Sunday, October 21, 2012

Museum visits

Last week, I spent some time visiting two of Edinburgh's museums. My first visit was to the Scottish National Gallery where I saw the exhibit, Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910. This collection of symbolist paintings concentrated on landscapes of both the rural and the urban sort, as well as poetic and dreamscapes. Not only did it feature well known painters like Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Gauguin, Munch, and even Whistler, but it also displayed work by a number of Scandinavian artists I was unfamiliar with.

Symbolist artists rejected the prevailing style of Naturalism, which sought to replicate the material world from a rationalist point of view. In contrast, the Symbolists expressed a world beyond superficial appearances and used subjects and motifs to create underlying meanings.
The landscape also aided artists to articulate nationalist concerns. By carefully selecting scenes that had special national significance, artists were able to promote their homeland or suggest the notion of a waning culture. The Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, for example, drew on the mythology and imagery of his native country to assert Finnish independence from Russia†

As psychology emerged as a science during the late nineteenth century, Symbolist painters began to use these concepts to look within rather than strictly without.

Landscape provided a number of possibilities for the suggestion of mental states. Gauguin, Munch and Van Gogh using vivid colour to express their very personal visions: the religious fervour of a simple Breton community in a vermilion field; the inner turmoil of a couple walking along a deserted beach; or the symbolic figure of the Sower set against a vivid green sky.
Other artists created metamorphic dream worlds: a protective mother transformed into a dust storm rushing through a cornfield, symbolising the much-beleaguered Polish nation; or crashing waves which metamorphose into galloping white stallions.†

During this time, cities became sprawling, dirty, crowded, industrialized and mechanized urban centres, to which the Symbolists responded in a number of ways. Symbolist painters created visions of  misty, fogbound cities or empty streets and deserted buildings- muted, bleak reflections of the despair and isolation envisioned by the artists.

I am glad I was able to visit before the exhibit closed. It helps me to see my own work in a different light. You can see some of the highlights here.

The other museum I visited was the National Museum of Scotland. The NMS is more of a history museum than an art museum, although it holds it's fair share of artworks. I spent some time in the Natural World gallery, photographing the African elephants they have (taxidermic, of course). It turns out the Edinburgh Zoo has no elephants (which is fine, I don't believe every zoo should have every animal in existence, especially if they cannot keep them in a social and environmental habitat that is healthy for them, but I digress), so in order to get my own references I sought a stuffed one. Although the NMS is small compared to someplace like the British Museum, it does have a number of stunning exhibits. My favorite was the Midsummer Chronophage. This amazing piece is a huge timepiece topped with a bronze grasshopper-creature. It is a purely mechanical clock, although it appears to have digital aspects. The blue lights that appears to race around the dials are constant, but are obscured until a disk with a slit rotates and lets the light through. The clock itself pauses occasionally and even runs backwards briefly, symbolizing the subjective view we all have of time, while the chronopage, the creature at the top, slowly but surely devours time, reminding us of death's inevitability. In fact, there is a small coffin hidden in the depths of the clock. It is this that is used to strike the hours.

Corpus Christi Chronophage from National Museums Scotland on Vimeo.

At some point, I'd like to go back to the NMS and just browse through all the galleries, rather than be there on a mission. They have a lot of great exhibits- check out their website for a sample.

Quotations from the Scottish National Gallery website.

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