Always look on dark side of life
Broad-ranging show with 40 artists examines the Scottish ‘Endarkenment’
THE Scottish Enlightenment is such a familiar checking point in the history of our nation that the suggestion of a, perhaps corresponding, “Endarkenment” is one which has a certain resonance. Certainly that was the response when Edinburgh University professors – and curators of this Dovecot show – Andrew Patrizio and Bill Hare mooted the idea to a number of artists. “As soon as they heard the title of the show, they were all in,” smiles Hare. “They just seemed to get it.”
Hare, who jokes that his historical namesake – another William Hare, known for murderous endeavours with his colleague William Burke – gives a certain grim resonance to the curator’s work alongside that of his longtime colleague, Patrizio (“Mafia connections,” says the latter, darkly), has been mulling over their idea of the Endarkenment for the past five years.
The impetus was a general consensus amongst the two curators that Scottish art had – quite simply – taken a turn for the darker after the Second World War; that reason was swapped for sceptical “unreason”; that artists were reassessing inherited and possibly skewed moral values; that lowering world events resonated within the work of these artists in a way that communicated on a more visceral level than the Highland cattle-specked panoramas of the Victorian era.
“It struck me, too, that mythic subject matter was quite prevalent in post-war Scottish art. Paolozzi and John Bellany, for example,” says Hare, “I was thinking about myth in relation to history, and from that kind of dialectic between art engaging with historic experience and artists more concerned with the internal dimension, came the impetus to formulate this exhibition.”
We walk into the bright space of the Dovecot’s ground floor gallery, lit by the somewhat atmospheric gothic arched windows of the former Victorian swimming pool’s ground floor. John Bellany’s The Ettrick Shepherd, an imagining of the writer James Hogg, leans against a wall, half-unpacked in the week before the show opens. In the middle of the room, a cluster of boxes containing screens is the only evidence, so far, of a newly-commissioned video installation from Beagles and Ramsay. Next door, an early psychedelic work documenting bodily fluids by the Boyle Family lies roughly arranged on a table. Joyce Cairns’ sobering Shoes from Madjdanek leans against the wall. In an annex, Alison Watt’s dark Black Star dominates, partly unwrapped.
The list of 40 artists is broad-ranging, says Patrizio, who says they’ve taken a very wide-ranging view of Scottish identity from Scottish artists who have moved away to English artists who have trained in Scotland. If Dovecot’s usual applied arts emphasis is absent, the exhibition ties in to the studio’s long association with fine artists who have collaborated in the creation of their rugs and tapestries.
The rooms are broadly divided into themes which weave in and out of the whole. There is a room loosely based around the internal and the psychological; another corner based on historic and social issues and a section which is devoted to meditations on medical science in which Alison Watt, Christine Borland and Julie Roberts ply a course from before birth to beyond the grave. Somewhere in the middle, Hare tells me, as we walk up the steps into the main gallery space and come across Jock McFadyen’s Calton Hill (2014) with its giant moon dominating a tiny vista of Edinburgh monuments, is a sequence of works on the moon and the “lunar atmosphere” of this imagined “Endarkenment”.
Of the many big names here, there are names one associates with “dark” works, but others, like Watt or David Shrigley, whose contribution gives more pause for thought. “And about a third of the exhibition is made up of artists who are either not as well known as they ought to have been, or are emerging artists,” says Patrizio.
Both Hare and Patrizio suggest that this exhibition is just a beginning, a radical new way of looking at the recent history of our art that merits further investigation, further assessment. “I hope, too,” says Patrizio, “that people will find themselves seeing artists that they think they know very well in an entirely new light.”