8 Sep 2009 in Gaelic, Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

GEORGINA COBURN monitors the continuing debate on redefining the visual culture of the Highlands & Islands

Participants enjoy a break at the Window On The West Seminar (© Murdo MacDonald)

Participants enjoy a break at the Window On The West Seminar (© Murdo MacDonald)

Funded by the AHRC, Uinneag Dhan Àird An Iar/ Window To The West is a five year research project between Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and the Visual Research Centre of the University of Dundee. The project is led by Professor Murdo Macdonald, Professor Will Maclean and Dr Norman Shaw and Lesley Lindsay in Dundee and Boyd Robertson, Meg Bateman and John Purser on the Isle of Skye.

Since 2005 the project has continued to develop collaboratively with key art and educational institutions in Scotland working towards a reappraisal of the visual in Scottish Gaelic culture. As the project moves towards its conclusion with a closing conference in June 2010 at the National Gallery of Scotland and with an exhibition at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh in autumn 2010, the potential for wider dissemination of its findings both creative and academic is exciting and timely.

What has emerged consistently throughout the research process is the extraordinarily rich visual inheritance of the Gaidhealtachd. The contribution of Highland Artists both historical and contemporary to the history of Western Art is significant, and it is extremely encouraging to see Window To The West’s enquiry into the roots of Scottish culture beginning to be made visible.

As a subject for public debate, acknowledgement and awakening consciousness, the concept of Highland Art has yet to be fully recognised. Current scholarship, contemporary studio practice and burgeoning public awareness are healthy signs of a fundamental shift in perception in relation to the history of visual culture in Scotland.

In the wider context of Europe and in global terms, redefining the visual in Gaelic Scotland has far reaching implications. It is no less than an appraisal of the essential value of Art in our culture.

The WTTW project has facilitated several important milestones in recent years with the impact of its research beginning to be represented in the media, publications, exhibitions and ongoing collaborative work. In May 2007 the RSA summer exhibition included a core showcase of Highland work, historical and contemporary, complimented by the publication Highland Art in English and Gaelic edited by Murdo Macdonald, Joanna Soden, Lesley Lindsay and Will Maclean.

Selections of work from the RSA show formed part of subsequent exhibitions held at the University of Dundee and An Lanntair, Stornoway in 2008, with the RSA William Gillies annual lecture held for the first time outside Edinburgh in April 2008 on the Isle of Lewis.

As part of the WTTW project a series of seminars: A Context For Highland Art (September, 2007), Highland: Image and Performance (September 2008) and Redefining The Visual (September 2009) have been important touchstones as areas of research have unfolded.

This latest one day symposium was no exception, providing a stimulating exploration of networks and continuities of thought in Scottish visual culture and highlighting the need for further enquiry, documentation, debate and education. A variety of current research papers were presented with a strong thematic thread in the first half of the day related to the concept of Celtic revivalism, not simply as resurgence or an expression of nationalism but as a creative act.

The visual representation of history and memory is one of the key areas of investigation within the WTTW project and this was reflected in presentations throughout the day.

Aonghus Mackechnie (Principal Inspector of Scottish Monuments for Historic Scotland) began his discussion of revivalist elements in Scottish architecture with a clever meditation on a commemorative plaque to John Logie Baird adorned with a Celtic cross, a seeming contradiction between modernity and antiquity.

Identification with architectural form throughout Scottish history alludes to what Mackechnie described as “a visual language not rustic but powerful”. The way in which built structures such as the cairn evoke antiquity and are used repeatedly as a form of visual language to evoke loss, resilience or a particular relationship to the landscape is a compelling area of investigation.

For me, Mackechnie’s paper Architecture and Attitudes to Gaeldom’s History 1846-1935 consistently raised the question of visual literacy in our culture and the collective sense of identification not just with a particular landscape but with a people and their beliefs. The meaning of revivalism in this context is the built structure “bound to landscape rather than to the landowner”, bearing a direct relationship to the work of a contemporary artist such as Will Maclean in his Land Struggle series of monuments on Lewis. The perceived function of a monument or marker within this cultural landscape is an area ripe for further exploration.

Joanna Soden (Royal Scottish Academy) revealed her preliminary work on a new body of research concerning industrial architecture within the landscape. Sculptors and the Hydro-Board: An exploration into the work of Hew Lorimer and Thomas Whalen examined the use of sculpture, design and symbol in buildings constructed for the Scottish Hydro Electric Scheme of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

The subject of an ongoing research project, Soden’s initial discussion of the sculptural work of Lorimer and Whalen identified potential links with Highland folklore, mythology, Pictish and Celtic Art, a revivalist language derivative of place and of the natural environment. The idea of “power from the Glens” in creative terms extends beyond the production of electricity. It will be extremely interesting to see how this research develops in terms of the visual dialogue between industry, landscape and antiquity.

In his enlightening paper A Highland Dundonian: Stewart Carmichael (1867-1950), Matthew Jarron (University of Dundee) discussed the aesthetics and context of the late 19th and early 20th century Celtic revival in Dundee.

Jarron’s discussion of the work of Carmichael and his circle alluded to the social and cultural implications of design through the growth of organisations such as The Highland Society, Highland Association, Dundee Fine Art Society and their related publications – the expansion of the jute industry and subsequent influx of Highland workers to the area contributing to this cultural fabric.

The link between Dundee and Antwerp as a location for artistic study together with the influence of the symbolist movement on the work of Carmichael and fellow artist George Dutch Davidson encourage consideration of the international scope of their work. Carmichael’s interest in the visual aspect of poetry and the inclusion of visual work in the 1937 Gaelic Mod held in Dundee suggest a more symbiotic relationship between Gaelic language and visual culture than has been previously acknowledged.

The link between language, seeing and visualisation was explored in Murdo Macdonald’s paper Seeing Colour and Shape in the Gaidhealtachd: An Ecology of Mind?, in which he discussed the wider cultural meaning of words related to colour perception in English and Gaelic. The difference between descriptions primarily of hue in English and the more fluid meaning or phenomenology of colour words in Gaelic reveals a holistic understanding of landscape.

The relationship between Gaelic language and creative process in the work of artist’s such as William McTaggart, Marian Leven and Jon Schueler are speculative. However, their art clearly employs a visual “language that sculpts an interior landscape”.

Colour complexity, saturation and light levels are brought to bear in the work of William McTaggart, a pioneer of modern painting in Scotland whose work encompasses a “human ecology”; “an extensive colourfield that refers to environment but also an extensive field that refers to community”. McTaggart’s visual language is reflective of the essential difference between a view of the Highland landscape and an understanding of the word Gaidehealtachd as land, people and memory.

Norman Shaw, one of the current artists in residence at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, delivered a potent and thought provoking paper on Re-mythologising the Highlands, drawing on the work of contemporary artists such as Lee O’Connor, Eddie Summerton and Duncan Marquiss. The critical and creative interrogation of the Highlands defined by “Balmoralisation”, “middle class romanticism” and “Celtic tourism” is an important and vital strand of deconstructive thought as part of the wider process of redefining the visual in Scottish Culture.

The Highland landscape mythologised by Queen Victoria, Walter Scott and James MacPherson prevails as the dominant vision of the Highlands, continuing to influence its economic and cultural development. Directly challenging this perception through the creation of new visual work, Shaw and his contemporaries provide a refreshing shift of perception in relation to Highland stereotypes and a land visually and historically depopulated of its native inhabitants.

In Sight Unseen, Meg Bateman (Sabhal Mòr Ostaig) discussed the act of seeing as tradition in the Gaidhealtachd. The act of seeing imaginative images and belief in creativity as the highest form of vision is exemplified in Druidic ritual, the phenomenon of Highland second sight and the blind Ossian of Alexander Runcimen and Calum Colvin.

Bateman’s exploration of “unseen vision” and its implications both in the creation of poetry and visual art, reveal a foundation of thought and religious belief (both Pagan and Christian) as part of a culturally specific landscape. This context supports a more integrated view of our relationship to the visual than our current historical record might suggest.

The concept of sight deprivation or darkness leading to inner vision is common in oral folklore, religious-mystical experience and creative process. The Bardic tradition is one of verbal and visual images alluding to the source and purpose of creativity as an agent of regeneration and renewal.

John Purser (Sabhal Mòr Ostaig) concluded the day with Integration of Word and Image, a fascinating paper investigating the Western tradition of the illuminated manuscript and the relationship between script and ornamentation. The complexity, invention and encoding of early texts and links to other disciplines such as music, stonemasonry and dance presented by Purser are an intriguing area for future study.

This one day symposium provided a great deal to contemplate. As the original WTTW project draws to a close in 2010 it is vital that the work it has begun continues. I sincerely hope that the movement towards redefinition of the visual in Scottish culture having gained momentum over the last four years will enter a dynamic new phase. It is essential that public engagement and education are part of this development, bringing the contents of our collections and archives to a wider audience and facilitating a re-evaluation of Highland Art in terms of its broader cultural significance.

Perhaps the most potent symbol of this whole momentous process is the sculpture Crannghal by artists Will Maclean and Arthur Watson. Installed in the grounds of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 2006 overlooking the Sound of Sleat, what first appears as a statement of loss is creatively transformed into a vision of rebirth and renewal. The great skeletal form of a boat cast in bronze, its prow facing out to sea, immediately recalls the soul’s journey in death, a common motif in Celtic mythology.

The textured patina of its ribbed structure suggests a body, residual flesh still clinging to the bones like a decaying sculptural lament. However, on closer inspection the viewer sees the form upon which the boat rests; a large base of polished marble shaped like a birth canal. Crannghal is resoundingly transcendent, the visualisation of a collective journey and of a living soul, the tools of construction in bronze lie next to the sculpture, just waiting to be picked up.

© Georgina Coburn, 2009


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