling human waste) and safety: the effects on their bodies of radiation and the lack of gravity, as well as the psychological effects of boredom and confinement over a year-long journey.  It also considered  improvements in spacesuit design, and the difficulty in slowing down sufficiently for landing and what to do once there to survive the dust storms. The distance between Earth and Mars  means that a lot of new technology will be required so the solutions used in the Apollo moon missions are no longer applicable, which means the old assumptions of recruiting astronauts from the ranks of test pilots  no longer apply. It’s therefore perfectly possible, despite the sexist title of the programme that some of the crew may be female (if they can be safely injected with testosterone!)

What the programme didn’t consider explicitly was the reason for sending humans to Mars, other than general curiosity. There appeared to be an assumption that a launch date might be 2033, assuming all the engineering issues could be resolved.  I’l be 72 then, so it’s feasible that I’ll see it take place, just as I did the first moon landing when my father woke me up in the middle of the night to make sure I saw such a historic event. Collecting the set is a possibility! New engines are currently being tested in the United States, but the programme concluded that the scale of the mission is beyond any single country or private company, so a partnership of some form will be required.  Step forward Mr Branson and Mr Gates.

It’s exciting to think that the space exploration I used to read about as a child is once more a possibility.Which leads neatly to the second programme I mentioned.  Like many children  in the 1960s I enjoyed playing with Meccano and Lego, so I was intrigued by the idea of the plastic brick’s influence on architecture.  But the programme turned out to be so much more than that. Starting at the time of post war reconstruction, when playing with Meccano and Lego was a positive, hopeful and non-destructive outlook, the programme moved from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water through 1970s prefabricated system buildings to post-Post-Modernism.

It looked at some of the more futuristic styles of architecture, but most interesting,  at least to me, was the artist using vast piles of white Lego in Albania to start collaborative discussion about how to rebuild the country after the fall of Communism. From there, the programme suddenly moved to the use of Minecraft, both as a game for young children and as a tool for public consultation in town planning circles. When I was a town planner, Sim City was considered adventurous but not particularly useful.

With appropriate timing, given the Culture Show’s topic,  I saw the Kelpies this weekend, two enormous steel horses heads currently nearing completion near Falkirk and Grangemouth.  I say ‘with appropriate timing’ because the Kelpies look like they’re made from tiny futuristic silver Lego, forming yet another leap from our pasts into the future.


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Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 art, sculpture No Comments

an infinite loop of mutual invasion

After posting recently about ‘A Woman without Secrets‘ , the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art,  I returned yesterday to ‘I Give it All Away‘, the simultaneous, and therefore potentially the companion, exhibition of Bourgeois’ work at The Fruitmarket Gallery.  The accompanying book ‘Insomnia in the Work of Louise Bourgeois’ by Frances Morris and Philip Larrat-Smith has a quote from Bourgeois on the cover: ‘Has the day invaded the night or the night invaded the day?’ One of the essays in the book states:

‘Water is a metaphor for the passage of time and the confluence of past, present, and future in the incessant flow of her thoughts. It serves as a counterpoint to the recurring motif of the clock. These twin symbols of time function metaphorically to convey the disjuncture between rational time and lived time, between ‘objective’ time divided into days, hours, minutes, and seconds, and ‘subjective’ time where past, present and future merge in memories, veilles*, fears, and desires.

The first time I went to the exhibition, the biro drawings seemed like scribbles, but today they looked closer to finished pieces. Perhaps that’s because in the interim I saw ‘A Woman Without Secrets’, so that my understanding has been informed first by one exhibition then a second, and now by a second viewing of the first. Now I feel that the second exhibition invaded the first which in turn invaded the other, which takes us back to day invading night or vice versa, leading me to ‘see’ the following angular version of the Yin Yang symbol:


Which, although it’s not quite how I imagined it, still has its infinite loops, like the quote from Bourgeois at the start of this post,  is reminiscent of many of the drawings by M.C. Escher, such as Day and Night.

In a further looping connection, the music system in the gallery cafe was playing ‘Love Is the Drug’ by Roxy Music,  which in turn reminded me of Brian Eno, whom I also wrote about recently, although as far as I’m aware, he’d left the group by that stage. And all this reminds me of my current read: ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid’ by Douglas R Hofstadter, with its recurring Strange Loops, and to quote Wikipedia, its ‘interweaving narratives about how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of “meaningless” elements.’

And according to Hofstadter,

“The genius of Escher was that he could not only concoct, but actually portray, dozens of  half-real, half-mythical worlds,  worlds filled with Strange Loops, which he seems to be inviting his viewers to enter.”

To quote again from and to paraphrase from the exhibition book: “Water also represents the unimaginable experience of death that is experienced once only, and then alone.” “Insomnia while others sleep is like being in the world of the dead. Hell (pace Sartre) is the absence of others, especially the absence of the Other.” Bourgeois said: “I am ashamed / to be a lone wolf downstairs.” (I wonder what she thought of  ‘Steppenwolf’ by Herman Hesse, or even ‘Born to be Wild’ by Steppenwolf.)

All this material from and about Bourgeois conveys a nightmarish blur of loneliness, abandonment and tangled time. So lets finish by focussing instead on the joyfulness of Fergusson’s ‘Les Eus‘, currently at The Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, with figures dancing round and round, like the workmen in the opening scene of A Dance to the Music of Time, who are, in turn, based on the figures in the painting of the same name by Poussin.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling dizzy!


* from the French veiller: which apparently means to stay up or sit up at night, to look after or watch over someone.


Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 art, Exhibitions No Comments

anxiety vs the joy of life

This afternoon I went to the wonderful exhibition of work by JD Fergusson, the Scottish Colourist, at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, which, in its joyous celebration of colour, shape, health and life, was a complete contrast to A Woman Without Secrets, the equally interesting exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’ work full of pain and anxiety. Having seen I Give It All Away in the Fruitmarket Gallery shortly before Christmas, it was interesting  to spot the links with this one, the recurring themes of anxiety, motherhood and potential loss.

While looking at Fergusson’s paintings, I kept seeing links with characters in ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ which gave this blog its name, particularly in Portrait of Jean. Could this be the Jean Templar with whom the narrator Nick Jenkins fell so completely in love that it never quite left him? Paintings of scenes in Paris might have been witnessed by Nick when in France. I was also filled with the urge to recreate some of the paintings with flat panels of colour like silkscreen prints. A stimulating afternoon all round.

Saturday, February 8th, 2014 art, Exhibitions No Comments

the shapelessness of night

I recently went to the Louise Bourgois exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh which includes her series of drawings called Insomnia Drawings. I usually sleep well, but tonight I’m wide awake, so I’ve been reflecting with admiration on how much she achieved when everyone else was asleep. One of the books available in the exhibition included some memorable quotes from Louise, such as “water is a metaphor for the shapelessness of night” and ” he completely disappeared into silence”, the latter being the title of one of her works in 1947. I’ve sometimes wondered if that will be my fate one day too.

The gallery shop was also displaying a copy of ‘Brian Eno: Visual Music’ by Christopher Scoates which I hadn’t heard of before. I only managed to flick through it but could immediately tell it contained a lot of inspiring material from Brian, so I bought a copy. I’m sure it will be quietly influencing, encouraging and inspiring me over the weeks to come. In some ways I would like the extra hours for production available through insomnia, though I know it can be a crippling condition. But look at how much Louise Bourgois achieved in just one year of sleeplessness.

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014 art, Exhibitions 1 Comment