Neu! Reekie! does Titian @ National Gallery of Scotland

In homage to the Renaissance master, 'monthly headfuck' Neu! Reekie! took over National Gallery Scotland for a night in June bringing animation, poetry and music. The Skinny was there to experience the shame and love, myth and legend, boobs and... hip-hop

Feature by Ceris Aston | 18 Aug 2014

Scotland in summer is renowned for its erratic weather – all the seasons in a day, as locals know only too well. This summer, though, tourists and dwellers of Edinburgh can dodge the storm clouds and find illumination in the National Gallery. The 16th-century Venetian artist Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian, was known by his contemporaries as 'The Sun Amidst Small Stars'. Following the recent purchases of his masterpieces Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto by the National Gallery London and the National Gallery of Scotland, a small number of Titian’s most celebrated works will be displayed in the National Gallery of Scotland until September.

In a unique homage to the Renaissance master, the organisers of Neu! Reekie! brought a one-night only show to the National Galleries. The perfect antidote to stuffy cultural criticism, this Neu! Reekie! celebration of Titian’s life and work is open, funny and down-to-earth. The compère, writers and poets Michael Pederson and Kevin Williamson, riff with the audience, who are in a mood to appreciate the pair’s slightly shambolic conversation. Together, they’ve put together a spectacular lineup for the evening, which they introduce with self-deprecating humour: “You might have noticed we’re in the National Galleries… and we didn’t even have to break in.”

Against the stunning backdrop of three of Titian’s ‘poesie’ paintings – inspired by Greek myth and commissioned by King Philip II of Spain – Neu! Reekie! is a multi-layered evening, in turns mesmerising, disturbing, humorous and sad. As Titian reimagined Ovid’s tales, so too do a contemporary dance troupe who breathe life, lust and longing once more into the tale of Diana and Actaeon. Their dancing is sensual and powerful – they command the room. Dancers below, paintings above. It’s both an intimate and a spectacular experience.

The mythological ‘poesie’ were part of Titian’s later works – the final painting, The Death of Actaeon, was never finished but was found in Titian’s studio after his death. Themes of passion, death, sex and power pervade the artist’s work, which is also rich with religious and mythic imagery. As with most great artworks, his work is open to innumerate perspectives and interpretations. The evening leaves us wondering what each of us see when we gaze upon Titian’s paintings.

“You might have noticed we’re in the National Galleries… and we didn’t even have to break in” – Neu! Reekie!

Spoken word artist Hollie McNish sums it up: boobs. It gets a laugh. More thoughtfully, then – “Nudity. And a sense of shame.” From Diana shielding herself from Actaeon’s gaze to women avoiding breastfeeding in public by hiding in the loos, the female form – long seen only as an object of male desire – has been left disempowered. Diana seized back her power by turning Actaeon into a stag, for his own hounds to tear to pieces. Hollie’s approach is significantly less grisly – she talks. And the audience listen. From old diary entries to poems celebrating the sensuality of stroking bricks, of balancing the two selves of mother and lover, of body image, shame, and love, Hollie is funny, insightful and honest; her own experiences reflects a shared reality for others in the room. “When my daughter was one year old she was obsessed with getting naked,” Hollie remembers. “She stood in front of the mirror, stared at her bum and belly and applauded herself.” Hollie’s final thoughts on beauty and shame spill out into the perfect words: “without any lines there’s no reading between them.” The applause lasts for a long time.

The acts are interspersed with animated films – from the pinscreen surrealism of Le Paysagiste, to Aleksandr Petrov’s stunning paint-on-glass film Русалка. The former explores the role of art, as the painter enters his own painting and scene morphs into scene. The latter delves into myth and legend, exploring themes of love, betrayal and revenge. Petrov’s scenes are painted with his fingers, echoing the technique Titian would use near the completion of a painting.

The evening builds to its climax with the introduction of Scottish alternative hip-hop group Stanley Odd. Their modest introduction is belied by the energetic audience response. Stand-in vocalist Rebecca Shearing (Veronika Electronika is on musical maternity leave) provides gorgeous soaring melodies in counterpoint with the electronic loops and beats that keep the room moving. Solareye is impassioned, eloquent and charismatic, pacing the room with unsuppressed vitality and voicing the concerns of a generation. From schoolyard bullies to political figureheads – and sometimes there’s little to distinguish between them – Stanley Odd delivers quick-witted social commentary that effortlessly intertwines the political and the personal. Whether 16th-century oil paintings or 21st-century hip-hop, art has the power to change the way we view society, and ourselves.

Neu! Reekie! describes itself as ‘a monthly headfuck of poetry, animation and music. Edinburgh style.’ I’d have to agree. Kevin and Michael are possessed of a kind of friendly irreverence, an eye for the exceptional and a sense of curiosity as to what’ll happen if you throw everything into the melting pot. In an eclectic and memorable evening, Neu! Reekie! dismantles the structures and snobberies dividing high and low art – art is for everyone. As the evening comes to its close, with a shirtless man gyrating in a kilt and bearing antlers, one wonders what Titian might have thought of it all.

Neu! Reekie! does Titian took place 13 Jun