The Scottish Endarkenment: Art and Unreason 1945 to the Present

Publication: The Times.   
May 2016

The Scottish Endarkenment: Art and Unreason 1945 to the Present
Dovecot Gallery

There is, within each of us, the moral struggle between our instinctual selves and our ability to stand above this forceful inner core, and rationally to adjust our behaviour. This is one dilemma that finds itself at the centre of this collection.

The premise of this show of work by more than 40 artists, including the Boyle Family, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Simon Starling, Helen Flockhart and Julie Roberts, is to present darker responses to the Enlightenment, the 18th-century philosophical, artistic and literary movement that placed rationalism above “unreason” — superstition, backwardness, insularity and parochialism.

This dichotomy is a longstanding trope in Scottish thought, expressed in R L Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or in the architectural and topographical contrasts between Edinburgh’s old and new towns. It is no coincidence that the Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing entitled his best-known work The Divided Self (1960).

Work relating to dilemmas of the “self”, including personal identity, is located in the venue’s north gallery, while wider political, historical and social concerns are explored in the south gallery. In the former, the idea of psychological division is prevalent at almost every turn and is most starkly depicted in the work of Lys Hansen. Her work Grip (1985) is the centrepiece of a trilogy whose title derives from Laing’s seminal text. I must declare an interest here as the artist is my mother.

At its starkest this is powerful and expressive visualisation of what is, literally, unimaginable — the mind, the psyche, seeing itself ruptured, irreconcilably. To illustrate his approach Laing compared the experiences of those “ontologically secure” individuals with those who “cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy and identity of himself and others for granted” and constructs ways to avoid “losing his self”. In other words, at its most basic form, Laing’s thesis was that schizophrenia is a sane approach to an insane world.

Douglas Gordon (at one point Hansen’s student at Glasgow School of Art) illustrates such psychic rupture in the self-portrait Monster — two juxtaposed photographs, one the apparent mirror image of the other. On the left the subject, normalised; on the right, a face deformed by the application of sticky tape.

Adjacent to Gordon’s work is John Bellany’s early painting The Ettrick Shepherd (1967), which pays homage to James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This is one of Bellany’s most eloquent and powerful works and shows Hogg, as a shepherd, watching over three Scottish blackface sheep; the shepherd’s body casts a weird and looming shadow against an ill-defined background.

Like a number of female painters and artists, Pat Douthwaite confronted the pain of the human condition head-on. Her work, produced despite a lifetime’s struggle with mental illness and periods of homelessness and institutionalisation, conveys societal and personal ills through the iconography of the female form. Her work here is typically haunting. This can also be said of Joyce Cairns’s “portrait” of the Nazi concentration camp,Shoes from Majdanek, which depicts footwear but suggests the piles of corpses now ingrained on modern consciousness through photographic record.

While generally commending the curatorial energy of this project, there are a number of caveats. The Enlightenment and, hence, its dark doppelgänger, was not a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, far from it. The idea of a particularly Scottish art is a tendentious one, as is the case for each country that claims creativity in its national cause or identity. Art crosses boundaries and traditions, and a more internationalised context for much of the work here would be a welcome extension of thought and vision.