Wandering around Edinburgh, squinting in the pale sunshine, marvelling at the rugged beauty of Britain’s most spectacular city, you could be forgiven for thinking its summer of entertainment is a purely theatrical affair. Its sandstone walls are draped with posters advertising plays and stand-up comedy. Its cobbled streets are crowded with performers, hawking their one man (or one woman) shows. Yet fine art has always been a big part of this jamboree, and the Edinburgh Art Festival is growing bigger (and better) every year.
Edinburgh’s galleries have always put on exhibitions during the city’s annual Fringe Festival, but the Edinburgh Art Festival, which is on now until August 27, only began in 2004. Before then artists mucked in with actors and comics on the Fringe (Joseph Beuys made his British debut here in 1970, thanks to local impresario Richard Demarco). However as the Fringe grew larger and slicker – and increasingly dominated by stand-up comedy – art became marginalised. The Edinburgh Art Festival gives artists their own platform, and the range of art on show here is huge. Whatever your tastes, you’re sure to find something you like.
This is a relief for me, because my taste in art is really rather old fashioned. I like painting and sculpture, but I don’t much care for video, and I must admit I’m bored and bewildered by an awful lot of contemporary art. I rarely find it shocking, merely samey and depressing, which is why this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival is such a pleasant surprise. If you want to see the latest artists, there’s loads of them to see in Edinburgh. But for old fuddy-duddies like me, there’s also a superb array of traditional, historic shows.
Pick of the bunch is True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which celebrates a generation of brilliant artists who’ve been more or less forgotten. Painters such as Gerald Brockhurst and Meredith Frampton were household names between the wars, and their portraits sold for big money, but after the Second World War their delicate and detailed style was regarded as old hat. Curator Patrick Elliott has rescued their exquisite pictures from the basements of provincial galleries and re-established them as the images that defined their age.
My other favourites are two photography shows, both from the middle of the 19th Century: Shadows of War at the Queen’s Gallery beside Holyrood Palace, and A Perfect Chemistry at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Shadows of War is a stunning display of Crimean War photographs by the world’s first war photographer, Roger Fenton. There are no gory scenes of bloodshed, but these austere images are still intensely shocking: the barren landscape of the ‘Valley of Death’ (immortalised in Alfred Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade); a harrowing portrait of Lord Balgonie, a captain in the Grenadier Guards – wild-eyed and dishevelled, clearly suffering from shell-shock, still only in his mid-20s, with a face already twice his age.
A Perfect Chemistry charts an even more remarkable story – the partnership between David Hill and Robert Adamson, two innovative Scotsmen who transformed photography, from scientific novelty into art. Hill was a society painter, competent yet unremarkable, who hired Adamson to photograph his sitters, so he could paint them at his leisure. Adamson’s photos were so vivid that Hill shelved his painting, and for several years the two men toiled away together, creating hundreds of photographic portraits – everyone from local fishing folk to the leading intellectuals of the age. Adamson died in his mid-20s and Hill abandoned photography thereafter, but in a few years they did more than anyone to establish this infant art form.
The most celebrated figure in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is Robert Burns, and John Flaxman’s classical statue of Scotland’s national bard has pride of place in the museum’s ornate lobby. Yet when times were hard Burns decided to sail to Jamaica to become a sugar planter – a trip he planned and abandoned several times. Had he sailed, Burns might not be remembered as Scotland’s greatest poet, but as a villain of the slave trade.
This story of what might have been is explored in two new artworks by Scots artists Douglas Gordon and Graham Fagen. Gordon has made a black replica of Flaxman’s white marble statue, smashed it into several pieces and scattered the pieces around the lobby. Fagen has made a haunting film of Burns’ poem, The Slave’s Lament, in which a slave in Virginia yearns for his lost life in his homeland in Senegal. Both works of art are powerful and strangely beautiful. Seeing them amid these splendid portraits and Hill and Adamson’s pioneering photographs gave me a fresh appetite for contemporary art.
For more information about the Edinburgh Art Festival, go here