Friday, August 11, 2006

Vincent van Gogh and Robert Mapplethorpe

Continuing the festival, two more of this year's exhibitions. Don't worry, I'll be dumbing down enormously after this one. Besides, I just like the contrast with these two.

The National Galleries of Scotland have a curious fondness for running neighbouring buildings and claiming that they're separate entities. In the centre of town, there's the National Gallery and the RSA building. Off to the north, there's the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and, directly across the road, the Dean Gallery. Quite why they don't bill the whole thing as part of the modern art gallery, I've never understood. The Dean Gallery's remit is, er, to show modern art. It houses an overflow from the modern art gallery next door, as well as an Eduardo Paolozzi collection. You get a lot of Eduardo Paolozzi in Edinburgh galleries, because he's local. It's all the same, and it gets boring very quickly.

The Dean Gallery is running a small Van Gogh exhibition, which is stretching their remit, but at least they have the right size rooms for it. The theme is curious. It's perhaps understandable that they're not pretending to offer a full scale career retrospective; that would require them to get in some of the really well-known paintings, and frankly, I suspect the budget doesn't run that far. Instead, the theme is paintings that were bought by early British collectors of his work.

Now, this is not just an excuse to use paintings that are already lying around in the national collections. The stipulation is simply that they WERE bought by British collectors around ninety years ago, not that they remain in Britain today. Many of these paintings now make their home in galleries in Melbourne and Oklahoma. They've been brought back specially. It makes for an odd selection, with some curious omissions. For some reason, it seems the early British collectors never bought any sunflowers.

The result is a show which is part retrospective of Van Gogh, and part celebration of art collectors of the early twentieth century. If anything, it seems more interested in the collectors, most of whom had zero influence on Van Gogh's work - they bought the paintings in the years after he died - and whose stories frankly aren't very interesting. "The Fortifications of Paris with Houses was bought by a Manchester-based collector, Sir Thomas Barlow, whose wealth came from the family textile business. He bought it at the Leicester Galleries exhibition of 1926, for £157, and immediately presented it to the University of Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery." Do we really care?

Reading between the lines, there may be some attempt going on to rewrite art history. Britain was very slow on the uptake when it came to post-impressionism, and the first major London exhibition of the movement - in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh died - was widely greeted with bafflement and disdain. Since the mainland Europeans understood post-impressionism perfectly well by 1910, this is all dreadfully embarrassing, since it makes the English art scene look dimwitted and parochial. So this show is trying to set up a counternarrative where some people liked it after all.

The trouble is, beyond the fact that some people liked post-Impressionism ahead of mainstream British taste, there's not much more to be said. It's not as though they were all total mavericks - the exhibition includes the 1910 review from the art critic of the Chronicle, who understood it all perfectly. Perhaps it excites the art world to prove that they weren't all wrong, but really, does it matter at this stage?

Still, it's three rooms of Van Goghs, and that's something you don't get to see too often in Edinburgh. Worth seeing simply for the paintings themselves, but the big curatorial theme is a strange choice.

Across the road, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is running a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer probably best known for doing gay S&M imagery in the 1980s. It provoked something of a controversy in America because the National Endowment for the Arts had funded it. All of which is a little unfortunate, albeit that he was deliberately courting controversy, because it's only one part of his output.

Mapplethorpe is basically interested in making formally beautiful pictures, pretty in a stylised way (which is sometimes not immediately obvious). He likes elaborately balanced compositions and studies of anatomy. He does a lot of fairly conventional portrait work. He also likes playing up to his own image as a rebel figure, and yes, he was being deliberately confrontational by producing technically beautiful photographs which were blatantly homoerotic. But it's the formal beauty that links it with the rest of his work.

Perhaps with an eye to the UK's obscenity laws, this show doesn't venture into the more extreme parts of Mapplethorpe's output. It is, for example, light on the fisting. (Disappointed visitors keen to see some authentic Mapplethorpe fisting might enjoy this article which, obviously, is not work safe once you start scrolling down.)

So, not much hardcore sex. Then again, it's fairly light on the flowers, too. There may be too much emphasis on the formal side of Mapplethorpe's work at the expense of the controversy which, after all, is what he's best known for. But then again, it's also worth reminding viewers of the other sides of his work, because he wasn't a one-dimensional artist. In that sense, at least, it's a successful exhibition.