Scottish Endarkenment: postwar art at Dovecot

Bill Hare and Andrew Patrizio open their new curation and art historical project Scottish Endarkenment this month. Bill Hare talks here about his new take on postwar Scottish Art

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 09 May 2016

Artists like Joan Eardley, Douglas Gordon, John Bellany and Ian Hamilton Finlay together might all make up something like a 20th century Scottish canon. Along with 36 odd other well-known historical and contemporary artists, they’re all part of Scottish Endarkenment: Art and Unreason 1945 to the Present in Dovecot Gallery.

Curated by art historians Bill Hare and Andrew Patrizio, this exhibition has a serious go at reframing Scottish art from 1945 to present day. This new project emerged from Hare and Patrizio’s mutual interest in “the kind of subject matter that these artists have been drawn to,” Hare explains. “If you think of people like John Bellany for example, they’re challenging, disturbing and provocative.”

For Hare, the turning point for this kind of artwork came after WWII. Not until then did the visual arts meet “the challenge of taking on these kinds of themes. After the war there’s a sudden outburst of artists that are much more courageous with the subjects and themes they deal with.”

Though coming after all the economic booms and dandyism of the Glasgow Boys, Mackintoshes and Scottish Colourists that saw in the 20th century, post-1945, Hare sees the strongest artistic forebears coming instead from Scottish literary figures. “If you take one of the big stars of recent Scottish art, Douglas Gordon, he makes clear reference to [darker-minded authors like] James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson.” Extending this line of influence, he also considers the importance of the work of novelist Muriel Spark to the post-war Endarkenment.

With its 40 artists, the emphasis shifts from singular personalities to thematic exploration and having space for subthemes. As one example, Hare describes “the military dangers that threaten our existence. That means we’ve got a couple of Eduardo Paolozzi works dealing with the nuclear threat and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Et in Arcadia Ego. There’s a tank that looks like a tomb or sarcophagus in a landscape – the notion is even in paradise you will find death and destruction.”

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While ‘Scottish’ appears in the title, birthplace and residence aren’t much concern. “Most artists don’t make any claim to national unity.” Though it might be uncontroversial to think Scottish art can go and come from anywhere, he admits that when it comes to setting some kind of solid boundaries, “that’s always an awkward question that’s asked about Scottish art.”

Specifically considering exhibitors who left to make it in London during this period of Endarkenment, “they didn’t go to England. No Scottish artists went to Scunthorpe to develop their career. They went to London in the same way English and Welsh artists went to London. It’s the big metropolis that has contacts with the international art world.”

Also important to Scottish Endarkenment was fair representation of men and women artists. Nevertheless, Hare mentions that while there’s a strong female presence in this exhibition, he clarifies: “We didn’t do it consciously, we didn’t set a quota.”

Allowing for their Scottish Endarkenment thesis to extend beyond the visual arts, there will be a conference on the concept on Friday 17 June. “Invited speakers are coming to present on subjects visual and non-visual, including literature and philosophy and thinking beyond the postwar period.”

With big ambitions for their idea of the counter-Enlightenment trend in Scotland after the war, the curators are looking to spark a shift in the perception of the period. Says Hare, “Hopefully it can start making links between a lot of disparate things like Scottish literature and scientific investigation… in the same way the Scottish Enlightenment is seen as a cultural phenomenon.”

Scottish Endarkenment: Art and Unreason 1945 to the Present in Dovecot Gallery, 13 May to 29 Aug