Edinburgh art festival 2022 review – sunstruck blockbuster steals the show

A Greek chorus of clay busts, an audience with some molluscs and a magnificent show of impressionist masterpieces – including a couple of fakes – captivate

The tales he tells of my oyster are so mesmerising – how it grew and where, what the shape, colour and undulating nuances of its black-and-white striped shell reveal about its decade of experiences – as to open up an oceanic history. My choice reveals an interest in art, he deduces, and we both know that he could continue to read character in this way, except that I am far more interested in the shellfish. This is the living memoir of the oyster.

Hector Dyer’s readings (weekends only; book now, book swiftly) are part of In the Eddy of the Stream, a beautiful exhibition at Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s botanical gardens concerned with the sea creatures, flora and fauna in the context of history and politics. Cooking Sections – Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe – shortlisted for last year’s Turner prize, have the upper galleries for a sequence of exquisite sculptures. What looks like a Roman mosaic floor is created entirely out of crushed seashells. What look like nets, ropes and chains are fashioned out of heather, kelp and purple moor grass on Skye.

The pair’s environmental activism – against salmon farming, for instance – isn’t easily summarised in works of art but these are exceptions, specifically a suspended silver sculpture that rhymes the patterns of a salmon’s scales with the rings in a pine tree to draw connections about our treatment of the water that supposedly sustains them both.

Downstairs, the Palestinian collective Sakiya have laid out Edwardian flower specimens from what used to be called the Holy Land alongside Sakiya’s postcards laying out their contemporary significance. Miss Howard sends home a neatly pressed weed, c1902, which is today treasured for its silvery beauty on the West Bank. It is like an EM Forster story: the politics of botany, related through disconnected postal narratives.

Sakiya’s exhibition at Inverleith House.
‘Like an EM Forster story’: Sakiya’s exhibition at Inverleith House. Photograph: Neil Hanna

The Edinburgh art festival, essentially an umbrella term for all the city’s summer exhibitions, runs, like the new trams, all the way down to Leith, where Salvadoran artist José Campos, AKA Studio Lenca, is showing mordant photographic self-portraits at Sierra Metro. With the simple expedient of a football, some lace or a tablecloth he becomes a Latin American Madonna.

Up in the Bridges, the Talbot Rice Gallery has a show by London-based Céline Condorelli, where art meets architectural history. A leafy indoor garden refers to Brazilian modernism, an installation of words and photos reveals the untold story of houseplants in famous exhibitions (Rousseaus alongside cheese plants, for instance), another of words and prints relates to the labour history of the Pirelli tyre factory in Turin.

The research (and the objects) feel too diverse and scattered. But a film homing in on the creation of a children’s playground in south London turns theory into beautiful form. Past, present and future are overlaid in spectral footage, and united in an unforgettably atmospheric poem about London written and voiced by Jay Bernard.

Daniel Silver’s Looking, at Fruitmarket, turns the viewer into the viewed. A Greek chorus of clay busts stares back at you from steel bleachers on entry: the audience observed. Each is not so much painted as apparently created out of paint. Thick strokes of indigo, ochre and cobalt, mouths blood red or deep umber, with hints of all kinds of art from ancient shamans to Degas and Modigliani, these are a spectacular combination of image and sculpture.

Daniel Silver’s Looking at the Fruitmarket Gallery.
‘Each with its own force of personality’: Daniel Silver’s Looking at Fruitmarket. Photograph: Ruth Clark

The sense of touch, and why it matters so much, continues in watercolour and Japanese ink drawings made while the London artist was in Death Valley, California. Huge heads emerge out of a kind of instinctual draughtsmanship that might be ancient or modern. A brilliant orange face swithers between caricature, old master and cave painting. Silver’s art is exhilarating and deeply humane. Look at these heads looking at you, each with its own force of personality, and the urge is to go straight home and try to make one yourself.

Across the road, Edinburgh’s City Art Centre traces the story of the Scottish Modern Arts Association, founded in 1907 to develop the collection now housed in that building (and shockingly rejected by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art when it first opened, in Inverleith House, in 1960). The show has all the usual Glasgow Boys and Scottish colourists, but also many intensely original paintings by women – Joan Eardley, Anne Redpath – and a dazzling seascape by William McTaggart, each horizontal stroke strafing across the canvas, a reminder of how brilliantly he could suggest the cold, liquid restlessness of the Scottish shore.

The origins of so much here, however, are in the warmth of the Mediterranean south, specifically French modernism, subject of this year’s Scottish National Gallery blockbuster in the Royal Scottish Academy building. A Taste for Impressionism is magnificent, room after room of staggering masterpieces from the nation’s museums: Monet’s shimmering poplars, Van Gogh’s orchard bursting into ultra-bright blossoms, Gauguin’s heatstruck Martinique. Degas’s dancers appear alongside silvery Corots and scintillating Seurat gardens. A whole wall of Vuillard’s secretive Paris interiors is succeeded by the complete set of Matisse’s starbust jazz prints.

There is an organising narrative, entertaining and judicious, which is how French art came to be bought up by Scottish railway engineers, Liberal MPs and marmalade magnates. This is told through the highly intelligent captions of the curator, Frances Fowle, who includes a couple of fakes to reveal how slyly these early-20th-century collectors could be duped. A real Millet hangs next to what may well be a forgery, but you must use your own eyes.

Haystacks: Snow Effect by Claude Monet, 1891.
Haystacks: Snow Effect by Claude Monet, 1891. National Galleries of Scotland Photograph: National Galleries of Scotland

Some of these paintings are world famous. Monet’s amazing haystacks, purple, mauve and umber, against the glimmering snowy dusk, just before the light fades. How could he get that massy vision down in time, before night? Or how could he remember it so perfectly afterwards? Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling With the Angel) is here, all those Breton women’s heads in their outlandish white bonnets framing the bizarre wrestling match, like a winged insect with four legs, against the throbbing crimson ground.

But there are many revelations drawn out from the back bedrooms of museums, including the firing squad prints of Manet, showing street fighting during the Paris Commune in 1871. An X-ray of a previously unknown Van Gogh self-portrait painted on the back of Head of a Peasant Woman appears in a light box alongside the front of the painting. (It is unexpectedly conventional.) Most astonishing is Courbet’s frightening dark wave, an ultramarine peak rising out of white foam, straight out of Japanese painting.

Courbet’s The Wave, c1869.
Courbet’s The Wave, c1869. National Galleries of Scotland Photograph: Gustave Courbet/

William Henry Playfair’s elegant galleries are painted in dazzling impressionist colours, and the lighting is superb. I have never seen a show look better in the Royal Scottish Academy. Many visitors will have grown up with some of these paintings – Degas portraits, blue period Picassos – but this presentation allows them a breathing space they rarely have. Nobody needs to go abroad to see so many French masterpieces. They are all here in one building in Edinburgh.


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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