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

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

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

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