Portraiture in Scotland is alive and well.
After two-and-a-half years and a major, £17.6m (US$27.4m) renovation, The Scottish National Portrait Gallery re-opened in Edinburgh last December.
The museum boasts a collection of 3,000 paintings and sculptures, 25,000 prints and drawings, and 38,000 photographs, which combine to offer a rich, nationalist portrait of Scottish life and achievement dating back to the 17th century and the work of George Jamesone, Scotland’s first portrait painter.
But contemporary Scotland is a modern, multicultural country. And while most can admire Jamesone’s paintings of academics, scholars and Scottish gentry, they may not relate to the Scotland his works depict.
In a new exhibition opening today in Edinburgh, four photographers want to remind us that reports of the death of the photographic portrait have been wildly exaggerated, and that not only is it alive and well, it also reflects the diversity of modern Scotland and its rapidly-changing society.
Power to the Portrait features the work of Simon Crofts, Sylwia Kowalczyk, Sejin Moon and Claudine Quinn. The show, which opens this evening at the Coburg House Gallery, is an unabashed “celebration of the vitality and adaptability of the photographic portrait.”
Since the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the public has been fascinated with the photographic portrait. Anyone who could afford a sitting could own a likeness of himself or herself, “shiny, silvery images” that could then be shared with friends and loved ones.
In the 173 years since that time, coupled with the availability of cellphone images and social media, the formal photographic portrait has—for some—become little more than an anachronism.
But the four artists dispute that conclusion and, equally important, seek to underscore the power and immediacy of the photographic portrait from the perspective of their respective countries. Of the four, only Crofts was actually born in Scotland.
Drawing from his Suspension series for the show, Crofts’ images capture subjects “defined by their occupations, but take outside the context of their daily work.” In his photograph, Mike, for example, we see a dance teacher leaping in a pirouette—not inside in a studio but outside in front of a set of commercial garage doors.
Crofts has had plenty of experience working outside of his comfort zone. A former solicitor who studied at Oxford, until recently he worked in Ukraine, Poland and Russia, and speaks fluent Russian, Polish and French.
Kowalczyk, who happens to be Crofts’ wife, was born in Poland and moved to Edinburgh three years ago. The exhibition features work from her Nightwatching series, which was created in response to the artist’s own experience with a temporary loss of vision.
As opposed to replicating any type visual impairment, however, Kowalczyk uses devices “to describe a psychological state where seeing is compromised,” creating what the artist calls a trompe-l’oeil “captured faithfully on film” without the use of digital manipulation.
Moon, a South Korean who immigrated to Scotland in 2003, considers her images to be a fusion of East Asia and Europe, both old and new. Featuring work from her series, Neutral Territory, Moon’s portraits are highly symbolic and include objects imbued with special meaning in South Korean culture. But the objects are recontextualised in the artist’s portraits, through which Moon offers alternative and often satirical narratives.
Claudine Quinn’s I know we’re in the jungle but…presents a series of “exotic, hybrid specimens indulging in a fantasy world of foreign delights.” Inspired by the piece Agua by the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, the work marries “female desire, sexuality and indulgence with visceral physical action” to create a series of what the artist calls pseudo-portraits.
Born in Dublin, the Irish native moved to Scotland where she earned her BA (Hons) in Fine Art Photography from the Edinburgh College of Art. Bordering on performance, she considers her work to be humorous, playful and “purposely histrionic.”
Embracing Quinn’s playfulness, the four artists have pasted scraps of paper throughout the gallery with handwritten texts that read, To be, is to be portrayed, Portraiture is the opium of the masses and I think – therefore I take portraits, among others.
Power of the Portrait will be on exhibit through 29 August.