Depending on what was first visited, this year’s Edinburgh Festival might seem a poor one for visual art. The main imported show at the SNG Modern 2 until 19th October, is American Impressionism.
Impressionist exhibitions are often seen as pandering to middle-brow, conservative taste but I rather like them. Painters of the school often painted a work a day for large periods of their lives, so there is a good chance of seeing paintings that have not been killed off by continuous reproduction. Unfortunately, there were very few American works in this collection that merited a second glance. Mary Cassatt, America’s one genuine Impressionist, was not even represented by her best work, and of the two fine Whistler seascapes reproduced in the catalogue, only one made it to Edinburgh. The display might have been boosted by some of the early works by Edward Hopper that could plausibly come under the Impressionist banner.
At SNG Modern 1, hosting part of the multi-venue Generation exhibition, we were reminded of how greedy contemporary art is for space (installations) and consumptive of time (slowed down films and videos) providing little enlightenment, entertainment or excitement, and all in a building that is so unfriendly to this sort of thing that you think ‘mistake’ and ‘misuse’.
The SN Portrait Gallery has two very disparate exhibitions, John Ruskin: Artist and Observer and John Byrne: Sitting Ducks. I would sum up both with the same phrase: skilful but not very exciting.
However, there are two wonderful visual experiences to be had in Edinburgh this year.
At the SNG at the Mound until 14th September, the three greatest Titians can be seen together. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the chance of a lifetime.
In the RSA building the reconstruction of part of Steven Campbell’s exhibition On Form and Fiction of twenty-four years ago, affirms that not all is over for painting in the twenty first century. Campbell, who sadly died at the height of his powers, was that rare thing, an intellectual painter. He solved the problem for the modern artist of ‘making it new’ not by following a teleological line leading to attenuation and nothingness, but simply by being unremittingly inventive with compositional infallibility. I hesitate to call this work an installation. Rather it is the intellectual decoration of a space with large paintings in colour surrounded by additional compositions in monochrome. It would be futile to look for any literary key to this work, but there is a figure constantly on the move in the monochrome works that wonderfully binds the whole piece together with the ghost of a narrative.
While this Campbell masterpiece could not have been produced at any other time than late twentieth century, it is part of its allure that it hints at some fictitious Renaissance palace.
Yet there are very few rooms successfully decorated in a cohesive fashion with the full glory of expressive art from that or any other era. Because of haphazard commissioning, the Sistine Chapel is a mess. The Michelangelo ceiling, which is further away from the viewer, is on a bigger scale than the same artist’s Last Judgment, the side wall is a hotchpotch. With artists not having full control many great works are crowded into side chapels piled one on the top of another. Mantegna’s great Camera degli Sposi is an exception, Giotto’s Arena Chapel another. In Britain some might suggest Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel but for me it is ruined by the ugly divisions between the panels, some of which are not Spencer at his best.
Surely some permanent site should be found for the Campbell work. It would be a wonderful asset for Edinburgh or Glasgow.