Thursday, August 09, 2007

Andy Warhol

Time to get into this year's Edinburgh Festival. And we'll start with the Andy Warhol retrospective which is presently running in the national galleries.

I've never been entirely convinced about Andy Warhol. The problem, I think, is that there are a handful of Andy Warhol images that you see time and time again - Marilyn Monroe, Double Elvis, brief snippets of his more ludicrous films, paintings of soup tins. These images are so overfamiliar that they've become completely divorced from the context in which Warhol made them, and ended up as a set of stock symbols for vaguely designery, vaguely cryptic mid-twentieth century modern art.

And this is a shame, because you really do need to see Warhol's work in the right context. He's all about modernity, and that ever-popular modern art theme, the relationship between image and reality. His work is very much of its time; even the replica soap boxes (which are a fairly minor part of his output) have to be understood on the basis that they're an intentionally-slightly-off replica of a contemporary item. With the passage of time, they've acquired entirely unwanted overtones of retro kitsch. This was not the idea. Seen alongside less familiar and iconic works, however, they can be seen more in the way Warhol had in mind.

Most of this show is about Warhol's paintings and his silkscreens. There's no doubt that he loved his diptychs - pretty much all of his portraits follow the same format, consisting of two canvases with the same image distorted in different ways. But what he actually does to the images changes dramatically from portrait to portrait. You always end up with something that draws attention to the fact that there's an underlying image serving as the basis for both panels, but there's no denying that they look drastically different from each other, especially when you exhibit a whole load of them alongside one another. It's a series of variations on a theme, but they're genuine variations for all that.

There's also a selection of Warhol's relatively early silkscreens based on repeated and blurred images of death-related stories from the newspapers, as well as whole rooms full of his skull prints - again, multiple variations on the same picture, but reproduced in a different way. Exhibited as a group, and presented as an installation, you start to see the point. They're not meant to be taken independently; they're meant to fill the room. Then there are some of his less familiar works. There's a room full of silver helium balloons that visitors are unable to resist playing with, and a room of his commissioned "paintings for children" - Warhol's usual tricks, applied to images taken from toy boxes, reproduced on small canvases, and hung at pre-school eye level.

The Royal Scottish Academy, a pseudo-classical gallery of the old school, is not the obvious setting for an Andy Warhol exhibition. Fortunately, Warhol also designed wallpapers for use in his exhibitions, and the gallery has dutifully decked itself out in them from floor to ceiling. They're strange things, featuring such images as an outsize repeated black-and-white sketch of the Washington Monument. But they work a lot better than you might expect - they overpower the building, but not the work itself.

Downstairs in the smaller galleries, there's also a collection of Warhol's early sketches, some of his photography, a looped showing of some of the Screen Test films (which, frankly, are of variable interest) and assorted period detritus salvaged from his "time capsules", which helps to put the show in further context, if nothing else.

Warhol is an artist who was trying very hard to be Now and, consequently, has inevitably become decidedly Then. But immerse yourself in a whole building of his work and it all starts to make sense again. This is a great exhibition - go and see it.