Tuesday, May 27, 2008


(May 26/08)

The National Galleries of Scotland are an elegant and compact joy.

In the smaller of the two top floor halls, three Rafael oils from the early 1500’s show at once both a kind of simple realism and extraordinary idealism. Joseph, so often left in the shadows of the story, is there with Mary and the child as if they were your regular Lothian family out for a bite by the local loch. And yet. The boy looks up the man with a preternatural “wisdom?” He seems to be asking a hundred unspeakable questions at once.

These painters were merely men. And yet. You can see even in complicated scenes that tiny figures in obscure corners of the canvas are not only photographically “right,” but also that there is attitude and spirit and intent in the characters and the artist and the piece as a whole. How is this possible?

In the larger room on the top floor, amidst a chamber set of Gaugin, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Degas, a dominating portrait of Lady Agnew by the American John Singer Sargent fairly leaps off the wall at you. Sargent has been burdened with the reputation of being a pretender to the Impressionist club, but his work is often wonderful and perhaps he deserves re-appraisal by whoever makes such opinions.

Guardi’s three oils of Venice (18th C.) show us the San Giogio Maggiore, the Piazza San Marco and the Salute, all sharing the uncannily identical blue sky. Of course, they are beautiful, but one cannot help but notice that there is curiously incorrect perspective in the Piazza. Even the small handfuls of gentry gathered in the afternoon sun add to the feeling that this painting is cramped and diminutive. Was he stuck with a small piece of canvas that day and a commission deadline? To capture the great open expanse of the Piazza one needs if not a huge, certainly a very long surface.

Some people can visit galleries for hours at a time. I cannot. At Expo 67 in Montreal, I used to go for 2 or 3 hours and then, exhausted by what I liked to call Monstro Over Stim, I would crawl back to my friends’ apartment and collapse. Ditto, our own Expo 86, where the season long pass allowed us to drop in for a Pavilion or two, a burrito and a coke and head back to the familiar.

The National Galleries will take at least another visit.

How much of my life has been Scottish influenced? Sitting above the Prince’s Street East Garden at a table outside the Weston Link, I suddenly realize that I am home! The lawns and tiny hill are dotted with groupings of lovers and families. Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg, 1948! Complete with highland dancers and spring blossoms. Ach!

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