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Chop off the old block

Emma Nicolson shows how a contemporary artist has made use of an old master

Where could you find a kaleidoscope of references ranging from John the Baptist, photography, "high" and "low" art and popular culture to Scottish identity? Look no further than the extraordinary artwork of one of Scotland's leading contemporary artists, Calum Colvin. His complex work plays tricks before your eyes and begs many questions: Is it a painting? Is it an installation? Is it a sculpture? Is it a photograph? Beyond this, you are drawn to explore the layers of symbolism in his world of fantasy and imagination.

"The Feast of Herod (after Peter Paul Rubens)", 1998, is one of a series of works by Calum Colvin, commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland based on works in its own collection. As part of the project, Colvin selected one sculpture and seven paintings to re-interpret and retell the stories on which they were originally based. This resulted is an exhibition called "Sacred and Profane" in 1998. Each work stands alone; however, as in much of Colvin's work, there are a number of common underlying themes, which include autobiographical references and questions of national identity.

Colvin is considered one of Scotland's most innovative contemporary artists, and has recently been included on the examination specification for critical studies in (Scottish) Higher art and design, as well as A-level. His works consist of elaborate assemblages of found and gathered objects which he then transforms. Put as simply as possible, he constructs a set decorated with symbolic references then paints an image over the 3-D material, which is photographed. This process can take up to three months to create one image. Resulting works are rich with visual and literary allusions, ambiguously playing objects and images off against each other.

Colvin's work is based on the gruesome story of Salome, Herod and John the Baptist best known from the gospels of Mark and Matthew. Herodias had left her husband to live with King Herod. She was publicly denounced by the prophet John the Baptist. So she used her daughter Salome (by her first husband) to get revenge. Salome danced so erotically (the "dance of seven veils") at King Herod's birthday banquet that the King granted Salome whatever she wanted in return. Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist. The painting depicts the moment when Salome presents the saint's severed head on a silver platter to Herod. Herodias can be seen spearing St John's tongue with a fork, in revenge for speaking out against her.

Colvin's reinterpretation can be read in multiple ways, a shift away from the fine art of the past where curators and art historians try to establish definitive context and significance for artworks. He makes links that are personal, political and cultural and not without a hint of humour. In this way he gives contemporary meaning to the work, connecting it to present-day concerns.

Our own approach in education workshops at the National Galleries of Scotland focuses on the artist and what the artist is trying to communicate. We also ask what the viewer brings to the work: what can their experiences, cultural backgrounds and personalities offer? Everyone's interpretation of a work can be different and every response is valid. As French philosopher Jacques Derrida has argued, a work of art may never have the same meaning twice, because circumstances will differ each time the meaning is interpreted. A distinction between high and popular culture dissolves.

Decoding works like this means we can make connections not just with visual impressions but with other senses, language, and media studies. Both paintings have a strong sense of structure and cinematic impact: big and full of colour, movement and sound. The Rubens work is extremely dramatic: it is one of the biggest and most exciting pictures in the gallery. We might ask: is this what it was like to go to the cinema 367 years ago? For his part, Calum Colvin borrows this vision, making us aware of sounds, surfaces, tastes and smells, chatter, the rustle of silk, and music.

In copying from the works of others and moulding it to his own purpose, Colvin follows an artistic tradition. Rubens himself was a sophisticated copier of other artists, often developing the drawings of others as part of his preparatory sketching.

In Colvin's version, Herod's grand palace has been transformed into a domestic interior, filled with found objects, junk, furnishings and materials from everyday life. As in the Rubens, the gaze of a small boy beckons us to join the party. Once inside the small living room, we see a cramped gathering round a table or cake trolley covered in a white linen cloth. At one end of the picture guests are straining to discover what is happening. Our attention is quickly drawn to the far end of the table where Herod leans back, biting the fingers of one hand and clutching a can of McEwan's Export larger with the other, staring forward with terrible intensity.

It has been suggested that Rubens' painting of Herod may have been an exaggerated self-portrait and that Herodias resembled his new wife. Colvin painted his own self-portrait in place of Herod.

Rubens uses Salome's flaunting of John's head as a metaphor for some of the emotions that go with an impending change. In the Colvin, when Salome uncovers the platter, as the blood from the saint's head splashes to the floor, a roll of photographic film uncurls spilling to the floor, exposed and undone by the light. Could this be seen as a reference to changes in photography as medium and its place in how we understand the world? Books and other impedimenta are scattered around too: is Herod's own identity in disarray?

Emma Nicolson is senior education officer at the National Galleries of Scotland

Calum Colvin 1961-

Calum Colvin trained at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, and the Royal College of Art. He came to prominence in the mid-1980s, combining an interest in sculpture and photography to produce what one London Gallery termed "constructed narratives". He has held one-person shows across the world.

Lesson ideas


Discuss the signs and symbols in the pictures. What symbolises identity for the children? Then ask pupils to think about things that make them unique. Make a simple book out of a single sheet of A3 paper. Using found images, drawings and words, ask pupils to create a book about themselves.


Use a mixture of words and images to create an artwork that illustrates what pupils consider to be their cultural identity. They may look at the area they come from, their family history or the things they would miss if they went away.

If they don't consider themselves to have a particular identity, teachers could use the work to explore why. Ask pupils to find an artwork from the past that they would like to reinterpret to tell their own story. Use collage, colour photocopies, PhotoShop, materials from magazines, newspapers, packaging, junk and found objects to transform the original work and illustrate their ideas.

"Ossian - Fragments of Ancient Poetry", an exhibition of new work by Calum Colvin, is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until February 9. The show will then tour with the Highland Council. There is an accompanying CD-Rom for pupils and teachers. National Galleries of Scotland Tel: 0131 624 6410

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