Two exhibitions in Edinburgh: no end of faces

It’s very obviously the day after the mammoth party ended in Edinburgh. The posters of the now departed comics are everywhere and beginning to fray. Tired people are dismantling bars. The streets are grubby. But some pleasures remain, including two exhibitions I’ve visited after finishing (thank God) my five years of examining.

One exhibition featured Alice Neel, an American who became famous late in her Bohemian life. When young she painted in complete obscurity because painting was what she loved best, and maybe, said her daughter in law, it was just chance that she became famous. What if she hadn’t? Would her life have been meaningless? Painting, Neel said, was a search for freedom, knowing that you would never find it because it doesn’t exist. It’s the search that matters, reminding me of the phrase of Lin’s teacher that what matters is “the quality of the search.” That magnificent idea extends way beyond art.

Many of Neel’s paintings are huge, colourful portraits, often with more than one person. They are deceptively simple. I like paintings where I think “If I had a go I could get close to that.” I know I’m wrong, but I like the thought. I like a painter who encourages you to paint.

The paintings are exhibited in the Talbot Rice Centre in the Old College of the University. I’ve exhibited in the old version of the gallery when I was a student in Edinburgh in the 70s: a naked women made of pink porridge that grew fungus before the exhibition ended; and, on another occasion, a huge aquarium in which the audience were in the aquarium and we, the fish, were outside. Gettit? Clever, eh?

The new gallery is much more impressive. It has three parts: a large “white cube” with an upstairs and a downstairs; a smallish room with a cupola where experimental works are exhibited; and a long, high Georgian room, one of the most impressive in Edinburgh, with a gallery around the top. Charles Darwin learnt natural philosophy in the Georgian room.

Talbot Rice

Neel’s large colourful portraits were in the “white cube,” and the one below shows family. The comments beside the picture suggested it shows the stress of the mother. One of Neel’s sons said in a programme made about her that he wasn’t as secure as other children with Neel as a mother but that she had many wonderful qualities and was a gift to him.


The painting below shows a 1970s couple who, the comments say, are clearly a strong couple because of how their hands are intertwined. I’m not convinced: I think that the minds of both might be elsewhere. Neel had a great many lovers, and the she created the self-portrait below of herself as a skull while in therapy after the break-up of one of the relationships.


Neel.self portrait

The painting fitted for me with the photograph below taken of her by Robert Mapplethorpe a few weeks before she died. She could be dead already. In fact, I learnt later from Dilys, a friend of mine, that she wanted to appear dead.


It fits too with this picture of the hospital in New York where her mother, the women in the wheelchair, was dying. This picture, although drawn fifty or more years ago, captures for me the feel of an acute hospital today.

The Georgian room had small pictures upstairs and large black and white ones downstairs. The first one captures Neel’s relaxed attitude to sex, and the one below that her love of colour. “I start a painting and I wonder if I can make it work. I don’t think about anything else. I don’t think about successes I’ve had. This is how painting works. You couldn’t do that in business, but in painting you have to. Who knows what makes art?” [Although I’ve put these words in inverted commas I must make clear that they aren’t her exact. But I think that they’re close to her meaning.]


And, lastly, back in the white cube there were a couple of large still-lifes with flowers. Neel loved the stillness in painting those, perhaps a contrast to the sometimes heated emotions of her pictures of people.

Neel still life

After the Neel exhibition I walked to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, a splendid restored neogothic building that has an excellent café. Usually there are more people in the café than on the four floors of the gallery.

The gallery currently has an exhibition of 150 self-portraits, most of which were compelling; many of them were by artists who although from centuries past I’d never heard of. I took only one picture and no notes, and I want to see which pictures I remember.

Rembrandt is appropriately the star of the exhibition not only with a famous portrait from about 10 years before his death but also with a series of etchings, one of which shows him as a beggar. Close behind was Wei Wei, who had projected a series of pictures of himself often wearing bizarre costumes; they were both funny and sinister.

Right at the entrance were richly coloured pictures by Duncan Grant and Kirchner: the Grant was comfortable, the Kirchner uncomfortable. There were other portraits by Kirchner and other German Expressionists, including Max Beckman. Oscar Kokoschka had a huge portrait entitled Picture of a Degenerate Artist, a reference to the Nazis burning his work.

Robert Mapplethorpe had several photos of himself, including one in drag; and there were four photos by Andy Warhol, one of him wearing a huge blond wig. I found very affecting a photo by Edith Tudor Hart, the woman who took so many powerful pictures of poverty in Britain in the 20s and 30s. I used them in my articles and book on unemployment and health. There was also a familiar picture of the beautiful Lee Miller. Sarah Lucas had three large photographs, one with a skull and one with a large salmon over her shoulder.

After reading The Improbability of Love, which is so much about Watteau, I paid much more attention that I might to his self-portrait, which had him dressed as a musician among a cloud of merrymakers. Many of the self-portraits had crowds of people with the artist in a corner, while in other pictures the artist appeared simply as an indistinct reflection in a jug or vase.

Courbet with his love of drama had a picture of himself as a lover with a beautiful woman, while John Bellany painted himself jaundiced while in hospital for a liver transplant.

There were few pictures that bored me, while this year’s BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery was full of pictures that were technically competent but boring. Truly it is hard, as Neel said, to make successful art.

At the end of the exhibition you are encouraged to photo yourself in a booth. Your picture is then added to a vast online collection , and pictures from the collection are projected in the exhibition and in a large complex work in which you appear and then are transmuted as you stand in front of it. I liked that you were encouraged to contribute to the exhibition and so I photographed myself even though I always photograph badly (“because you’re an ugly sod, you fool”), and I photographed myself photographing myself. Perhaps right now I’m being projected in the exhibition. I’ve just looked at the online collection, and there I am, looking miserable (when I wasn’t and am not).

Photo photoing myself

Four me













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