Scotland: Myth/Reality

Contemporary Artists from Scotland

Scotland: Myth/Reality (2017) by Contemporary Artists from ScotlandImago Mundi


Just over two miles south of the town of Ayr, on the west coast of Scotland, is the delightful village of Alloway, the birthplace of every Scot’s favourite poet, Robert Burns.

The cottage where he was born on 25th January 1759, built by his father, has been carefully restored and transformed into a museum that reveals the everyday lives of the Burns family.

Born a poor man, the son of a tenant farmer, but given the opportunity to study the English classics and learn the rudiments of French, Burns perfected a poetic language that combined English and the Scottish vernacular, recounting rural life in an accessible, at times licentious, frill-free language. 

Three Bridges, Alan Kay, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Three Bridges (2017) by Alan Kay

“But Burns,” writes the critic Guido Almansi in his article Le oscenità di Robert Burns bizzarro bardo scozzese (The obscenities of the bizarre Scottish bard Robert Burns) published by La Repubblica on 21st July 1996 “is not just the bizarre explorer of the animal world, of sex and the joys of whiskey: there is a political Burns, at times libertarian anarchist, at times conservative, Whig or Tory depending on the circumstances; there is a Burns songwriter of nature, and there is a third Burns, the rewriter of old sentimental songs to which he largely owes his fame. Every citizen of the United Kingdom knows Auld Lang Syne or My Love is like a Red Red Rose, songs and poems that from their native Scotland have even invaded southern England.”

Tree, Edith Jane, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Tree (2017)
by Edith Jane

It is poets and writers such as Robert Burns and, above all,
Sir Walter Scott, who created that idea of Scotland that still largely survives today. Who rewrote Scottish history and exported it across Europe, blurring the boundaries between historical reality and pure fiction, creating myths that populated the collective imagination, both in Scotland and abroad.

Flourish, Graeme Swanson, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Flourish (2017) by Graeme Swanson

Young intellectual European romantics of the nineteenth century, who were hungry to rediscover their national roots and their founding mythology, perhaps reviving the lore of the Middle Ages, did not worry too much about the truth behind the myth. They considered Scotland to be a great example of civilization. No nineteenth century French newspaper, in fact, failed to praise the novels of Walter Scott (loved by everyone, including Victor Hugo), who was celebrated as the inventor of the historical novel, a definition often referenced in Italy when introducing Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi) to schoolchildren.

Incomplete, Greg Mason Burns, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Incomplete (2017) by Greg Mason Burns

Even the great English author Daniel Defoe participated in the cultural creation of the Scottish myth in the eighteenth century, with the volume Caledonia, “A poem in honour of Scotland, and the Scots nation” (recently re-proposed by Honoré Champion of Paris in an English-French bilingual edition), with verses worthy of respect, it sings of the land “in the Great North, where nature is less docile”. Today Scotland is one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom: it occupies the northernmost part of the British Isles, and is subdivided into 33 counties or administrative areas, with approximately 5.4 million inhabitants. It is rural, insular, jealous of its traditions, and yet traditionally open to the citizens of the Continent, somehow eternally European.

Window, Henry Kondracki, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Window (2017) by Henry Kondracki

It was originally inhabited by Celtic populations split into tribes, which the Latins called Caledons and with whom they clashed after the conquest of Britain in the first century after Christ. The invasion of Caledonia, begun by Agricola (around 80 AD) and interrupted on the orders of Emperor Domitian, continued in the following century, but was only partial. Consequently, the area to the north of the fortified line (Vallum Antonini) that ran from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde retained its independence, while indirectly falling under the influence of Roman civilization.

The Final Third, Julia Law, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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The Final Third (2017) by Julia Law

The region was instead invaded by Celtic populations from Ireland. The Scoti, who originally settled in Dál Riata (later Argyllshire), mixed with other populations such as the Caledonians and Picts, ultimately giving their name to the whole region, which at one point was divided into four states: Scots and Britons to the west, Picts and Angles, the latter of Germanic origin, to the east. St. Columba introduced Christianity to the land in the 6th century, arriving from neighbouring Ireland, already Christianized by St. Patrick. Religious union facilitated the fusion of the four kingdoms into a single state, albeit with much bloodshed. It was ultimately Kenneth MacAlpin, ruler of Dál Riata, who prevailed in about 844, bringing under his rule the territory north of the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, creating the Kingdom of Scotland.

Changing Tides, Katie Parkin, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Changing Tides (2017) by Katie Parkin

Cultural and political relations with the European continent intensified from the reign of David I (1124-1153), during which time it can be said that a multi-ethnic Scotland was born: Norman, Flemish, Anglo-Scottish. A Scotland that over the centuries, while losing its independence, has been able to consolidate a solid cultural identity. In fact, David Hume, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher noted: “Is it not strange how having lost its sovereignty, parliament, independence, and even its aristocracy, Scotland has become the most cultured country in Europe?”

Blue & Green Sculpture, Lynn Gibson, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Blue & Green Sculpture (2017) by Lynn Gibson

Responsible for this cultural supremacy, and the construction of the mythical Scottish identity, especially between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, were a number of brilliant talents who, in addition to Burns and Scott, included the philosopher Francis Hutchinson and, above all, his student Adam Smith, born in Kirkcaldy, father of that economic liberalism that would spread throughout the West. The architectural and decorative style of the brothers Robert and James Adam also crossed the rough Scottish borders and, from the 1760s until the end of the century, spread to the wealthy and bourgeois classes in England, Scotland, Russia (where it was introduced by architect Charles Cameron), and the United States after the Revolution.

Down the Lane, Michelle Ives, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Down the Lane (2017) by Michelle Ives

Today, this proud Scottish identity and a strong nationalist spirit still pervade the region, bolstered by Brexit. Oil, for example, is a cause of national pride, in the conviction that the crude oil extracted from fields in the North Sea since the 1970s should belong to Scotland. Also in the hope that the proceeds from the extraction could make secession from the UK and a return to the European Union sustainable for Scotland. In general terms, Scottish society and culture seem to be pervaded by a biculturalism symbolized by some evident dichotomies: secession/loyalty to the crown, modernity/ folklore, Gaelic/English, Highlands/Lowlands. In short, – referencing the famous Scottish novelist from Edinburgh, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson – Scotland is in part Dr Jekyll, in part Mr Hyde.

Unescapable (collaboration with Jacob William Scoular)#2, Nicole Cumming, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Unescapable (2017) by Nicole Cumming

The same, wonderful, Scottish capital, moreover, itself resembles a theatrical scenario formed of two different poles of attraction. The historic centre is, in fact, divided in two by the vast green strip of the Princes Street Gardens. The Old Town has a medieval structure and many buildings from the Reformist era line the main street, the Royal Mile, which connects the castle to Holyrood Palace and the homonymous abbey now in ruins. The eighteenth-century New Town, with its Georgian architecture, an avant-garde endeavour in Edinburgh’s development, transformed the city into one of the capitals of the European Enlightenment, earning it the title of Athens of the North.

A New Europe #2, Pete Shaw and Ursula McKeand, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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A New Europe #2 (2017) by Pete Shaw and Ursula McKeand

Even Scotland’s artistic expression seems to be suspended between tradition and innovation, since antiquity ready to contaminate Celtic models with the classicism that arrived with Roman occupation, and then with Christian motifs. If stone is the protagonist of the early age, with the megaliths of the Orkney Islands, for example, or the Callanish stone rings on the Isle of Lewis symbolizing some astrological rite or calendar, in the twentieth century the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, architect and designer, the creator of Scottish modernity, perfectly combined Medieval geometries and symbols, such as the Celtic Cross, with the avant-garde of Art Nouveau.

Dusk, Pete Thomas, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Dusk (2017)
by Pete Thomas

Today, the landscape architect, writer and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, in turn, has incorporated into the environment gardens and monuments of letters engraved in stone and marble, such as the granite clad Glasgow Bridge Piers near Dixon Street, decorated, in 1990, with a quote from Plato’s Republic.

Messing About!, Steven Joseph Clark, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Messing About! (2017) by Steven Joseph Clark

“The artwork produced in the first half of the 1990s and the methods artists were employing, have come to characterise Scottish cultural identity today, and inform current practice,” writes Alix Rothnie, writer and researcher, in her introduction to this catalogue. “Artists responded to ideas surrounding ethics, nature, urbanism and violence. Developing alternatives to authoritarianism is a Scottish tradition, and this self-organisation, self-sufficiency and self-determination persists.”

War Horse, Sylvie Stainton, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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War Horse (2017) by Sylvie Stainton

In this context of lively interactions and contrapositions, Imago Mundi has collected 140 10x12 cm works by contemporary Scottish artists, creating a varied and candid portrait of the nation/region that goes beyond the folkloric Scotland of tartan, tweed, bagpipes and whiskey. Beyond the romantic Scotland of heather swathed hills, or the wind that tells stories. But even in these pages, the duality between myth and reality continues. “There are double words for every thing”, Stevenson wrote in The Master of Ballantrae, “the word that swells, the word that belittles.”

Red Coral, Tiia-Mari Laine, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Red Coral (2017)
by Tiia-Mari Laine

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