The university experience: a dichotomy between complete chaos with an incapacity to form routine, and a regimented, relentless structure of activities which resembles the life of photocopier-scanner-printer machine. It’s all a bit much.
In an attempt to resolve some form of human balance between animalistic mayhem and robotic programming, I arranged a weekend away in Edinburgh. Having already been acquainted with the city a few years ago, I was thrilled to go back, now with a more astute (debatable, I admit) mind to appreciate what the city had to offer. Both evenings were booked up with events, but there was a small empty plot in the itinerary within which one desire always sprouts up – Galleries. With nothing but a hangover to look forward to during my daytimes, the opportunity to sooth oneself with art from the Academy, around the world, and from the very territory in which it stood, appealed immensely.
Our first visit, (‘our’ being myself and two old school friends who had both taken exotic gap years, only to return to Scotland’s notorious climate as new students to the university) was to the Scottish National Gallery, housing a fantastic collection of Academic and European artworks. The collection ranges from Medieval-Renaissance religious paintings and objects, to late-nineteenth century works, with the addition of an individual exhibition dedicated to ‘Scottish Art’ which presented works from the seventeenth to early-twentieth centuries. Despite its modest reception, the entrance to the gallery guides its visitors up the steps to begin the tour in a ‘sensibly’ chronological order. However, I do feel the need to warn prospective visitors that the gallery is a bit of a puzzle when it comes to actually following through the history of the paintings. To achieve a continuity was pretty tricky, but at the same time, refreshing; trying to configure where we were both literally, historically and thematically was something to keep the eyes and mind alert. Navigating through the gallery did take its toll, but in defence of the institution, this might have been a result of the greater toll which was provided by our hangover.
There were some in the collection which, comfortingly, I knew well; a number of the works by Cézanne, Monet and Manet in the Impressionist gallery brought me a humble and sincere joy to view in their flesh. The Renaissance exhibits offered, as ever, rich and explosive scenes of myth, religion and contemporary high-life. A number of Titian’s works featured, as well as a Botticelli piece. These pieces, as ‘alternatives’ to the popular icons, impress the skill and scope of the artists who, in general, appear in the popular public eye as the names beneath a few solitary pictures. One thing really to be respected and enjoyed when visiting these establishments, particularly those who are not the ‘absolute-world-renowned-houses-of-art’, is that they offer a broader view of the artist and unlock new aspects of their art which the canonical presentations would not necessarily.
If I happened to be granted with the sincere wisdom and scope required to properly review the gallery and its historic work, then I would. This, to utterly no surprise whatsoever, is not the case. As an alternative, rather than just describing the routine of going through the rooms, outlining their contents, and being respectably admiring of the different techniques and historical significances presented, I feel it might make a slight difference if I try and explain how this gallery made me reflect beyond my immediate subjects. This sounds vague, but is something I recognised myself doing quite naturally whilst walking around the space. It might be because I’m a bit older, a bit more aware and knowledgeable about art after having studied it in a greater depth, or perhaps because of the actual environment – both social, physical and psychological – that I was occupying at the time. My main question was, (and what I think shall be each time I take a visit to any gallery or exhibition from now on): what and why am I thinking and reacting to what I see in the way that I am?
These considerations were what appeared to follow:
The textual information accompanying each painting is so conservative. It’s informal, and always provides a date if known for event and artists etc. But the painting itself is saying so much more, all the text seems to do is speak for its frame.
Who chose/chooses the frames for the paintings? There’s lots of gold and embellishment, some don’t have any at all (probably for conservation reasons), but all the same… (why does this bother me in the first place?)
How did the Scottish National Gallery acquire these works – was there any dispute or battle between other institutions who wanted to house them? Are they here simply due to convenience and accessibility of their provenance?
This gallery documents artistic practice that is excessively male-dominated.
I know this is because of the socio-historical contexts and times in which these works were created – so should this really bother me? Am I a ‘bad feminist’ if I accept this? Am I being ignorant of the practice and tradition of the arts across these past centuries if I hold on to my critique that they are male-dominated?
Why is everyone else here? Is it because they want to be – because they have a genuine interest in what this institution has to offer? Is their interest just in art in general? Are they here because they feel they ought to be? Do they know what they’re looking at and why?
This last point, of course, could be projected back onto myself as I’m ambling through the gallery in a daze. To mention that all of this was fizzing around my head, is not to exclude the fact that I was still looking to regard the pictures and their images themselves. This could offer a simple answer as to why I was there, maybe: ultimately because I really like looking at pictures, and the way they make me think. Simple is more often than not, best. It takes a simple decision to go into a gallery. A simple ease to go into a gallery and engage with its exhibits. A simple task (especially in our ‘modern’ age) to book train tickets to and from Edinburgh for the weekend. This provides to my writing, I would hope, a simple conclusion.