Exhibitions: Edinburgh. It's the surrealest city in the world
Sunday 04 April 1999
The National Gallery of Scotland's new Dean Gallery, which opened last weekend, isn't quite like any other gallery that I can think of. And it certainly isn't what we have come to expect from our museums of modern art.
For a start, there's the building - an architectural oddity built by Thomas Hamilton in 1831 as an unexpectedly grand home for the city's orphan children. Then there's the art that it houses: the NGS's world- class collections of Dada and Surrealism alongside a huge collection of work by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, including a recreation of his London studio.
The entrance sets the tone: it's big on the outside, small within, with an enormous portico giving way to a tiny door. It creates a sense of being outsized that continues indoors as you meet the feet of a colossal Paolozzi figure, newly made in welded steel - a robotic toy a thousand times too big, like a night in the nursery gone mad. The mood continues as you climb the stair, reaching for the handrail of a giant banister. Presumably there was once a practical purpose (saving the orphans from tumbling to their deaths); but in this new context it has become one of several distinctly surreal touches that belong to the building itself. It's all a bit odd, but exciting. And that's before you've even glanced at what's on the walls.
On paper, the Dean looked doomed to fail. The perfect symmetry of a fine building carved in two seemed wrong: the big surrealist names of the past on one side and a single figure from the present on the other - Eduardo Paolozzi, the prodigal son returned to the country he left over 50 years ago. Except that he hasn't really returned, at least not in body. What we have here is make-believe, an artificial recreation of his studio, right down to the radio eternally tuned to Radio 3 and the bed that he's never slept in. They may have shipped in lorry-loads of his old magazines and plaster casts, but it's not a place where he will ever work. The real studio, like the man himself, is still very much in London.
However you look at it, it's a strange idea: the kind of cobwebbing usually reserved for the dead and truly great, and usually in the place in which they lived and made their work. I can't think of another British artist enshrined in such a way (though something similar is planned for Bacon in Dublin) and certainly not a living artist under the aegis of a National Gallery. It ought to seem silly, but in reality it doesn't. In fact it serves to bring the building alive in a rather remarkable way.
But once you're inside, it ceases to matter whether Paolozzi is an important enough figure to merit all this attention - the presence of his work, and indeed the ghost of the man become something else. A glimpse of his make-believe studio offers vital and fascinating clues to his mind and method, and to a way of working that ties him tightly to the twin worlds of Dada and Surrealism. He's a living link to the past.
Edinburgh has the finest Dada and Surrealist collection in the country, and one which is all the more remarkable for having been built up in a very short space of time with a mixture of luck and cunning by Richard Calvocoressi of Edinburgh's Gallery of Modern Art. At its core are the collections and archives of the British Surrealist Roland Penrose (1900- 1984), and of the champion golfer and marmalade heiress Gabrielle Keiller, who died in 1995. It is to her and to her friendship with Paolozzi that this new gallery owes most. "The Paolozzi Gift", as the donation of his studio and work is rather grandly referred, was made in 1994 and it's no accident that Keiller bequeathed her collection to the National Galleries of Scotland the following year.
The Keiller and Penrose pictures have been hung here in a way that may make some more modernist museum keepers blanch, but which would probably have pleased Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara, the poets who founded Surrealism and Dada respectively. It has a domestic as well as a period feel, hung three deep on either side of the fireplace with two of the best Mirs in the country hung high at the top. It's a bit eccentric by the usual standards, but it works.
Keiller in particular had an eye for small- scale, intimate works and for the sort of archive material, the books and pamphlets, that are so crucial to an understanding of these essentially literary movements. Appropriately, then, at the centre of the new gallery a library has been dedicated to her memory, filled with her books and manuscripts and now able to be used and handled by anyone who makes an appointment. As a study centre for this sort of art it is probably the best resource in the world. And as a gallery, it is one of the most exciting to have opened in many years.
Dean Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200), Mon-Sat 10-5; Sun 2-5. Admission free.
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