Tag Archive | Scotland

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

Mind Your Language!

Matthew Arnold, author of 'Culture and Anarchy'

Matthew Arnold, author of ‘Culture and Anarchy’

Words are slippery things, especially in my world. When do you use art, or arts? What exactly is an artist? What does culture cover? What constitutes our heritage? What is a community, and who belongs to it? Where are the limits of creativity?

And it becomes worse when you start linking those words. What exactly are the creative industries? There are various definitions currently in circulation. What are community arts or voluntary arts, and are they the same thing? And what exactly is cultural heritage?

Add the words Scotland or Scottish into the mix and you’re really in trouble. I wonder how different Creative Scotland’s reception would have been if it had adopted a name that didn’t yoke those contentious terms together. The amount of ink spent on defining Scottish culture could probably fill Loch Ness, and as we near the referendum debate, it may be blood that gets spilled on the subject rather than just ink.

Consider some of the contortions we get into in trying to make these words and phrases work for us. The Act which set up Creative Scotland referred to it being the ‘lead cultural body’ for Scotland. Yet most definitions of culture would include heritage, and Creative Scotland has no remit whatsoever for heritage, not even a coordinating role such as, after much heated debate, it was given in the creative industries.

Officers of Creative Scotland gave a presentation on their funding schemes during Go North recently. They split their schemes into the three categories of arts, film and digital, and creative industries, and then split the last term into those areas of the creative industries which Creative Scotland actually funded, and those for which it only had an overview, such as architecture and design. There could not be a clearer demonstration of the extent to which Creative Scotland is not yet more than the sum of the disparate parts from which it was made. Those categories make no sense to an artist who uses film in their gallery-based practice, and works as, say, a film editor to pay the mortgage.

This confusion between ‘the arts’ and ‘the creative industries’ has direct and largely negative impacts in the actions of other public bodies. The economic development departments of Local Authorities can prioritise the creative industries at the same time as their education or community departments are cutting their arts budgets, in apparent ignorance of the fact that many, if not most, successful initiatives in the creative industries will have their origins in some form of arts funding, whether it be an arts school course, an arts centre, or a bursary scheme.

‘Sticks and Stones may break my bones but website comments pages will never harm me’. No matter how much we may tell ourselves that the deluded souls who append their angry online comments to stories on arts funding, don’t know whereof they fulminate, it still hurts. Why don’t the general public ‘get’ the value of the arts, after all the evidence that research has produced? Mostly, because they don’t speak the language.

You will have to take me on trust when I tell you that I had written this much of the blog before I thought to apply these arguments to Fiona Hyslop’s Talbot Rice lecture of June 5th.  In this much commented-on speech of some 7000 words, the Cabinet Secretary used the term ‘culture and heritage’, or such close variations as ‘our culture and our heritage’, some 50 times. She used the term ‘arts’ just five times.

So, what kind of definition of culture is Ms Hyslop using, that does not include heritage? Certainly not one that, for instance, the European Commission would recognise. To compound the confusion, Ms Hyslop also used the phrases ‘culture and creativity’ and ‘cultural and creative industries’, suggesting that the creative industries are not culture, and that culture is not about creativity. I’m sure that wasn’t what she meant.

This is not mere nit-picking semantics. It suggests that we have developed a deep-seated embarrassment about using the term ‘arts’. I include myself in that ‘we’, having in recent years shifted my strapline for HI~Arts from an arts development agency to a cultural development agency, although that was intended to reflect our increasing engagement with the museums sector.

More than twenty years ago, when I was at the Scottish Arts Council, I, and Combined Arts Director John Murphy, had dinner with Shetland’s then Director of Education, and we had a revealing discussion about the culture/arts dichotomy. The Director of Education stated that, in Shetland, they were more comfortable with the inclusive notion of ‘culture’; John and I, on the other hand, wanted to stick with ‘arts’ because, at least, we could be clear about what we were talking about, and where our remit began and ended. As many people have commented, there is much that is positive and hopeful in Ms Hyslop’s speech, but that troubling imbalance between the terms ‘arts’ on the one hand, and ‘culture and heritage’ on the other, suggests that language may still be an obstacle to real consensus and progress.

And what, then, of the term ‘artist’? In the lexicon of arts bureaucrats such as myself, ‘artist’ means everyone who creates artistic stuff—musicians, writers, actors, theatre directors, dancers, and so on. People who paint and sculpt are visual artists. It’s a clumsy arrangement. But even within the visual arts the term ‘artist’ is a contested one. A couple of discussions that I’ve been involved in recently have suggested to me, indeed, that ‘artist’ has become a limiting term. On the one hand, art-lovers of a more conservative taste can’t understand why people like Damien Hirst or Martin Creed can be termed ‘artists’ at all. Pickling a shark or switching the lights on and off is not painting a picture. On the other hand, I heard one ‘artist’ decry the term as applied to himself, because it means that people expect him to make things when his work is much more about actions, connections, critical debate and challenging norms.

I think we need a new word. Not a different word, a new word. The term ‘scientist’ did not exist before it was deliberately coined in 1833. Before that, people had ‘done’ science all the way back to the Greeks and the Babylonians, but they were usually called something like ‘natural philosophers’ (or, sometimes, ‘alchemists’). But by the early 19th century the increasingly technical practice of people like Humphrey Davey and Michael Faraday demanded a term that would distinguish their experimental approach from those who just thought about how the world worked.

I’m not going to be rash enough to suggest a suitable neologism. But I suspect that inventing a truly new term would help to get us out of the confusion we’re now in, where arts, culture and creativity are bandied about, even in the one speech, with a reckless abandon that makes it very difficult for anyone to get any real traction on what’s actually being proposed. If we really want to change the minds of those philistines who spill their bile in online comments, we need to take the slipperiness out of our language. Otherwise, with apologies to Matthew Arnold, our approach to culture will remain anarchic.