RSA displays art the modern way

Higher students now have a chance to study art that is usually stored away, says Di Hope

A year-long collaboration between the Royal Scottish Academy and Learning and Teaching Scotland means a substantial selection of the RSA's permanent collection is now accessible on CD-Rom.

Since 1988, the RSA has run an art competition for secondary schools, with help from the RSA Friends and sponsorship from the Royal Bank of Scotland. Each participating school would receive a pack of 12 slides showing works from the RSA's collection.

In 2004, the RSA Friends approached LT Scotland for advice on how to keep up with modern technology in schools, and discussions led to a much larger project to support the curriculum.

Recognising the historic and artistic value of the RSA's collection, and the window it provides on Scottish art from 1780 to the present day, LT Scotland resolved to develop it into a key resource.

Each Scottish secondary school undertaking national qualifications has now been issued with a free CD-Rom containing 180 images by 140 artists, all Scottish or with Scottish connections. Brief information about the work, a biography of the artist and a commentary accompany each image.

The same material will also be available on a website.

The collection does not have a permanent home and is kept in storage at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, where small groups can view the artworks by arrangement. So this disk exposure is particularly valuable.

Ian McKenzie Smith, the president of the RSA, says: "We welcome the technology now available allowing us to exploit the riches of our renowned collections."

The CD-Rom is well-designed and easy to follow. The artworks are arranged by topic to match the Higher art and design units - portraiture, figure composition, still life, natural environment, built environment and fantasy - with a short, lucid definition of each genre. Students click on a thumbnail image to access a page of well-written information and a screen-size image of the artwork. They can move through the collection by artist's name and dates, too. All the images can be printed out or projected wall-size.

As the selection of works is relatively small, students will not be daunted by choice but will find work to intrigue them. There is a wide range, with examples from masters such as John Duncan, Anne Redpath, William Crozier and William MacTaggart, alongside that of living artists such as Will Maclean, George Donald, Barbara Rae and Philip Reeves.

Sculpture is well represented, with works by Bill Scott (brass still life), Benno Schotz (bronze portraiture), Jake Harvey (forged steel and found objects), Richard Ross Robertson (slab torso in wood) and many others.

Hopefully these works will stimulate pupils to have a go themselves.

The only photography is from the marvellous but early Hill and Adamson, with a calotype figure composition, and conceptual work is not represented, reflecting the traditional nature of the RSA.

Assistant keeper Joanna Solden says: "We are limited by the nature of our collection but it is expanding each year."

The notes on the works are excellent and do not patronise. Written by teachers, they assume a sensible knowledge of terms and process. Structure and composition is discussed clearly, as in James Cumming's Cubist-influenced Table Assembly with Rusted Tins, where the student is encouraged to look and think: "The dark background frames the arrangement of shapes at the centre of the image. Curves and diagonals gently intersect."

Questions are raised but nothing is explained away with easy answers. The language is fresh and sensitive to the work. So, James Fairgrieves is described as using "an icy palette" for his wonderful Winter Evening, and the painting shows a "great feeling of absence", with the land "delicately described under deep snowdrifts".

The quality of writing alone, with its clear aim to stimulate independent thought as well as artistic appreciation, would mark out this resource as one of value.

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