The epigraph to Robert Burns’ 1786 ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect reads “THE Simple Bard, unbroke by rules of Art, / He pours the wild effusions of the heart / And if inspir'd, 'tis Nature's pow'rs inspire; / Her's all the melting thrill, and her's the kindling fire.” As well as perpetuating the myth of the ‘untutored genius’ (Burns was, in fact educated to a far higher degree than he often disclosed) the lines point the reader in the misleading direction that his inspiration was derived principally from ‘Nature’. His poetry tells another story – the poet’s inspiration was political and emotional as much as anything else.
This exhibition, curated by Sheilagh Tennant of the arts consultancy Artruist, brings together the work of over forty artists, many with an international reputation, who have been invited, with an open brief, to produce work inspired by Burns’ poetry. In the absence of any tighter curatorial directive, the result is rather a hotch-potch of themes, media and approaches. A number of artists do little more than perpetuate the plethora of facile myths and distorted truths which have coalesced around the poet in the two centuries since his death. John Byrne, for example, chooses to depict the poet (in a work commissioned by The Famous Grouse) as a whisky-sozzled, tartan troo’d dandy while Peter Howson’s take is Burns as an agonised, quasi-heroic victim. Both seem uncomfortably like self-portraiture.
While some of the work is foolish (Alison Jackson’s ‘Bex in Kilt (after a heavy Burns night in Scotland)’ ) or irrelevant (Ron Mueck’s ‘The Family Dog’) or obscure (Ed Ruscha’s ‘Busted Glass’) or ridiculous (Tracy Emin’s ‘Sweet Thing’) some is passionate, thoughtful and intelligent. Ken Currie, whose painterly concerns of philosophical enquiry, human physical frailty and social justice tally closely with Burns’ own, has chosen a tangential take on the poet by depicting an African head (we must assume the context of slavery) being examined by a white hand under the title ‘A Man is a Man’. As might be expected a number of the works focus on an interplay of text and imagery such as Harland Miller’s ‘Poetry seriously damages your health’ which uses a popular brand of Irish cigarette ‘Sweet Afton’ (named after Burns’ eponymous poem). The tobacco industry and slavery were inextricably linked so this reference forms a neat - if unintended - link with Currie’s work.
Fiona Banner, Roderick Buchanan, Tom Phillips and Catherine Sargeant all use printed texts as the basis of their work. In Sargeant’s case her multi-layered screenprint, ‘drop the e’ uses typography to play with the line ‘the best laid schemes o mice and men can aften gang agley’ while Phillips in his post-modern idiom imagines a dialogue between Burns and Elvis Presley.