Window to the West: The Rediscovery of Highland Art

23 Nov 2010 in Gaelic, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

City Arts Centre, Edinburgh, until 6 March 2011

FOR MANY YEARS Dundee has been a transit territory between the Scottish central belt and the artistic life of the Highlands & Islands. Murdo Macdonald, as professor  of Scottish art history at Dundee University, and Arthur Watson as both maker and educator at Duncan of Jordanstone, have worked with Will Maclean to establish a lasting link with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Sleat, Skye.

The scholarly and practical  connections have already culminated in a major bronze work at Sabhal Mor – a collaboration between Watson and Maclean – and the willow framework which was a basis for casting the bronze, is re-made here as an installation which is a central part of a major gathering of visual works from the Gàidhealtachd,  Window to the West: The Rediscovery of Highland Art (Uinneag Dhan Àird an Air: Ath-Lorg Ealain na Gàidhealtachd), which  now occupies two floors of one of Scotland’s great galleries.

John Blake McDonald's painting Glencoe 1692

John Blake McDonald, Glencoe 1692

The willow frame is suspended, off-centre and upside down. The skeleton does not yet have its skin. Thus  a sense of structure and form is to the fore and a celebration of the very act of making. Cloth bags are numbered. They contain groupings of willow, suggesting constituent parts, the way builders’ half-models or templates for steel shapes might suggest the architecture of vessels of other forms of construction.

The elegance of the structure speaks for itself, suggesting the engineering  phraseology “necessary and sufficient”. That is, the materials are selected and joined to give sufficient strength without adding surplus weight, a fine definition of the quality in good, spare poetry. Perhaps there is also a suggestion that the apparent artlessness in a ‘primitive’ object  can in fact be the result of the most sophisticated distillation of skills and experience.

Maclean and Watson's sculpture at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye

Maclean and Watson's sculpture at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye

Now we are used to accepting that oral culture is stronger than visual art in the Gaelic-speaking areas. Macdonald is never a man to accept an assertion or  concensus without question. His wide knowledge of Scottish visual art, whether on canvas, in book form or inscribed or carved in stone, reminds us that a 14th century tombstone, or one with an even more distant date, is as much an example of visual art from the Gàidhealtachd as a contemporary digital work or a song or pibroch which has long been accepted in a canon of artifacts.

So when we see the naive paintings of Angus Morrison from Ness in Lewis, we  can of course compare them with works by Christopher Wood, in Cornwall. But  really we are seeing a strong vision which celebrates balance and the practical grace in the type of vessel known as a sgoth Niseach. The craft depicted is itself a form of vernacular sculpture, made by Gaelic-speaking people and so as much a fine example of visual art as any other form, practical purpose or no.

Large-scale canvases by the Gaelic-speaking William McTaggart also observe and communicate the human, rooted firmly in a maritime landscape which lends the means of survival but also in some cases of death.

Bàgh Machaire Shanais is free and beautiful and energetic painting but it is also, to me, astonishingly accurate in its depiction of the dipping lug sail and oar at work in turbulent water. (I’ve spent some nights as well as days under one this year so have  a fair few hours of looking at lugsails behind this observation.)

William McTaggart's Preaching of St Columba

William McTaggart's Preaching of St Columba

You have to concentrate and come in close to Preaching of St Columba to see the  boats  settling into the beach and the large groups of figures also settled like mountain hares in their landscape to hear the great message from the powerful figure declaiming from a rock.

The Lewis painter, Donald Smith, another Gaelic speaking artist but from a later generation and a man still with us, is well represented by a wall of paintings in oil or gouache, but all balancing human forms in the environment they are working in. You could, in fact, see Smith’s paintings as a celebration of work but also of the colour which is often so strong in harbour or croft environments but very often  missed by the generalisation that it’s all brown and grey and dreich.

From there, we can come in closer to people or we can focus on the landscape apparently empty of the people who survive with its help or hindrance. D Forrester Wilson comes in closer to study the face and bearing of Highland people. The Young Shepherd is the poster of this large scale show.  This is a painting which you would have thought might be iconic already but, I think, its prominence shows the thorough and unblinkered approach of the joint curators, Watson and Macdonald.

Exhibition poster showing David Forrester Wilson's The Young Shepherd

Exhibition poster featuring David Forrester Wilson's The Young Shepherd

The figure is confident in the landscape which gives him his livelihood. An Islay Woman (1931) comes in closer to her own face, but the portrait seems to have similarities to the way Paul Stand’s photographs caught Uist people, secure in their own place and their own language.

James W Cumming’s Lewis Poacher and his dancing, lively painting, The Hebrideans, takes a less reverential approach, but more jazzy than satiric.  But when we look at landscape as a study in its own right we can observe graduations along a route, that comes close to abstraction.

This does not, of course, follow a timeline. Exceptional examples of the colourists, Peploe and Cadell, take us in to the memorable shades of iona stone, but not far from there we can see the near-photographic precision  of Sir David Young Cameron.

Then there is James Mcintosh Patrick, who in the words of my painter companion at the show, Pat Law, is significant for “making dark tones ring’”. And that is a description of the shifting I’ve been observing in November light on the Minch today.

The American painter Jon Scheuler, who lived in the Mallaig area in the 1980s, takes us close to free painting. The clouds and skies are merging colour and a step on the way to the analysis that results in the near monochrome approach of Donald Urquhart.

There is some similarity in mood if not in technique with Kate Whiteford’s study of the Lewis landscape achieved in grainy moving imagery shot from an aircraft. It is the slashes and scars of peat-workings which stand out. All these generations have probably left more marks on their place than the individuals realized.

Norman Shaw makes monochrome drawings which have some affinity with some of Whiteford’s pieces but for me it was his sound sculpture which spoke out stronger.  Strangely I’d just been listening  to the intonation of Icelandic, as part of Pat Law’s large scale web based work Seven Sails, and the similarity with Shaw’s work in sound was startling. One piece is a remix of Gaelic psalmody, and High Pasture Cave, made with John Purser and combining several instruments, is one of the exhibition’s many connections with Skye.

Norman Shaw's image Sonorous Map Sunart

Norman Shaw - Sonorous Map Sunart

Publications where language is reproduced as well as imagery seems an obvious expression of art linked to a linguistic community and indeed this has already been emphasized by An Leabhar Mor, Proiseact nan Ealan’s large scale publication. But there has been a diligent gathering of publications from ancient to contemporary, though sadly lacking the great monastic manuscripts which  navigated the sea-road  that  also carried linguistic connection.

Examples of the prints which were reproduced in the big book are shown here.  There are very fine individual works where poetry and a visual response to it add to each other. However, Will Maclean’s response to poems in Gaelic, published as A Night of Islands by  the Paragon Press, has a cohesion and the sustained density of demanding navigation.

The unity of the artistic vision as well as the choice of poems results in a single work of art – something very different to even the best anthology. I thought also of the power of the  combinations of language and image. For me, the artist known as Angel (Angus Macdonald) produced a successful and startling response (published by Acair, Stornoway)  to the versions of the Mac an T-Sronaich stories as retold by Finlay Macleod.

Dundee’s Visual Research Centre have also initiated  a strong suite of prints with a connection to the language or landscape of the Gàidhealtachd. It’s good that Murdo Macdonald, as co-curator, did not exclude his own window on the west. It’s a revitalization of a sight that could be a cliché – the speeding water seen from a ferry window. But the accuracy and angle of the view forms an echo of countless such journeys.

© Ian Stephen, 2010