Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ron Mueck and Adam Elsheimer

Let's start with the galleries, since I'm trying to get round them this week before the Film Festival begins.

First up, the Royal Scottish Academy Building, perhaps the most hit-and-miss major gallery in Edinburgh. Sometimes it hosts top quality touring exhibitions. Sometimes it's just running any old crap by a long-serving member of the Scottish Academy - which generally tends to be modern art at its dry and self-important worst. It says a lot that, despite it being a huge slab of a building located right next to the National Gallery, I've met two people this week who didn't actually know what it was called. (The distinction with the National Gallery is even more blurred now that the two are physically connected by the Weston Link. I've no idea who controls which bits any more, although ultimately it's all under the auspices of National Galleries of Scotland.)

Strictly speaking the RSA building isn't part of the festival at all, but it does have two major exhibitions on at the moment, obviously timed to coincide.

Up in the main galleries, there's a collection of sculptures from Ron Mueck. He's a hyperrealist sculptor - his schtick is ultra-realistic human figures constructed on completely the wrong scale. Everything is hugely detailed and perfectly accurate, except the scale, which is either absurdly large or way too tiny.

Mueck isn't a trained artist; his background is making props for TV and film, although he made the jump to the art world a decade ago. If you're the sort of person who grumbles about modern artists not actually knowing how to do anything, then you'll like him a lot. Although there's some use of computers to scale up the models, and he has a sidekick who handles the body hair (individually added), essentially they're genuine handcrafted and handpainted sculptures.

There's no denying that Mueck's work is phenomenally impressive on a technical level. For the most part, his sculptures are eerily convincing. The question, perhaps, is whether there's anything more to them. Amusingly, Mueck tends to provoke "Yes, but is it art?" reviews from contemporary art critics, who argue that at the end of the day, they're just very impressive props. Where's the meaning?

Nonsense, of course; Mueck's work has as much meaning to it as traditional sculptures or portraits. Even if they were nothing more than hugely detailed studies of the human form, that would still be something. And the fact is that his lifelike giants, with perfect body language and expression, do provoke a reaction in people. They're objects of fascination. You just have to stand and watch the crowds. Of course a big element in that reaction is the shock value of Mueck's sheer technical ability, but what's wrong with that? Mueck is, perhaps, at the populist wing of contemporary art, but somebody needs to be.

Downstairs, in a drastically different style, there's an exhibition of paintings by the German artist Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610). Boldly reversing the normal way of doing things, Elsheimer was recognised as a genius during his lifetime, and has pretty much been forgotten since. (Although he did at least have the decency to die in poverty, after falling out with his patron.)

His speciality was miniature paintings with extreme levels of detail - to the point where you get a free magnifying glass with every ticket. No, seriously, you do. And you need it.

Art from this period can be a bit distant for the modern viewer, especially one without a reasonably thorough knowledge of art history. After all, most of it illustrated religious stories, for social purposes long since obsolete. It's difficult to truly understand how a contemporary audience would have reacted to them. Of course, many of the more interesting artists were really more interested in how they were telling the story than the story itself.

Elsheimer certainly impresses in terms of his ability to render detail on what seems an impossibly small scale. He seems to prefer the more obscure religious stories, possibly trying to escape from the constraints of the limited subject matter of the day. Not many artists have bothered themselves with the story of Empress Helena from the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, for example. (Helena, the mother of Constantine, supposedly conducted an archaeological trip to Jerusalem where she dug up the cross used to crucify Jesus. Actually, she dug up three crosses, but they were able to tell the difference because Christ's one could raise the dead. Honestly, that's the story.) Other times, Elsheimer relegates the story to a corner, so that he can devote most of the space to a nice landscape instead.

It's easy to see why he was acclaimed in his day - he's a technically brilliant artist, a master of composition, able to fit a whole story into a single panel, and able to cram his panels with detail without them becoming shapeless or cluttered. It's also easy to see why he drifted off the mainstream cultural radar - he's not really an innovator, so much as an exceptionally good example of his time.

Still, the exhibition presents his work persuasively, with surviving pencil sketches and contemporary copies representing some missing or damaged works. He's a surprisingly obscure choice of artist for a major summer show, but his paintings are still impressive four hundred years on.