Artful Aberdeen

I’m going to take a leap of faith here, and assume that most people at St Andrews don’t exactly equate art with… Aberdeen. No offense to Aberdonians – this is probably due to the huge American/Scandinavian/English influx, who consider our own beautiful university to be far enough out of the way, as it is. A friend of mine put it a little more bluntly, "You’re going to Aberdeen, Laura? Stab City?"  I was puzzled.I thought Stab City was Dundee.

On a side note, Aberdeen’s granite skyline is indeed the setting for many crime novels by Ian Rankin and Stuart MacBride, but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from taking a trip to the excellent Aberdeen Art Gallery, a handy 5 minute dash from the train station. Just be back before dark, or in my case, before the apocalyptic snowstorm hits. St Andrews really cannot compete with the way Aberdeen does weather. I can only imagine the chilly horror of Aberdeen during the reign of Hurricane Bawbag.

As well as the exhibition ‘From Van Gogh to Vettriano: Hidden Gems from Private Collections’, the gallery has a permanent exposition on the ground floor, featuring a bewildering range of British artists. Along with Tracy Emin and Damien Hurst, who need no introduction, it was refreshing to see a pride of Scottish artwork, including Ken Currie, Nathan Coley and the late Ian Hamilton Finlay.  And let’s not forget Jack Vettriano himself, arguably Fife’s most celebrated artist, famous for his paintings of impeccably dressed couples dancing on deserted beaches like something out of a film noir. Vettriano’s ‘The Singing Butler’ is allegedly the most lucrative postcard seller in the UK.

The emphasis was modern medium, and in many cases controversy. Coley’s neon plastic installation proclaimed the doubtful message ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’, and Hurst’s re-imagining of the crucifixion named ‘Jesus Is Condemned To Die’ featured a cow’s skull, crowned with barbed wire, and wielding a pair of kitchen knives. Less eager to be purely offensive, yet equally disquieting, was Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Les Femmes de la Revolution’; a table delicately laid for a dinner party, each flowery plate painted with the name of a woman who played a part in the Revolution. 

Charlotte Corday (assassin of Marat), Marie Antoinette, Olympe de Gouges and Jean Manon Roland were remembered – most of whom met violent deaths.  The apparently convivial dinner gathering became at once the scene of a last supper.  The morbid theme continued with Currie’s self portrait ‘Gallowgate Lard’, featuring a blanched face with bloody lips, bereft of eyebrows and eyelashes; the effect being both disturbing and intimate.

The exhibition featured an impressive range of artistic periods, from Realism and Impressionism to Modernism and Late 20th Century Figuration. Whilst there were plenty of previously unseen works by Monet, Van Gogh and Lucien Freud, there were also some standout pieces by comparatively lesser-known artists such as Edward Burra, Stanley Spencer, Samuel Peploe and Stanley Cursiter.  Peploe was a master of the modern still life, and defended it against accusations of limitations by suggesting ‘there is so much in mere objects; flowers, leaves, whatnot – colours, forms, relations – I can never see the mystery coming to an end’. This is an interesting perspective; Peploe’s work is defiantly, undeniably modernist, yet simultaneously returns back to more ancient times with its focus on classical skills of colour and shape.  Burra was also a new discovery for me, his luridly coloured surrealist cartoons portraying the shady underworld of 1930s Harlem – evoking a Picasso less concerned with deforming his subjects, or a more political Matisse. 

There is enough to see in the Gallery to while away an afternoon, or even longer if you have the stamina – just remember to pack a scarf and extra layer in case the elements turn feral.

Entry to the Aberdeen Art Gallery is free, and the exhibition ‘From Van Gogh to Vettriano’ is open until April 14. 


Images by Lauren Hepburn, Jack Vettriano and Darren Wright