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Schrödinger’s Music

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What are we listening to when we listen to music? That may seem tautological, but bear with me. The question was prompted by listening (courtesy of Spotify) to a remarkable recording of the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, performed by the South African-born, London-based pianist, Daniel-Ben Pienaar, hitherto unknown to me.

Though I’d grown up with the named sonatas like the Moonlight, which my mother used to play, I only got to know all 32 Beethoven sonatas—the so called ‘New Testament’ of the piano—back in 1990, when our friend Gustav Fenyo performed complete cycles in a series of concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Gustav has always seemed to me an under-appreciated musician, and his playing, especially of those sonatas I’d not previously encountered, was a revelation. Across those 32 incredible works he revealed an imagination and an energy at work that has few parallels in any art form in history.

More recently I’ve been enjoying Paul Lewis’s complete recording, for its clarity, its sense of structure, and its intense musicality, but I only had to listen to one of Pienaar’s performances to know that this was music making in a different league.

A great deal of ink has been spilt, in the world of classical music, on the subject of interpretation. There are those who favour the approach of, to take an extreme example, a Glenn Gould, who so impresses his own vision on a score that it effectively becomes ‘Gould’s Beethoven’, or Bach, or whoever. At the other extreme is a pianist like Alfred Brendel, famed for his fidelity to the score, and the modesty of his own personality, musically speaking that is. Daniel-Ben Pienaar fits neither of these stereotypes. There is nothing remotely objective about his playing, but nor is it wilfully idiosyncratic. For me, it’s like cleaning an Old Master—as if he’s stripped away layers of accretion to reveal what Beethoven originally intended. A dangerous claim, of course, and perhaps a foolish one.

So I began to think about why his performances were affecting me so strongly. It was Goethe who apparently first called architecture ‘frozen music’, but, according to some sources online, the full quote should be ‘music is liquid architecture, and architecture is frozen music’. The first part of that statement is what I want to focus on. As we listen to music we experience it as flow, as duration in time. But, in something like a Beethoven sonata, we also—if we already know it—hold in our heads our awareness of its overall structure—its architecture—or else, we come to understand that structure retrospectively.

The best performers, and, I would argue, the best listeners, need to hold this contradiction in balance, to understand and experience the music as simultaneously flow and architecture. This is what I think Pienaar does consummately. Listening to the variation movement at the end of Op 109, one of the ‘late’ sonatas, it seemed to me that Pienaar was unfolding the music as a fine jazz pianist develops an improvisation—like Keith Jarrett’s famous ‘Köln Concert’—and, like Jarrett, even as he gave the impression of spontaneously discovering the music’s direction, so he was all the time holding in his head that crucial sense of its destination. Beethoven, after all, was famed in his lifetime above all for his improvisations at the keyboard.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to Western classical music, it’s equally true of jazz like Keith Jarrett’s, or of non-western traditions like Indian ragas. And this is where, finally, we come to Erwin Schrödinger and his infamous thought experiment, involving putting a cat in jeopardy. Schrödinger was attempting to illustrate the paradox that an electron can be simultaneously thought of as both a wave and a particle, and so you can never be certain, at the same time, of both its location and its velocity. He envisaged putting a cat in a box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter records an emitted particle, it smashes the bottle and the cat dies. As quantum theory claims that we only ‘collapse’ a particle into a specific state by observing it, we’re faced with the paradox that we only know if the cat is alive or dead by opening the box and that, until that point, it could be said to be both alive and dead.

So, a truly gifted musician will resolve that paradox. He or she will be able to present the music—from a composer’s score, or as they improvise it–as both flow and architecture, or, to pursue the metaphor, as both wave and particle. When that resolution is achieved we, the listeners, may have an extraordinarily heightened experience; as when, even on a recording, the last movement of Op 109 can reduce me to tears. This is why, of course, it’s so important for those presenting new and/or unfamiliar music to tell audiences how long it’s going to last. How we respond to music we don’t know will be entirely different according to whether we expect it to last five or fifty minutes. Imagine being sat down to a Bruckner symphony without knowing what was coming.

I think this also applies to other artforms. A couple of weeks ago I saw the latest double bill from the wonderful Scottish Dance Theatre. I was very glad indeed that the programme gave the durations for both works. The incidental gestures, interactions, and set pieces all fell beautifully into place as I anticipated them moving towards each work’s conclusion. Flow and architecture. This is perhaps the main reason why I find e-readers so unsatisfactory. There’s something very pleasurable about glancing at a book and seeing from the location of the bookmark how far you’ve gone, and how much pleasure—or effort—still awaits you. A digital notification that you’re on ‘page 92 of 483’ just doesn’t do it for me, not least because they’re not real pages!

On the other hand, too great a familiarity with duration and structure can be a drawback. If the average TV cop drama is always an hour long (give or take adverts) then you always know when the villain is about to be unmasked. You may experience the pleasure of anticipation, but not the greater stimulus of complete surprise.

So, to come back to where I started: what I think I’m listening to, when I listen to Pienaar’s Beethoven, is an extraordinarily sensitive response to that crucial need to hold flow and architecture in balance. Or, to use a quote attributed to another great German thinker, Gottfried Leibnitz: ‘Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting’.

© Robert Livingston, March 2015

The Admirable Bridie

Dougal Lee as Mr Bolfry

Dougal Lee as Mr Bolfry

Today is the day I mark, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, my 60th year to heaven, so it seems an appropriate time to resume this much neglected blog. As it happens, the exigencies of schedules mean that Judith and I have already celebrated my unbirthday last weekend, with a trip south that included the essential Pitlochry experience: seeing two different plays on the same day with the same cast.

Now I’m sure that for many people the name ‘Pitlochry Festival Theatre’ conjures up an image of a theatrical world that is self-consciously conservative, safe and bland. In the past, that could at times be true. Ten years ago we saw a production of WS Gilbert’s ‘Engaged’ at Pitlochry which nudged the audience so often that you’d have thought the director was Eric Idle in Python persona. It was as if the production was making a point that this play was creaky and old-fashioned, but wasn’t that fun? Particularly uncomfortable were the crassly caricatured portrayals of Gilbert’s already stereotyped Scottish characters.

On the face of it, our choice of plays last week might have served only to confirm that this historic impression was still valid. What could James Bridie and JM Barrie possibly offer contemporary audiences beyond a certain curiosity value, or a measure of nostalgia for the days of the ‘well-made’ play? That was, in fact, my reason for wanting to see them—how would they sit in the company of such modern equivalents, in the Pitlochry season, as Stephen Greenhorn’s classic ‘Passing Places’ or Liz Lochhead’s ‘Perfect Days’? The result was a very pleasant surprise—we found both plays thoroughly gripping from beginning to end, helped in no small measure by direction, and acting, which played them absolutely straight, with not a hint of a collusive wink to the audience. The humour in them was the humour put there by the writers, not a modern gloss by the director. Certainly, both productions were among the most satisfying theatrical experiences we’ve had in a long time.

In fact, Barrie’s ‘The Admirable Crichton’ has received almost uniform critical praise for both play and production, with several writers noting how it is a necessary corrective to the current culture of ‘Downton Abbey’ rose-tinted sentimentality. I’d only add that it’s nothing like the anodyne Kenneth More film version, and that it’s always good to be reminded of how acid and dark a writer Barrie could be. After all, one of his early novels, ‘Better Dead’, was based on the premise of bumping off prominent figures in society to make room for new blood. But I was surprised that many critics, while praising the production of ‘Mr Bolfry’, wrote the play itself off as outdated and with little to say to a contemporary audience. Really? This is a play, set during a war, which confronts the dualities of faith and reason, doubt and certainty, societal norms and individual freedoms. How can that not be resonant? One only needs to imagine a production in Tehran, Baghdad or Jerusalem to discard any idea of the play being irrelevant. But, even close to home, it seems that those metropolitan critics need to get out more, and discover more of the hold which the Free Church still has in some quarters of the Highlands and Islands, or, much more alarmingly, the current resurgence of extreme evangelism in some rural communities in Wales.

The last time—the only other time—I’d seen a James Bridie play was in 1976, when the Royal Lyceum staged ‘The Anatomist’, based on the Burke and Hare story. Now that was creaky, the whole production being built around Tom Fleming’s star turn as Dr Knox. But this production of ‘Mr Bolfry’ was a different matter altogether: a truly ensemble cast which could readily absorb Dougal Lee’s rip-roaring turn as the devilish Bolfry, an imaginative set, and a production which took great care in getting the period detail right, without swamping the play in nostalgia. A large matinee audience sat with intent concentration throughout, with barely a smothered cough, and not a snore, to be heard. Bridie delights in intellectual argument, but those arguments arise out of his individual characters, who are not simply mouthpieces for Bride himself. And the play comes to no easy conclusion—unlike the plays of some of Bridie’s more polemical modern day counterparts, such as David Hare—but ends, instead, like ‘The Admirable Crichton’, on an uneasily unresolved note, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions.

This is the month of the second ‘Luminate’, set up by Creative Scotland to be Scotland’s ‘creative ageing festival’. I suppose, as I enter my seventh decade, I should be taking an interest in such an event, but the concept of ‘creative ageing’ is as abhorrent to me as SAGA holidays or adverts for stair lifts. In fact, I think there’s a paradox at work here. Even while an initiative like ‘Luminate’ is seeking to promote and showcase the ‘growing evidence of the importance of creative activities to our wellbeing as we age’, there’s widespread concern about ‘ageing’ audiences for the ‘mainstream’ arts. Well, it’s true that, even on the verge of 60, I was in the youngest 5% of the audience for those Pitlochry plays, but the important point is that they were very well attended. A mid-week matinee at the start of October was more than two-thirds full, while the evening performance was almost sold out. And, as I’ve implied, these large audiences were for plays that offered plenty to think and talk about afterwards. But you won’t find Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the ‘Luminate’ programme.

Anyway, I’ve a suspicion that the anxiety about ageing audiences is often misplaced. The following night we were at a sold-out performance in the Usher Hall by the RSNO, and the age range present was pretty well comprehensive, even in the more expensive stalls seats. Up in the Gallery, there were many young people. And this was for no lightweight programme with big name soloists. The orchestra’s own outstanding lead cellist played the Elgar Concerto superbly, and the second half was taken up with Bruckner’s mighty 7th Symphony. The same spread of ages then was evident at a truly exceptional concert the following evening in St Giles, given by the Vox Coelestis choir. Again, no obvious favourites in the highly imaginative programme.

I suppose I worry about fragmentation. About concentrating on the benefits for older people (or children, for that matter) of participating in the arts, when we ought to be shouting about how everyone can benefit from such participation. About implying that some kinds of participation are ‘better’ or more appropriate than others—taking part in a dance class rather than going to Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for example. Though to be fair, the Luminate programme is so broad church that you wonder about the criteria for inclusion. Once we start talking about ‘Arts for older people’, or ‘Arts for young people’, or for those with special needs, or from minority ethnic backgrounds, we both start to erect unnecessary barriers, and we imply a certain benign paternalism, a conferring of benefits ‘de haut en bas’ that makes me feel rather queasy. James Bridie, were he still around, could write a great play about it. After all, his son did go on to head up the Scottish Arts Council!

Cultural Days

'Haining Dreaming' at the YES Festival

‘Haining Dreaming’ at the YES Festival

The haunting image of an Indian dancer, projected multiple times on to a length of woven tweed.

A packed audience straining to see the miniscule performances at a flea circus

Seventy children bringing back to life the memory of a 200 year old house through music and dance

An over-60s choir singing joyfully on a busy High Street

Scotland’s Makar reciting The Twa Corbies

One of the witches from ‘Macbeth’ delivering the ‘double double’ speech in the local Coop, as if it was a Nigella recipe

A magical digital panorama of toads creating new life.

These are just some of the haunting, moving, funny and downright bizarre experiences that I’ve had in the last two weeks.

In these difficult times it must take a degree of ambition and sheer nerve to embark on a new artistic venture, so it’s been gratifying to experience not one but two such new enterprises, within the same fortnight, and at opposite ends of the country.

Our first week of consultations towards a Cultural Strategy for the Scottish Borders happily coincided with the launch of the YES Festival  —not a political statement, but a new festival for Yarrow, Ettrick and Selkirk–and then, just over a week later and back home in the north, I went along to the first Culture Day for Forres, Kinloch and Findhorn, which is itself intended to be the forerunner of a new Findhorn Bay Arts Festival to be held in a year’s time.

Despite the geographic distance, these two events had a lot in common.  Though each centred on a Royal Burgh, the programmes of events in each also spread out to surrounding communities. Both transformed the town’s High Street with a range of exhibitions and pop-up events.  Both involved a huge amount of community and voluntary participation, of all ages, but depended at their core on the enthusiasm and commitment of a few key individuals, and thorough, professional promotion, management and coordination.    Both, as far as I could tell, seemed to be generating a lot of local interest and involvement, with sizeable audiences for most, if not all events.

'Culture Day' in Forres

‘Culture Day’ in Forres

The great thing about festivals and special days is that they’re so much more than the sum of their parts.  Throw yourself into the experience, and you’ll quickly forget or ignore those bits that weren’t so good, but feel exhilarated by the sheer imagination, diversity, and surprise of everything else.  And people will move mountains to make such an event work, in a way that can’t be sustained week on week, month on month, throughout the year.

But festivals are also like cake—very tasty, but you can’t live on that alone.  Festivals thrive best when they’re rooted in a mulch of year-round activities.  By a further happy coincidence, I’ve also in this fortnight been to the celebrations of the 15th anniversary of a very special means of delivering such year-round experiences, the Screen Machine Mobile Cinema.  Setting up, and for many years managing, the mobile cinema operation is one of the things I’m proudest to have been associated with, though the lion’s share of the credit has to go to the two guys about to cut the birthday cake in this photo—the driver/operators Iain McColl and Neil MacDonald.  Without their incredible dedication, and sheer love of the job, the Screen Machine would never have become the much-loved fixture it now is, in so many small communities across Scotland.

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

In a recent, by now notorious, speech to the Edinburgh Fringe, the English playwright Mark Ravenhill incited his audience not only to prepare for a possible future without public arts funding, but also, as artists, to in some respects feel freed up by not having to make the compromises that he believes are involved in accepting such funding.  But where does that leave the wider community? One central factor that all these ventures have in common—the YES Festival, Culture Day, the Screen Machine—is funding from Creative Scotland, alongside a host of other funders and supporters, regional, national and international.

in these times of spending cuts and tightened family budgets, cultural junkies like me, for whom the value of such activities is self-evident, nonetheless need to make a strong case for the wider impact and benefit of such events and services. Benefits, that is,  not only for those who take part in them, and for those who enjoy them, but also for those who only hear or read about them, and for those running businesses who might see some indirect benefit from them.  Like, for example, the butcher in Forres who was delighted with Culture Day, because he always sells more meat when ‘there’s something happening in the High Street’.

Awesome!

Palace Green Library, Durham

Palace Green Library, Durham

Worshipped any good books lately?  I have.  And if ‘worshipped’ sounds a bit extreme, perhaps even sacrilegious, how else would you approach a book which has survived, largely intact, for 1300 years, including evading Viking raids, being taken on lengthy peregrinations across the North of England, and even, according to one popular legend, emerging unscathed from complete immersion in the North Sea?  I’m referring, of course, to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the centrepiece—until the end of September—of a superb exhibition in the Palace Green Library of the University of Durham.

We had taken a flat in Alnwick for the week, with a London-based friend who is an expert in museums management, and our main reason for being in the North East was to visit this exhibition. So on a day that can only be described as Mediterranean, we arrived in a Durham that can rarely, if ever,  have looked more sunny, exotic and welcoming. I felt some trepidation about this excursion.  How do you build an entire exhibition around a book of which, unavoidably, only one page can be seen at any one time?  Indeed, I understand that only two different pages of the Gospels in total are being displayed during the entire three month run of the exhibition.  I needn’t have worried. As we all agreed—including our museums specialist friend—this was a superb and unforgettable experience.

First of all, it was a model of visitor management.  We had booked timed tickets for 13.30.  Arriving a few minutes before our time, we could join the rest of our cohort seated in the sun, while cheery stewards encouraged us that ‘we’ll get you in shortly’.  With the same friendliness and courtesy we were gently ‘processed’ through the entrance stages but, once inside the exhibition proper, we were left to ourselves and could stay as long as we liked.  The results of all this attention to detail were that at no time did we feel crowded, or that we had to move along without allowing enough time for a particular display, and then, when we finally entered the inner sanctum that housed the Gospels, the three of us were able to view the book itself for as long as we wished, without a queue forming behind us.

All of which would have been of little benefit had the exhibition itself not been a triumph of the combined skills of curation, display and interpretation.  Unobtrusively, almost subliminally, we were given a very clear and integrated understanding of the political, historical, religious, social and artistic context for the Gospels.  We came to understand why the Gospels had been made, where they were made, when they were made, and how they were made.  We explored the fusion they represent of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon artistic forms, the world of the book in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, and the tensions between the Celtic and Roman churches that formed the background to the book’s production.  Nothing was ‘dumbed down’—children were offered a host of ways of getting involved in a completely separate space, which also housed a meticulous account of how the book was physically produced.  I doubt if anything in the exhibition could have troubled a believer, but nor was there the slightest hint of sanctimoniousness.

Particularly impressive was the use of video technology.  In the ante-room to that which housed the actual Gospels there were two giant video displays drawing on images of every page in the Gospels, and blowing up the illuminated pages in sequence at a scale that left you breathless with wonder at the skill of Eadfrith, the monk and bishop who is credited with both copying and illuminating the Gospels.    Then, in the separate display at the end, there were several PCs where you could explore each page in similar detail at your leisure.

The third thing that impressed us was the range of people visiting the exhibition.  Folk in the North East are very proud of the Gospels, and that was demonstrated by the diversity of ages and social backgrounds of those going round the exhibition with us.  This was a popular exhibition, without needing to be populist.  I understand there is a campaign to locate the Gospels permanently in the North East, resisted by the British Library.  It’s a campaign that deserves to succeed.

So, when I finally found myself standing in front of the book itself, able to view closely that one visible page, what did I feel?  Awe, of course.  Awe at its survival, at its incredible artistry and technical achievement, and awe also at the evidence it provides (as had the rest of the exhibition) of the richness of Northumbrian culture in the 8th century.  Pace Lord Howell, the North East was no more culturally ‘desolate’ 1300 years ago than it is today.

Warkworth Castle: the Keep

Warkworth Castle: the Keep

And awe, indeed, was what we felt throughout our week based in Alnwick—awe at the magnificence of Durham Cathedral (despite misguided attempts at modern and community art which threatened to diminish that glory), awe at the power and strength of the immense medieval  strongholds of Warkworth, Bamburgh and Alnwick, and at the 19th century industrial might that transformed all three of these great castles, and led to Lord Armstrong building the fantasy that is Cragside, awe even at the ambition that has led to the creation, in the last decade, of the wonder that is The Alnwick Garden.

The Alnwick Garden

The Alnwick Garden

And at all these locations we found hundreds, no, thousands of local people enjoying their heritage, often with a very well-informed perspective. At the Alnwick Garden we experienced a glimpse of the ‘peaceable kingdom’, as hundreds of families—and especially young children—experienced what I can only describe as ‘joy unconfined’ among the marvels that the Garden offers.

In many ways the Lindisfarne Gospels symbolise unity—embracing both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic artistic tropes, and also two languages and two scripts, thanks to the translation in Old English which the priest Aldred added to the text 250 years after Eadfrith’s work.  The Gospels speak of a time when Britain, no matter how fractured politically by warring kingdoms and Viking incursions, shared a culture of belief, literacy and artistic creation. Judith is a Geordie.  The Lindisfarne Gospels, and the architectural wonders of Northumberland, are part of the heritage she grew up with.  But I also feel they’re part of my heritage.  If independence comes next year, how will that change my feeling of a shared heritage?  I wish I could tell.

(all photographs: Judith Livingston)

Durham doorcases

We’ve been in Northumberland all week, of which more later.  Meanwhile, a visual blog:  doorcases around Durham Cathedral close and the South Bailey:

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A Good Read

One of the drawbacks of working from home is that I no longer get to listen to downloads of Radio 4 programmes while driving to and from work each day, and so I’ve accumulated a substantial backlog on my MP3 player.  Fortunately, though, I had to drive to Rothesay this week, a round trip of some 12 hours, and so I have caught up substantially through listening to multiple episodes of Feedback, Last Word, Saturday Review, More or Less, Counterpoint, The Life Scientific and, a particular favourite, A Good Read, with the estimable Harriet Gilbert.

My interest in Ms Gilbert is not just that she’s an excellent and quirky presenter, skilled at drawing out the views of her guests, but also that she’s the daughter of one of my favourite neglected authors, the crime- and thriller-writer, Michael Gilbert.

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Michael Gilbert enjoyed a very long life—he died in 2006 at the age of 93—and a similarly long writing career, publishing his first novel in 1948 and his last in 1999.  That means he was a contemporary of much better-remembered writers such as Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin, as well as overlapping with the later careers of such eminent figures in the crime and thriller worlds as Margery Allingham, Eric Ambler, and, of course Agatha Christie.  I think he’s as good a writer as any of those famous names, and better than some of them, but, curiously, the very qualities for which I admire him may be the factors that have led to his neglect.

First, he didn’t stick to one genre, but wrote detective novels, thrillers, and espionage fiction.  And he didn’t hesitate to mix genres.  I’m currently reading one of his most acclaimed books, Death in Captivity from 1952, which is a murder mystery set in a POW camp in Italy and based directly on Gilbert’s own wartime experiences: it was made into a film in 1958.  Previously I’d read The Empty House of 1978 which starts out as a murder mystery and turns into a spy thriller.  Its innocent hero is thrust into a world whose cynicism, ruthlessness, and disregard for the law strike a remarkably contemporary resonance.  It’s an absolute page-turner.

And then, although some of his central characters do reappear in several titles, none of them achieved the fame—or notoriety—of an Albert Campion, a John Appleby, or a Hercule Poirot.  That of course left Gilbert free to tell the stories he wanted to, without being shackled by readers’—and publishers’—expectations, but it also militated against his books becoming really popular, and his characters lasting in the collective memory.  Just as with his cross-genre plots, Gilbert often compounded this characteristic by writing stories which had no one central character, but instead multiple viewpoints.  That makes for an exhilarating, but also a more demanding, read.

Finally, although his books can have a whimsical tone (Smallbone Deceased) that is reminiscent, say, of Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, or a boy’s-own-adventure quality (The Etruscan Net) comparable to Michael Innes’s wonderful The Journeying Boy, all those I’ve read, no matter how fantastical their plots, have an underlying toughness and realism that prevents them from offering a cosy nostalgia for the innocent days before Prime Suspect or The Killing.

One thing that Michael Gilbert does share with his genre contemporaries is that his books are short—rarely exceeding 250 pages.  His story-telling is wonderfully terse and economical: the opening chapter frequently throws the reader in media res, with setting and character introduction following later.  That’s a virtue we need to rediscover.  I remember the wise and canny editor and literary agent John Jarrold telling budding SF writers that their books needed to be 400 pages long to meet publishers’ demands, as it seems readers today measure a book’s value by its length as much as, or more than, by its quality.  The result is too often padded, if not bloated, and has resulted in the ruination of many previously fine genre writers.

So, again unlike Allingham or Christie, Michael Gilbert’s name has not been revived through regular TV and radio adaptations, and as a result most of his books have been out of print for many years—so many years that they now rarely surface in charity shops, so obsessed are those enterprises with only the latest bestsellers, nor in libraries where older copies have long since worn out.  But technology has come to Gilbert’s rescue.  A huge number of his titles are now available in Kindle editions, while battered copies of those old paperback editions can be ordered from online sites like Abe Books for a pittance.

So I’m glad to say you have no excuse for not discovering Michael Gilbert’s merits for yourself—he really is A Good Read.

©  Robert Livingston

The Problem with Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Living in the Highlands, there’s very little that we miss about the Central Belt, except for the chance to see major art exhibitions.  The team at Inverness Museum and Gallery often achieve wonders with their limited resources, but that doesn’t remove the need for a regular fix—usually in Edinburgh, as Glasgow has fallen badly behind ever since the magnificent MacLellan Galleries were mothballed.

One of the early tasks I was given on joining HI~Arts in 1994 was to write the brief for the very first formal feasibility study into creating a major gallery for the Highlands and Islands.  I used to hope then that I’d see such a gallery open before I retired.  Now it’s only the shifting ages for claiming the state pension, and the poor state of my personal pension, that are keeping that possibility even remotely open.

In the meantime Edinburgh can still offer some fantastic exhibition experiences, especially through the National Galleries and Museums.  We always make sure we get down for the Festival exhibitions, so we were initially disappointed that, having to be in Edinburgh for a meeting last week, we were just too early for most of those blockbusters. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

In the first instance, this encouraged us to visit the kind of lesser display that can so easily get overlooked when the great crowd-pullers are open, Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch . Not the most stimulating of titles, perhaps, but this proved to be the kind of small but perfectly formed exhibition which, in just one room and some 25 small pictures, can be both a revelation and a source of intense pleasure.  Frederic Church is known here (insofar as he’s known at all, that is), for the Scottish National Gallery’s epic Niagara Falls from the American Side  but this exhibition showed his miniature side, and what an incredible eye and technique he had.  The exhibition is on till April next year, so you’ve no excuse if you miss it! And it’s free!

And better still, on the way to see the Church exhibition, we stepped into the little hexagonal room on the ground floor of the National Gallery that is the permanent home for seven of the greatest paintings ever created—perhaps the greatest paintings in any collection in Scotland:  Nicolas Poussin’s Seven Sacraments.  Now I’ve known these paintings all my adult life, and had we been trying to fit in various exhausting major exhibitions on this trip, we’d hardly have spared the time to revisit them, which would have been a shame, as I found the experience very moving.

How can I persuade you of the true greatness of these paintings?  It’s not an easy task.  Unless you’re a fairly well briefed member of the Catholic Church, the subject matter is obscure, not to say recondite, and not immediately easy to relate to.  Then, the paintings are now mostly very dark, due presumably to aging varnish and a certain amount of fading pigments, and so don’t make an immediate impression on the viewer.  And, most significantly, these are supreme examples of French Classicism, contemporary with the plays of Racine, the music of Lully, and the first phase of building at Versailles—a style, a philosophy, a world, that are probably as far from contemporary taste as anything in the last half-millennium.

Even as an art history student I didn’t take readily to Poussin; in fact I think I graduated without really understanding his achievement.   I was put off by the solemnity of his religious subjects and, paradoxically, by the frivolity of many of his mythological themes. It took a lot of looking, and some great exhibitions, including the Scottish National Gallery’s own landmark Cezanne and Poussin of 1990, to change my mind.    And I clearly wasn’t alone in having this problem: researching this blog I was amused to find a 2009 Guardian article titled  ‘Arts snobs can keep Poussin’.

Well, maybe I am an art snob, but my admiration for Poussin now goes well beyond the intellectual or the academic.  I quite simply love his paintings, as profoundly as I love the music of Bach, or the poems of John Donne, to mention two other artists in other artforms who can be thought ‘difficult’.  Let’s return to the Sacraments, and look at just one of them, Holy Eucharist.

Poussin: The Sacrament of Holy Eucharist

Poussin: The Sacrament of Holy Eucharist

Forget Leonardo, this is the ‘Last Supper’, not least because it makes such a concerted attempt to re-imagine the scene, starting with having the apostles, in a historically correct manner, reclining on couches on three sides of a table, rather than lined up all in a row.  Yet there are still hurdles to overcome. Historically correct the scene may be in one sense, but hardly for a bunch of Galilee fishermen in an ‘upper room’.  Christ at first sight seems too idealised, while too many of the apostles’ heads seem to have the rigidity of classical tragic masks.  But set that to one side: look at how naturally everyone is posed, and look especially at their reactions.  Jesus has obviously just announced ‘One of you will betray me’ and many of the apostles are caught literally with their mouths full, or with the next bite half way to their mouths.   It has the vivid immediacy of a film still, an effect enhanced by the astonishing lighting from the central (and again archaeologically correct) hanging lamp, and especially by the figure of Judas, slipping out to the left.

But these elements are easy to describe.  What’s much harder to convey is what makes Poussin really great—a pervasive and intense sense of human empathy that, curiously, is heightened, not diminished, by the classical manner, and a truly musical sense of form and structure.  Goethe called architecture ‘frozen music’ but I think the phrase could equally be applied to Poussin—after all one of his most famous paintings is A Dance to the Music of Time!

So, the only way to ‘get’ Poussin, I’d argue, is to look, look, and look again, and keep coming back. The rewards repay the effort.  And so the real problem with Poussin is that he demolishes two arguments that are increasingly gaining ground: that art should be easily (if not instantly) accessible, and that art, especially of this kind, is elitist and those who want to enjoy it should pay for their pleasure. Good art takes time, and that’s why galleries need to be free.  And why we need a really good one in the Highlands!

© Robert Livingston