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Art attack

We were up in Edinburgh recently, and apart from seeing local features of interest such as ginger_ratbag, ubiquitous_cat and coffee_lifeform (thanks all), we managed to get into the Mansfield Traquair Centre.

We'd heard about this place last time we were up about three years ago, but it's only open one afternoon a month, and we'd missed it. But this time we caught it! (More thanks to luck than judgement, tbh.)

So, it's a former church with a painted interior. They call it 'Edinburgh's Sistine Chapel', and while that may be stretching it a wee bit, it really is a powerful and inspiring piece of work.

The people who had it put up weer quite a weird cult, the Catholic Apostolic Church. Despite the name, they have no connection with Roman Catholicism. They thought the Second Coming would be prefaced by the appearance of twelve new Apostles, who they identified as various people who were alive in the mid C19. After the deaths of these twlve, the world would end. The church became quite popular, and included lots of respectable and wealthy people, such as various MPs. So come 1885, the world having not quite yet ended, they had plenty of spare cash to build an impressive new church, and commission a prominent local artist to decorate it.

Phoebe Anna Traquair was Irish by birth and upbringing, but lived and worked in Edinburgh most of her life. There are quite a few bits of her work to be seen around: embroidery, enamelling, metalwork, and painting. She is very much influences by William Morris's thinking and the general Arts & Crafts Movement, and you can also see pre-Raphaelite influence is still strong.

The paintings in the Mansfield Place church are fairly standard subjects: the Last Judgement, scenes from the life of Christ, the parable of wise and foolish virgins, and so on. (Unusually, there is no depiction of the Crucifixion: apparently the Catholic Apostolic Church didn't like to dwell on that.) What I think is remarkable though is that, because she completed the whole thing singlehandedly, the consistency and strength of her artistic vision for the place shines throughout. The scheme is I guess pretty much "what if Giotto had had modern pigments and a modern sensibility?", and the mood is uplifting, bright, joyful and inspiring. T is not at all religious and was well under the weather, but she came out delighted and grinning unstoppably widely.

I guess churches painted all by one person are pretty rare, especially in the UK. I can think of Stanley Spencer's one at Burghclere, which is also pretty terrific. And I wonder if there is any other case anywhere in Europe where it's a woman artist?

The amazing thing though is that just fifteen years ago the building was derelict and falling apart, with the murals wrecked by water running down the walls. After the Catholic Apostolic Church went bust, it changed hands several times, at one point being used as a brick store. It's thanks to the hard work of a Friends group, and money from the Heritage Fund, that it's now open to look at in its splendour.

So, anyway, I'd definitely recommend that if you're up around there on the second Sunday of a month.

We also saw, in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, some terrific drawings and sculptures by Käthe Kollwitz. I must admit I knew very little about this artist (in fact I don't know much about modern German art at all), but I found it tremendously moving and capable. Many (perhaps most) of her works depict loss, suffering, oppression, motherhood, or some combination of the above. But they are restrained, fluent, and strong, rather than being whiny or mawkish as that might suggest. She was persecuted by the Imperial regime at the start of her career and by the Nazis at the end of it, with just the brief window of the Weimar Republic where she was able to work and show freely: and she lost a son in WWI, and a grandson in WWII. T very kindly got me a collection of Kollwitz's graphic works, so I shall have a good browse of that and see if I can see what makes it work so well.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
23rd May, 2012 15:55 (UTC)
Wow, that sounds fantastic. Shall have to drop in when I'm in Edinburgh in the summer.
23rd May, 2012 18:34 (UTC)
It's open 10th June, 8th July, and they haven't yet announced the August date. 1pm-4pm Sunday afternoons.
24th May, 2012 14:27 (UTC)
I'm there from 2nd-9th August, so fingers crossed.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )