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Three of the best faces, and six of the best hands, ever painted: the pick of the Edinburgh Art Festival

It’s worth going for the Rembrandts alone, but there’s also fine contemporary work from Victoria Crowe and Tacita Dean

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

The Rembrandt show at the National Galleries of Scotland (until 14 October) has a problem. A mighty haul of Rembrandt paintings and prints are arrayed against a backdrop that mines the historical impact of his work on British artists and collectors. This is interesting. The problem is that the Rembrandt works are so astounding that there’s a danger you won’t bother with the rest. You should, because here Reynolds and Raeburn and Ramsay and more, all inescapably influenced by Rembrandt, tell fascinating and sometimes complicated tales of artistic heredity and homage.

There’s no disgrace in going only for the Rembrandts, though. Hell, go there just to see the one wall that displays ‘An Old Woman Reading’ (1655), ‘A Man in Oriental Costume (King Uzziah)’ (c.1639) and ‘Portrait of an Elderly Man’ (1667) if you want, and immerse yourself in three of the best faces ever painted, and six of the best hands. Marvel at the subtlety of the lighting on that bony old woman, about to lift her eyes to meet your own. Note the remarkably rough brushwork of the florid elderly man, and how highlights are scratched out of the underpainting in the shadows. Focus only on the hands of Uzziah if you prefer; you could stare for a day and still not fathom the technical brilliance that rendered these paws the very definition of heavy, aged flesh. But then that would be to miss out on ‘The Mill’ (1645-8), that hugely influential landscape with its balanced curves of land and water, and the windmill, lit by a low, pink sun, which punches the exquisite sky. This was, according to Constable, ‘the first picture in which a sentiment has been expressed by chiaroscuro only’.

It would be a tragedy also to neglect the composure of the Bridgewater self-portrait (c.1657) or the loose, affectionate study of Titus, the artist’s son (1655). Awful, too, to overlook the ‘Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (1647) and the nuances of light that lick the outlines of the sheltering figures. But then there’s also the milky flesh of ‘Woman Bathing in a Stream’ of 1654 (and the diffident Kossoff and Auerbach tributes that flank it). Devote a day to Rembrandt, and buy the excellent, scholarly catalogue too.


For contemporary painting, the highlight is the double dose of Victoria Crowe at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (until 18 November) and the Scottish Gallery (until 1 September). Like Rembrandt, Crowe isa master of many forms. Her portraits are as delicate and sinewy as the winter trees that populate her landscapes, abundant in narrative detail and minute character observation. Her recent work is dominated by powerful cobalts, set against those skeletal trees and flat vermilion plants that glare from their shadowy backgrounds like the candlelit robes of a Georges de La Tour figure.

Woman in a Red Hat, the excellent Tacita Dean retrospective at the Fruitmarket Gallery (until 30 September), is a study of artifice and artistry, juxtaposing realities and fictions with confusing fluidity. ‘Foley Artist’ (1996) offers the soundtrack to an unseen film. We see the sound script and watch the Foley artists creating the noise of wind and footsteps, but the visuals and narrative are left to our imagination. The same spirit of uncertainty feeds ‘Event for a Stage’ (2015) in which actor Stephen Dillane’s wonderfully arch performance, flitting between acting and reality, leaves the audience wondering where the boundaries of fiction lie.

Dean’s work is rooted in this playfulness, toying with conventions and nudging the viewer towards unexpected conclusions. It’s a theme that recurs throughout the contemporary work at the Art Festival. Between Lost Places, Robert Powell’s marvellous little show at The Fine Art Society (until 3 September), is full of intricate, humorous details. Its densely peopled exploration of imagined narratives, illustrated through arcane etchings, lithographs and watercolours, hovers somewhere between the satire of Swift, the fantasy lands of Calvino and the mayhem of Bosch.

Jacob’s Ladder, a show about the universe at Ingleby Gallery (until 20 October), is also fun, carrying its evident erudition lightly. Lying on the floor is Alicja Kwade’s ‘Stellar Day’ (2013), a rock that rotates, imperceptibly, at the same speed as the world, but in the opposite direction. The gallery itself provides a synergistic companion piece, a matrix of light that falls from the roof window and proceeds across the wall with the turning of the Earth, gilding the face of Garry Fabian Miller’s intense, Klein-blue, celestial c-print ‘The Night Drift’ (2009–18).

A meteorite on the floor turns out to have been found, cast, melted and recast into its original form by Katie Paterson, visually unchanged yet atomically reborn. Cornelia Parker’s images of distant galaxies are actually photos of chalky smudges on Einstein’s blackboard. And Richard Forster’s drawings of Christmas lights in suburban Darlington also contrive to resemblea cosmic pattern. As with Tacita Dean, there’sa knowing duplicity running through the work here. Nothing is quite what it seems, but it’s all stellar stuff.


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