Jhe stories he tells about my oyster are so fascinating – how and where she grew up, what the shape, color and undulating hues of her black-and-white striped shell reveal about her decade of experiences – that they open an ocean story. My choice reveals an interest in art, he deduces, and we both know he could continue to read the character that way, except that I’m much more interested in seashells. It is the living memory of the oyster.
Hector Dyer’s readings (weekends only; book now, book fast) are part of In the whirlpool of the streama great exhibition Inverleith House in Edinburgh Botanic Gardens concerned with sea creatures, flora and fauna in the context of history and politics. The kitchen sections – Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe – shortlisted for last year’s Turner Prize, have the upper galleries for a sequence of exquisite carvings. What looks like a Roman mosaic floor is created entirely from crushed seashells. What looks like nets, ropes and chains are made from heather, kelp and purple moor grass on Skye.
The couple’s environmental activism – against salmon farming, for example – isn’t easily captured in artwork, but they are exceptions, especially a hanging silver sculpture that rhymes with scale patterns of a salmon with the rings of a pine to establish links. our water treatment that supposedly supports them both.
On the ground floor, Palestinian collective Sakiya has displayed Edwardian flower specimens from what was once called the Holy Land alongside Sakiya’s postcards displaying their contemporary significance. Miss Howard sends home a carefully pressed weed, c1902, which is now treasured for its silvery beauty in the West Bank. It’s like an EM Forster story: the politics of botany, told through disconnected postal narratives.
The Edinburgh Art Festival, essentially an umbrella term for all the city’s summer exhibitions, stretches, like the new trams, to Leith, where Salvadoran artist José Campos, AKA Studio Lencapresents biting photographic self-portraits to Sierra Metro. With the simple expedient of a soccer ball, lace or a tablecloth, he becomes a Latin American Madonna.
Up there in the bridges, the Talbot Rice Gallery has a show by London-based Celine Condorelli, where art meets the history of architecture. A verdant indoor garden refers to Brazilian modernism, an installation of words and photos reveals the untold history of indoor plants in famous exhibitions (Rousseau rubs shoulders with cheese factories, for example), another of words and prints recounts the working history of the Pirelli tire factory in Turin.
Research (and items) seem too diverse and scattered. But a film about the creation of a children’s playground in South London turns the theory into beautiful shape. Past, present and future are layered in spectral sequences and brought together in an unforgettable atmospheric poem about London written and voiced by Jay Bernard.
Daniel Silverlook look fruit market, transforms the spectator into the watched. A Greek choir of clay busts stares at you from steel tiers at the entrance: the audience watching. Each is not so much painted as seemingly created from paint. Thick touches of indigo, ocher and cobalt, blood red or deep umber mouths, with hints of all kinds of art, from ancient shamans to Degas and Modigliani, it’s a spectacular combination of image and sculpture.
The sense of touch, and why it is so important, continues in the watercolor and Japanese ink drawings made while the London-based artist was in Death Valley, California. Enormous heads emerge from a kind of instinctive design that can be ancient or modern. A glowing orange face oscillates between caricature, master painting and cave painting. Silver’s art is uplifting and deeply human. Look at these heads staring back at you, each with their own strength of personality, and the urge is to go straight home and try to make one yourself.
Across the road, the Edinburgh city art center traces the history of the Scottish Modern Arts Association, founded in 1907 to develop the collection now housed in this building (and shockingly rejected by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art when it opened, at Inverleith House, in 1960). The exhibition features all the usual Scottish colorists and Glasgow Boys, but also many intensely original paintings of women – Joan Eardley, Anne Redpath – and a dazzling seascape by William McTaggart, each horizontal stroke crossing the canvas, a reminder of how he could brilliantly suggest the cold, watery bustle of the Scottish coast.
The origins of so much here, however, are in the heat of the southern Mediterranean, particularly French modernism, this year’s topic. Scottish National Gallery blockbuster in the building of the Royal Scottish Academy. A taste for impressionism is magnificent, room after room of stunning masterpieces from the national museums: Monet’s twinkling poplars, Van Gogh’s orchard bursting with ultra-bright flowers, Gauguin’s heated Martinique. The dancers of Degas rub shoulders with the silvery Corots and the scintillating gardens of Seurat. An entire wall of Vuillard’s secret Parisian interiors is replaced by the complete set of Matisse’s starbust jazz prints.
There is an organizing, entertaining and shrewd tale of how French art was bought up by Scottish railway engineers, Liberal MPs and marmalade magnates. This is told through the very clever captions of the curator, Frances Fowle, which includes some forgeries to reveal just how deviously these early 20th century collectors could be tricked. A real Millet hangs next to what might just be a fake, but you have to use your own eyes.
Some of these paintings are world famous. Monet’s incredible haystacks, purple, mauve and umber, against the shimmering snowy twilight, just before the light fades. How had he been able to get this massive vision in time, before nightfall? Or how could he remember it so perfectly afterwards? by Gauguin Sermon Vision (Jacob Wrestling With the Angel) is there, all these heads of Breton women wearing strange white caps framing the strange wrestling match, like a winged insect on all fours, on the throbbing crimson ground.
But there are many revelations from the back rooms of the museums, including Manet’s firing squad prints, showing street fighting during the Paris Commune in 1871. An x-ray of a self-portrait by Van Previously unknown Gogh painted on the back of Peasant head appears in a light box next to the front of the painting. (It’s surprisingly conventional.) Most astonishing is Courbet’s frightening black wave, an ultramarine peak emerging from a white foam, straight out of Japanese painting.
The elegant galleries of William Henry Playfair are painted in dazzling impressionistic colors and the lighting is superb. I have never seen such a beautiful sight at the Royal Scottish Academy. Many visitors will have grown up with some of these paintings – portraits of Degas, Picasso of the blue period – but this display allows them a respite they rarely have. No one needs to go abroad to see so many French masterpieces. They are all here in one building in Edinburgh.
Cooking Sections and Sakiya: In the Eddy of the Stream is at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, until September 18
The Invisibles by Studio Lenca is at Sierra Metro, Leith, until August 28
Céline Condorelli: After Work is at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, until October 1
Daniel Silver: Looking is at Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, until 26 September.
National treasure: The Scottish Modern Arts Association is at the City Art Center in Edinburgh until October 16
A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse is at the Scottish National Gallery (RSA building), Edinburgh, until 13 November