EXHIBITIONS / Personal stereo: Andrew Graham-Dixon, in Scotland, reviews paintings by Allan Ramsay and sculptures by Joan Miro and Tony Cragg

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THE THIRD Earl of Bute had great legs ('the finest legs in Europe,' according to a contemporary tribute) and he knew it. The artist Allan Ramsay, who painted Bute's portrait in 1758, noted with some amusement that during the early sittings his Lordship carefully hitched up his robes well above the knee 'so that his leg would be seen'. The elegant cross-legged pose that Ramsay devised for his portrait was much copied by younger painters, including Joshua Reynolds, who explained a similar picture of his own by saying 'I wish to show a leg with Ramsay's Lord Bute.'

Allan Ramsay's John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute is a monument to the vanity of a well- heeled 18th-century gentleman, and a testament to the sophistication and technical mastery of a painter whose reputation has been unjustly overshadowed by those of a later generation of English artists - Gainsborough and Reynolds in particular. Few artists working in Britain since the time of Van Dyck have been able to match Ramsay's virtuoso painting of stuffs in the Bute portrait: his handling of the almost liquid silks, the rich velvet and ermine, the diaphanous lace and dully gleaming gold thread in which his sitter is decked out.

But Ramsay may not have been happiest in grand official portraits of this kind, and this painting - exhibit 60 of some 110 in the revelatory Ramsay exhibition currently at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh - may even contain an oblique suggestion of this. The painter has set his foppish subject against a sternly rectilinear backdrop of fluted classical columns - a mise- en-scene whose heavy sobriety looks almost like a subtle reproof to the flashy hauteur of its occupant. Ramsay's great talent as a portraitist has little, in the end, to do with flattery.

Despite Alastair Smart's assertion, in the excellent scholarly catalogue which accompanies this show, that Ramsay is 'now recognised as one of the supreme painters of the British School', few people outside the ranks of professional art historians have even the haziest idea of him. The National Gallery still does not own one of his works - a fact which reflects on the extent to which his reputation has gone into decline since the second half of the 18th century, when Ramsay, as principal court painter to George III, was acknowledged as the greatest portrait painter of his day. Whether this is because he was Scottish, or because, in later life, his reputation as a painter was eclipsed by his reputation as a writer remains uncertain. But this show suggests that it is high time he was restored to his former position of eminence in the history of British art.

Ramsay's finest work is marked by restraint and reticence, qualities which he seems to admire in his sitters as well. Ramsay's portraits of Mary Martin, the wife of a Rear-Admiral of the Fleet, or of the philosopher David Hume, are masterpieces of unaffectedness, closely observed likenesses of people who, isolated in their domestic setting, seem simply at home. Ramsey's aesthetic, in such works, seems charged with an ethical force: the painter's reluctance to idealise those whom he painted amounts to a moral stand, a defence of humility.

Ramsay's talent for precise observation, and his considerable talent as a draftsman were fostered during his early training, which he spent in Rome and Milan under two of the most fashionable Italian artists of the day, Francesco Imperiali and Francesco Solimena. When he returned from his Italian sojourn, Ramsay brought a continental sophistication and an awareness of the great achievements of Late Baroque portraiture to what was, in the mid-18th century, the thoroughly provincial world of British art.

Ramsey's grand full-length portrait of Dr Richard Mead - a stately essay in Baroque portraiture, the sitter grandiloquently gesturing, staring out from the canvas with startling poise and self-confidence - must have struck his contemporaries with the force of revelation.

Reynolds, for one, would base his entire career on this ideal of aggrandisement of the subject. Yet Ramsay, having, with this single work, altered the course of British 18th-century art, came to embrace a very different aesthetic - an aesthetic of simpler, more solid observation and restraint. One of his earliest mature portraits, of his first wife, Anne Bayne, prefigures the best of his later work in its clear-eyed concentration on a single individual: staring out from the canvas with an expression that seems to mix vigilance, modesty and a certain ethical probity, the painter's wife seems a model of the very characteristics that mark out Ramsay, himself, as a painter.

Ramsay's art is typically British, perhaps, in the way in which it seems to embody a whole world of philosophical, ethical and aesthetic debate within the narrow confines of a genre. Ramsay gave visible form and a human dimension to the empirical philosophy of David Hume and the other influential thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment who formed part of his circle. He fleshed out, you might say, Hume's belief that 'Everything in nature is individual', and nowhere - save perhaps in the contemporary portraits of Hogarth - will you find more solidly materialised a vision of this faith than in Ramsay's portraits of the second half of the 18th century. His Hew Dalrymple, Lord Drummore, posed facing his portraitist against a dun-coloured wall, has been painted with a clarity of observation and disregard for pomp entirely new to British 18th-century art.

A similar focus on the facts of the individual is to be found in the numerous portraits of women that he painted in the later part of his career. Horace Walpole once commented that 'Mr Reynolds seldom succeeds in women; Mr Ramsay is formed to paint them.' But Ramsay is not a natural flatterer and his is an attention paid, primarily, not to physical attractions but to expression. His women are becalmed, quiet presences who seem possessed of a lively, sentient quality that is simply not to be found in the equivalent, grander and more theatrical portraits of Reynolds. Ramsey's female portraits are filled with a sense of the secret, inward mental life of the individual. This would itself become the great subject of a quite new genre, literary rather than visual, born in Britain in the second half of the 18th century. Ramsay begins to look, here, like the first painter (with Hogarth) of the Age of the Novel.

Joan Miro, in some working notes written in 1941, told himself that 'it is in sculpture that I will create a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters; what I do in painting is more conventional.' 'Miro: Sculptures from the Fondation Maeght', at the Royal Scottish Academy, testifies to his willingness to depart from the precedents he had already set himself on the canvas: sculpture was a way of escaping from the limpid world of pure colour, peopled by the now familiar creatures of Miro's bestiary - the friendly whiskery squiggles, the animated vegetation - that he had created in his painting.

The monsters of Miro's sculpture are more truly monstrous than the diagrammatic creatures of his painterly imagination. Embodied (literally) in three dimensions, they are solidly, uncompromisingly weird, fetishised visions of man and woman cobbled together from found objects - nails, hammers, jugs, pots, a child's high chair - and made forms.

Miro remains archetypally Surrealist, in his fondness for a disconcerting, primitivist language that reduces people to mad parodies of their sexual attributes. His women are, characteristically, pot-bellied gourds with pinheads, or squat, lumpy pyramids of flesh, all tit and bum. But what makes Miro unusual among the Surrealists is that he practises the same, coarsely humorous transformations on the male sex: Miro's Figure, 1968, with its phallus for a nose and carefully arranged testicles, on either side, for eyes, looks like a sculptural response to The Rape, Magritte's famous portrait of a lady where genitals stand in for physiognomic attributes. Elsewhere, Miro sees man, in even more simplified terms, as a gigantic penis with arms and legs: he's a bathroom tap on stilts; a pirouetting scrotum; an erect hammer protruding from a lumpy beergut. Miro may have simplified the human race, but at least he was democratic about it.

'When sculpting,' Miro advised himself, 'start from the objects I collect'. This is also a fairly good description of the modus operandi of Tony Cragg, whose current exhibitions in Glasgow, at the Tramway and the Centre for Contemporary Art, amount to the most impressive single presentation of a modern sculptor's work staged in that city for many years. Cragg is known as the artist-scavenger of contemporary British sculpture, a man who has demonstrated, down the years, his ability to put just about anything - scraps of colourfast plastic, bits and pieces of laboratory equipment, driftwood, the flotsam and jetsam of modern industrial society - to artistic use.

Cragg's democratic use of materials seems charged with a kind of visionariness, best exemplified perhaps by a work from 1987 called Minster. It is simple enough in format, consisting of three towers, made by piling sundry circular objects - tyres, gaskets, cogs and sprockets and flywheels - one on top of each other until they form high, teetering spires. The playfulness of the piece masks its seriousness, which consists in a kind of plea for the appreciation of the beauty of the ordinary things that surround us. There is even a faint echo of Ruskin and Morris and the English culture of Gothic revivalism about the piece. The work as a whole might be said to proselytise a vision of the world that Ruskin et al al might not entirely have disapproved of - a place where we are no longer alienated from the objects that fill our world, but have learnt to value them.

Much of Cragg's other work proceeds from the premise that the most banal or utilitarian objects have secret, metaphorical lives, a kind of poetry or pathos, that it is the artist's duty to discover and reveal. Some of his most impressive pieces in Glasgow consist of hugely expanded versions of laboratory equipment - test tubes, retorts, flasks - which, cast in bronze and variously distorted, turn strangely physical and organic in character: large protuberant forms, with mysterious openings and cavities, they are further evidence of Cragg's ability to find metaphorical riches (metaphors, in this case, of the body and its processes) in the most unlikely places.

A few years ago, when I was interviewing Cragg for an American art magazine, he suddenly picked up my Sony Walkman and used it to make a general point about his approach to sculpture: 'Take this tape recorder. OK, it's an object, and on one level it's quite banal, but there must be other ways of getting into it, of finding out what other languages it speaks. It's also an amazing thing - you're going to walk out of here with an hour of our voices, an hour of our time, an exchange of ideas. It's not magic, it's not a voodoo thing, but it's magnificent. So you've got an object, and there must be a poetic metaphor there. How do I find it? What kind of realisations have to occur before I can understand something as other than its normal currency? That's the best description I can give of the way I work.'

Maybe it was always only going to be a matter of time, and now Cragg has made the Walkman piece. His Walkman turns the flimsy plastic device into a solid, monumental object. It is a fissured block of rough, black limestone, from which have been carved with wonderful, seductive precision, the salient features of the personal stereo: its batteries, rendered like dark, glossy torpedoes, the tape with its twinned spools, its buttons which, enlarged, seem temptingly touchable.

Touchability, in fact, is one of the themes of the work, which is all about the tactile pleasure of the Walkman, the enjoyment to be got from loading it and changing its batteries, from pushing its buttons: the closest many of us, perhaps, get to the tactile pleasures of the sculptor himself, whose creative life revolves around the feel of ordinary objects in his hand, under consideration for aesthetic transformation.

But the genius of the piece may lie in the fact that its incongruity - the Walkman-as-monument - is more apparent than real. Cragg seems right about the Walkman. It is a sort of monument, preserving the memories of people, lives, places, and replaying them endlessly. Walkman may be an emblem of Cragg's art, which has acquired the nature of a personal crusade - a plea, in sculptural form, for a deepened, considered response to the environment we inhabit; a plea for the re-establishment of lasting values in a throwaway world. Cragg's art has often seemed outlandish or downright eccentric, but at its core there is something poignantly old-fashioned about it.

See facing page for details.

(Photograph omitted)