No, it's not the Louvre -- but then, what is? Compared to that mind-boggling, eye-popping, vertigo-inducing city of art within the city of Paris, Edinburgh's National Gallery of Scotland is a more normal museum. Even so, it's no slouch, as we see in this Scottish Treasures show at NOMA. Although Scotland has never been known as a visual arts hotbed by any stretch of the imagination, there are other arts that can compensate for such oversights and, among them, the art of the deal is one that Scots know well.
For instance, it was in Venice that the great art critic John Ruskin bought Virgin Adoring the Christ Child (later known as the Ruskin Madonna). "I bought it for a hundred pounds out of the Manfrini Palace, and consider it an entirely priceless painting, exemplary for all time," he crowed. Ruskin was English, but it was a sentiment that any Scot could relate to. Trouble is, Ruskin was told it was by Fra Filippo Lippi, but it turned out that it wasn't, and now nobody knows who did it. Recent speculation focuses on the Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, which is no small potatoes since Verrocchio had students like Leonardo da Vinci, among others. Whatever, it's a spectacular example of a certain type of renaissance Madonna.
Most of this 50-piece selection ranges from the Renaissance to the latter 19th century, from Italian, Spanish and Dutch to French, Flemish, English, Scottish and even American art. If that sounds broad, it is, but there is also a pronounced predilection toward a kind of dramatic vividness that is especially evident in some of the more archetypal masterworks of Francois Boucher, Franz Hals, El Greco and Giovanni Barbieri, all of which are rendered with a flourish of high-definition precision. But such traits are even more evident in Paulo Veronese's pleasantly pagan Venus, Cupid and Mars in which a dashingly martial Mars helps Venus out of her shawl, revealing lots of pale, quivery flesh while a reclining Cupid kicks at her overeager little spaniel as it tries to get fresh with his leg. (And it is somehow typical of this show that the shawl is an almost plaid, tartan-like design.)
But few outdid the Dutch when it came to high-definition imaging in oil paints, as we see in Jan Steen's 17th century School for Boys and Girls, where all hell breaks loose in class as kids jumping on tabletops or conspiring on the floor overpower the school mistress' attempts at decorum. Beside her an oblivious, and perhaps tipsy, schoolmaster leans back in his chair, in some private, hop-head reverie of his own. It's realistically rendered, yet very Hieronymous Bosch in tone.
Beyond all that, the most distinguishing facet of the show is the presence of Scottish masters and masterworks, of which Henry Raeburn's portrait of Col. Alastair MacDonell of Glengary in clan chieftain regalia is a striking example. Curious how those old-time Scottish clansmen can invite comparisons with the Kalashnikov-toting tribesmen of Afghanistan. Yet more peculiar is Edwin Landseer's Rent Day in the Wilderness, an allegory of Col. Murchison's efforts to secretly collect the rent on behalf of his exiled employer. Which sounds a bit too Scottish, but it's wonderfully surreal. That and James Lauder's portrait of James Watt eyeballing a steam engine as he twirls his calipers are the most Scottish works in the show.
Significant, too, is the Yankee presence, especially Frederic Church's extraordinary 1867 Niagara Falls From the American Side, a view of the vast waterfall in all of its subtly psychedelic glory, as only church could paint it. A monumental painting, its delicate mists rise from the sublimely luminous deluge on a canvas that stretches some 9-by-8 feet, rendered in strikingly precise detail. Now that's Vivid.
But if your optic nerve is fibrillating from all that intensity, Nancy Laskowski's underwater photos at the Waiting Room provide some counterpoint. Rendered in a wavy sort of abstract impressionism, a solitary female figure appears as so many fleshly ripples in an undulating aquamarine sea. Actually, it's a swimming pool, but you get the picture: diffuse and amorphously serene, it's a detached, relaxed and not-so-focused zone far from the clamorous riptides of the centuries.
- The masters and masterworks are the most distinguishing facets of NOMA'S Scottish Treasures exhibit, including the peculiar Edwin Landseer work Rent Day in the Wilderness.