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Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Scottish National Gallery - The Open College of the Arts
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Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Scottish National Gallery thumb

Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Scottish National Gallery

Emma Drye reports from the Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibition with her sketchbook drawings. Don’t forget there is a study visit coming up on 1st October at this exhibition, so secure your place by emailing enquiries@oca-uk.com.
When french poet Jean Moreas published his ‘symbolist manifesto’ in the newspaper le Figaro he urged artists to reveal the ‘idea’ behind observed ‘reality’. In symbolist art ‘depictions of nature…..are but appearances’. Symbolist artists were trying to elicit specific responses from the viewer via suggestion. The premise of the exhibition in some ways lies in the idea that landscape provides motifs which we can all relate to and which have shared associations. I find this difficult as I immediately question who the ‘we all’ is today. These kinds of exhibitions for me are much more about a piece of art history. The catalogue suggests that “Evening twilight can evolve a sense of loss or nostalgia, a calm sea brings to mind the idea of infinity” but is it acceptable, useful or beneficial to creativity to try to make these almost empirical assessments of imagery? Jung was growing up and at university during this time, publishing his psychology of the unconscious in 1912, but the emergence of psychology as a discipline and the work of Freud with psychoanalysis is echoed here in the symbolists interest in dream states and the subconscious. Roman Jakobson said at the time “the tendency to make the sign independent of the object…. is the grounding principle of the whole of modern art”.

The paintings ranged for me from the sublime to the ridiculous, which is what I was expecting from artists who hope to elicit awe, joy or terror.
Alphonse Osbert’s painting  ‘evening poem’ of 1897 had luridly bright yellow reflections on unreal royal blue water which almost glowed and created an eerie dissonance which had some power.
Gustave Moreau’s  ‘Tomyris and Cyrus’ of 1885 from le Musee Gustave Moreau in Paris is an absolute humdinger of a painting and I think I may have audibly drew breath. Somewhere between a late Turner and a forgotten palette the image is scraped into being using raw pigment. There are signs of pressing onto the wet painted surface to flatten and a possible thumb print. The trees, such as they are, are painted with a stick or point. A fantastically inventive and apparently utterly unselfconsciously painterly experiment which might be replicated in an art studio today. I was awe struck here, but by the relationship one man had with his paint 130 years ago which seems so sharp and urgent.

Leon Bakst’s ‘Terror Antiquus’ of 1908 was actually described by the wee card on the wall as ‘sublime’ but is surely ridiculous. Apparently constructed to evince terror – the image reminded me of the ladies loo of our local thai restaurant. To be fair, the over egged décor in that toilet does sometimes bring on a sense of claustrophobia close to terror, but this painting just made me feel cross. The artist had researched antiquity and included everything that ought to make me feel terror but for me terror is a personal thing. A local artist here recently made a piece of sculpture, I think it was called ‘dadaidh’ (gaelic for Daddy), which was simply a belt hung on a nail. Because of the widescale use of corporal punishment on the Island in living memory, this sculpture had more of terror woven into it for me than these prepacked off the shelf motifs.
Apart from the Moreau, my favourite painting in the exhibition has been turned into notebooks and napkins and whatnot in the gift shop. It is a lesser known artist, Akseli Gallen – Kallela’s painting entitled ‘Lake Keitele’ made in 1905. The water of the lake is traversed with blank dove grey zig zags. As I am an artist and not an historian I am free to enjoy any associations I choose to make, and so the idea of the rebuttal of naturalism and representation with the mid grey of photography reminds me immediately of Gerhard Richter. The contrast between beautiful water and brutal omissions is just fantastic.

The exhibition runs until the 14th October. It is £10 to get in but you can buy combination tickets if you want to see more of the shows in the various galleries across Edinburgh. The images here are my notes for this blog in my new Akseli Gallen Kallela notebook with zigzag lake.

Posted by author: Emma Drye
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One thought on “Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Scottish National Gallery

  • I am co- running the study trip to this. I will have a pre- study visit and let you know what I think of the terror and the sublime. Having seen the catalogue, the Kallela painting is my favourite. I may have slightly gone off it now that I know it has been made into merchandise. I wish they wouldn’t do that!

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