The Rediscovery of Highland Art (Edinburgh) - sham of a show
‘The Rediscovery of Highland Art’ at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, is a sham as it shows there is nothing to ‘rediscover’. This is a ragbag of images that would be laughed out of any gallery outside of Scotland. There is no common artistic thread. Some of these artists lived in the Western Highlands, some didn’t live there but painted scenes of the highlands, others are simply not worthy of public exhibition. It’s a Highland toffee mess.
The show’s nadir is a card, clearly written by some sort of Gaelic activist, which patronises and expenses the stupidity of the theme at the same time. Three names are put forward as the vanguard of some imaginary movement: Keith Hendry of Barra, David Forrest of Islay and Donald Smith of Lewis. We are told they “MUST be given the attention they deserve”. Then, in a sentence that is actually quite funny, as it turns on itself and cuts its own throat, “Smith’s achievement has still not been fully assessed, although his work has become widely available on book covers”. Finally, a feeble instruction, without any evidence whatsoever, “A history of art must be restored to the Gaidhealtachd (no idea what this is) as a contemporary culture. These works area a symbol of the need to restore that history of art”. Oh yeah?
The truth of the matter is that Scotland came late to the visual arts, then hung around on the sidelines with a series of largely derivative efforts. Even its minor major schools, such as the Glasgow Boys and the Colourists, were in no way part of a Highland movement, although there’s a pretence that the Colourists were. The Glasgow boys were rich city boys who could afford lives of leisure and sojourns to France. They had no interest in the industrial Glasgow, preferring the rural scenes of a fast disappearing Scotland. They had technical talent but often lacked a true subject sensibility.
Art north of the Highland line is famously maudlin and reeks of romanticism. It was used to create an alternative reality of Highland heroes in their faux Highland dress, a world where stags and highland cattle had more status than the people who lived and worked there. There’s a good exhibition to be had here, by someone brave enough to show how art has been used to hide, rather than reveal the real Scotland. In any case, an artistic movement is not geographical, it’s about the artists and the aesthetic style they choose as their means of expression. In this ‘Highland Art’ there’s only geography, not unity of purpose, people or style.
Art has always been, to a degree, a politicised process, but this show is a thirsty man clutching at a mirage. It is blatantly nationalistic, a return to that romanticised, Ossian view of the Highlands as a God-made landscape. This is the worst of Scotland, not the best. As Scotland stumbles around for an identity, it could do better than dig up old clichés and hang up third rate daubs to force itself into believing that there’s some sort of unrecognised art movement here. It has a smell of desperation.
Scotland is a Calvinist culture and had to embrace Romanticism to tilt the see saw and lift its heavy self into lighter air. We move easily from sober judgement to dreamy drunken extremes and so in art we invent another Scotland that hides itself in the clouds.
Less than 1% of Scotland’s population speak Gaelic, yet 30% of BBC Scotland’s budget is spent on Gaelic programming (largely because four of the senior staff are Gaels). This is a linguistic dog’s tail wagging the cultural dog. Art, however, is different as it is a visual medium, disengaged from the language. The exhibition wants to look at art "with particular reference to the Gaelic language". Well, where's the language, other than on the labels? Only a tiny fraction of Scots can read Gaelic, most don't care, so this is a category mistake of gigantic proportions. This is a visual art exhibition, not a literary event. The obsession with Gaelic explanations and titles in the show is laughable, as many of the featured artists did and do not speak Gaelic, and some were not from the Western isles. As usual Scotland looks to the past not the future, and an imaginary past at that.
We have art and artists which we should exalt, but NOT at the expense of realism. The Glasgow Boys and Colourists were trained and talented, but even they failed (with a few notable exceptions) to show Scotland for what it was in their day. Our one internationally renowned artist Macintosh, was spurned by his nation and had to flee to France. At heart, Scotland is a Calvinist nation. We were possibly the most devoted iconoclasts in Europe, which prevented any real artistic flourish until the portraiture of the Enlightenment and a few groups and individuals who managed to escape their Calvinist clothing. Some of these are laughable, such as the Glasgow Boys attempt to make dull Scottish towns and landscapes look like Provence. We’ve never really had artists of real genius who could show us for what we are, the cultural soil is just too barren. Scotland is just not a visually sophisticated culture. You see this in our chocolate box approach to painting, the dull domestic architecture of our towns, the dourness, simplicity and even garishness of our shopfronts. That’s OK, we have other talents. The danger is in thinking we are good at everything, that most dangerous of Scottish traits.