Modern Scottish art packs a punch in Edinburgh

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THOUGH Edinburgh's annual arts festival is resoundingly international, it is also, naturally enough, a good context for things Scottish. Some of the festival's art exhibitions this year demonstrate vividly why the Scots have every reason not to be reticent about their country, history, and sensibilities. These shows range widely - from portraits of Mary Queen of Scots to pictures taken in Russia by a 19th-century Scottish photographer. But the most thought-provoking of them are two shows that examine 20th-century Scottish painting.

A show called ``Twentieth Century Scottish Painting'' at the ``369 Gallery'' (through Sept. 26) looks at the ``continuing tradition'' in Scottish painting since 1900. Broadly, this is a kind of Expressionism, but a kind that bears more resemblance to the French variety than the German. As Douglas Hall (the recently retired keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) maintains, the artists in this show have an ``autographic way of painting,'' which means that ``the painting, and not the subject ... is the thing.''

Scotland has indeed boasted some marvelously energetic wielders of paint, though their subject matter still can't be overlooked. If they generally favor still-life or landscape, this show's exuberant array of paintings nevertheless points to great interest in the figure.

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But Andrew Brown, its organizer, takes pains to disassociate it from a different trend in Scottish art that has surfaced during the last four or five years. He notes that ``no recent graduates of the Glasgow School of Art have been included. ...''

These ``Glasgow Pups'' (as the news media has dubbed them), pursue what Brown calls a ``narrative realism'' without precedent in 20th-century Scottish art. The second exhibition, which is called ``The Vigorous Imagination'' (at the Gallery of Modern Art until Oct. 25), aims to present precisely this ``new Scottish art'' - though it should be added that by no means are all the artists represented graduates of Glasgow Art School, and one artist is in both shows. The lines between ``old'' and ``new'' are not at all clear.

The motives that have brought these chosen artists together combine a genuine conviction that fresh winds are blowing and a fair amount of downright hype. What is undoubtedly shared by several of them is a renewed interest in art's capacity to explore - and better still to invent - myths. ``Imagination'' is a better name for this than ``narrative realism.'' The human figure features in such adventures as it hasn't in Scottish art since the 19th century. But this use of old tools is hardly unique to Scotland over the last decade, and most of these artists are once again demonstrating the Scottish ability to observe general trends and then bend them to their own individualistic ends.

It's the individualism that counts. Three artists stand out:

Steven Campbell's storybook pictures are more than imaginative. They are fantasies, quirky, wry, hyperactive, and nervy. There is something both maddening and endearing about his art, fond of its own cleverness, yet vigorously naive. Exploring it is like hunting for philosophical witticisms in a childrens' encyclopedia. You never know who you will encounter - a hippo, hikers lost on the way to Oxford, a giant flea, Bertie Wooster. Most of them look a bit like Campbell anyway. But thank goodness none of them have their fat fingers near the nuclear button: To say they are accident-prone is an understatement.

Ken Currie is, by contrast, no jester. He looks stylistically to the past, raiding the larder of such German artists of the 1920s and '30s as Beckmann, Grosz, and Dix. His subject, though, is the immediate one of Glasgow's redundant workforce. His protagonists are one-time steel-workers, ship-builders, and seamen, whose function has vanished along with industrial Glasgow. The political commitment of his work is not in doubt. What is missing is an irony - or satire - fierce enough to save his people from looking largely nostalgic. Something pass'e in his art undermines its idealism.

Gwen Hardie is an Edinburgh artist who now works in West Berlin. Her ``Fist,'' ``The Brave One,'' and ``Me in Sea'' are remarkable paintings; they are both monumental and strangely insubstantial. Hardie's aim is to turn concepts of her own body into images - as opposed to concepts of the female body traditionally held by male artists.

To say these two shows are particularly intriguing, is not to pour cold water on the other first-rate Scottish shows on view here.

The 400th anniversary of Mary Queen of Scots' execution is celebrated in two exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. ``The Queen's Image'' shows authentic portraits and later paintings illustrating her life. Portraits by Clouet and Hilliard support the description of her in a contemporary ballad as ``a very fayre and princely dame.'' The second show, ``The Queen's World,'' brings together treasures associated with her, including her harp. (Both through Oct. 4.)

The photographic section of the same gallery displays the small 19th-century photographs of William Carrick. He was a Scot who lived in St. Petersburg. His images are straight-forward records of Russian types like the nightwatchman and the abacus seller, and of field workers or boatmen in the Volga region in the 1870s. (Through Oct. 18.)

Scotland's countryside is the subject - at the Stills Gallery (in High Street) through Sept. 5 - of an exhibition of monochrome photographs of memorable intensity. Photographer Fay Godwin (not herself a Scot), steers clear of the picturesque and romantic. Her Scotland has plenty of isolated places, dramatic, severe light and hints of ancient history. But she refuses to ignore the intrusions to which people subject landscape today: corrugated iron, wire-netting, cars, caravans - even an oil-rig at Lerwick. She offers a far fuller - and truer - view of Scotland than guidebooks are inclined to do, but loses nothing of the land's unique beauty.

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